Utopia

Tom Kerstens’ G Plus Ensemble

Released 10 May 2010

  1. Utopia
  2. The Croydon Grand Prix
  3. Cyanide
  4. Dead Space
  5. First Day Of Summer
  6. Iliac Crest
  7. Polarisation
  8. Incubator
  9. Never Even
  10. Number 88
  11. First Trip To Palatine
  12. Silent Westway
  13. Ochre Orange Freeway
  14. As She Fell

Liner notes

Utopia is the debut recording of Tom Kerstens with his newly formed G Plus Ensemble. The group was created specifically for the recording of newly commissioned writing. Here Tom Kerstens discusses the background the making of Utopia in conversation with Tony Davis:

“For over one hundred and fifty years, the guitar has been languishing on the periphery, overlooked by composers and out of touch with mainstream developments. Solo classical guitar does not have the high quality repertoire available to other instruments. Nor, since ensembles grew louder during the 19th century, has the quiet voice of the guitar had much written for it. It is a highly idiomatic instrument and is difficult to write for if you are not a guitarist and do not know its qualities and limitations.

I was able to commission some leading composers, such as Howard Skempton, Giles Swayne, Terry Riley and Kevin Volans. However, I needed to adopt a fresh approach so I targeted talented young UK composers such as Joby Talbot, Errollyn Wallen, Philip Cashian, John Metcalfe and Graham Fitkin. I have been working with some of them for 10 years now.

Tom Kerstens in The Wood Room at Real World Studios. Photo credit: York Tillyer.

The need to create repertoire for the guitar is one of the great pleasures of contemporary music. I have commissioned work from composers who operate outside as well as within the classical world. This openness is also part of my campaign to get compositions for the guitar listened to by a much wider range of people than those who you would normally expect to attend a chamber recital in a concert hall.

The guitar is the most popular instrument in the world. However, informed interpretation, the essential characteristic of western classical music, is only possible if you have a repertoire of the highest quality to interpret. The gap between popular and classical guitar culture is huge and I have been eager to begin to bridge it, as well as to add to the range of contemporary music repertoire.

G Plus means guitar with something else. It is an evolving term. This can be guitar with other instruments, (e.g. the G Plus ensemble) or guitar with electronics (e.g. the three movements of The Third Fire). Both versions can be found in this recording. The G Plus ensemble here consists of two guitars, strings and percussion. This line-up was discovered by chance and works extraordinarily well. I was first drawn to it following my collaborations with string quartets.

This instrumentation combined with the quality of recording offered by Real World in its atmospheric studio and the lack of compression and quality of reproduction means that there can be real clarity and warmth. For once, a recording can adequately reflect the range of sounds that the listener should be able to hear.

In the G Plus ensemble, the guitar’s plucked sound decays quickly; this contrasts with the sustained string sound. Combined with the vibraphone and in the absence of an inevitably dominant piano, the G Plus ensemble sounds quite magical. John Metcalfe says there is no other ensemble like this and that it reverses the role of the guitar. A rock guitar offers a vertical way of playing; there are chords and the guitar usually determines the key and how a piece modulates. John has deployed the quartet in that vertical role for some of his G Plus pieces; he has used the guitar as a linear, horizontal instrument that does not just play chords but, instead, plays melodic lines. For John, this can make the guitar line much more fluid and interesting; the guitar can act as a more harmonic instrument – the role usually taken by the piano.

It is no accident that the two composers featured on this first G Plus recording both come from a background that combines art rock and classical training.

John Metcalfe, from New Zealand, was, in an earlier incarnation, the viola player for Manchester-based sonic adventurers Durutti Column and came later in his career to composition. John plays viola with the Duke Quartet, and is the arranger for Peter Gabriel‘s new Scratch My Back album. He was introduced to Peter at Real World whilst producing his compositions on ‘Utopia’.

Joby Talbot was a key member of passionate ironists The Divine Comedy— both of them cult bands. He is one of the brightest and most sought after young composers around. He has written for classical artists as well as for film (Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy), TV (League of Gentlemen, which won the Royal Television Society Award for Best Title Music) and co-written a string of hits as member of the ‘art rock’ group The Divine Comedy. As an arranger/writer he has worked with a wide variety of top musicians such as Paul McCartney, Travis, Ute Lemper and the White Stripes. He is currently working on a new ballet score for the Royal Opera House Covent Garden ‘to be premiered in July 2010’, the first new ballet score commission from ROH in over 30 years.

Both John and Joby have roots in a variety of musical backgrounds and have written music which dares simply to be itself without reference to hackneyed ‘cross-over’ or disjointed pick & mix concepts.

The exciting thing about composing for G Plus is that, as John Metcalfe says, “It is purely about the music”. In a culture where so much has already happened, how refreshing it is to see that composing for the guitar is still a new departure”.

Recording strings in The Wood Room at Real World Studios. Photo credit: York Tillyer.

Listen

Reviews

  • Delicate textural footing, infectious minimalist drive and remarkable lyricism. The peice's dedicatee, Tom Kerstens, plays it with style on this disc. Classic FM (UK)
  • Tom Kerstens and his genre-defying G Plus Ensemble are in their perfect place Gramaphone Magazine (UK)

Further Listening

  • The Appearance of Colour

    John Metcalfe

    Released 05 June 2015

    Composer, producer, classical violist, guitarist, and arranger to A-list pop stars, John Metcalfe has always been a name worth seeking out. The Appearance of Colour presents Metcalfe as a recording artist - as front man, maestro and manipulator of sounds. A carefully crafted listening experience with a beginning, middle and end, in which no two tracks sound or feel the same.
  • Welcome Joy and Welcome Sorrow

    Spiro

    Released 10 April 2015

    With Welcome Joy and Welcome Sorrow, the title of a Keats poem, Spiro take us through the "extremes of human experience. It's an album about being alive. Keats' line 'Dancing music, music sad, both together, sane and mad' is pretty much a musical mission statement for us."

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