What was your personal motivation for forming The Hermes Experiment?
When we were forming the group, all of us had had experience of some sort or another in contemporary music. I felt as though by pooling our knowledge and experiences and using this as a starting point, we could make something that was greater than the sum of the individual parts.
Apart from the instrumentation, what would you say makes The Hermes Experiment unique?
What I see as unique in Hermes is a bunch of four performers genuinely willing to try anything. When training as a musician, the concept of ‘flexibility’ as an individual performer – being able to perform Mozart and Stockhausen in the same concert – is often drilled into us. However, it seems there exist very few groups that treat improvisation as seriously as they do Bach, or an outreach project for three year-olds, or a song setting about fish. Collaboration, diversity and commitment of approach, both as individuals and as an ensemble, are the things that we strive for.
What do you see as the key to The Hermes Experiment’s artistic identity?
It’s all in the perspective. Personally, whenever I see a string quartet, an orchestra, or whoever really, programme a contemporary piece, it’s more often than not seen as an add-on, an extra, the obligatory modern stuff to demonstrate the ensemble’s versatility. Why is that? In my opinion, it’s because the ensembles themselves (orchestra, string trio, choir) come from the classical (and earlier) traditions. This means that modern music is always viewed from the perspective of a ‘classical’ ensemble, as something inherently freaky and weird. What happens, then, when you totally reverse the perspective, when you look down the other end of the telescope? Even though we set up contemporary music to be ‘the norm’, this doesn’t mean that we see baroque music as unapproachable – far from it! We just see it and communicate it in a different way. By utilising a (to my knowledge) never-before used combination of instruments, we instantly open up fresh possibilities, feeling no pressure to learn or perform ‘the classics’ – because there are none!
How do you plan to tackle the potential inaccessibility of contemporary classical music?
There is without doubt a stigma around the term ‘contemporary music’. However, I believe that ‘contemporary music’ has undergone a lot of change recently – and it’s up to us as performers to articulate that difference. Whereas composers, say, 40 or 50 years ago were composing ‘aggressively’ into a niche only understood or even approached by a few, nowadays I believe that there’s a genuine desire – on the part of both composer and performer – to (re)connect with audiences. It’s this connection that’s key to the accessibility. If someone approaches a piece with the assumption that it was composed for someone more intelligent than them, then of course it won’t make any sense! What our job is is not to dumb things down because we think people ‘won’t get it’ otherwise; it’s to show people that there exists a genuine, tangible relationship between composer, performer and audience. Composers want to write things for performers to play, and we as performers want to perform them to you. There’s a lot of beauty and expression to be found in modern music, and if the approach is right, this beauty comes across surprisingly clearly!
What would you say is the most interesting part of the creative process you go through with each commission?
It’s hard to pinpoint one exact moment, as it varies depending on the type of work we’re undertaking. With heavily ‘notey’ pieces (works with many complex rhythms and ideas all flying around), there always seems to be a moment of things clicking into place. It often creeps up and surprises you. You begin with hours of individual practice, then moving to the ensemble rehearsal, often with a metronome at painfully slow speeds. Just when it feels like you’re hitting your collective head against a brick wall, then click – it falls into place, and you have a piece!
Thinking of the ensemble’s future plans, what are you most excited about?
We have almost 20 composers lined up for our next season, and so the sheer diversity of what will be winging its way to us is exciting enough! We often draw on materials and textures from our pieces in our improvisations, the former aiding us in developing our collective ‘voice’ as an ensemble in the latter. I’m looking forward to seeing how our new commissions inspire us and help us to find ever-new ways of making music together.