Jo Quail

The White Hotel, Salford

13 May 2023

It's an odd venue for a cello recital. A brick box on an industrial estate, with a standing audience of maybe 50 people, pressed right up against the slightly raised stage. It feels like it ought to be hosting a sweaty rock band, not an avant-garde composer.

But it somehow works perfectly for Jo Quail. The sound is good, the lights are minimal but suit the mood, and the closeness of the audience gives the event an intimacy that I don't think you'd feel in a concert hall.

The support act, Dead Space Chamber Music are extraordinary. I'd found it hard to imagine what kind of band could open for a genre-defying artist like Jo Quail, but she's found one that fits perfectly. I'm struggling to talk about them, still trying to digest their music properly, but hopefully I'll be able to review them properly tomorrow.

I feel a bit more confident talking about Jo Quail, as this is now the fifth time I've seen her. But it's the first time I've seen her as the headline act. She plays for over 90 minutes, and holds the audience spellbound for the entire time, and seems genuinely surprised and touched at the shouts for an encore at the end. With a longer stage time, she's a lot more chatty than when she's trying to cram music into a short support slot, so we get the stories behind the music, and it's all nice and informal.

In this venue, so close to the stage, I can see every movement of not only her hands but also her feet, and what she does with her feet is just as important as . . . ok, I've just realised that I haven't explained what Jo Quail actually does. She plays a cello. That's all that's on stage: Jo and an electric cello. And a couple of small electronic panels on the floor, with dozens of switches that she operates with her feet. The electronics take what she plays, record it, and play it back on an endless loop. White Salt Stag opens with her hammering the cello strings, which sets up a drum beat pulse for the piece. Over that she plays a cello phrase, which is taken and looped over the rhythm. Then she plays another short melody . . . and another . . . and by the end of the piece, you've lost track of how many cellos you're listening to, there's a dense wall of sound (amplified to perfectly pleasing levels) that's so musically complex its like you're listening to a symphony orchestra. It's truly astonishing.

Watching her feet, it's miraculous that she can tap these tiny switches so precisely, while also playing virtuosic cello lines. It's not just the dexterity of the playing, it's the timing. To so perfectly time the recording and looping so that each phrase sits perfectly on the others, producing beautifully structured compositions . . . I don't know, I think musicians' abilities are super-natural anyway, and Jo Quail is among the elite of the super-natural. Even watching this closely I don't understand how what she does is possible.

But all the clever playing in the world would be meaningless if it were not making good music, and happily the music is sublime. Full of shifts of mood, moving from beautiful solo phrases to massive percussive crescendos, there's never a moment that fails to hold your attention. As well as a virtuoso performer, she's a remarkable composer.

In the middle of the set, she switches to a different cello (I hate to say "acoustic" cello, but if I do you'll know what I mean) for two pieces played without the electronic trickery. And towards the end, the vocalist from Dead Space Chamber Music joins her for a short piece that's just unspeakably beautiful. Finally, she asks do we want an encore or can she go to the bar, and obviously the answer is encore. If she had asked again after that, I think the answer would have been the same, for as long as she wanted to keep playing.

She's just an astonishing musician.