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QUBIT: The Cello Meets Astrophysics – An Interview with Riccardo Pes

Love at First Listen

I first encountered Italian cellist-composer Riccardo Pes when searching for unaccompanied works for the cello in early 2020. It was love at first listen for me when I found his transcription of Bepi De Marzi’s “Signore delle Cime.”

With so many transcriptions available, I am thrilled to find beautifully idiomatic writing for the cello – so I wanted to learn more about Riccardo and his work. In visiting his website, I discovered that he had studied in London as I had – but our time there did not overlap. I found out that he composes as well as transcribes music, and his pieces reflect his interdisciplinary intellectual interests.

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Bepi De Marzi – Signore delle Cime (for cello solo)
Composed by Bepi De Marzi. Arranged by Riccardo Pes. 21st Century, Contemporary Classical, Modern, Christian, Sacred. 3 pages. Published by Riccardo Pes (S0.803137).

Riccardo responded immediately when I asked where I could obtain sheet music for his transcription of “Signore delle Cime” – and sent me a review copy. I have been following his work ever since, and he kindly granted the Cello Museum an interview about his album, QUBIT, which brings together astrophysics and the cello.

The following interview transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Meet Riccardo Pes – Cellist and Contemporary Composer

Riccardo Pes. Photo: Francesco Fratto

Riccardo Pes. Photo: Francesco Fratto

Cello Museum (CM)

It’s so lovely to meet you. I saw that you studied in England as I did, but you were in London, and I was in Oxford – and you’re much younger. So we didn’t overlap. How many years were you there?

Riccardo Pes (RP)

I moved to London in 2016, and I started at the Royal College of Music in November 2016. I graduated in 2018, and I’ve stayed in touch ever since.

I studied with Melissa Phelps – she studied with Jacqueline du Pré. She’s one of the biggest teachers in London – she’s an amazing cellist. She’s very nice, and she’s very tough as well. I mean, she’s very strong; the lessons were very intense but in a positive way.

I visited her a month ago, and she invited me to have a chat, and we still have a great relationship, even though I’m not a student anymore. I appreciate her a lot. I mean, she’s been very helpful with my career in general; she’s very supportive.

After my student days, I started to perform around London. Thanks also to the college (Royal College of Music) for promoting me as well. I played a solo at the Royal Albert Hall, St Martin-in-the-Fields, and the Royal Academy of Arts, where I did a contemporary performance related to architecture.

Riccardo Pes at the Royal Academy of Arts

There was an architectural exhibition with many architects showing the different models and ideas for new buildings. They asked me to compose a piece inspired by architecture, so I took different sounds from the Tube and combined them to create a sort of Tube soundtrack and played the cello.

Idiomatic Writing for the Cello

CM

I keep coming back to your idiomatic writing for the cello. I was just blown away by that first transcription of yours I heard, and I’ve enjoyed hearing more of your compositions. Your work truly makes the cello sing. Please tell us more about your composing.

RP

Thank you so much. It’s something to grab the essence of the instrument – find not only the voice but also to make it work. Probably, it comes also from my teacher, Giovanni Sollima.

The Influence of Giovanni Sollima

CM

Giovanni Sollima – I first learned of him and his work through ice cellos. I heard recordings of him playing ice cellos by Tim Linhart. I know that’s just one project that he’s done, but that’s when I first heard him perform. Please tell us more about his influence on you.

RP

I studied with many teachers, I have to say, but one of the two that had a significant influence on me is Giovanni Sollima. He is a cellist-composer, virtuoso. He is probably the most virtuosic cellist around at the moment. I mean, he does incredible things – he is capable of doing anything, and he’s an amazing composer as well.

And Giovanni Sollima’s father was a very important composer and was a significant figure in the Italian music world. He premiered many pieces in Italy and was a student of Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli. He taught his son a lot about composers.

So Giovanni Sollima combines contemporary styles like rock, New Age themes, a lot of music from the 90s (like grunge music) – and combines all these with proper classical music, very old school, with this very strong structure. He is very intuitive in his way of composing and playing as well. But everything is very rational and architectural and is very studied – he has a very skilled way of composing.

