String Theory: A Little Orchestra Interviewed

London's A Little Orchestra combine classical composition with an indie-pop guestlist. Ahead of the release of their debut album, Stuart Huggett speaks to founder Bobby Barry and violinist Natalie Hudson

A Little Orchestra is a classical ensemble formed by Pipettes creator ‘Monster’ Bobby Barry. The repertoire of the 10-piece group includes compositions by Terry Riley, Michael Nyman and Angelo Badalamenti, although they’re most active live and as an orchestra for hire within the UK indie-pop scene.

The group’s concerts have seen them joined by singers including MJ Hibbett, Shirley Lee of Spearmint and Elizabeth Morris of Allo Darlin’, or swelling the ranks of bands such as Pocketbooks and Haiku Salut. Guests on A Little Orchestra’s debut album Clocks, set for release on June 10th, include Darren Hayman, Gordon McIntyre (Ballboy), Simon Love (The Loves) and Lisa Bouvier (The Proctors).

With sometime Quietus contributor Barry currently based in Paris, he’s relinquished some of his conducting and percussion duties with the London-based orchestra, whose full line-up is completed by Alex Billig (bassoon), Catherine Carr (flute), Rosie French (violin), Nicola Burnett Smith (clarinet), Matthew Walker (violin), Jill Faure (Viola), Helen Short (cello), Natalie Hudson (violin) and Claire Hadidjenar (violin). The Quietus called Barry at home to discuss the genesis of the project, then caught up with violinist Hudson, who’s taken on the day-to-day running of the group.

Why did you decide to put an orchestra together?

Bobby Barry: For quite a long time I’d been nurturing this idea of getting together a really big group of all the people I knew in bands in Brighton to do some kind of performance of ‘In C’ by Terry Riley. I never quite got round to doing that, but it was in the back of my head that one day I’d like to. Then l was becoming more and more interested in writing music for things that weren’t guitars and drums, but I didn’t really know how. I started writing these little text scores that were structured improvisations that I wanted to try out. With The Pipettes we’d done stuff where we had strings on record and we often wanted to do more of that live, but it was always very expensive. I thought there might be other bands as well who might like the idea that there was an orchestra that acted a bit like a band, a freelance orchestra that was up for working with people.

Natalie Hudson: I’d been at Indietracks [the Derbyshire indiepop festival Hudson helps to run] in 2009 and one of my friends had heard that Bobby was looking to set up some kind of orchestra, so she passed on my email. I suggested where we could rehearse. I live in an ex-council flat in Kilburn and it’s near a nice community hall. You don’t need amps or anything like that because we’re acoustic.

BB: Because Natalie’s involved in Indietracks she’s really good at organising things generally. I’m a very disorganised person by nature, so it quickly became apparent that someone needed to help.

Have you had formal musical training?

BB: A little bit, GCSE music stuff. I did a masters degree in contemporary music but that wasn’t a composition course, it was listening and writing essays about Schoenberg and Terry Riley. Over the years I bought some books about music theory, books about orchestration and counterpoint and things, and I’ve just been teaching myself really. All the musicians in A Little Orchestra are people who learnt an instrument and a bit of music theory at school but didn’t really pursue it, so it’s all about using these skills that people had and perhaps neglected slightly. At the beginning people were saying things like, "I’ll play, but if you ask me to improvise I’ll get scared, and there’s no chance that I’ll ever write anything." Now they’re saying, "Well, I’m going to write something soon" and they’re much more comfortable doing improvisatory things. That’s been one of the nice things about the development of the group.

NH: It’s a real mixture. Nicola [Burnett Smith] our clarinettist is also a member of the London Gypsy Orchestra, so that’s a different flavour; two of our violinists are in the band Apple Eyes; our bassoonist is in a band called Wolventrix who are little more indie rock; then Helen [Short], our cellist, used to be in Betty & The Werewolves. There was a guy called Dominic, who Nicola is friends with through London Gypsy Orchestra, and he wrote an original composition which she sang on. We love working with new writers who are not necessarily writing conventional pop songs but more experimental things.

