Saint Leonard’s Church is located in East London’s Shoreditch area. The 18th Century Palladian building imposes itself impressively on its surroundings, the spire piercing and dominating the immediate skyline. Since embarking on her solo career in 2010, Saint Leonard’s has become something of a spiritual home for London cellist and composer Jo Quail and her music. The cavernous space and the atmosphere of the venue have provided a perfect setting for Jo’s compositions, allowing them to breathe and develop in front of capacity audiences of attentive and enthralled spectators. In October 2011, Saint Leonard’s seemed to be the obvious choice of venue for Jo’s most ambitious presentation to date. A concert performance bringing together the music from her debut album From the Sea and the premier of The Pilbara, a piece of sound art commissioned by the cultural organization FORM, exploring the diverse landscape of the Pilbara region of Western Australia. The evening was an unqualified success and the entire concert was captured on film and was subsequently made available on the DVD From the Sea to the Desert. Away from her spiritual home Jo has performed extensively in the UK and has given recitals in Denmark, Sweden, Holland, Belgium, France and Germany. She has also played regularly in Australia and New Zealand and made visits to South Africa and Japan. Those that have witnessed one of Jo’s concerts will know that she is a musician with a formidable presence, engaging effortlessly with her listeners from behind her electric Starfish cello and exhibiting complete control over the looping and effects technology which is at her disposal. Her performances are poised. The manipulation of her foot pedals is almost balletic. Jo’s pieces often build from the simplest of figures into magnificently captivating soundscapes that never lose their sense of proportion or purpose. By using technology with intelligence and sensitivity the loops never dictate the music, Jo remains in control and it is often the case that her music uses irregular timings, and sections of her pieces do not feature looping at all but resonate freely without the constrictions of repetition and strict tempo. In the current climate of withering attention spans where style so often seems to overcome substance, Jo’s music follows its own singular path. This is courageous music, demanding the intense emotional investment of the listener. Each performance is a journey, an invitation to explore a musical landscape that Jo creates fearlessly from her interaction with the cello.
Jo’s musical education began at the age of five. She began her cello studies with Vicky Miller and also benefitted from Saturday morning sessions at the ILEA Centre for Young Musicians. In the Centre’s positive and creative environment Jo was encouraged to experiment with composition and to appreciate that there should be no limitations in her musical outlook. The CYM provided opportunities to study singing, individual instruments, and general musicianship, and brought Jo in to contact with a vast chamber ensemble repertoire and several orchestral works from an early age. The cello was an extremely popular instrument at the CYM, and to no doubt to accommodate the abundance of cellists much repertoire would be arranged for cello ensembles. This special and particular sound would go on to inform Jo’s writing in years to come. At the age of eleven Jo performed with the CYM at the Royal Albert Hall and went on tour to Sweden, and by the age of thirteen she had already reached grade eight in her cello and piano studies. Jo’s keyboard tuition from Simon Foxley was crucial in developing the concepts of harmony and balance in music, and subsequent application through studying the music of both classical and contemporary composers. Away from the classical repertoire Rock and Metal music were also playing a part in Jo’s development. Her love of this music became an integral influence and continues to be a notable aspect in her writing today.
By the age of fifteen, Jo had joined the London Schools’ Symphony Orchestra and was working with world renowned conductors including Sir Colin Davis and Meredith Davies. Her two year stint with the orchestra saw her performing regularly at the Barbican and the Queen Elizabeth Hall, tackling large scale repertoire including Mahler, Janáček and Tchaikovsky (Symphony No.6 in B minor, Op. 74, Pathétique emerging as a long term influence). Jo went on to take a BA performance degree course at the University of Leeds. Her studies also included composition the results of which were two string quartets; Moon in a Bottle and Until The Stones Melt. In her examination recital Jo found an immense inspiration in Peter Sculthorpe’s Threnody for Solo Cello, an emotionally charged piece written for one of the composer’s friends who had fallen victim to the AIDS virus. This reasonably obscure work provided Jo with a juxtaposition to the somewhat staid approach she had at times encountered in her degree, however despite the revelation of playing the Sculthorpe piece and seeing the possibilities that it held for her own music the overall effect of the course, combined with her personal psychological journey left Jo musically discouraged and led her to temporarily abandon the cello. Following her graduation in 1996 she would not play the instrument seriously again for another seven years.
