First published in The Herald on 19 August, 2015
“I suppose,” admits the conductor André de Ridder, “I suppose I have a wide view on what I call ‘current music’.” It’s about as far as he’ll go: De Ridder is not one for big talk. He’s a Berliner through and through, born and raised in the German capital, son of an opera conductor and an opera singer, and he speaks with that unshowy cool that Berliners seem to have mastered since their city became the hippest on the planet. But with De Ridder it goes deeper than that. His artistic sensibilites embody Berlin’s musical culture past and present. He is a baroque violinist, an astute interpreter of core classical repertoire. He conducts at English National Opera and the BBC orchestras; he has just finished a Monteverdi trilogy with director Barrie Kosky at the Komische Oper. He is also the go-to orchestral conductor for indie bands, experimental pop artists and composers whose music straddles the spheres of classical and, well, whatever.
If Ilan Volkov is building bridges between orchestras and the improvised music world — think of his brilliant annual Tectonics festival with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra — then De Ridder does similar things with the rock and pop world. He works with Damon Albarn and Brian Eno, with Canadian troubadour Owen Pallett and the German electro duo Mouse on Mars. Last week he was in Edinburgh conducting The Last Hotel — a thrillingly propulsive, clangy, gritty new opera score by Donnaha Dennehy — and next week he’s back for the BBCSSO Max Richter concert. In between? He’s popping across to Germany to perform Bach cantatas at a pop festival.
Many of De Ridder’s projects these days happen with s t a r g a z e, a roaming ensemble of Berlin artists whose mission statement is as conspicuously lower case as its name. (A taster: “what have we got? a bunch of people who have read between the lines for a while and are looking to the stars now. a bunch of people who have been trained and worked in classical and classical contemporary music and are getting more excited each day by what’s going on in contemporary pop/folk/electronica and uncategorizable genres in and around those confines.”)
That earlier comment about “current music” is a clue to what ties everything together. It came up in a conversation about his latest appointment as the first-ever non-Finnish artistic director of a biennial festival called Musica nova Helsinki. “It’s hugely humbling for me,” he says. “I guess they want to venture into types of music they haven’t incorporated in the festival before, the type of stuff I do. Current music.” The phrase is favourable, he explains, because it is less of a pigeon-hole than ‘contemporary music’. “It’s less exclusive. It acknowledges the kind of intelligent music being made across many genres by artists who might not have institutional funding and who speak to audiences in different ways and different venues.”
One of De Ridder’s most personal and audacious projects was a version of Terry Riley’s In C recorded with Malian musicians in 2013. Riley wrote his seminal score in 1964 as a free-wheeling vision of non-hierarchic social structures in which one person plays a repeated C (in the first performance it was Steve Reich, bashing away on a Wurlitzer) while the rest (Riley doesn’t specify how many players or what instruments) contribute simple repetitive melodic cells. He and his fellow American minimalists were influenced by the structures of African music — so when De Ridder used a trip with Damon Albarn’s Africa Express to record In C in Bamako, the result, called simply In C Mali, somehow brought the piece full circle.
De Ridder’s ensemble includes flutes, koras, imzads, djembes, kalimbas, calabashes. The textures are warm and buoyant, the energy is infectious — there’s a real party vibe going — but reflective, too, with a central passage that strays from Riley’s original by fading into gentle spoken word. I suggest to De Ridder that a spirit of hope and camaraderie comes across and he nods. “The French military were a serious presence in Bamako at that time and they were using the pool in our hotel. It was all a bit strange. We were a travelling group that included Brian Eno and Damon Albarn so we needed security. The really violent trouble was mostly in the north of the country, but we had plenty of musicians travelling down from the north. We were happy to be playing music together.”
“I packed the score for In C in my luggage but hadn’t really planned anything,” he recalls. “After a few days in Bamako I asked the guys whether they felt like trying it out. I got as many musicians as I could in a room for an afternoon and evening.” He returned to Berlin with hours of non-linear material and spent the next several months in a studio, weaving the strands into a cogent performance of the piece. “It’s just like how any pop group would create an album,” he says.
Now In C Mali has become a live event, staged at the London’s Tate Modern Turbine Hall in November last year and due for a repeat performance at the Ruhrtriennale later this month. “The more we do it, the more it will become a free-flowing organism. I think that’s what has delighted Riley so much: he loves that after after all this time, this piece can still be new and relevant.”
Meanwhile De Ridder’s collaboration with Max Richter goes back more than a decade. In a piece called Recomposed: Vivaldi – The Four Seasons, the ultra-familiar baroque concertos are fragmented, augmented, reframed and reconstructed with electronic samples and Arvo Part-like ambient sounds. Richter has described it as “throwing molecules of the original Vivaldi into a test tube with a bunch of other things, and waiting for an explosion”. Next week the Vivaldi redux is coupled with Richter’s Memoryhouse — “a sprawling, journey-like, seminally important piece,” De Ridder describes. “A journey through 20th century history, through war, and through Max’s own musical heritage. A take on Mahler, Second Viennese School, electronic ambient music, chamber music. It’s a portrait of the artist as a young man, a triple concerto in which he plays piano as well as harpsichord, a musical kaleidoscope of his mind.”
He struggles for the right term. “Maybe it’s a radio play in concert performance. A staged radio play. A hear play. A sound play. A performative sound play. A live orchestral radio play?” He laughs. “Oh, just come and hear it.”
Andre de Ridder conducts Max Richter and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra at the Playhouse, Edinburgh, on 24 August. In C Mali is out on Transgressive Records