Evelyn Nallen in search of a new sound for recorder orchestras
By Tamara Novis
Once a fortnight in a dark, cold church, in the west of Cambridge, they all gather – a midwife, a weaver, a professor of Education, a journalist, a radiographer, an accountant, and a former telephone-holes designer, a Director of Music at a Cambridge College, a Doctor of Divinity, a Neuropathologist, a music graduate, two teachers and a chief executive of a software company. It’s only them and their secret weapon- their recorders.
This new recorder band based in Cambridge, named Zero Gravity, aims to find its own distinct sound, and is preparing for a concert on June 24th.
“I want to do what Glenn Miller did with the Big Band”, says Evelyn Nallen, founder and conductor of the band. “I wish to find a way of tempering the recorder voices we have and of producing a distinctive sound that people would like to hear. In my head I’ve got the model of a barbershop choir or maybe Cambridge’s King’s College Choir. You hear it and you know exactly what you’re hearing”.
Although the band began rehearsing in this church at the end of last year, Zero Gravity is actually a re-creation of a performance group with the same name. It got its start during the 2006 Cambridge Music Festival, when Nallen was asked to put together a recorder group to play a piece for eight recorders, especially composed by David Gordon, her co-member in the musical group Respectable Groove. The Festival’s theme was “Maths and Music” and Respectable Groove’s concert, titled “The Alchemist and the Cat-flap”, was based on the life of Sir Isaac Newton. One section used every recorder from the garklein down to the contra bass recorder, demonstrating that if you double the length of a pipe, it goes down an octave. Inspired by the Cambridge-based physicist, the scratch recorder group was named Zero Gravity.
Today’s Zero Gravity features some of the original players, and some new ones, amongst them professional musicians and some whom Nallen refers to as “professional amateurs”.
She refuses to call this a recorder orchestra. “There are already about fifteen orchestras around the country, some of which I’ve conducted. The thing is that it’s difficult getting an audience for these recorder orchestras. They often take classical pieces for example and arrange them for recorders. This isn’t what the average man on the street would want to listen to. He would rather hear a ‘real’ orchestra playing the original piece, and I don’t blame him. To attract an audience, I’m looking to create a distinct sound.”
Inspired by Ensemble Dreiklang Berlin and the jazz sextet Take 6, she says, “What I would love to do with Zero Gravity is to form a group that produces a sound anybody might like. The sound has to be different, and there must be a special repertoire”.
In pursuit of that special sound, Zero Gravity has been focusing on two periods: Firstly, baroque – the reconstruction of the first ballet performed in 1717 and entitled The Loves of Mars & Venus, performed with harpsichord and baroque harp. This will blend with contemporary music in the inaugural concert, which will be in collaboration with the David Gordon Jazz Trio. The programme will include Take 6’s I’m On My Way arranged for the group by David Gordon, Music for a Found Harmonium by Simon Jeffes of the Penguin Cafe Orchestra arranged for them by James Welland, a St. John’s College Masters student and The Queen’s Farewell Stomp by David Gordon.
As a recorder teacher of all ages, neither talent nor willingness to practice is what Nallen initially looks for in young students. Rather, she believes that “the most important thing is that the student be bright. You need intelligence to understand the musical tasks. Then you need to practice. There is something called talent and there is flare, but it is not uncommon to find someone who is musical but not musically intelligent and this something that is quite hard to teach”.
When working with a group of adults such as Zero Gravity, she has some different techniques. “They’re giving up free time, and sometimes money too. The reasons for joining a musical group are as many as the number of people in it”. She will therefore not send them home to practice some more. Instead, she would “like people to know that they are unable to play bar 11, and I hope that’s enough to make them practise it”.
When asked which recordings she would take with her to a desert island, she is dazed by the thought of having to choose from her immense music collection. She finally picks out some of her all time favorites: Bach’s St Matthew Passion, an Ella Fitzgerald album and Janáček’s Sinfonietta. “But it will be a different story tomorrow; I’ll come up with three different ones!” she says. Who knows, maybe one day, a Zero Gravity album will be in that list as well.