The Blog

Baking A Musical Cake For Sheku And BAFTA

OK, so I confess this is not a blog about baking, rather it is about some of the musical ingredients that go into bringing a performance together.

Like everyone in the industry and many beyond, I followed the BAFTAs last Sunday night with a keen interest. La La Land inevitably took the music gong, but it was actually the lovely freshness to the list of composer nominees that I found most striking there.

This year I had an extra incentive to tune in. Sheku Kanneh-Mason, the 17 year old cellist who took home the coveted BBC Young Musician 2016 prize, was invited to play during the 'In Memoriam' section of the ceremony; that special moment where we honour all the stellar talents who passed on in the preceding twelve months. And the piece chosen to accompany this segment was the Leonard Cohen classic Hallelujah - an emotive and fitting choice for such a poignant part of the ceremony.

The key ingredients of this musical moment were two of course - Sheku and Hallelujah, a stellar performer, and a stellar song- but let's for a minute think of some of other things that went into the mixing bowl. The responsibility of one of these ingredients fell to me; arranging Cohen's song for Sheku and a supporting string group of violin, viola and cello.

It's not actually a particularly complicated piece melodically or harmonically, and with four players in total including our soloist, it was really a relatively small band. (Although this did present a certain reductionist challenge at times- voicing the harmony so that it felt substantial enough for Cohen's chunky chord changes.)

The main challenge actually in this case was one of context; dealing with a powerful lyric-driven song written by a recently-departed artist played as an accompaniment to the year's extra long list of departed people who had enriched the world with their art. And on top of this, it needed to showcase the special talent of Sheku without forcing the delicacy of this highly-charged emotional situation. Pushing the baking analogy way too far, it needed to be one of those cakes that looked beautifully simple but has a depth of flavour; subtle but also not too sickly sweet!

I chatted to Sheku about what he values in an arrangement and he explained that for him an arrangement really works when it feels so natural to the instrument for which it has been arranged, that it no longer feels like an arrangement. No pressure there then!

Live TV performance is fraught with danger and both as backup for BAFTA (in the event that the live feed failed with the broadcaster needing to continue the music), but also for use on his forthcoming record, Sheku made both a recording of Hallelujah and shot a music video at Abbey Road Studios.

Throwing another ingredient into the pot was producer/engineer Jonathan Allen,

"It's important to not rush straight into recording a new arrangement, but firstly take time to rehearse and explore. There are infinite ways music can be performed and lots of subtle colours and balances the musicians bring, so you need to take time to find the right ones for the music you're performing.

The other part of recording is getting a good sound. Obviously having the wonderful Studio 2 at Abbey Road Studios and magnificent vintage microphones are a big feature of this (Sheku's microphone was one of the Beatle's vocal mics - a Neumann U47), but the biggest impact is still the arrangement, the instruments the musicians play and the sound they produce. Sheku's a natural in the studio and clearly enjoys the process of exploring and creating something new."

Even focusing our attention just on this one piece and performance, there are so many other ingredients of course- the rest of the team at Abbey Road, the many people at Sheku's record label, Decca, all the brilliant technicians involved in the live performance at BAFTA.

But ultimately, there are two absolutely fundamental ingredients to our musical cake; the performer and the song.

And watching Sheku on TV the other night create a little bit of magic for us all, I hope you agree with me that it tasted just about right.

Some details about Sheku here:

Twitter - @ShekuKM

Facebook - @ShekuOfficial

And Sheku's debut EP:

And Jonathan Allen: