Baroque Bombshell

A momentous thunderclap rattles the windows of the Royal Albert Hall's back foyer as Jill Kemp comes through the door. A belated April shower has begun pelting the concrete steps outside and the bright sunshine that just five minutes ago lit up this spring afternoon has been totally smothered by black clouds.

It's a strangely appropriate introduction to this young recorder player, whose latest attempts to present recorder music in new and more exciting ways have led her to perform recitals themed around fire and storms.

The smiley, softly spoken blonde is determined to shake off what she calls the 'all screams and schoolchildren' image of her instrument. During a residency at London's Blackheath Halls in 2003 as part of its Young Artists Series, she devised a concert called Seagulls and Semiquavers. 'It was all themed around the natural world,' she explains. 'I worked out a lighting design and we worked a lot on the physical presentation. It was really good, I'd love to do more of that - ideally I'd like to put something together and then tour it. At the moment it's all kind of based around storms and fire and things like that.'

For Kemp, image and presentation are the key to keeping concerts fresh and appealing: 'Nowadays anyone can go out and buy a CD and you can just sit at home and listen, and it's almost like you've got someone in your living room playing it. So you have to give people a reason to go out to concerts, and for that I think presentation is absolutely crucial.'

That also extends to her outfits on stage, which have raised a few eyebrows. 'I never wear all black in a concert,' she explains. 'I try not to wear what you'd expect a classical musician to wear. Her favourite dress is a purple boob tube, cut short with lace cascading down one side.

Kemp's bold attitude to performance can be linked to the fact that she has also worked as a professional actress in plays and musicals - and still does the odd pantomime at Christmas. It all started when Caroline Cleqq, the founder of Manchester's Feelgood theatre company, saw a video of her playing the recorder and contacted her to ask if she would like to appear as a minstrel in a production of Robin Hood. After that she began performing in all kinds of roles, including some Shakespeare.

She admits that this has really influenced her attitude to performance: 'Doing these things has made a huge difference to my career. I do think presentation is really important and I think that it's really helped me with that. I was just so shy really, and doing this has made a huge difference.

But Kemp's first love has always been the recorder, and over the years her involvement with theatre has gradually faded further into the background: 'When you're doing a show it's so all-consuming that it's just so hard to find time to practise and do all the things I do as a recorder player. And what I really want to do, what I should be doing, is my recorder.’

Kemp has always known she wanted to play the recorder professionally. She took up the instrument when she was four but, having had only private lessons and not learned in school, she was not exposed to the screeching hordes of budding Pied Pipers most of us associate with the instrument. 'It's probably because I didn't play it at school that I actually liked it,’ she laughs. 'I was never really put off it because of the screeching.’

When she was eight her parents took her to a concert by Danish recorder virtuoso Michala Petri. 'I came out of there and said basically that's what I want to do,’ she recalls. 'I can't remember ever wanting to do anything else.’

But wasn't she ever encouraged to move on to a more conventional instrument as she grew up? 'I was always asked but I was never tempted. People always used to say I should move on to the clarinet or flute, and I have played both but I just never took to them. They weren't my instrument, they just didn't feel right.’

Eventually Kemp went on to study music at Goldsmith's University in London, majoring in performance. She graduated with a First and then got a scholarship to do a Master's at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama - but left again after her first year, unhappy with the way her playing was progressing.

'It wasn't the right place to be for me,’ she says. 'I wanted something broader. The sound I was encouraged to use there was completely different from the one I'd been trying to develop. I did my exam at the end of the first year and I did really well in it but I didn't like the way I was playing at all. It was great in some ways and I think I did learn a lot, but I just wasn't going in the direction I wanted to be going in.

Doing her own thing is important to Kemp, and when she recorded her first CD at the end of last year she did so independently so she could choose the music herself. 'I was quite specific about what I wanted to put on it,’ she says. 'As soon as I'd finished this one I was thinking about all the things I'd like to put on the next one - I really enjoyed it actually.’ The disc is entitled simply ‘Jill Kemp - Recorders, and is available to buy at her concerts.

Other projects Kemp has on the go include Recorder Revolution, an initiative to inspire and encourage children of all ages and all levels to play and give them a chance to hear the recorder played properly. 'It's something I believe in very strongly, she says. The project involves big gala conce
rts with 350 children playing various types of recorder.

She also works for the Concordia Foundation's education programme, going into schools and doing talks about the instrument and interactive concerts. 'I really enjoy doing it and I've learnt a lot of things from it as well,’ she says.

Kemp enjoys playing contemporary works by composers such as Ryohei Hirose and Yoshiyuki Ishii, and has even had several works written for her. These include pieces by Barry Mills, who called her up after hearing her perform one of his works two years ago, and Out of Time by Alan Simmons, for Recorder Revolution. This is a seven-minute piece for 10 to 1,000 recorders. 'It's actually quite tricky - it's in 7/8 time, but once you get into the swing of it it's really good she says.

'Recently there's been a lot of experimentation with contemporary techniques for the recorder. There's a lot of Japanese music, and it's quite strange but really interesting. I've been working with lots of different kinds of people and lots of different instruments - I've been doing some stuff with guitar, and keyboard and drums and things as well as the more conventional music and the solo stuff.

It's all part of her master plan to rid the recorder of its image as an amateur instrument. 'Because it's so cheaply produced and anybody can make a sound out of it, it is a good instrument for people to start on, she admits. 'But there aren't that many good performers around - it's not often you turn on the radio and hear a fantastic recorder player, so people just don't realise what it can do.
MUSO Issue 17 (June/July 2005)