Percussive Notes Interview, March 2010

Here is a post of my first interview for the Percussive Notes journal. Thanks to Tracy Wiggins for putting the piece together!

An Interview with Colin Currie

1st March 2010
Colin Currie
Percussive Notes

By Tracy Wiggins

Colin Currie was born in 1976 and took up the piano and percussion at an early age. In 1990 he began his studies at the Junior Department of the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. In 1992 he won the Gold Medal of the Shell/LSO Music Scholarship, performing Panufnik’s concerto in the finale with the London Symphony Orchestra. In 1994 he was the first percussion finalist in the BBC Young Musician of the Year Competition, at which he gave the first performance of Errollyn Wallen’s “Concerto for Percussion.” In the same year he began his studies at the Royal Academy of Music.

He has appeared as a soloist with major orchestras throughout the world, and has had a number of works written specially for him, including the concerto by Michael Torke, the first performance of which he gave in 2001.

I first heard of Colin several years ago when he won the Shell/LSO competition in London. Since then he has gone on to a major career as a solo percussionist, performing in many of the great halls around the world. When I heard that he was coming to North Carolina to perform I contacted him about visiting my school. In the course of conversations over the summer while planning his master class, I started to inquire about his life and career.

Wiggins: What influenced you to start playing percussion?

Currie: Hard to pinpoint, but I have tapped and drummed from a very early age. I think I had an innate response to rhythm in music, and at first wanted to play the drums more than anything. I saw Buddy Rich live on his last European tour before he died, and I still remember how insanely exciting that was.

Wiggins: Tell us about your early percussion or musical studies.

Currie: At age six I took up drum lessons—first with just a snare, then gradually along came a hi-hat, a cymbal or two, then my first drumkit. Aged 12 or so I got itchy for orchestral instruments, and I became interested in tuned instruments. From the local music library I learned some pieces to take an audition for the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama Junior School in Glasgow. I was successful there, and was then blessed with the single most important and enduring piece of good fortune in my musical life, namely meeting, then working with, Pamella Dow [percussion] and Sheila Desson [piano]. I cannot overstate what these two astonishing teachers did for me. Within two years I was in London participating in the Shell/LSO music scholarship and won the gold medal, aged 15. There I met members of the LSO who also took me under their wing, especially Neil Percy, who is now my colleague at the Royal Academy of Music in London, where I am Visiting Professor in Solo Percussion.

Wiggins: Who are some of the biggest influences on your musical career?

Currie: My parents and teachers. I have been very fortunate in both areas, and can’t imagine having achieved anything without their support.

Wiggins: What qualities do you look for in a great teacher?

Currie: To allow students to flourish in their own way and not to impose too strongly on their development. To give them encouragement and patience.

Wiggins: As a young percussionist, what were your biggest challenges while developing as a player, and what did you do to help overcome these?

Currie: I found the snare drum very difficult. I changed from traditional grip to matched grip at age 17, and it took a while to catch up to where I should have been, technically. Also, I hate the xylophone, which I also find difficult now having played so much marimba. I just played a big Messiaen piece on the xylophone, so that was actually very good for me. In the end, practice is the only key for solving technical issues. Musical inspiration can come from many places.

Wiggins: What are some of your favorite pieces to perform?

Currie: Joe Duddell’s concerto “Ruby,” written for me in 2003, the Higdon concerto, and anything by Dave Maric.

Wiggins: Jennifer Higdon’s “Percussion Concerto” recently won a Grammy, and you played the solo part on the recording. How did you become involved with this work?

Currie: The work was commissioned for me to premiere with three American orchestras: Philadelphia, Indianapolis, and Dallas. I’d come to know Jennifer’s work through her publisher and agent and took an instant liking to it, so we pursued the commission. She had the strong link to the Philadelphia Orchestra, and I was able to bring Indianapolis and Dallas to the table with my connection to those orchestras. A consortium of groups is always best—more performances and a shared bill!

Wiggins: Were you very involved in the design and scoring of the solo percussion part?

Currie: Not this time, but I frequently am with premieres. It just depends on the composer in question; some need to be held by the hand through the whole process and others, like Jennifer, go away and then send the finished product as if “out of the blue.” Both approaches can work; normal is to be somewhere in the middle of these extremes.

Wiggins: What do you remember in particular about recording this with Marin Alsop and the London Philharmonic Orchestra?

Currie: It was very exciting, as it was made from a live performance. I felt confident, as we had also recorded the morning dress rehearsal, and I had “covered” all my tricky corners. But in the end, the evening concert just took off, and I think we got something very real and very lively for posterity. We only used two edits, I believe, to correct minor ensemble issues.

Wiggins: How many performances of the concerto do you think you have done now?

Currie: Nearly fifty. The work has proved to be incredibly popular, and rightly so. There are at least a dozen more currently planned, and it crops up all over the place. I recently gave the Asian premiere in Seoul.

Wiggins: What is the rehearsal experience like when trying to prepare this piece, or any concerto, for a performance with a new orchestra each time? Do you find any common difficulties that arise consistently?

Currie: It is a question of ensemble and balance by the time I come to rehearse with the orchestra. These challenges also include deciphering a venue’s acoustics, something I have come to be more and more considerate of, I hope, as time goes by. Each orchestra is different, and that lends a real joy to the rehearsals. The end result is truly up for grabs; the more detail we put into the rehearsal, the more the audience will hear and react.

Wiggins: You told me you were preparing “Kontakte” for the BBC Proms. How did this come about? Have you found it any more challenging to get audiences or concert groups to program more challenging works like this?

Currie: This was a direct invitation from the BBC. I will be playing the work as part of a Stockhausen tribute on August 2. Since his death in December 2007, I have been asked to play the work several times. We are finding that there is quite a core interest in this composer, and I’m putting together a concert program now, along with British pianist Nicolas Hodges, of Xenakis, Birtwistle, and Stockhausen. Any takers?

Wiggins: What elements do you look for in a composition as you are deciding whether or not to perform it?

Currie: Musical clarity and conviction, regardless of style. I am open to a range of music, but practicalities are also very important in percussion scores. I will not consider any score, even if musically strong, if it will not allow me to make an acceptable quality of sound. Of course, I often work in conjunction with composers, and initial technical grievances can be ironed out. I do not consider myself closed to huge technical demands if I have enough time to work on the new piece. Simon Holt’s recent percussion concerto, “a table of noises,” is a case in point.

Wiggins: Have you found any challenges in getting composers interested in writing for percussion?

Currie: I have not always had immediate positive responses from certain composers I have approached for concertos and solo works. This is not always anti-percussion however; some shy away from solo works in general, and others don’t have time. In general, the response has been very good.

Wiggins: What is your process for learning a new piece?

Currie: Identifying the truly troublesome spots and practicing them intensely. I have so very little time now for practice that I have to be savagely economical with my time. I seldom “run” things until very close to the concert. I much prefer to work on detail. Musical and interpretive ideas are often best worked at away from the instruments. This side of things does not need a huge amount of actual practice time.

Wiggins: What is your typical practice routine like?

Currie: I was very pleased to recently find out that my routine is somewhat like Stravinsky’s— my hero in music! In the morning I work on learning new pieces, while in the afternoon I revise repertoire for upcoming events. Igor would compose in the morning and orchestrate in the afternoon, so there is a similarity, I like to think. I’m always working by 9:00, and try to finish by 5:00. I take an hour off for lunch, and then have a nap if necessary, though there has not been much time for that recently!

Wiggins: What have been some of your biggest moments as a musician that have left a lasting impression on you?

Currie: The two competitions that aided me as a teenager: The Shell LSO Music Scholarship in 1992 and the BBC Young Musician of the Year in 1994. The various premieres over the years, Joe Duddell’s “Ruby” at the BBC proms in 2003, the Higdon and Steve Mackey premieres in 2005, and recently the Simon Holt concerto. Also, it has been a great pleasure to play in some spectacular halls. I adore the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam and Carnegie Hall in New York; they both stand alone.

Wiggins: What have been some of the major challenges you have found with having a solo percussion career?

Currie: One challenge in constantly having to adjust to different equipment—especially marimbas. At first I found this incredibly tricky, but it has become easier over the years. Then, in general, getting access to gear on the road can be tough as well as getting rehearsal space.

Wiggins: What advice would you give students hoping to start a solo career in percussion?

Currie: No long-term goals! That is easily my first piece of advice. This business is so unforgiving that it would be foolish for anyone to proclaim themselves on some kind of inexorable path to becoming a soloist. My advice is truly to work on each concert as hard as you possibly can and see where that will take you. If you play well, it is likely someone who can help you will be there to listen one day. So I stress again: Work on a project-toproject basis, and make sure you sound great for everything you do.

Wiggins: What do you consider to be some of the most significant recent developments in percussion?

Currie: Generally, the astonishing proliferation of the art form and the wonderful standard which now exists in the colleges and conservatoires world-wide. There have also been some great additions to the repertoire, but work, and support, is still desperately needed in this area.

Wiggins: Where do you see the development of percussion going in the next five to ten years in terms of both instruments and repertoire?

Currie: On a technical level we have reached a plateau, so it now needs creative intelligence more than ever to push the envelope. Collaboration will be key.

Wiggins: What is your personal approach to teaching students who want to have careers as percussionists?

Currie: I am at their service to help them as best I can achieve their goals.

Wiggins: What is the most common area in need of growth you see in percussion students of today?

Currie: Diversification and open-mindedness. Too many students feel the pressure of
technical development and forget the magic of discovering new and surprising works of music. I encourage a holistic approach to music and all the arts. Even hard work and dedication are meaningless unless inspired by the art form itself.

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