I fell in love with Antonio Vivaldi’s Four Seasons when I was very young. It was one of the few classic records my parents owned and I listened to it constantly. I aligned the needle, waited for the crackle, and sat back as the music magically flowed through the room. The work is perfect for a child. There are wonderful melodies, lots of drama, stories and atmosphere. It is a gateway to the world of classical music. I felt like I had discovered a secret and beautiful world.
Vivaldi wrote the four violin concertos that make up The Four Seasons between 1716 and 1720, and they were published in conjunction with four sonnets – one for each season, possibly also by the composer. The works are groundbreaking in many ways. He used all sorts of effects to imitate what the sonnets describe: the buzzing of flies on a hot summer day, the barking of dogs, the cries of birds, and drunken people partying. This idea that instrumental music could illustrate events or nature was completely new.
Since its rediscovery in the 1940s, after centuries of neglect, The Four Seasons has been a staple of concerts and recordings, but it was Nigel Kennedy’s 1989 recording with the English Chamber Orchestra who sent him stratospheric. One of the best-selling classic recordings of all time, it spent 80 weeks on the pop charts. No classical work before or since has reached such a wide audience, but the popularity of the recording has made Vivaldi’s piece ubiquitous. As an adult, I heard the music relentlessly in TV commercials, jingles, and music on hold. I grew up to hate him. Somehow I stopped being able to hear it like music at all.
I needed to resolve the love/hate relationship I had with the work – call it an exorcism – and reclaim Vivaldi’s original as a musical object rather than a sonic irritant. The best way to do this, I decided, would be to take a trip through the Vivaldi landscape and make new discoveries there.
Looking at the score, I saw that there was a natural meeting point between its baroque language and mine. Vivaldi’s work is very pattern-based and he generates his effects by juxtaposing contrasting types of materials. This is pretty much how post-minimal music and electronic dance music works, and I found many touchpoints that allowed me to dive into its material in a natural, sculptural, and architectural way. The result, 2012’s Recomposed, managed to make me relive The Four Seasons and throw away the ghost of many hours of forced listening to tiny 30-second loops of Spring while waiting to talk to my bank.
When creative work leaves your desk, it takes on a life of its own. Recomposed tops the classic iTunes charts in the UK, Germany and the US and to date has amassed over 450 million streams. He’s been on the soundtrack of all kinds of TV and film projects, including The crown and Bridgerton. It has been used in fashion shows and all kinds of artists have connected with it. I think people like to get a new perspective on something familiar, old and new at the same time, but I never expect people to listen to my music: when people tune in to a track I have fact, it’s incredibly encouraging.
However, it wasn’t quite the record I had originally envisioned. When I wrote Recomposed, I wanted to record it with instruments as close as possible to those Vivaldi would have heard. I approached specialist orchestras that played period instruments, but there was no enthusiasm. So I recorded my 2012 disc with a set of modern instruments. I was lucky enough to be able to recruit a stellar cast – the marvelous Daniel Hope and the Berlin Konzerthaus Orchestra.
Over the past decade I have had the good fortune to perform the work with a variety of different orchestras and soloists. There’s something special about the textures and tones that period instruments bring to Vivaldi’s score, and I kept thinking about what Recomposed would sound like played on Vivaldi’s period instruments. I felt there was another journey I wanted to take through this material, so I decided to re-record Recomposed.
My record company was, I admit, a little perplexed. My second favorite emoji is the monocle one 🧐and there were quite a few in the beginning – explain again why we are doing this? Yes, it’s been 10 years since the first record, but it wasn’t about anniversaries. The impetus and the raison d’etre were purely musical.
Vintage instruments have a different character from modern instruments and bring out different qualities in musicians. Instruments and bows are lighter, strings – gut rather than steel – are more responsive, so there is a more intimate human connection. They may make a smaller sound, but in that sound there is more light and shadow. You can hear it especially in the extremes; in very slow and tender music you get a very direct feel of the individual musicians, and in very fast, intense and dynamic music you feel that the orchestra is about to explode.
Since we were going back to period instruments, I decided to also use a vintage synthesizer, a Moog from the early 1970s, the decade that is the equivalent in electronic music of the 18th century. They are wonderful instruments, clumsy and unpredictable, but with a huge amount of character and a kind of gravity. Finding one wasn’t a problem – I’m a little obsessed and already have several in my collection.
Every time I play Four Seasons, it’s different. The people, the venue, the instruments, your own feelings that day – each different element creates a unique experience that is the magic of creating live music. This time, with the brilliant soloist Elena Urioste and musicians from Chineke! it was really like a new journey, like seeing a sculpture from a different angle. It was also a process of exploration and learning for most musicians, many of whom were playing period instruments for the first time.
Recomposed is chamber music. That means it’s a conversation between equal voices, and I was thrilled to hear what the musicians of Chineke! The orchestra would bring to the work. Besides being a collection of dedicated and talented young players, Chineke! is also a social project. It is a multi-ethnic ensemble with a black majority, and the 24 musicians have brought a wide range of experiences, visions and approaches to musical creation. They are extremely inspiring – the orchestra of the future.
We live today in a period of existential crisis. One of the reasons I do creative work is that my own experience as a reader, listener, moviegoer, is that these things can make my life just a little bit better. Maybe they make my life 4% better than it otherwise would be, but that 4% is precious. It’s a small thing, but it’s a thing. And it’s really important to keep doing creative work, especially in these dark times.
In all musical cultures, music has been about other music. When I was writing Recomposed, I wondered what Vivaldi would do with it. He was, in fact, a composer who often reworked his music – Spring reappears in a sinfonia in his 1724 opera Il Giustino. He was a deeply serious musician – he had his own orchestra exclusively for young women, orphans and foundlings, but he was also the ultimate showman, a Hendrix-like figure with a huge mane of red hair, a terrific performer, and a violin virtuoso. In 2012, our first performance of Recomposed took place at Berghain, Berlin’s legendary techno mecca. I think Vivaldi would have loved that: seeing the audience dancing to the rhythms of summer.