Writing Music That Feels Good to Play

And I was very impressed by him and his freedom, and the way he also can make very different kinds of genres in the same piece. For example, in 1999, he wrote the piece “Alone,” probably the most famous piece he wrote for cello solo. It looks very interesting even from the title – I mean, it’s simple but very effective.

He found very different sounds on the cello that were never done before and different techniques – very virtuosic. But at the same time, you can approach this quite easily as it’s still very cellistic.

This definitely affects my composing on the cello. Also, his relationship with the cello. I mean, the cello is not an instrument – he is not playing an instrument: the cello is part of him. He talks through the cello; it is part of his world, part of himself, and part of his body.

Riccardo Pes

I feel the same. Sometimes I struggle because it’s like having a relationship. But at the same time, I love the physical aspect of playing the instrument. I like to feel good on the cello and be comfortable, challenging me as well. I mean, I also want to push myself when I compose, so I’m not very friendly with myself as well. But I like to feel good and find a way to make this sound easy for the cello to create.

So you know, there’s always this kind of struggle, to take your musical idea and make it work on your instrument. This is part of the composer’s job, and also being an instrumentalist is very helpful.

Problems of Separating the Study of Composition and Performance

Another thing I love about Giovanni also is that he is both a cellist and a composer. Before I studied with him, I grew up in an academic world where the composer and the musician were very separate. I don’t know about your experience, but if you wanted to be a composer, you had to be only a composer. If you wanted to be a musician, you had to be only a musician. And this is not good for either.

When I started to go to study composition in the conservatory, my teachers didn’t want me to be a cellist. They didn’t want me to keep performing – to be an interpreter of the music, which I think is still composing. When you find your own voice in Bach, it’s composing for me. And so they wanted to get me away from the cello, and this was really unbalanced for me.

It was the same when I was studying the cello. They wanted me not to be a composer. I mean, if you’re going to compose, you’re not considered to be serious on the cello. It’s not good.

If you think about Boccherini, Piatti, Grützmacher, or other cellists – or, for example, I recently discovered Cedric Sharpe, do you know his music? Wow! All these guys were really skilled composers and skilled musicians. Vivaldi, for example, was a skilled musician – and Baroque music is not easy, so he had to study counterpoint very seriously, and he was very good at counterpoint. Even if he didn’t use it in his music, he could do fugues and very difficult stuff.

So how come we ended up separating these two things? It’s not possible. We can’t.

Innovative Interdisciplinary Composer and Cellist

Riccardo Pes

CM

I first encountered your work through a transcription, and I was struck by your very idiomatic writing for the cello. At that time, I didn’t know you were also a composer. When I looked you up, I discovered that you’re not only the cellist who transcribes works, but you’re also a composer, and you collaborate with all kinds of artists and scientists, including physicists and astrophysicists. How did you get interested in this kind of interdisciplinary work?

RP

Well, I’ve always been interested in looking around at what’s going on in different art forms, and I also studied at a high school with a very scientific approach. And so I studied a lot of science when I was in high school, and I got very interested in physics. When I graduated from high school, I was unsure if I would continue to study physics, in particular, or be a cellist.

Of course, I was really into music, and I was really passionate about the cello. I mean, the cello really captured me.

My mom, she’s a pianist, and I can also play a little bit of electric guitar. So I experienced many different instruments, but the cello – oh, my. That was my main inspiration, especially because I met a great teacher. Unfortunately, she died in 2003, but I had the chance to play with her in a few concerts. The way she played the cello – she was very intense, very fiery as well. And I thought, “Oh my God, this is for me. I mean, this is the right instrument for me.”

So the passion was there, and I simply continued to study and practice. I went through many different academies and schools. But at the same time, I always wanted to read, to explore more physics and other sciences. And so that’s how I ended up composing music inspired by physics.

I also had the chance to participate in the AHA! Festival in Gothenburg in 2016, which is a festival for scientists and artists. I collaborated with many different scientists, physicists, doctors, poets, electronic artists, architects, and others from many different fields.

We worked together for three days, improvising, composing new music, and giving performances at the University of Gothenburg. This was like an open experiment, a sort of platform, and I enjoyed that so much. Having all these different fields, communicating and sharing experiences, really sparked something in my compositions. So this was inspiring for me.

