Free as a bird

Cohen discusses how the notion of ‘freedom’ is central to his work as a cellist, teacher and curator
Interview by Christian Lloyd
Gig Magazine October 2009

‘I’ve always thought of myself as a bit of a gypsy cellist,’says Robert Cohen,describing the genesis of Sally Beamish’s new cello concerto. Sub-titled ‘The Song Gatherer’, the piece draws on folk tunes from several continents,as well as more eclectic inspirations such as birdsong. ‘There’s a kind of raw quality in each composer’s voice,’ he explains. ‘The uneducated, unrefined root of it seems to be something raw and powerful, and taking that music for this sort of composition appealed to me.’ 

In developing the structure of the concerto, commissioned to mark Cohen’s 50th birthday, Beamish drew on the itinerant nature of his life as a musician, as well as his family roots. Born in Poland, his grandfather spent much of his life in South Africa before coming to England; Cohen recalled fragments and snatches of folksongs during the creative process. ‘As I was expressing myself about the things that counted in my life, it gave her a flavour of my energy,’ he continues. ‘And Sally has written this kind of “vocal” music that relies on spontaneity. Sections of the piece will come out really differently each time. 

‘I’ve always had a very strong belief that playing music is like speaking and like singing,’ he explains,‘and the cello just happens to be a vehicle to express that. It has a fantastic range for that, so the use of song directly appeals to me. With cellists,there has been a kind of obsession with the “cello sound”, and I’ve felt quite different from many others in that respect.’ 

In Cohen’s view, the very physicality of playing the cello sets it apart in some way. ‘With a violin, you almost have to stop yourself working too hard or you could crush it, as it were,’ he says. ‘With the cello,you have to work quite hard just to get the sound started. You have to find a real balance between having to work with enormous strength, but without in any sense suppressing the cello’s ability.’ As a teacher, Cohen often finds that cellists need to discover ‘freedom’: ‘Composers lay down very,very strict rules in minute detail, but a lot of people need to find how that structure, the detail, shows them where the freedom really lies in the music. You have to find a sound that is flexible, that leaves you space to express yourself.’ 

In part,it’s the concept of ‘freedom’ that has drawn Cohen to his latest venture:, an independent online platform for the arts, is due to launch later this year, with Cohen as ‘curator’ of its classical programming. ‘It will allow us to be expressive and creative in television terms, but using much greater flexibility, being on the internet,’ he claims. ‘It’s all new material – we started by filming my Charleston Manor Festival in June – and you can choose how you want to see it. We’re showing the development from rehearsals to the concerts; background information; interviews; and you can choose different viewpoints, or find out how the music sounds from the position of one of the musicians on stage. There are lots of ways to get involved in what happens.’ 

From his point of view, this is the key to classical music’s popularity: ‘Everyone really needs to be close up to understand the resonance, and how powerful it really is. In concert halls, we have a tendency to be miles away all the time, but you have to literally feel the physical force of the music, and the energy required to play it, to get involved in it. When people feel really close to it, they won’t start thinking it’s elitist, or whether they have to know about the music beforehand. I don’t think any of that’s relevant, when you’re involved with the impact.’ 

Robert Cohen performs the world premiere of Sally Beamish’s Cello Concerto ‘The Song Gatherer’ with the Minnesota Orchestra at Orchestra Hall,Minneapolis,on 12 November

interviewRobert Cohen