Interview: RaVen Quartet

Raven Quartet Royal Albert Hall Elgar RoomRaVen Quartet is an all-female four-piece that formed over a pizza in Soho with the aim of revolutionising the traditional notion of a string quartet.

Stephanie Benedetti (violin), Kirsty Mangan (violin), Natalie Holt (viola) and Rachael Lander (cello) were making their living as freelance session players but were becoming increasingly frustrated with reciting tired old repertoire.

Inspired by Nigel Kennedy’s maverick attitude of 20 years earlier, the girls abandoned their chairs and music stands and weeks later, performed Natalie’s arrangement of two of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons fused in an original rock ‘n’ roll arrangement at Gabriel Prokofiev’s NonClassical night at the Macbeth pub in the London’s East End. Since then, Raven Quartet haven’t looked back.

This year been busy for the London based quartet. They are currently playing arenas as part of George Michael’s Symphonica orchestra. At a rainsoaked T in the Park in July, Raven accompanied Nicola Benedetti on the main stage, the first classical performance there ever, and in August they played alongside Madness at the Olympic Stadium for the London 2012 closing ceremony.

We caught up with them after their gig at the Royal Albert Hall’s Elgar Rooms last week to find out more. Check out our picture gallery below.

I noticed that the ‘V’ in RaVen is in uppercase. What does that signify, and what does the name mean overall?
Kirsty: I always think that looks like a beak, but that wasn’t really what it was for. Somebody designed it for us and it was quite a strong… It went around the middle of the CD quite nicely. But just kept it. You know when you start something, and it just sort of sticks.

Stephanie: You just kind of become used to it. It looks weird without it now. 
K: A bit edgy.

How did you four come together?
K: We all sort of met together in London. Steph had known Natalie for a bit in London; they met on a Take That video shoot, and I knew Rachael from when we were about 10 years old. We had all worked with people, you know. I almost lived in the same town as Steph in Scotland when I was about this big. It’s just really weird. Like, musicians sort of work in the same circles.

S: We literally just met. It was kind of down to Natalie. She wanted to form a group, she said, ‘Do you know a cellist?’ and I was like, ‘Yeah I know Rachael’. I’d worked with her a couple of times before; I didn’t really know them that well. And then she just called me and asked if we wanted to form a group and we met over a pizza and that was it.

Everyone has a soft spot for a bit of pizza! Some of you compose and some of you don’t. Who does compose their own work and where does their inspiration come from?
K: Natalie is the one. She went to Film and Television School in Beckensfield. So she does film composing basically. I suppose she was the one actually that got us into arranging our own stuff. And so we have done a few arrangements.

Within a couple of them, there are little sections which we have put together, like in the To Kashmir piece. So although their not our own compositions, so to speak, we want to put our own stamp on things.

S: We basically sit there in a room for hours with an arrangement, and change it until it sounds how we want it to.

Your music is very cinematic; parts of your set sounds like it could be the soundtrack to a dramatic film…
K: Yeah, well we do a lot of film sessions and stuff, and actually string writing really lends itself to soundscapes for film and TV.

How do you decide which pieces to cover? You’re quite varied; from contemporary musicians like Amy Winehouse and Adele to classical pieces…
S: To be honest it kind of depends on what works. We’ve really wanted to try certain tracks, and then we try them and try and try and try, and it just sounds… not great! Sometimes we have to start with a totally new track.

K: We did start off totally classically, and gradually decided that we wanted to dip our toes into music that we liked listening to. But, you know, would it sound really trashy to try and do a pop thing as a string quartet? We’ve done it at weddings for years and years, and you’re playing thinking, ‘Oh God, this is what they want but it sounds awful!’. But actually, some things really work if you make it into your own. So we’ve got to stop trying to imitate what’s on a page for a pop track, and try and make it into a string quartet track.

Who are your favourite composers, contemporary or classical?
K: God, I’m going to be a real geek here, but my favourite classical composer, or one of them, is Elgar.

Ah, hence the room?
K: Yeah, but that wasn’t actually meant to be! It always has been since I was little.
S: Shostakovich.
K: Yeah, Shostakovich. Actually he was quite rock. Did what he wanted to do.

How do you think you’ve been received by the existing classical community? Do you think they see you as a bit of an anomaly?
S: It’s funny, because we do a lot of film sessions. At the beginning, a lot of them were like, ‘What are you doing here? You do this as RaVen’. But then they actually hear us and they really enjoy it.

K: Yeah, they really support us which is so nice to know. We feel a lot more comfortable now because they’re our colleagues in a lot of different places. So we don’t feel like they think we’re just four bimbos getting up who think we can play our instruments.

Because what you see is what you get, we don’t stick on a backing track or anything like that. Electric stuff is great if that’s what you want to do, but we’ve always wanted to keep it acoustic, and that means that there’s so much room for error.

But we’d rather be hanging on by the skin of our teeth and really going for it, with everyone hearing all of the cracks and squeaks, than play something that we didn’t like the sound of.

My last question is: what are you working on at the moment? What will we hear RaVen are up to next?
K: We’ve realised that what we do is such a huge inspiration for young kids, well kids of any age really. And it would be really good if we could push that. We first noticed when we were busking actually, and kids would come up to us and dance with us.

Then we did a workshop in a school which we were really scared about really. When we got there, some of the biggest bullies where like, ‘Yeah, classical instruments, whatever’, and then Steph was like, ‘Yeah, we went on tour with Dizzee Rascal actually’, and their mouths hit the ground! They thought it was the coolest job in the world. People don’t realise what you can do if you learn an instrument.

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