So I have a scientific background, but also I had the chance to combine different multi-art experiences throughout my career.

QUBIT – Taking the Listener on a Journey

CM

Please tell us about the album that you released in 2021.

RP

Yes, this is the album: QUBIT.

QUBIT by Riccardo Pes

The album is inspired by physics and astrophysics, and the title, “QUBIT,” comes from quantum bits. The quantum is a smaller particle than an atom and will be the basis for future quantum computers.

So it’s like a discovery of the universe starting from atoms: the beginning of the universe, how we know it, and traveling through the cosmic silences, is used to study the smallest particles – subatomic particles, and going through the sounds of different planets recorded by NASA. So I used the sounds recorded by NASA, and I composed a piece inspired by these sounds for cello solo.

Also, I wrote a piece inspired by the moon, of course. I had to write something for the moon. All the major composers wrote something about the moon, so I had to do something myself.

The Voyager Golden Record

The Voyager Golden Record: The Sounds of Earth. Image: NASA, public domain.

The last track is called “Voyager,” and it’s about the Voyager space probes sent by NASA in 1977. They are still out there, and still communicating, and still sending data. On each of the two Voyager probes, there is a huge (12-inch) Golden Record with 90 minutes of music (as well as sounds of Earth and greetings in 55 languages).

Cover of The Voyager Golden Record

The Cover of the Voyager Golden Record. Image: NASA, public domain.

Included are many different kinds of music. For example, there is the first movement of the Fifth Symphony by Beethoven recorded by the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Otto Klemperer; “Johnny B. Goode,” written and performed by Chuck Berry; and also the String Quartet No. 13 in B-flat, Op. 130, Cavatina, performed by Budapest String Quartet. (You can hear most of the tracks on this playlist.)

And I did my own version of the Cavatina. I took down small bits and pieces of the Cavatina, and I tried to recreate how I imagine this space probe traveling through space. I used the Beethoven to create a sort of atmosphere and drive the listener into an outer space experience. This was my main goal.

And well, the album is inspired by physics. So there are some physics concepts you need, for example, dark matter or the Higgs boson.

Taking Listeners to Different Sound Worlds

So there are very specific things, but you don’t need to be a physicist to understand the music. I mean, this music is very comprehensible. It’s just the atmosphere – I wanted to give you the atmosphere and simulate something like new languages. So I tried to bring listeners to different worlds – to different sound worlds – that was my main concern.

One of the biggest inspirations of this album is this: The Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd. Of course!

I recently bought the vinyl because I only had the CD, and I decided to buy the vinyl. This is one of the biggest inspirations for my music in general. Pink Floyd is, for me, one of the biggest influences, apart from the classical composers. They have a huge part in my creation.

CM

Let’s talk about specific works on your album. Please pick one (or more) of the tracks and tell us more about your process or creating it (or them).

RP

The Resonance (Track 5)

One of the tracks is “The Resonance.” Resonance in physics is when you have two bodies that can vibrate at the same frequency and one of the two starts to vibrate. It affects the other because they have the same frequency.

Also, it’s the kind of human relationship. When we like to talk with someone, for example, it’s a kind of resonance. So it’s not only physics, but it’s also something that we experience every day.

So I started to think. On the cello, when you play, for example, a D on the first string, automatically it makes the second string, the D, vibrate, too.

And so from this, I started to create this piece, trying to find notes that can affect other notes, and I also used the loop station to create and develop this sound world.

Planets (Track 8)

Another track, the “Planets,” is inspired by the sounds recorded by NASA. They have this kind of plasma antenna that can detect different frequencies in space. And so they recorded the frequencies of Saturn, for example, or Mars, and they had different sounds.

You can’t hear in outer space, but thanks to this particular antenna, you can detect the vibration and the frequencies they send in outer space.

Inspired by this sound, I said to myself, “Well, how can I replicate the sound on the cello but also make music of it – and not just the sounds of the planet but also giving it a shape, giving it musical sense, giving it a structure?”

This was really inspiring to find different sounds on the cello, using different techniques to replicate that sound, but starting from there to create a proper piece of music.

Atomos (Track 1)

The last example, “Atomos,” the first track, starts with a huge explosion like the Big Bang.

And I use the notes like small particles. So you start with some pizzicato, so you have these little notes, and other notes arrive, and all these little particles start to create harmonies. Harmonies are like atoms. So it’s the universe combining the mass and starting to become alive.

And these are some of the ideas behind my new compositions and the way I compose. So the process was very funny, very easy, very playful, and serious at the same time because I wanted to create something that could be a proper piece of music.

CM

Your work makes me think of the new images coming from Mars. Do you plan to continue your work to cover the Mars project?

RP

I really would love to. When I work with a physicist to understand more about physics, I think the more you study the smaller particles, the more you understand about the universe.

Also, there is the exploration of the universe through space travel, which will probably become more accessible than we think, thanks to the owner of Tesla, Elon Musk.

It took a couple of years to compose and record the music on the current album. Also, I recorded it in a particular way. I wanted to use some very old analog gear to create a sound like the 70s – like in The Dark Side of the Moon.

I also studied the physical spectrum of the sound of the dark side of the moon. So I tried to recreate these same frequencies, the same shape of the sound – trying to catch the tone.

And so I worked for a couple of years, and when I was about to release the record, I thought about Mars and probably adding something inspired by it. So I think, for now, we still need to discover something more. But it’s definitely something that grabbed my attention. And I would love to continue to do a second chapter of this album in the future. Absolutely – I want to continue this.

Finding Strength in the Face of the Pandemic

CM

Did the pandemic affect your album or your work in general?

RP

Definitely, yes. It certainly gave me more time to work, and I’ve become more skilled in recording. I asked myself how I wanted the record to sound. And so yes, I think it gave me lots of time to think and to explore the way I wanted to have my record done.

And by the way, I don’t want to exaggerate, but I was the first in the world to organize an online festival. In Italy, we were probably the first hit by the pandemic, so I really wanted to do something. And so, I just decided not to be touched by the pandemic.

It affected me because it made me react in a way to bring out the best in me. It gave me more time to think and probably gave me the confidence to trust my own voice and to bring out something that I really care about. And I really think “This is me,” and represents me and the way I feel. Probably in this sense, it affected my work.

Creating the First Online Music Festival: #andràtuttobene

#andratuttobene

CM

Please tell us more about the online festival you created during the pandemic – the first of its kind.

RP

The festival is called #andràtuttobene, translated “everything is going to be alright.” And the idea was to bring home some classical music, well, some music in general – 10 minutes a day of someone performing around the world from home. It was a live experience, so there were no pre-recorded performances.

I didn’t like the pre-recorded videos in the festival that happened later because I was concerned about how they came across on the internet. When you pre-record, you miss the adrenaline. You miss even the virtual contact with your audience – you’re not there, you’re not performing at that moment.

Even if you are far away, physically speaking, thanks to the resonance, you can experience what the people are living with your music, even if you’re not in the same room. A physicist would tell you that there will be no difference between having an audience in your room or having an audience from another part of the world watching your video.

Ricardo Pes #andratuttobene

You can really sense, physically speaking, the frequencies and the energy that can go through them – through their mass. It couldn’t have any difference, but I mean this because we are talking about physics and music, of course.

Of course, it’s not the same thing as when you have someone in the same room. And when you’re in a concert hall, of course, you can sense the audience differently. But because of the shared moment, I think the live experience still was felt more than in the pre-recorded videos. So this was the main thing – keeping that kind of experience alive, the adrenaline, and going onto the stage.

I mean, you are in your home. You are performing from your living room, and I know this is probably not the best place – it’s not the best way to shoot a video. But still, it’s live and shows your personality and what’s behind your music. And I thought that was very interesting.

Apart from that, the festival had a huge success in Italy, because it was the first, and it was live. This sense of a shared experience was what grabbed the audience’s attention – they were listening to someone playing live, at that very moment.

The artists who performed were all super good, experienced, and well-established musicians. We all shared the music with the audience, and we had an incredible number of views. It was every day for ten minutes, and we played 40 concerts. And we inspired different festivals.

Messaggero Veneto #andratuttobene newspaper

Riccardo Pes and the Festival #andràtuttobene in the newspaper, Messaggero Veneto, 12 April 2020.

I wasn’t alone. Three other people were helping me. It was my idea I was pushing a lot, but I got a journalist to help me with the press releases, I got a musicologist to help me by doing some introductions at each concert, and there was also the pianist I play with usually, Yuki Negishi – she helped all the artists understand how to set set up a Facebook Live or Instagram Live because nobody knew at that time how to do a live recording while doing a live transmission.

This festival was a message of hope and a message to push everyone to find some comfort in a very difficult moment. And the festival was not only for Italy; we had a lot of people listening from all over the world. We got views from India, from Nepal, and it was really a global experience. And it was the first one – it was so exciting.

Ways of Listening

CM

Is there anything that you wish that I had asked?

RP

Why a CD now? Maybe we can say why initially I didn’t put my CD on social platforms – you couldn’t find it on Spotify, you couldn’t find it on Apple Music, which is a shame in a way.

At the same time, I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to get the listener into the journey of this album. I mean, from the first track to the last, there is a journey, starting from the creation of the universe – my view, my musical thinking of the creation of the universe through the different aspects of physics, and ending with space travels. And you need to go through all these passages because there is a meaning. When you are online, you can skip, I mean, you still can skip if you use a CD, of course, but the experience you get from a CD and vinyl is completely different for me.

So I would like to push the listener a bit to get into my music following this line that connects all the tracks together. That’s why initially, I didn’t put it on online platforms. You can find the hard copy of it for my website, and also there is a possibility to download the tracks.

CM

I grew up with vinyl, and I know what you mean. It’s a continuity that I feel many people miss today with the way digital listening platforms work. They are geared more to making playlists than listening to an album sequentially, track by track.

Your desire to sell your album as a CD for the journey it creates, from one track to the next, from the creation of the universe to space exploration, lends itself to older technology such as CDs, vinyl LPs, cassettes tapes – or even reel-to-reel.

Your sequential approach to your album is also comparable to literature. If you’re reading a novel, you’re not going just to pull one chapter to read from one novel and then a chapter from another novel, and then perhaps a chapter from the first novel from a different part of the book. But that’s what many online platforms do in creating playlists.

I like your aim of taking your listeners on an audio journey through space in your album.

RP

It’s important to find time to listen properly. For example, I listen when I drive and with my headphones when I’m on the Tube. And so I think 80% of my listening is this way, but I would love for myself to find time for proper listening time with proper speakers. I mean, even if I’m doing something else while I’m listening, having this kind of experience, not skipping around.

Sometimes you need to define some focus, calm, and time to experience something new.

Upcoming Projects

CM

Please tell us about your upcoming projects.

RP

The next project is my string orchestra – I founded an orchestra. I am the artistic director of the orchestra. We are going to have a full concert and a little tour. I’m very proud of them. They are a very nice group of people and very skilled musicians.

I’m looking forward to playing together. It’s a very fresh project. I love the string orchestra – how the sound blends together.

I’m represented by a new agency, C Major Management, and we are going to have more projects. For example, I’m going to work with an American pianist from New York – Tian Jiang. We’re going to play some duo concerts in 2022-2023. The same agency represents him.

Also, I’ve got my festival coming up – a multi-art festival inspired by sustainability and diversity. And it’s going to happen in June and September 2022.

And I have a project about the cello solo sonata by Prokofiev. I’m doing some research about that. I’ve been put in contact with Professor Elizabeth Wilson. So hopefully, she is going to help me, too, because it’s a controversial piece.

Vladimir Blok completed it, but we don’t really know what happened with this piece. I’m very, very curious. So I’ll let you know when – if – I find anything interesting about this piece. Also, it’s quite unusual for Prokofiev to write a solo cello piece. So I’m probably going to make a video with interviews and create some content to share with cellists.

Note: Between the time this interview was recorded and published, Riccardo Pes received support for his work on the Prokofiev solo cello sonata from the Oleg Prokofiev Trust.

Riccardo Pes in BW

How to Follow and Support Riccardo Pes

Order QUBIT here.



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