cone magazine

Oliver Coates Upsteps the language of the Cello

Oliver Coates interview with Cone Magazine, Upstepping LP prah recordings

London based Oliver Coates speaks to CONE following the release of his highly-anticipated release Upstepping (PRAH recordings).


Upstepping LP, which hit the public consciousness on Friday 13th is the 2nd of Oliver Coates’ album releases, and is startlingly innovative. Avant-Garde electronica, phenomenally crafted from the solo cello.

“Why music?” is a question five fathoms deep” Oliver Coates ruminates “There’s a book called Music and the Ineffable: music begins at the place where language falters. Music and art is the place to express the numinous. Our sense of wonder.” These are some of the fascinating and charming soundbites being offered up from the multi-genre, multi-talented, cellist. Remarks of this calibre, are what you’d expect from some kind of scholarly man, philosophical erudite or Shakespearean fantasy in the least.

“Some people use music to accrue ego and identity while others dive in to dissolve their sense of self.”

Oliver Coates 

Nevertheless, those fine words were expressed by the pint sized cellist. The concert hall stalwart has travelled far and wide globally(China, Egypt, Brasil, Russia); taken centre stage and shared the spotlight with with esteemed orchestras. Collaborated and connected with the likes with Actress, Massive attack and MF DOOM, already few can tout such credentials. Coates has been known to perform in the most unlikely of spaces. “I remember (playing at) a YMCA on the side of a mountain in Kobe, Japan. I think I was 19. His performances are swathed with theatrics “I played Japanese folk melodies and Beethoven.”…“Playing cello in front of an audience, where people commit to listening to you is a privilege”

There’s a certain mish-mash malleability of genre’s and technique that has nurtured Coates and his artistic license; led him to explore the sonic capabilities of his instrument by looking outside the wooden box. His eclectic music taste was bound to play part in his musical progression I like music by Shackleton, Éliane Radigue, Feldman.” That and a certain dose of prodigal eccentricity has influenced his horizons “I’m interested in the spaces and deep empathies” of performance; crafting music that connects and communicates.

Oliver Coates by Gaelle Beri 2015-4

Oliver Coates has imbued his work with lofty ambitions. To make “pumped up body music”, out of a cello. There couldn’t be more of a contrast in a sentence if you tried, and yet Olly Coates manages this paradigm shift. Shifting, the sonic palette of the cello entirely. “In Upstepping, there’s a big expansion of the vocabulary. I’ve been making dance music since I was a teenager and now I’m putting it out.” “I got my connection with dance music from Warp Records in the 90s and also pirate radio in Wandsworth on a Sunday. I listen to electronic music constantly and always have done – like a catharsis” Influences from veteran dance heavy-weights like Orbital and Photex are distinctive. And in the rhythmic exploration there are elements of Four Tet production steeped in the dizzy mix of drum machine, cello harmonics, and percussion and kicks (listen to Perfect Love). “I’m responding to the history of drum machine sounds with an older instrument which emits complex frequencies from its wood and has an even more convoluted history.” There are always crossovers and Coates has massively honed in on this one.

Presented as a “mini” album; Upstepping is a muscular compilation of 8 intricately diverging tracks to capture and expand the boundaries of electronica. Coates recreates the intimate club sound, imagining “people standing, feeling free and experiencing more than cerebral music, something deep in their bodies.” As a work of deep minimalism, Upstepping’s disjunctive rhythms, percussive embellishments and rich cello melodies add more body and dimension to the sparse string textures. Crafting soundtracks that glisten with the heady euphoria of the club experience. Innocent Love explodes in with waves of vocal cello, balanced over a bass-fuelled groove, and continues to surge into an exquisitely energetic house rhythm. Moments of ecstasy driven, ecclesiastical strings, set the tone for what intends to be at times a pleasure inducing ride of dance and deep minimalism. Another high is found in Timelapse Walrus. A maximal experimental glitch/bleep house track with floor-filler tendencies, featuring ominous synthesizer walking melodies and a dub-y bom bassline. Teeming with Orbital-esque  and Fat Boy Slim familiarity.

Oliver Coates breaks genre boundaries with the traditionally “coiffured” cello instrument; its a “a big expansion” of the cello “vocabulary” in adding percussive, rhythmic and digital elements to the usual recipe of harmony and melody. “I play the cello, record it, and move it around until it sits in a new register.” Using various loop pedals and enhanced reverb, Coate’s and his Cyborg Cello are able to sonically shift its capacities. The cello is striked, its sound captured and reverberated, sometimes digitally remixed. Harmonics are recorded, augmented and transformed into samples. At times it is pretty much impossible to trace the distinctive timbreHis music has concentrated on melding genres, binding classicism with electronica. His most recent collaboration with Mica Levi for the soundtrack for Under the Skin display his finesse as an expressive accomplished performer. And all the while Coates speaks with eloquence on the inventive, intricate measures he’s taken to create new colours with the cello. “Dragging a pure harmonic downwards into a bass region brings a lot of high spectral frequencies into the mid-range – colours which were always latent in the sound become more audible” This is music to be felt, right at the core, and seen in vibrant hues. 

There is real sense that Coates is looking to excel himself past restrictions of virtuoso cello player. “I don’t always feel good about the word. Often it is proximity to privilege. There’s so much talent which is perceived as outside canonised Western culture which isn’t nurtured or encouraged”.  Following suit in the line of avant garde instrumentalist’s Arthur Russell, Coates seems more concerned at deconstructing the singular characterisation of cello as solely acoustic. Looking at the possibilities and boundaries the cello can skitter past. Electronic music is where he’s arrived.

Words by Leah Abraham


Features are free for all CONE Mag subscribers.
Sign up below