Reflecting upon The Divine Abstract

Charlie Cawood, The Divine Abstract, music

The Divine Abstract is the debut solo album by composer and multi-instrumentalist Charlie Cawood.

A graduate of SOAS University of London, Charlie is best known as bassist of critically acclaimed Knifeworld and instrumentalist for the Emmy-nominated Mediaeval Baebes.

At SOAS, Charlie studied MMus Performance, where he was introduced to the music of India, China and Bali, influences that can clearly be recognised on The Divine Abstract.

Charlie talks about how the album came about:

I have heard The Divine Abstract described as progressive music, spiritual jazz, and a fusion of classical and world music.  What would be your own description of the album?

“I’m probably the worst person to categorise my own music, but if I had to I’d describe it as instrumental chamber classical with elements of psychedelia and world music.  There are certainly influences from jazz, particularly in some of the melodic arcs and harmonic choices, but all the pieces are through-composed, so there’s no improvised element at all.  The album came together organically over a period of years, and was an attempt at combining various disparate influences, so trying to describe it in any meaningful sense seemed out of the question!”

You have collaborated with over 20 musicians on this album.  Did that pose any special difficulties?  Or delights?

“While composing and orchestrating the music on the album, I always knew that it would call for a large number of instrumentalists, which made approaching the recording process a rather intimidating task.  This was partially the reason why the album took several years to develop.  Ultimately, the only real concern was making sure that all of the instruments balanced together coherently, as the arrangements are quite dense.  Making the overall sound articulate and approachable was a priority.

“What made the recording a joy was hearing the contributions of the other twenty musicians, most of whom I’ve already worked with in various other projects.”

“Every player brought such personality, and their performances really made the music come alive.”

A number of the instruments used on the album may be unfamiliar to some people.  What is a darbouka, a ceng ceng, and an erhu?

“The darbouka is a goblet shaped hand-drum used across the Middle-East and North Africa, primarily in Arabic and Turkish Music.  This was played by fellow SOAS alumni Elizabeth Nott, who also provided riq (tambourine) and frame drum. The ceng ceng is a Balinese percussion instrument used in the gamelan orchestra.  It’s a set of cymbals mounted on a wooden tortoise, and is played with two hands.  This, along with many other Balinese and Javanese gamelan instruments was played by singer/composer Lucie Treacher, who graduated from SOAS earlier in 2017.  The erhu is a two-stringed Chinese fiddle, which can produce a wonderful variety of melodic ornaments and decorations.  I fell in love with the sound of this instrument when I first started listening to Chinese music, and was over the moon to have someone as good as Wang Xiao play it on the album.”

And you play the pipa?  What kind of sound does that produce?

“The pipa is a pear-shaped lute from China, which I started learning 12 years ago under Cheng Yu, leader of the UK Chinese Music Ensemble.  It dates back to the Tang Dynasty (8th Century), though has undergone a steady evolution since then.  The tonal quality is generally quite bright and trebly, with lots of distinctive playing techniques, and is instantly recognisable.  Chinese music uses a lot of ornaments to decorate melody, much like the language, and the pipa recreates this beautifully.  It’s also quite a versatile instrument, and I’ve previously used it in everything from Philip Glass operas to electronic pop music.”

You started developing some of the earlier pieces on the album while you were studying at SOAS.  What were your early influences and inspirations?

“When I joined SOAS, I was mainly listening to avant-garde rock and jazz, such as Frank Zappa, John Zorn and Cardiacs, though I had already gone through a period of discovering lots of non-Western music, particularly from Japan, China and the Middle East.  I had also studied Indian Classical music and Flamenco guitar throughout my teens.  My composition lecturer at SOAS, Alexander Knapp, encouraged us to compose music that integrated all of these influences, with a focus on non-Western music.  During the same period, another SOAS composer, Jonathan Whitten, invited me to compose a piece for his mixed quartet (violin, oboe, French horn and cello), which was my first serious attempt at orchestrating for Western Classical instruments.  Later in the year, I became fascinated with Balinese and Javanese Gamelan music, the theory and cosmology of which I was introduced to by my performance lecturer Nick Gray, who I currently work with in the Gamelan Electronica project My Tricksy Spirit.  It was this environment that allowed me to greatly expand my compositional vocabulary, and begin to integrate all these different influences.”

Where is it possible to listen to and purchase a copy of The Divine Abstract?

“The best place is from, where it’s available on CD, digital download and unlimited streaming.  The album is also on all the usual online channels, like Spotify, iTunes and Amazon Music.”

The Divine Abstract

Want to learn more?

SOAS is renowned as the leading centre in Europe for the study of music from Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and their diasporas.

The MMus Performance is designed for students who wish to specialise in performance while studying for an academic qualification.  Students study the music of a particular region alongside performance theory training.  As such, the programme is particularly suited to performing musicians who wish to deepen their theoretical perspectives and musical horizons.

Find out more

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