Mr McFall’s Chamber celebrates its 20th Birthday

Mr McFall’s Chamber, which regularly collaborates with musicians from the world of traditional music, is celebrating its 20th birthday.

Dressing up in lavish costumes, playing music upside down, shouting at the audience and someone dancing to Webern – a Mr McFall’s Chamber concert is not your average night out. But neither is this your average chamber group. Over the years, McFalls has performed everything from Astor Piazzolla to Frank Zappa, from Puccini to Captain Beefheart, combining programmes that include progressive rock, tango, cartoon classics, folk, jazz, early music and modern classical. They have championed the works of contemporary composers and rediscovered old ones, resurrecting longforgotten music through the group’s unique new arrangements and commissioning countless new pieces from a diverse array of musicians. Almost anything goes.

In 2016, the group celebrates its 20 th birthday – an auspicious occasion for a group whose incarnation was almost an accident and whose name came about by chance. ‘We didn’t volunteer a name for the group, but the promoters knew that Robert McFall played in the Scottish Chamber Orchestra’, says violist Brian Schiele, ‘so we simply became Mr McFall’s Chamber. There was some fiery debate about changing the name to something more memorable a few years later, but I think most of us like its quirkiness – so it just stuck’. But don’t mistake the group’s spontaneity and laissez-faire attitude for any lack of care or passion. ‘We worked very hard for that first concert’, Brian says. The group had taken up an invitation to play at Edinburgh’s experimental student-run night-spot, the Transporter Rooms, which, at that time, was a weekly event upstairs at Legends in the Cowgate. On the bill that night was Anton Webern’s string quartet, an arrangement of Weather Report’s Birdland, some Purcell fantasias, an original piece by Robert McFall with sampled drums composed by his son Tom, and Arvo Pärt’s Fratres – all performed at around 2am for no fee, to an audience of slightly baffled nightclub-goers. But even then, cellist Su-a Lee remembers feeling that this was the start of something special: ‘I remember feeling that this was where it was at. It already felt quite legendary even while we were in the middle of it. I didn’t know where it was going to go but I knew I wanted to be part of it.’

In the years that followed, McFalls became regulars at the infamous ‘None of the Above’ events at the Bongo Club, playing once a month for little or no money to open-minded folk looking to be surprised and entertained by a group of classical musicians performing in a temporary arts centre set up in a Council-owned, condemned bus depot. Twenty years ago, this was more or less unheard of, as Dana MacLeod, who worked at the original Bongo Club, points out: ‘Here were classical musicians who usually performed on stage in black tie, turning up and playing in normal clothes in a nightclub. They were at the crest of a wave – 20 years on, the rest of the world has only just caught up.’ Back then, the line-up comprised four players from the Scottish Chamber Orchestra: violinists Peter Campbell-Kelly and Robert McFall, violist Brian Schiele and cellist Su-a Lee, and within the first six months of its existence the core line-up grew to include pianist, Graeme McNaught, bassist Rick Standley and percussionist Rick Bamford. Around the same time, Greg Lawson would replace Peter Campbell-Kelly and those heady early days of experimentation and unbridled exuberance would start to be replaced by a more focused and more fine-tuned attitude to programming, one which looked for a storyline along which to carry their audiences.

Projects with Michael Marra, Martyn Bennett, Dave Brady, James MacMillan, Eddie McGuire, Gavin Bryars, Thomas Strønen, Tim Garland, Martin Kershaw, Dave Heath, Tom Cunningham, Matilda Brown and Valentina Montoya Martinez have given the group some of its most memorable adventures, but there have also been many other intriguing collaborations that have sneaked under the radar too: their collaboration with Edinburgh Art School, for example, which saw the McFalls musicians compose new music to accompany a series of short films by its students, one of Brian’s favourite projects. And their ongoing work with Hands up for Trad’s Distil project, which year on year gives some of its most talented young folk composers the chance to expand their creative horizons by working on new compositions with musicians of McFalls’ calibre. But for Su-a, their appearance at John McGeoch’s lavish Nub Ball is one of the highlights: part masked-ball, part pageant, part murder mystery and part alternative pantomime, this bizarre event saw Su-a donning a long, blonde curly wig and eighteenth-century scarlet dress, saxophonist Phil Bancroft in a bear suit, Greg dressed as a jester, and Rick wearing a one-piece gold lamé suit à la Elvis.

Now supported in its endeavours by Creative Scotland, among other funders, the group has learned to embrace the prospect of planning further ahead – often a long way ahead. So although some of the impulsiveness of its early days may have diminished, McFalls has also responded creatively and with imagination to the challenges this long-term thinking brings, while still managing to preserve the sense of spontaneity that drives their performances. And along the way the group has also gained the insight and sensitivity that comes from spending two decades working together with the same close-knit group of players. Cyril Garac, one of their current violinists, describes the group as a second family. ‘I leave it for months and when I’m back it’s just the same story as If I was gone the day before… McFalls is this very rare place for talent and simplicity, respect and esteem, friendship, freedom, exchanges, confidence, experimentation, and music… without any kind of negative interferences.’

There is a charm and warmth that comes across in their performances that simply cannot be replicated. No matter what music they are playing, their audiences cannot help but fall for them. Alex Fiennes, one of the group’s two sound engineers and the man responsible for that first exploratory gig at the Transporter Rooms, believes this is what makes them unique: ‘Everyone likes McFalls. I remember even taking my grandmother to see them. The only people who might not like them are those who take themselves too seriously.’ Most people would agree that a large part of this is down to Mr McFall himself, whose introductions and explanations – or ‘parish notices’, as he has been known to call them – are as much part of the evening as the music itself. ‘Robert is so unassuming’, says Dana MacLeod, ‘and that is part of the charm. His wit and curatorial style are unparalleled.’

Over the years the group has also developed a reputation for certain specialities – no longer simply dabbling in an unfamiliar world of tango, they are now widely known and respected for their vibrant and authentic tango performances, brought to life with professional tango dancers. It is also no coincidence that the group succeeds, year on year, in its quest for funding to create new commissions, new collaborations and new projects – a testament to the group’s drive and ambition, and its overarching aim to bring new music to new audiences. This, for Robert, is where the group really began. If it seems like the group grew out of a desire to be frivolous and have fun, then this is only one side of the story. For Robert, the motivation was always to play to different audiences – a break from the straight-up classical concert hall performances of their ‘day job’ and a chance to explore another, perhaps more liberal, side to music-making. The other instrumentalists agree, saying that the McFalls work complements their role in the orchestra. ‘It’s refreshing’, says Brian, ‘just when you are reaching orchestral burnout, to reach a McFalls week. It reinvigorates you.’

This drive for exploration is also what will see the group continue well into the future, schedules and day jobs permitting. There is still an abundance of ideas ripe for development. ‘I have dozens and dozens of projects I’d like to do and I come across new ideas all the time,’ says Robert. ‘If I were paid to do what I wanted to do all the time, I’d be perfectly busy.’ But at 63 years old, Robert also knows that the ‘normal’ retirement age is looming and that the group, in its current incarnation at least, cannot continue forever. For Brian, the secret is to continue taking things one day at a time. ‘This is what we’ve always done, right back to the Bongo Club days when we were getting paid £15 for a one-hour set and were just performing for the fun of it. We’ll keep taking the group one day at a time and see where this leads us.’

So where can the future take them? Could there even be a Mr McFall’s Chamber without Mr McFall? Individually, the players give different answers: yes, perhaps and sure, why not? But Alex Fiennes hits the nail on the head when he points out that you could easily find another set of players to perform the same music, and they could perform it with just the same skill and aplomb. But it would be almost impossible to recreate the McFalls ‘magic’, that elusive quality that has been 20 years in the making and that fills the room with the same sense of warmth and excitement after all this time. ‘Nothing feels contrived, in the way it can with some other ensembles’, Fiennes says. ‘They can enlarge an audience’s musical vocabulary without them even realising it, sneaking a piece of “serious” music into an otherwise very relaxed concert without the audience batting an eyelid.’ For many, including their regular sound engineer Ben Seal, it has been a transformative experience: ‘Working with McFalls has completely changed how I look at music – and I’m very grateful for that.’ And this is as true for their collaborators as it is for their listeners, as horn player Alec Frank-Gemmill says fondly: ‘It has of course been a pleasure to work with Robert and the gang – but what I hadn’t been expecting was how much I would learn about music in the process. For me it’s been a journey of discovery into new types of music and ways of playing.’

There is also the issue of Robert McFall’s arrangements, which looms large over any discussion of a future without Mr McFall. Few listeners realise that a huge portion of the music the group performs has been meticulously arranged specifically for the McFalls players by Robert himself. The list is staggeringly long – after all, new commissions aside, how many existing pieces of music just happen to be written for string quartet, double bass, piano and optional musical saw? ‘I have a filing cabinet full of the early music’, says Robert, ‘as back then it was all done by hand. I would sit listening to a song by King Crimson on my CD player, then race over to the piano to try and pick out the notes, before furiously scribbling it all down. Then there would be plenty of discussion about the arrangements in rehearsals, with the players scrawling amendments all over the copies as we went along. Rick always changed my basslines – in fact, he still changes all my basslines!’ Fortunately, there are plans in the pipeline for Robert’s precious arrangements to be made available online for posterity – so that another generation of ambitious experimentalists can delve into this treasure trove of surprises in years to come.

And is there, after 20 years, a sense of nostalgia for what McFalls will leave behind when (and if) they eventually hand over the reins to a new generation? As ever, Robert is typically modest about their legacy: ‘Not only is the music world different now from how it was in 1996, we are also different. Twenty years is a long time. We have certainly lost some elements of the early days – Dadaist humour, reckless frolic – but hopefully we have also found out some things along the way. Above all we have always wanted to be part of a scene which encouraged creativity and adventure – and hopefully some people can remember some enjoyable evenings.’

Written by Jo Buckley and based on interviews conducted in April 2015