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

Arts and Entertainment
Wonder.land Musical by Damon Albarn

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
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.

    Greece says 'No': A night of huge celebrations in Athens as voters decisively back Tsipras and his anti-austerity stance in historic referendum

    Greece referendum

    Greeks say 'No' to austerity and plunge Europe into crisis
    Ten years after the 7/7 terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?

    7/7 bombings anniversary

    Ten years after the terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?
    Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has created

    Versace haute couture review

    Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has ever created
    No hope and no jobs, so Gaza's young risk their lives, climb the fence and run for it

    No hope and no jobs in Gaza

    So the young risk their lives and run for it
    Fashion apps: Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers

    Fashion apps

    Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers
    The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

    Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

    Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
    Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

    'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

    Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
    Compton Cricket Club

    Compton Cricket Club

    Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
    London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

    Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

    'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

    It helps a winner keep on winning
    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate