An Interview with Olly Chalk: Prometheus

I’m really excited to be able to release the next Jazz Gospel interview and I’m particularly delighted that this one is with fellow student Olly Chalk. Olly has been working on his project Prometheus for the last 12 months which is due to be performed at the Old Joint Stock Theatre, Birmingham this coming Thursday at 8:30pm. The project itself is inspired by Russian composer and synesthete Alexander Scriabin and fuses written material and improvised traditions telling the tale of Greek mythological titan Prometheus and will feature the artwork of Jake-Andrew Nason. The line-up includes:

Ellie Taylor – Flute
Juliana Day – Recorders
Jenny Wood – Oboe/Cor Anglais
Vittorio Mura – Tenor Saxophone/Bass Clarinet
Tom Syson – Trumpet
David Sear – Trombone
Ning-ning Li – Violin
Lucy French – Cello
Olly Chalk – Piano
Benedict Muirhead – Double Bass
Nathan England-Jones – Drums
Alex Astbury – Conductor

Tickets are available at:

The Jazz Gospel: Your project is inspired by Russian composer Alexander Scriabin, can you talk a little about this influence, where it came from and what it meant to you to compose a suite of music inspired by such a remarkable musician?

Olly Chalk: I’ve always loved early 20th century Russian composers. It all started with Rachmaninoff actually and I got into Scriabin through Rachmaninoff. The thing that I like about Rachmaninoff so much was that he writes music with his heart on his sleeve; he had a rough life in Russia and moved to America gaining massive success there which was a move taken by a lot of the Russian composers of that generation. I guess the first this is the fact that a lot of Russian composers from that era were really prolific composers for music for the piano. I’ve never really played much Rachmaninoff, I tried but it’s really difficult even though I’m lucky enough to have big hands the technique required to play most of his music is beyond mine. I was mostly drawn to the emotive quality of his music, he writes these lovely singable melodies and I just love how he writes for the piano.

Through that I got into Scriabin who I think is a lot darker generally than Rachmaninoff and started his musical life as being hugely influenced by Chopin. Looking back at the compositional output of somebody like Scriabin who loved Chopin in so much depth and seeing that it resulted in a lot of his early writing sound like very similar is extremely interesting for me. I think that’s the same as a jazz musician and as a composer I think you still learn through imitation. It’s really interesting to see somebody that was such an astounding composer and to see that he went through that process as well.

With Scriabin he has that moody thing that’s going on with a lot of Russian composers that I really like but I’m also drawn to him harmonically especially later on when his writing becomes very extended and really dark. The irony about this project is that not very much of it sounds like him, which I’m glad of. I did a fair amount of research into various things about how he wrote but unlike a lot of early 20th century composers like Schoenberg and Webern his compositional processes weren’t really documented at all; it seems to me that he was one of those people who was quite reserved about how he went about writing music. This was unlike other composers of that period who were much more upfront with their systems which is obviously really useful for other composers as then you have the capability to manipulate and utilize whatever you wish whereas with Scriabin I had to work out for myself and interpret from his music. There’s quite a lot of PHD thesis out there about how he wrote but it’s all kind of speculation really.

The beauty of Scriabin is that there are so many different things about him I could talk to you all day. I think towards the end of his life he was pretty insane and he spent most of his time writing this piece called the Mysterium which he said would last around two weeks and would contain every sensory experience known to man. The composition was that important to him that he wanted it to be performed in a purpose built chapel at the base of the Himalayan mountains and made it known that when the piece had finished all of mankind would be a better species. He thought incredibly highly of himself and saw himself as a visionary genius. For those reasons you can kind of see why towards the end of his life some of the music he was producing was so dark. The one thing for sure was that he was an amazing composer and fantastic pianist.

The draw for me was his mystique and the process of trying to figure all of this out. The majority of it is kind of untouchable because it’s such powerful music but I’m specifically interested in the tradition of him writing music that has this really dark quality about it contrasting with some of the earlier stuff that’s really lovely and beautiful music. The thing with the Russian composers is that it’s so black and white and although that might seem a little crass there’s so many ways that they navigate those two completely polar opposite emotions and personally I find that’s a really nice way to write. There are obviously loads of in between but I’m just really attached to that and I think I’ve actively tried to write music with that in mind.

TJG: Scriabin is well known for being influenced by synesthesia and many of his works including his symphonic work Prometheus are meant to create synaestetical effects. In the description of your event you’ve described the performance as being multi-sensory. What can the audience expect and how might that reflect from the performances of Scriabin’s?

OC: I almost don’t want to tell you that much because I don’t want to give it all away and spoil the surprise. I’ve been working with an artist called Jake-Andrew Nason, an old school friend who went on to study fine art at Kingston College in London and is now doing his masters in Norwich. Jake’s a musician as well so I can send him scores he can follow along to the rehearsal recordings that I’ve sent him which is definitely helpful for the both of us. Coincidentally, before I’d even spoke to him about this project a lot of the painting work that he was doing had a lot of ties with synesthesia. Some of his works have titles such as ‘E Minor’ which were created by recording himself playing an E Minor chord on the piano and then manipulating that audio using various software that would basically draw it out over a period of thirty minutes and then he’d apply that to a painting.

To be fair, because of the logistical difficulties of a project this size apart from the paintings I haven’t really seen an awful lot of the visual material that Jake has produced. Jake is doing two things for me: three different paintings and three separate videos that will run in tandem with three of the eight pieces from the Prometheus suite. Remarkably, he will manipulate those videos in real time at the moments that the music is improvised which is a process that after speaking about seems intensely complex. Because its such a large project I’m not even entirely sure how it’s going to go but I like that because it will mean the entire band can react to what’s going on visually and hopefully it’ll knit together quite cohesively because throughout the entire rehearsal process I’ve kept him updated with recordings so he knows the music almost as well as I do.

It’s been really nice to work with someone who’s really into it and that we’re very much on the same page in terms of what we want to create together. Although we’ve never rehearsed the music with the visual stuff together which I find pretty terrifying I hope for that reason everything will go as planned. The visuals themselves will be projected through a Perspex screen across the band and into the audience, so I’m hoping the light should fill the room. We’ll have to see.

TJG: Telling the interesting tale of Greek mythological titan Prometheus sounds like an interesting task. How have you found the challenge of representing his tales and character in musical form?

OC: It’s been really fun and is actually another tie with Scriabin as he himself felt in some way attached to Prometheus even to the extent that saw himself as the modern day equivalent.  Scriabin wrote Prometheus: The Poem of Fire which was essentially a piano concerto but instead of the piano always being soloist its role goes between solo and accompaniment. Scriabin’s version is alarmingly clear in terms of the narrative and that was really inspiring for me as I didn’t realize until I’d properly researched it how close it was to that story. I basically wanted to do my own version of that and when I started to look into Greek mythology generally and the Prometheus story I realised quickly that all the stories are very dark which is quite horrible. The general thing is that there’s all these Greek Gods murdering each other all the time and it made so much sense to me why Scriabin wanted to write about Prometheus and this story as I think it’s quite easy to translate such a complex but dark narrative into music.

Personally, I wanted to do it slightly differently so I’ve kind of taken a slight step back from the Prometheus story. Although Prometheus is still the center I’ve kind of looked at Greek mythology more generally. There are various accounts of Greek Mythology and I chose to start the suite where things began. There was a poet called Hesiod who was seen by many as a messenger of the Gods and wrote what is know as Hesiod’s Theogony which is essentially the Ancient Greek equivalent of the Bible. It begins with the first God know to existence known as Chaos who is described as a dark formless mass which being a dark, mysterious figure is actually a good metaphor for the entirety of Greek mythology. There are eight pieces within the suite and the titles of those pieces kind of give away the narrative I’m trying to portray but maybe I’m saying that as someone who know the narrative quite well:

1)    Chaos
2)    Gaia
3)    Mount Olympus/ Zeus
4)    Prometheus
5)    The Great War
6)    The Theft
7)    The Punishment
8)    Pandora

TJG: For someone who wants to get into music of a similar sort. What would you advise as being a good starting point?

OC: Other than Scriabin there are of course a lot of other influences that have gone into this. Initially, whenever I wrote something I’d sit and think that it didn’t sound like Scriabin and I was worried about that and now I’ve got a suite of music that really doesn’t sound much like Scriabin at all. There are of course various bits but I never wanted to make it too obvious. Ultimately, I wanted to write a suite of music that sounds like my own writing, whatever that may be. I feel for the first time in my life that I have done that and that’s probably why I’ve really enjoyed writing for this project.

More recently, I’ve really reconciled with my own influences and it’s take me far to long to realize that it’s as it’s so frequently taught for improvisers to imitate who they like and that it is such a tried and tested way of improving as an improviser and often it’s not mentioned as much in regard to composition I think treating the two in a similar way jas meant I’ve gained a lot of compositional experience.

In terms of small band writing, I’ve transcribed loads of Dave Binney and Ambrose Akinmusire tunes and I like the orchestral quality of how they write for a small band, the forms alone tend to be really abstract and they always have this shape and arc to them and I like that. Something about Dave Binney’s music that I’m really attached to is that he has these really intricate through written sections balanced with really free improvised sections. Having that writing ability is something that’s really inspiring because writing music in that way means you have complete control over your melodies and themes so then you can give complete freedom within the improvisation. I’ve found that really liberating and a way that I really like to write.

At the same time I’m also trying to get away from that because I think it’s important as a composer, especially as someone who’s in their early days to do as many different things as possible. I’m being taught composition by Hans Koller this year and the composition classes and tutorials I’ve had with him have been massively beneficial especially when considering this project. Most things were on the various processes of 20th century often classical composers and were complemented along with spending time looking at George Russell’s Lydian Chromatic Concept and John O’Gallagher’s Twelve Tone improvisation which a vast majority of this suite is written using. All those different things he’s taught are provide endless resource’s because those concepts often write themselves and just give you music straight away. Although it starts off as these complex procedures once you kind of fully understand them they’re great because having these processes that show you new ways of writing are really illuminating. Luckily for me Hans has been really positive about not only this project and I’d like to say my writing in general, I think he’s been particular helpful for me and his album launch at the CBSO Centre was enormously inspiring for me.

I’ll kind of just rattle of some names that have inspired this project as they should give a good idea of similar influences: Ravel, Steve Reich, Darcy James Argues’ Secret Society which is amazingly orchestrated, Late Coltrane, Elliot Mason, Pablo Held, John Taylor and in addition to that I listened to a load of Ancient Greek music to get that kind of quality involved too. I could sit here all day and talk about the amount of people who have influenced this project. 

TJG: The line-up for the gig is made up of many of your close friends who have been with you on your musical journey for a number of years. What has is it been like working with people who you have such a close relationship with and what has this enabled people to bring to the project?

OC: Because this project has been entirely off my own back in terms of all the logistical stuff and on account of the weird line up this project has been a nightmare at times. I’m using a lot of amazing musicians and obviously that means they’re incredibly busy and along with some already being graduated and some living further away bringing everyone together for a rehearsal is a difficult task in itself.

It’s been really interesting because the band dynamic is great because some of them like Ben Muirhead I’ve played with since my first day in college. I love working with Ben because he’s never afraid to impart any ideas he has with anyone else’s music and I think that’s only really a positive thing. With a project such as this where a lot of it is through written early on I realised I’d have to have a conductor so I asked Alex Astbury to do it. Because I live with Alex sometimes we don’t always have the most amicable relationship in terms of the rehearsals because its that classic thing of when you’ve got a large ensemble when the composer is in the band and one person is conducting you’ve essentially end up with two people leading the rehearsal which thankfully has never been too much of a problem. The great thing about Alex is on a similar line to what I was saying about Ben; he’s had so many ideas about this music and they’ve mostly all been really positive and helpful and as he’s a great writer too he brings knowledge that I don’t necessarily have to the table which has been particularly useful. I’ve played with Dave Sear a lot and obviously that’s great if you play with somebody a lot and really saw his style of playing as fitting in with musically describing the character of Zeus. With Tom Syson I just love the way he plays the trumpet and just couldn’t hear anybody else apart from him, he improvises all the time and I think it’s really important that he’s happy to take risks. Vittorio Mura, who I’ve also got on Bass Clarinet is just a great all rounder.

As it’s a crossover project it’s been really interesting using classically trained musicians. Jenny Wood on oboe was recommended to be by Melinda Maxwell and initially I don’t think I’d ever heard Jennie play. I thought I’d try her out and see how it goes to which I’ll admit that I’d completely underestimated how good an improviser she is and actually speaking of this all the classical musicians have to improvise at some point and in fact two of them have solos which was pretty a pretty scary thing to do. Considering me personally as somebody who’s been at the Conservatoire for nearly four years studying improvisation and to then hand a solo over to someone who’s not an improviser was initially terrifying but was something I really wanted to do. I’d been listening to a lot of Booker Little, specifically the album Out Front. There’s a piece of his called Moods in Free Time which has an Eric Dolphy solo on it which I can’t always listen to because of it’s emotive quality which just tears me up so I really wanted to achieve something similar. When I think of Dolphy I thought of the oboe because of its really cutting aggressive sound so I gave this solo to Jennie and gave her this solo for the first time I obviously give the classical musicians resources that they can use at their disposal and her solo was so great I immediately told her to play like that on the gig.  I honestly think that classical musicians are great improvisers because they have language like we do except they don’t know that they do.  They’ve played so much music it has become a part of them. The interesting thing with Juliana, on the account that’s she’s a recorder player is that she’s played so much baroque music and with ornamentation for baroque musicians being a huge part of their study I just asked her to play the resources I’d given her really soloistically and ornament them in the same way she’d think about a baroque thing and straight away she knew what to do. The thing about the classical musicians is just how good their reading is. I sometimes wonder if some Ellie Taylor actually needed to come to rehearsals because her reading is astounding. A lot of the experience was about meeting in the middle of the two traditions. Playing with a ride cymbal isn’t something the classical players are used to as it’s not part of their training so I’ve had to be mindful in making sure I give people music they are comfortable playing. Finally, Nathan on drums is great because he has a lot of sensitivity especially to the written material and quite often I don’t have to tell him all that much which is exactly what you want from a drummer.

TJG: What’s planned next for this project?

OC: There are several things. I obviously want to record it and release it and already there are various plans being made about that. Having said that, I know it sounds ridiculous but I want to write more music and I’ve definitely thought about continuing this band even to the point of enlarging it. I hear there being more brass and string players even possibly adding another pianist or drummer and I’m really keen on making the band larger. Although is sounds pretty tripe to say it, I want to write a sequel because there’s so many areas of Greek mythology that I haven’t explored I feel there’s so many more possibilities of where things can go. The long-term plan starts with enlarging the band to maybe 20 players, creating this quirky orchestra. I’m really excited about making a lot more things happen.

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