Interview: Colin Currie

‘It takes a lifetime to find one’s own voice in music, and your work in a sense is never done,’ says solo percussionist Colin Currie.

As both a solo and chamber artist Colin’s work has made him one of the world’s most in-demand percussionists.

Having premiered work from a wide range of composers – from Nico Muhly to Julia Wolfe – he is also an enthusiastic champion of new music.

In 2006 he founded the Colin Currie Group to perform the music of Steve Reich, and his relationship with the American composer has subsequently endured.

Earlier this year he released the album Colin Currie & Steve Reich – Live at Fondation Louis Vuitton, which features the percussionist and composer performing a duet of Reich’s quintessential Clapping.

Later this month Colin will perform at East Neuk Festival in Scotland with composer Huw Watkins and he will also lead the event’s Big Project, which brings members of the community and professional musicians together for a special performance.

Colin is also set to appear at Edinburgh International Festival later in the summer for a performance of Sofia Gubaidulina’s Glorious Percussion.

Ahead of the shows we caught up with Colin to get some insight into those projects, his relationship with Steve Reich and how he thinks new music can be better supported…

What led you to be a percussionist?
I think I had an uncontrollable urge to make music via the very broad medium of “sticks in hands”. When I was very young (two or three years old) it was of course a very basic, child-like instinct but because the percussion family and scope is so broad I was blessed to discover the incredible variety of music available to participate in!

Can you tell us about your forthcoming performance at the East Neuk Festival with Huw Watkins?
This is a lovely project for me as Huw is a cherished friend, as well as highly esteemed colleague. His musicianship is on an extraordinary level – as well as being a prolific composer he is a stunning natural talent on the piano and extremely sensitive chamber musician. This recital will hear all of those quietly powerful powers at play and I am very excited by the World Premiere of his new work for marimba and piano.

You’re also taking part in a project at the festival involving the local community. What do you hope to achieve with the project?
This will be a blast! I have met up with the ringleader of this project and there are some superb, richly alluring ideas at play to amass an enormous percussion-based experience, in surround-sound! Lesser-common objects will be used to make fabulous collective soundscapes and the audience can expect a genuine thrill and adventure here.

What can we expect from your performance of Glorious Percussion at the Edinburgh International Festival?
This work is an absolute giant and I am delighted to be performing it for the first time at the EIF. It has an enormity to it (5 solo percussionists!) and the atmosphere is one of magical exploration of sounds, a search for power and beauty, which takes many delightful and strange turns. Not to be missed – and a perfect festival project.

What was the thinking behind your latest album Colin Currie & Steve Reich Live at Fondation Louis Vuitton?

Originally a concert series, designed by the composer and myself, the performances rendered at this astonishing venue turned into a unique opportunity to release a live recording. By selecting a number of the pieces we played and making a coherent album (duration, structure, scope) I am delighted to be able to share what was an extraordinary event, in the presence of the composer himself.

You formed the Colin Currie group in 2006, how has performing Steve Reich’s work and your relationship with him impacted you?
This has been a remarkable journey – from tackling Drumming for the very first time to consolidating the ensemble into a regular unit of specialist players and having Steve come on board to tour, perform with and finally write for us. He is an inspiration to all within the group – from his exacting and impactful insight into the music to his very generous social side, and vivacious sense of humour. He is always there for us, to crack a joke backstage to make everyone feel relaxed and supported.

What’s your take on the health of new classical music in the UK right now?
It is hard to find a place with more fine artistry, especially on the level of composers. Of course, there are the figureheads, further down the generations, but I am especially encouraged by the generation of my age and younger. This is never grounds for complacency however – if you look at people like myself, and say composer Helen Grime, (also from Edinburgh) we would never have found our way without the local opportunities available to us as youths. Music programmes and music education are neglected at everyone’s peril.

What single thing would further improve its fortunes?
I think more visits to schools by expert players and instrumentalists. These kinds of demonstrations and hand-on workshops (in the case of percussion) can be of profound significance. Youngsters can easily have their imaginations fired, but equally, this can be overlooked all too easily. It doesn’t take much!

Do you have any advice for emerging composers?
They should immerse themselves in as much music as possible. One resource I used a lot was the Edinburgh Music Library – when I was 12 or 13 I just rented all the most exciting-looking scores I could find. Stockhausen, Berio, Boulez, Henze, Carter…and I was hooked! It takes a lifetime to find one’s own voice in music, and your work in a sense is never done. The wealth of composition behind us, is the best starting point for this endeavour.

Colin Currie performs at East Neuk Festival on 28 and 29 June and at the Edinburgh International Festival on 8 August.