An interview with 12 Ensemble
Oliver Condy talks to 12 Ensemble’s Eloisa-Fleur Thom and cellist Max Ruisi about the ensemble and its debut album Resurrection
Tell us about your album – why ‘Resurrection’?
The resurrection element is the idea of breathing new life into older works in this case, so we have Lutoslawski’s Musique funèbre as the centrepiece and Bryce Dessner’s response to it. He was incredibly moved to write something in response, although Dessner doesn’t take any of the same motifs or the same content but uses the musical atmosphere to create something of his own time – something more relevant and more modern.
And then we perform John Woolrich’s Ulysses Awakes, reusing an aria from the first act of Monteverdi’s opera Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria. He transcribes it quite literally but adds in harmonies and modifies the orchestration, which updates it. So Resurrection is about this long chain of inspiration passing from one generation to another.
You’ve been together as an ensemble for six years, so why the wait for your debut recording?
We set up 12 Ensemble less as an orchestra and more as a chamber group because we wanted to take the time to work as a small ensemble and refine our ideas so that when we did put something out we really believed in it.
It’s been quite a process making this album – our business model is pretty terrible because we work so slowly! But we wanted to be the antithesis of the general British orchestral approach of two rehearsals and then concert. A lot of orchestras have played the core repertoire so many times and so just brush it up, but most of us were all a bit jaded with that and wanted to connect more with the music.
We approach all of our repertoire as if it were chamber music, getting right underneath it; that’s why we end up with such committed performances: everyone knows every other part, and having no conductor is key to it.
So how do rehearsals work without a conductor? Don’t you end up killing each other?
We do try to be democratic! Everyone chips in, but it helps that we’ve known each other a long time. The rehearsal process is something we’ve refined over the years; it used to be all free love and everyone having their say all the time, but we’d cover just three bars in an hour.
So what we do now is work together a lot beforehand and find out the general direction of where we want to go. We have principal rehearsals too – we rehearsed Schubert’s Death and the Maiden [the orchestral arrangement by Mahler] as a quartet first to get the overall shape and what our general idea behind the piece is.
But then everyone chips in with different ideas and it works – we all respect each other’s playing and no one gets their back up.
What are your future plans?
We have many plans! Our main weakness is that we’re so ambitious… We certainly want to commission more music for the ensemble – we’ve just commissioned a new work from Oliver Leith, one of the Royal Philharmonic Society’s award-winning composers.
But basically we want to carry on playing core repertoire with more ambitious pieces mixed in. Most audiences in the UK are aged 40 or 50 plus and we just really believe that all of the music we play is digestible for any generation, and it’s sometimes just the way it’s presented that puts people off.
At one point, we started doing shorter, hour-long concerts when we had a residency at The Forge in Camden – which has now sadly shut. We managed to get our audience 80 per cent under 30 which was great, and it was all proper repertoire.
People claim audiences don't have long attention spans anymore, but we all happy to go the cinema for two hours and watch a film without talking or bringing in a drink.
The 12 Ensemble plays at St George’s, Bristol on Friday 28 September and at the Festival de Musica Visual Lanzarote on 13 October.
'Resurrection’, featuring music by Lutoslawski, Bryne Dessner, Kate Whitley and John Woolrich is out now on the Sancho Panza label.
Oliver Condy is the former Editor of BBC Music Magazine, a post he held for 17 years. His debut book, Symphonies of the Soul: Classical Music to Cure Any Ailment, will be released in November 2021 with Octopus Books. He is also a semi-professional organist, having previously given recitals in Bach’s churches across Germany.