“It’s a great luxury and, to be honest, very addictive.”
WORDS BY EMMA SCHMIEDECKE | NOTTINGHAM | PERFORMING ARTS
JUN 12, 2023 | ISSUE 11
Sheku Kanneh-Mason by Ella Mazur
When a new voice hits the scene that brings exciting perspectives to the often-uniform set-up of classical music, people begin to take notice. That is emphatically the case with string star Sheku Kanneh-Mason, whose first-place win at the 2016 BBC Young Musician competition launched him into a high-profile career that’s since cascaded into an international touring, recording, and teaching career. Likewise impressive is how Kanneh-Mason has evaded the pretentiousness that is often inaccurately attributed to classical musicians. He is intensely in love with the music, an affair that supersedes the pomp and ceremony that accompanies life as a celebrity soloist.
It is this devotion to music, and its tremendous variety, that animates his latest album, Song. This deeply personal album combines classical favourites with folk and jazz tunes, and platters collaborations with friends and colleagues such as jazz pianist Harry Baker, singer-songwriter Zak Abel, and soprano Pumeza Matshikiza. Genres of music other than classical have had a profound effect on his ear; with his mother’s Welsh heritage, he has an intimate knowledge of the folk music of the British Isles as well as that of African songs and styles. The album is a busy dialogue between classical cello repertoire and sound worlds that are not usually heard alongside the classical tradition, the result of which is a fresh compilation of excerpts and interpretations that push the boundaries of his robust instrument.
Outside of the recording studio, Kanneh-Mason is inspired by a mission to teach the next generation of cellists to be better performers. Part of this mission is to help his students develop good technique and musicality, and to help them mine their own creative sensibilities while also encouraging them towards playing the music they feel most drawn to, whether it be classical, folk, jazz, popular, or the increasingly popular melanges of these genres. The technical exercise of performance is only the starting point for Kanneh-Mason. The goal in performance is a human experience that connects us all─something that the world is in desperate need of currently. What stories do we have in common and how can we participate in appreciating them together? These are the questions that Kanneh-Mason’s performance philosophy implicitly answers. It is a luxury of life that we all should be able to participate in. In conversation with smART Magazine, he reflects on the space in his mind and heart for all that music has to offer, and how the modern soloist can invite everyone into this space.
sM | Your musical sensibilities seem deeply informed by traditional folk songs. What was your exposure to it growing up? SKM ── My mom’s side of the family is Welsh and that’s where I was exposed to Welsh traditional music, so that’s very important to me. But I’ve always just been interested in discovering music that I don’t know. That led to me listening to a wide range of things. I think there’s something very direct about folk music and more traditional music. There’s nothing artificial or imposed on it that takes away from this direct conversation between you and the music. I think the cello is an instrument that is very vocal and sounds very personal, and so lends itself very well to this kind of music, even though it’s not an instrument that’s traditionally used in a lot of these styles. I will always be interested in lots of different styles and exploring them, and will continue to do that. Of course, my focus on classical music is gonna take up a lot of time and a lot of focus. That’s what I love as well. But there’s space in my mind and in my heart to do lots of other things.
sM | Song is a curated experience that does without the centrepiece of a concerto and freely meanders through various excerpts, folk songs, and preludes. What sort of emphasis do you place on recordings that reflect the artist’s diverse taste, rather than placing a prominent emphasis on a singular work? SKM ── I think it’s difficult because, in the classical music repertoire, the pieces are of a longer length. On an album, generally you can’t fit many different pieces, so the variety is reduced. Of course, there’s variety within each big work. I suppose it means that to get a sense of the artist is not possible with just one album, but usually a collection of albums over their career. That’s how I want my recordings to look when I look back on what I’ve done. Song was an opportunity to show, within one album, more of who I am, what I’ve been interested in up until that point, what I’m interested in at the moment, and what I want to continue to explore in the future. It’s sort of a portrait of me at the moment, which was really nice to put together. But I will continue to record sonatas and concertos in a more traditional, classical way, as well as all of the other things I like.
sM | As a visiting professor at London’s Royal Academy of Music, along with your educational workshops at the Philharmonia Orchestra, what are some of your priorities when you’re teaching students how to be better performers? SKM ── I think teaching is a really, really difficult thing. There’s a massive skill in being able to communicate the ideas, because I have lots of ideas and feelings about the music that I play. But it’s a big challenge to explain them to someone else, and to communicate that, and to teach that to an individual who has some naturally different feelings towards the music. You can’t have a formula for how things are gonna work.
For me, my priorities are mostly about working in as much detail and depth as possible in terms of the understanding of the music. It sounds sort of counterintuitive. More understanding and knowledge sounds like something not very freeing. But the more knowledge you have, the more you can command what you want to do, and that results in more freedom. So you have to go through that process of really studying in detail. That can feel restricting at first, potentially, but it’s incredibly enlightening on the other side. So that’s my main focus, and for the students to be as aware, open, and interested in what they do as possible. I think that’s the key thing that I’ve tried to get across.
sM | What matters the most to you now about the experience you have on stage? And away from the stage? SKM ── What I love most is where I can relate how we are as humans to performance, and I think the best way to relate it is to see performance as a communication of ideas and of feelings. The more direct communication that is between you and the audience, the better. And that directness comes from, firstly, your understanding of the story and the feelings of the music. Otherwise, the message that you’re communicating is confusing. Then, it’s having the tools and the ability and the, let’s say, “charisma” for the audience to feel that they are invited in and that you’re communicating to them. I love that feeling when you really feel that you are telling an intimate story to a group or to a few thousand people, and there’s this collective moment where live performance is very special. That’s what I want to always have in my life. It’s a great luxury and, to be honest, very addictive. I think I’ll continue to do it for a long time.