How did you pick the guests for the album?

BB: To a certain extent it was just practical, who was available of all the people that we’d done stuff with. I wasn’t really that closely involved in the initial stages of the record. I think one day Nat said, "Ok, so I think we’re going to make an album and I’ve thought of half these people…" and I thought, "Brilliant, that’s amazing! Well done!"

NH: We just had the idea, ‘well, if we’ve started to play for other bands on their records, why don’t we try and get other people to write songs for us?’ When we first asked them we had an idea of soundtracks for an imaginary film, but it went away from that really. People were just happy to write songs that they thought would work with an orchestra. Darren [Hayman] loved the film theme, he really went for that. I think Gordon [McIntyre] has been working on a new play with David Greig and his song is due to be on that soundtrack as well. They’re definitely visually descriptive.

How did the instrumental ‘Clocks’ themes come about?

BB: I felt there needed to be some stuff on the record that wasn’t just A Little Orchestra backing up some other singer but was the group doing its own thing, so it was written specifically with them in mind. The numbering [parts 3, 2 and 5] is a little bit of a joke, because I wanted to suggest that it was part of this much bigger suite. It’s semi-fictional, because after we’d chosen which parts were gonna be on the record, we renumbered them. It could expand and one day we could do this hour long gig that was the 26 parts of ‘Clocks’ or something. 24 would be the most appropriate, perhaps.

NH: I really love the instrumentals that he’s written, they work really well between the songs. I’m always interested in what Bobby’s doing next because I’m a massive fan of The Pipettes and I’m always trying to pump him for information whenever I see him.

‘Treacle, You Should Probably Go To Sleep’ video

How does Bobby living abroad affect the orchestra?

BB: I come when I can, but it would be prohibitively expensive for me to come to every single gig. They get on quite well without me, because I’m a dreadful conductor. Often they play more tight and in time when I’m not there than when I am. I find it enormously stressful, holding a pencil and pretending it’s a conductor’s baton.

NH: We don’t have a standing conductor as such. One of us will start us off and keep time, and that can vary. It doesn’t happen very often because we either have Bobby or we’re playing with a band or we’ve got a guest coming to sing with us and they naturally take on that kind of lead role. It’s lucky really and it’s helped us to keep going with Bobby being in France.

What else are you up to?

NH: Bobby’s mentioned doing something with The Lovely Wars, that’s [ex-Pipette] Ani’s new band. I think we need to look into that when our album’s out the way, but we’ve got to take a democratic decision as a group, about whether we keep the same focus or whether we want to do something completely different. It’s really open though.

BB: I’ve been doing gigs on my own, writing and recording stuff, but I can’t seem to find anyone to actually put a record out, which is a bit frustrating. I could put it up on the internet and give it away or charge people, but it doesn’t really appeal to me. If I’m going to spend a long time making something I want to be able to hold something shiny and plastic in my hand at the end of it and say, "Look Mum, I made this." I’ve also been doing quite a lot of remixes and bits of music for films as well, things that friends were doing, and that’s been really good fun.

Are The Pipettes still active?

BB: Not at the moment, no. The Pipettes are, you might say, on hiatus. I’d still really like to do a third album at some point in time, but there are lots of different permutations in my head of what it would be. Everyone who’s involved in the band knows that if we do a third Pipettes album it’ll be as different to the second one as the second one was to the first. I’m nurturing in the back of my head this idea of it being three rappers, like a late 80s hip-hop thing, and the whole backing track would be made out of samples of the first album. It’s not gonna happen tomorrow anyway. Songs come to me sometimes and I think, that sounds like The Pipettes. Maybe that’s just force of habit and it’s gonna still be happening to me in my dotage. I’ll just come up with these songs and say, "Oh, that sounds like a Pipettes song! Quick, where’s Gwenno?"

A Little Orchestra’s Clocks is officially released on Monday June 10th. The group launch their album at Union Chapel, London on the afternoon of June 8th (information here). For more on A Little Orchestra, click here to visit their website.

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