Raven – Peter Hollo

We are very excited to have Raven – Peter Hollo’s solo looped cello project – playing at Sounds Like this #1. Peter plays in a bunch of ensembles, including FourPlay String Quartet, Tangents and Haunts, does lots of collaborations and hosts a weekly radio show – Utility Fog – on iconic Sydney station FBi 94.5. We caught up with him shortly after arriving home from touring the US and Europe.

You have just finished a tour of the USA and Europe with FourPlay String Quartet. What were some of the highlights?

I have. It was pretty rad, and afterwards I got to have a bit of a holiday with my girlfriend in London, Italy, Paris & Brussels : D – followed by a very fun muso wedding down in Dorset (southern UK). Friends and friends of friends on Facebook can see my ridiculously-detailed photo albums with descriptions of all the CDs, books and comics I bought along the way.
In terms of the touring, FourPlay was on tour with British blockbuster author Neil Gaiman playing a work we initially created (along with artist Eddie Campbell) for the Sydney Opera House a few years ago, which has now come out as a book, CD and hybrid audio/e-book, called The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains.

The setup is that Neil reads the entire story, with through-composed (semi-composed, semi-improvised) music under-scoring it from FourPlay, and beautiful projected artwork from Eddie.

Because Neil is such a mind-bogglingly adored author & person, he is able to attract rather sizeable crowds. So we got to play at some amazing venues – the obvious highlight being Carnegie Hall in New York! Not having ever had quite the drive & stamina for practice required to make it as a classical musician, it was truly a spin-out to play OUR OWN MUSIC on stage at Carnegie Hall to a standing ovation (well, the bit with Neil…)

We also played great venues in San Francisco, London and Edinburgh, and had fun with our own full shows in New York & London as well. And in New York we did this live session in the sweltering summer sun at a beautiful location underneath (or beside) Brooklyn Bridge:

My other huge highlight was getting to play at the legendary experimental music venue Cafe OTO in London, which is co-booked/run by Brisbane ex-pat John Chantler. My friend Ollie Bown, who’s an ex-pat in the opposite direction (Londoner now living in Sydney) was over for the summer, and as well as being one half of Tangents, we have a cello/laptop duo which is how we performed. The whole set can be heard on SoundCloud:

And you got to play with Ben Folds. How did that eventuate?

Well, yes – again it’s the Neil Gaiman connection. For some people Neil may be best known as the English author guy who’s now married to Amanda Palmer. They did this project with Ben Folds and some others called 8-in-8, writing & recording a bunch of songs together, and Ben happened to be playing at the Barbican the day after our second gig there. So Neil emailed him to ask if he was free on the Saturday night, and he ended up joining us all for an encore, playing the song “The Problem With Saints”.

Did you get to see any gigs yourself?

Only one – it was a pretty jam-packed tour, and by the time we were on holidays in Europe it was high summer, when nothing happens except for the summer festivals (which we were missing). We were lucky that most of the shops hadn’t quite closed yet!

The one gig we saw was awesome though – Ollie Bown’s long-standing awesome electro-acoustic drum’n’bass duo Icarus were launching a new single at Plastic People in Hoxton, and they got their mate Kieran Hebden (Four Tet) to DJ in support. It was an amazing set, aided by the massive sound system at that tiny club.

You do a lot of ensemble and collaborative work. What is the appeal of your solo project, Raven?

I love playing with other people, and have found a number of peeps who are awesome for bouncing ideas off and who I love jamming and creating stuff with. But obviously with solo work you can retain a one-eyed focus on your own artistic ambitions – within your technical constraints. It means I can indulge any flights of fancy I like, and I can involve as much (or little) technology as I like too. Complex beat programming or layers of looped cello.

On a piece like ‘Sleeping Dogs’ (New Resolution, 2012) you’re exploring a lot the timbrel variety of the cello. Can you describe some of the techniques you are using?

That track was created completely on the fly – a live improvisation on loop pedal. But other than the layering of loops in real-time, everything else is indeed cello. So as well as the standard pizzicato (plucking the strings) and arco (bowing), there are quiet creaks and squeaks from drawing the bow very lightly over the strings (and sometimes even on the bridge!), and loud crunchy distorted sounds from drawing the bow very heavily but slowly… there’s a fair bit of just whacking the bridge and other parts of the instrument with the bow (I can be a bit hard on my instrument!) and bouncing the bow off the strings (that’s got a classical/Italian name! col legno). There are harmonics, both “natural” (just floating the left fingers on the open strings and stopped harmonics where you hold down a note with one finger and float the other to bring out the harmonic…

I guess what’s equally interesting for me to the simple idea of using these extended techniques is what happens when you get more & more layers of these sounds. Once the whacking percussive sounds loop round and start adding on to themselves, you get a really dense soundscape. And compositionally this one is quite free – it’s not based in a solid quantized time signature as such, just a long loop, which I think is an interesting contrast to the loop pieces based around beats, harmonies & melodies.

You have been working with Chris Hancock on your third Raven release. Can you describe that process? Is there a release date planned yet?

It’s a finished album, called the night is dark, the night is silent, the night is bright, the night is loud. I’m trying to work out who to send it to in the hopes of getting it released, but otherwise I’ll get it out myself I guess! This is the first album I recorded in a studio (Music Lines in St Peters, which used to be Megaphon), and Chris helped hugely in setting up the studio, recording, editing & mixing in Pro Tools, even suggesting instrumentation and field recordings.

I recorded a whole lot of pieces originally written with the loop pedal – so rather than cello through pickup through pedal, it’s a lovely acoustic sounding cello with multiple mics, layered bit by bit in Pro Tools. Those pieces are all half-composed, half-improvised, with a structure that’s set but usually in-between bits fairly improvised, so I had to satisfy myself with final, fixed versions for the recording! The other half the album was created entirely in the studio, with piano, cello, various effects units, other electronics and some bits of wood & metal. There’s spooky piano, massive synth bass, field recordings, cello pretending to be guitar and violin, etc… Oh, and there’s cello through a lovely distorted amp on one track too.

It’s quite different from what I’ve done previously, partly because the “workflow” meant I wasn’t able to record bits of cello & piano, process & edit like crazy, then record more. So it’s less electronic & experimental in some ways, but it was quite a fun “experiment” for me!

For a live Raven performance are you trying to recreate your recorded pieces, or are there elements of improvisation?

Well, as mentioned, the loop pieces are mostly partially improvised – although they’re all written from improvisation rather than in any way “composed”. I do try to play a lot of those recorded works, and I like to do one piece that’s almost completely improvised on any night.

I’m working towards having a setup where I can re-incorporate the laptop into the set, but for now I don’t have the technical know-how to make it work, so it’s likely to be cello in all its sonic variety, plus the loop pedal’s layering and delays.

Raven plays at Sounds Like This #1, September 27th 2014. http://wp.me/P4S3RS-4

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