By Michael Holland
Harriet Mackenzie lives in Brockley and grew up with a father obsessed with opera “listening to wonderful opera singers such as Caruso.”
She was “very lucky to be taken to lots of concerts and be exposed to the incredible canon of chamber music: Beethoven and Mozart String quartet, Ravel…I loved the sense of a door opening on this extraordinary aural landscape and being taken somewhere totally different. I wish that more children had this opportunity,” Ms Mackenzie told the Weekender.
“I was obsessed with the sound of the violin and from the age of three I campaigned my parents to be able to start learning it!” The teacher, Shelia Nelson, had a long waiting list but Harriet was able to start her training at five. That little girl in love with the violin went on to study at the Royal Academy of Music and Trinity Laban where she met Meg Hamilton (viola), and Milos Milivojevic (accordion) and the three musicians decided to form the Kosmos Ensemble.
“We thought it would be wonderful to play together, to explore the sounds, to study different traditions and styles from around the globe, to compose and to improvise with these influences. Having had a totally ‘classical’ training, I had never improvised. Suddenly I found myself on stage with Kosmos but without sheet music, playing our own compositions, and improvising using our classical training and composition techniques with roots music as our inspiration,” Harriet said. “I was deliriously happy and terrified in equal measure but when the lights dim and the audience is waiting expectantly, there is nothing quite like the frisson of composing in real time in front of a discerning crowd.”
Ten years on, Kosmos have explored Balkan music, Arabic music, Japanese folk songs, Gypsy music, jazz, and have recorded two albums whilst performing all over the world and in places that have little access to live music: prisons, special schools, mainstream schools and homes for older people.
Now the trio are once again returning to Rotherhithe’s St Mary’s Church, for the Tuned In London series, playing a special fundraiser gig. The proceeds from this concert will fund the band’s next album. Harriet says: “It is a beautiful church with great acoustics and a unique atmosphere; there is something very special about performing in an intimate church such as this.”
“I gave a candlelit concert there as part of the Tuned In series in December,” she continued. “In any concert, the energy that the audience brings is very important but in an intimate setting like this, one can really feel it and this has a particularly strong effect when we are improvising and directly responding to that energy.”
Next time, Harriet tells me, Kosmos will be playing something very different. “There are so many emotions that we go through in one evening – from a moving piece about a Serbian soldier who has lost the one he loves, to life affirming, toe-tapping, fiendishly fast Gypsy tunes.”
Kosmos are at St Mary’s Church, Marychurch Street, SE16 4JE on 1 August at 7.45pm. Buy tickets here: £14/ £10 concession. Phone: 07595 154601.