The cellist who wants to shake up London with a classical mystery tour

The South Bank Centre's new artist-in-residence aims to fill every corner of the venue with new music, he tells Jessica Duchen

We need more live music at the Southbank Centre. That may sound odd, since the complex by the river is probably the most buzzy, music-filled site in the whole of London. But it's the view of Oliver Coates, a 20-something cellist who has scooped the post of artist-in-residence at the venue and is preparing to "cut his teeth" (his words) on a new venture called Harmonic Series, designed to bring unexpected sounds to unexpected corners of the Royal Festival Hall. So unexpected will they be, that the audience is being asked to assemble at the box office at 7.45pm, ready for Coates to lead them to a mystery location.

"Since the hall's refurbishment a few years ago, all these spaces have opened up," Coates enthuses. "Little intimate corners that you might not have noticed before, like the Blue Room, the Spirit Level, or the Pavilions on the sixth floor, which overlook London in a beautiful way." He set out to woo those that wield control over these areas, "By coaxing them," he says, "and saying: why don't we have more live music here?"

Serving as "curator" of the series, which is his brainchild, he can stage the concerts as he sees fit: "Despite austere budgeting, I have total autonomy, which is extremely rare in this universe." And as a jobbing cellist working with the London Sinfonietta and the Aurora Orchestra, in chamber groups and as a recitalist, he has been well placed to encounter a variety of music in wildly varying contexts. "Whenever I see something that makes me think 'Wow, that was amazing,' I try to 'bank' it," he says.

His eclectic Harmonic Series programmes are partly drawn from that musical piggy-bank. "It's a bit like a charm bracelet: each element is unique and good in its own right, but by the sheer act of connecting them up into an hour's performance, you're saying something about them through that juxtaposition."

Another aim is to "break down barriers" surrounding the perception of concerts, particularly those of contemporary music. Without wanting to sound cynical, I can't help noticing that over a couple of decades I've watched others set out to "break down barriers" in new music. Shouldn't they have gone by now? Why does Coates think this endeavour can work any better than previous efforts?

"I don't," he says, ever-pragmatic, "but I'm not sure what 'new music' means any more. There is one tradition that deliberately turns away from the audience, stubborn and impenetrable, and that's cool – people should do that, because its function is to tease at the edges all the time, setting a challenge. But we've had quite a long era of this, and it's got over itself a bit. There's some really beautiful new music being written now: the experiential aspect is being thought about.

"People care about music so much; it's so divisive – and it's all to do with who we are, our boundaries and the way we see our own identity," he suggests. "For some people classical music has to be the known, the safe and familiar, and for some it has to be the unfamiliar, the stimulating and the unexpected. So you have to be savvy in the way you put things together. But you should never just programme what you think people want to hear, otherwise you might as well just put on Britney Spears."

It's become relatively easy for large venues to attract full houses for what Coates terms "monolith" composers, like Ligeti, Xenakis and Stockhausen, "though it has taken several decades to learn how", he remarks. But the Harmonic Series concerts are altogether different: edgy, experimental stuff across a musical spectrum that is enhanced by immediacy and surprise.

The first programme, for instance, puts together songs written and performed by Mara Carlyle, whose voice is on the Ikea advert with 100 roving cats; virtuoso violin music by the exciting young Dutch composer Michel van der Aa; a few minutes of performance art involving the combination of light projection and dance with Deng Dori and Meta Drcar; and music by Zemlinsky, a younger contemporary of Mahler.

And the culmination will be Streetwise Opera in The Nightingale and the Rose by Emily Hall, a miniature opera based on the short story by Oscar Wilde. It was originally created for film; Harmonic Series will offer it both in its screen version and in live performance. Streetwise Opera is an award-winning enterprise whose performers are all formerly homeless. Participating in music, song and opera helps them to rediscover a sense of self-worth.

Coates has already proved that he's not afraid to push at boundaries: at his Wigmore Hall debut recital last year, he programmed, alongside Rachmaninov and Britten, a new work with electronics for which he had to hire a PA system: "That was a bit mad for the Wigmore Hall," he jokes. But this was where Jude Kelly, artistic director of Southbank Centre, noticed him and responded, he thinks, "to the plurality of it all". His residency at the centre has followed on from that.

More Harmonic Series concerts are to follow in February, March and April, featuring among other artists is harpist Serafina Steer, the Aldeburgh Young Musicians collective and film director Netia Jones; the final event is part of the annual cross-genre Ether festival and is to star an artist currently as mysterious as the space he'll perform in: "An amazing guy," according to Coates, "who's a singer-songwriter and whose work is very trendy at the moment. But I can't reveal who it is." To say "watch this space" has never seemed more appropriate.

Harmonic Series, Southbank Centre, London SE1 (0844 875 0073; www.southbankcentre.co.uk) 30 January

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off contestants line-up behind Sue and Mel in the Bake Off tent

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Mitch Winehouse is releasing a new album

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Beast would strip to his underpants and take to the stage with a slogan scrawled on his bare chest whilst fans shouted “you fat bastard” at him

music
Arts and Entertainment
On set of the Secret Cinema's Back to the Future event

film
Arts and Entertainment
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Public vote: Art Everywhere poster in a bus shelter featuring John Hoyland
art
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

    Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
    Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
    Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
    Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

    Feather dust-up

    A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
    5 best waterproof cameras

    Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

    Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
    Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

    Louis van Gaal interview

    Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
    Will Gore: The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series

    Will Gore: Outside Edge

    The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series
    The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

    The air strikes were tragically real

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns
    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

    Britain as others see us

    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
    How did our legends really begin?

    How did our legends really begin?

    Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
    Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz