It has to be said, though, that Coates’ accidents have proved to be pretty successful so far. His experimental, disruptive approach has resulted in collaborations with top venues including Southbank Centre and pioneering musicians such as Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood. In fact, his relationship with Greenwood led to arguably his highest-profile project to date, playing on Radiohead’s latest album, A Moon Shaped Pool, with the London Contemporary Orchestra.
“It’s very funny when you go into a pop studio with a cello or a violin,” says Coates. “There’s this reverence. You get treated as though you’re something different – and I’m like, ‘We don’t know any more about music than you do’. There’s an illusion, because some of us have had this institutionalised training. We know how to turn up on time and play in tune and rhythmically on a beat, but have we got better taste?”
He’s being a little modest here – Coates graduated from the Royal Academy of Music with the highest grades in their history. He admits that his classical education is “one system that I engaged with. I got the marks – people judging me for tuning, evenness of sound, volume of sound. I’m lucky because I could do that, but that doesn’t lend itself to an evolving culture – it’s having a craft, but I don’t think beauty is the same thing.”
In fact, it’s through harnessing the full creative power of craft that Coates is able to put his theories of musical evolution into practice. The title of his latest solo album, Upstepping, is derived from a quote about the human race’s ability to “elevate and evolve at a heightened rate”.
In questioning the rule-based approach that he feels puts unnecessary constraints on much of classical music (“the most captivating musicians throughout history have perfected their forms by following their own rules and emotional compasses”), Coates set his own unique parameters for the album.
Seemingly a house-inspired electronic album, in fact 95% of the sounds on the record are made by his cello. Every element – from what sound like hi hats and kick drums to synth stabs – is actually Coates sampling himself playing his favoured instrument.
It’s partly a comment on the homogeneity of modern music – and that includes classical as well as house and pop. “You get to this weird, inoffensive middle ground”, says Coates. “Music should challenge the way you think about it.”
While the sounds on the album may not be exactly what he imagined in his brain, Coates’ unique series of accidents — created by someone at the very peak of his craft, with a commitment always to reject the obvious — certainly succeeds in producing an inspiring evolution.