During the following hiatus Jo worked away from music. At the turn of the decade she was recruited by a friend as a keyboard player and played regularly around her native South London. By 2002 Jo was becoming serious about music again and joined the band Earth Loop Recall, again as a keyboard player. It was another year before circumstances reunited her with the cello; a flashpoint lead Jo to an intense rediscovery of the instrument and with a connection to her cello now re-established Jo went on to form SonVer, releasing two albums and an EP by the end of the decade. She also joined the band Hush the Many where crucially she was introduced for the first time to the looping technology that would go on to play such a significant role in her solo career. During this period Jo began to study cello with renowned composer and cellist Gwyn Pritchard. Following the dissolution of SonVer in 2010 Jo’s solo career began in earnest. The Falconer became the first new solo cello piece that Jo composed and it was effectively a blueprint for her future creations. Inspired by the W B Yeates poem The Second Coming the piece makes extensive use of the Boss RC 20 loop station. Layers of ethereal atmospherics shimmer behind the main pizzicato motif as successive voices are constructed, reinforcing and expanding the harmony in preparation for the impact of the low register accented notes that dramatically punctuate the arrangement towards the conclusion of the piece, perhaps conjuring the chimera from the poem as it slouches relentlessly towards Bethlehem. By harnessing the looping technology Jo was able to create ensemble settings for her music by herself. In 2011 Jo introduced the Boss RC 50 triple loop station into her armoury, giving her even broader scope to experiment and test the boundaries of her music. Many of her compositions are constructed from a specific theme or concept which is gradually extrapolated into a fully realized piece, a compositional technique that is well served by the looping technology at Jo’s command.
The inspiration for Jo’s music is drawn from a wide spectrum of influences. Music is an obvious touchstone, the compositional aspects of Bach, Debussy, Pärt, Kodály, Tavener and Bartók sit beside her love of Whitesnake, Jane’s Addiction and Nine Inch Nails to name but a few. Abstract images from poetry have also inspired certain pieces. Eliot’s Four Quartets triggered both Rex Infractus and Fare Forward! from Jo’s debut album ‘From The Sea’ and the work of Hindi poet Mohan Rana prompted Jo to create an interpretation of his poem The Colour of Water (‘From The Sea’). Concepts in psychology (notably from the writings of Carl Jung) have played an important influence in Jo’s approach to writing. From art Jo has drawn on the surreal images of Henri Rousseau and the lithography of Alphonse Mucha whose rigid frameworks and fluid subjects mirror the looped foundations and flowing melody lines in her music. Perhaps the greatest influence of all is Jo’s empathy with landscape. Jo is able to channel and transform her own observations and experiences of specific locations into her music. For example, Australia has provided the inspiration for Tu Florentine (‘From The Sea’), The Pilbara (‘The Pilbara EP’) and South West Night (‘Caldera’ – released 2014) and the East Sussex coastal landscape around Pett Level has been directly responsible for inspiring a number of the pieces on Jo’s forthcoming album. By absorbing and reinterpreting these landscapes Jo is creating a kind of aural manifestation of these locations, making each place almost tangible to the listener.
In tandem with her solo career Jo is a great believer in collaboration. She has worked extensively with Tallulah Rendall, Thunder, Roger O’Donnell (The Cure) and Rose McDowall of Strawberry Switchblade. Jo’s innovative work increasingly attracts interest from other musicians and in September 2013 Jo was approached by former Psychedelic Furs front man John Ashton to be part of his new project Satellite Paradiso. Jo has worked closely with John since then and her contributions to the band’s debut album have already earned her much praise, the album will be released during 2014 with live shows to follow featuring Jo. In November 2013 Jo played support on selected UK dates with Jarboe and also contributed to her set performing a duet composed with guitarist P Emerson Williams. Another recent collaboration has seen Jo work with long term associate Matt Howden / Sieben in their newly formed duo Rasp. Rasp’s debut album was written, performed live and recorded, in front of an invited audience, over a two day period of intensely creative sessions in Sheffield and will be released in 2014. Rasp will remain an active side project for both musicians and is set to perform on occasion in the year ahead. 2014 will also see release of a new album by Iroha featuring Jo’s unique style of cello playing blending perfectly with the band’s melodic drone. Jo also writes specially commissioned pieces for film and theatre companies (previous commissions include Orphic Film (Fade – 2008), Teatro Vivo (The Three Sisters – 2009), Caesar Productions (Jail Casear – 2010) Paul Schoolman’s multi-nominated film starring Derek Jacobi and Alice Krige, and ‘The Shire of Shark Bay’ (Australia, national television documentary – 2013). 2014 will see Jo collaborate and appear with Polish chamber orchestra Cappella Gedanensis as they perform several of her works in an orchestral setting, debuted in Poland in March and London in the autumn.
Twentieth century German composer Paul Hindemith is attributed with the following quotation: “Today, unexplored regions of the stringed instruments’ fingerboard are non-existent; even the arctic zones of the eternal rosin (near the bridge) have become a habitable abode for fearless climbers”. This comment seems to perfectly encapsulate, both literally and metaphorically, Jo’s vision of her music and her approach to her instrument; always striving further, always searching for improved means of expression and communication with her audience, always ascending. Jo’s new album Caldera is now available.
Alan LaCroix, London, 2014