Mr McFall’s Chamber have enjoyed a 25 year career introducing audiences to wildly exciting and genre-hopping concerts. SNACK mag caught up with Robert McFall and Su-a Lee about their upcoming Soundhouse Spotlight concert at the Traverse 3, their origins, and the universality of music.
This year marks Mr McFall’s Chamber’s 25th year as an ensemble. How did it all begin?
Su-a Lee: Robert [came] up to me in an orchestra rehearsal and [said] that he’s got this slightly wacky idea. His sons frequented and worked with sound engineers in the Cowgate for the nightclubs. [They] thought it would be fun to get their dad to put together a classical string quartet to come and play in the clubs for a late night session. And would I be up for it? And of course, the answer to that was a very big ‘Yes!’. Robert put together an incredible programme – some Shostakovich, some Webern.
Robert McFall: There was something that I arranged with my son: Weather Report’s ‘Birdland’. A few weeks later we did this arrangement of Jimi Hendrix’s music which we’re playing on Sunday.
Su-a: It felt like a brand new thing to do and completely out there. The club, The Transporter Rooms, had gone to so much effort to make it special. The whole thing was full of wispy sails, draped in beautiful lighting. I just remember thinking ‘this is really special – that we’re sitting here at two in the morning playing Webern, and we’ve got people dancing to it’.
Robert: Partly, I guess, the initial impetus behind forming the group was me trying to impress my teenage sons. They were both playing in rock groups and I sort of wanted to reach out to what they were doing in a way.
Su-a: Talking of working with your sons, we did this amazing collaboration with Edinburgh College of Art. Their final year students were doing animations and they wanted Mr. McFall’s Chamber to do the music. There was one, The Great Lobster Chase, [that] was such brilliant animation and I didn’t know what to do with it. I was into Leftfield at the time and I was influenced by their drum and bass rhythms, but I didn’t know how to recreate that. Robert’s sons, Tom and George, stayed up with me one night using the kitchen utensils in Robert’s kitchen to make the sounds for all the drum and bass rhythm tracks.
Robert: We did it there and then didn’t we?
Su-a: Yeah, chopping boards, sharpening knives. It became the underlying track for the whole of this Lobster Chase scene. To me that epitomises that sense of excitement that was around at that time. Just anything was possible.
How has the ensemble changed over the past 25 years?
Robert: Some of the things we did at the beginning everyone else does nowadays, and we’ve gone much straighter. Playing arrangements of pop songs I mean, everyone does it now, don’t they? It’s very commonplace, but I don’t think it was so much when we did it in 1996. We’ve pretty much gone back into giving concerts that are a little bit… well, I mustn’t exaggerate – they’re not that mainstream.
Su-a: They’re not at all!
Robert: We allow ourselves to play a little Mozart from time to time.
Considering the breadth of your back catalogue, what repertoire will you be playing for your upcoming Soundhouse Concert?
Robert: The initial idea really came from Su-a – she said, ‘wouldn’t it be nice to revisit some of the things from the distant past?’ I was speaking to our bass player, Rick, and he said, ‘Oh, well, on the contrary, wouldn’t it be quite nice to do some of the things that we’re doing in the future?’
We’re doing three numbers from our very first album and we’re doing a couple of songs that are going to be on a CD that we’re recording this summer of music by Mexican composers. That’s the idea – to bring together things from the distant past and from the near future.
Su-a: Distant past things like the Jimi Hendrix ‘Little Wing’. The original is so electronic and so loud in some ways, whereas Robert’s arrangement is written unbelievably gently. It’s in a ridiculous key of six sharps and it’s a very tender, very gentle version of it. It’s sublime and beautiful – it’s completely transformative.
Robert: I think that at the beginning of this group it seemed a bit artificial that different genres existed in isolation from each other. I was just wondering what a Jimi Hendrix song would sound like played very slowly and quietly. And it sounds very beautiful. It’s partly to prove the universality of music.
What’s your process for making these arrangements?
Su-a: Robert’s a genius!
Robert: I just think about it a lot. And work on it for a long time. I have to confess, I don’t do it quickly – but that suits me. It’s very tailor-made. I have to bear in mind what people are like. I guess that’s a very good thing that I have particular players in mind – I know what they’re good at and what they’re bad at; what they like doing, what they don’t like doing; what they might complain about, what will make them happy.
It was a great opportunity to do this concert this weekend – I haven’t done any live concerts for a long time. So it’s very, very nice to be able to do this.
Tickets £5+ from traverse.co.uk