Musical beginnings and Herzia (1976 - 2000)
Toni Castells is an Spanish composer born in Berga, Barcelona. In 2007 he naturalised as a British citizen keeping his Spanish citizenship as well. He started his music education at the age of 4 playing classical guitar, clarinet and piano together with composition studies. With youth orchestras he toured extensively Europe and Spain playing the clarinet and as a guitar soloist. At the age of 14 Toni was awarded ex aequo the coveted St. Joan de Vilatorrada composition prize with the experimental piece “Imatges”, written for flute and piano. At the age of 12 Toni formed his first band, Korrefok, a folk-rock band with progressive rock influences. The band won several local band competitions and got signed to AZ Records under a new name, Herzia. Spain's music magazine Popular 1 said of their debut album “Coses que Passen” (AZ Records 1999): "If there be justice, Herzia's 'Coses Que Passen' should become the most important pop release this year." Julia Stuart, 2007, The Independent.
London and Momo (2000 - 2010)
In the year 2000 Toni moved to London to work with Spanish pop legend José María Cano from the band Mecano, the best-selling Spanish band to date. With José María Toni recorded the album JoseCano (Universal Music Latino 2001), the artist’s first solo pop album since the band split, and the Centenary anthem for Real Madrid sung by Plácido Domingo. In 2001 Toni secured a job as Assistant Recording Engineer at the RCM Studios at the Royal College of Music. He remained there for 5 years recording studio demos and albums for both students and commercial clients together with live concerts from conductors such us Lorin Maazel, Bernard Haitink and Roger Norrington amongst others.
It is during his time at the Royal College of Music when Toni starts experimenting with fusing classical and popular music genres such as downtempo electronica into a single musical language. The first album that came out as a result of this experimentation was the self-produced, self-recorded and self-published 'Unharmed' (2006) under the artistic name ‘Momo’ in homage to Michael Ende’s eponymous novel in which Momo, the protagonist little girl, has the talent to know how to truly ‘listen’ to people. In ‘Unharmed’ Toni collaborated with Spanish singer Beth Rodergas, finalist of the musical talent show Operación Triunfo and who went to represent Spain in the Eurovision Song Contest 2003 where she finished eighth. She was referred by British commentator Terry Wogan as Kylie Minogue in dreadlocks, which was played on by many British tabloids. The album also featured soprano Amelia Whiteman and singers Fran Hardcastle and X-Factor finalist Roberta Howett. It made it to the top 20 of the iTunes Electronica charts on its release.
Reviewing the album, Multi Grammy Award winning classical producer Michael Haas said:
“Ennio Morricone meets Erik Satie. In truth, it's far more subtle than that and I would also add the unfamiliar name of Reynaldo Hahn. Other obvious names are people like Henryk Górecki or Philip Glass, but these are perhaps too obvious. Morricone I believe comes to mind because there is a cinematic vividness to your music that like his, exudes expanse and distance. It's dramatic and seems to come from distant times and places. Satie because I feel there is a certain painful nostalgia. And Reynaldo Hahn is relevant, because unlike Satie, he was a more sophisticated cultivator of melancholy and frankly, more serious as a composer. The Glass and Górecki comparisons are simplistic and have to do mostly with the fact that you have operatic voices singing vocalaises. (so does Freddie Mercury in 'Barcelona'!) Other obvious film composers who may be worth mentioning as possible references are Angelo Badalamenti or even Mark Knopfler. I don't think either of those two count as 'classical'.”
The 'Momo Live Show' and criticism
In 2007 Toni created a live adaptation of the album entitled ‘The Momo Live Show’ in collaboration with the Sacconi String Quartet and photographer Conor Masterson, who used his photographic archive to create an intriguing visual backdrop. The show was an exploration on all the different representations of love and was premiered at the Roxy Bar and Screen (London) on the 12th of June of 2007 and also performed two weeks later in Bush Hall (London) on the 23rd of July of 2007. Despite of the fact that specialised music reviewer Whisperin & Hollerin gave it 8 out of 10 stars and that Julia Stuart from the Independent wrote a feature on it on the printed edition of the Independent on the 11th of September 2007 entitled ‘Pop goes Mozart’, other reviewers highlighted the apparent shortcomings of Toni’s first attempt to bring his combination of classical and pop to the live arena. Sean Portis at UK concert promoter and reviewer Glasswerks wrote:
“The first thing that becomes apparent is the alarming familiarity with which the show carries itself, nothing appears out of the ordinary, you just never feel that any of the concepts have been explored as far as possible. If you consider the competition to be within the ranks of ‘Sigur Ros’ or ‘Bjork’ and not sacrine-sweet classical rebels ‘Bond’ it becomes apparent where momo fails to hit the mark. The rhythmical aspect of the arrangements especially could do with a touch more embellishment, think Matmos, Plaid, Boards of Canada etc and not just a fuzzy metronome. The kind of subtlety associated with the aforementioned beat meisters in my mind would really have given the project the truly contemporary edge it needs to break any new ground. The guitar work too sounds weedy and lame in comparison to the finery associated with a string quartet, possibly the fault of the live engineer who seems about as enthusiastic about his work as Theodor Morell, but what’s new.
At some point during my Momo experience it becomes apparent that the visual element of the evening if executed indeed wholeheartedly would have served in some respects as a piece de resistance. Having recently had the pleasure of witnessing Alfred Hitchcock’s first silent black and white film accompanied by a live orchestra, I can’t help but mull over the potential for a Momo short film score. There seems to be so much potential within Momo for something that could break ground and with some more refinement and maybe a division of labour in terms of a writing partner aside from Mr. Castells a real contribution could be made to blurring the boundaries between contemporary and classical music. I look forward to Momo growing up.”
The show was subsequently further tuned and altered. Icelandic photographer and visual artist Maria Kjartansdottir created new visuals for the show and, in collaboration with the Tan String Quartet the show was further performed at Ginglik (London) on the 14th of May 2008, The Bedford in Balham (London) on the 15th of May 2008, The Cuckoo Club (London) on the 10th of September 2008, Roadtrip (London) on the 11th of September 2008, The Stables (Milton Keynes) on the 12th of September 2008, the Mercat de Musica Viva de Vic (Spain) on the 20th of September 2008, Casino de Caldes (Spain) on the 25th of April 2009, Plaça de St. Francesc in Formentera (Ibiza) on the 23rd of July 2009 and the Auditori de Sabadell (Spain) on the 17th of September 2010. This was a time for experimentation in the live arena for Toni Castells. Never two concerts were the same always trying different performers, formats, arrangements, visual content, instrumentation...allowing Toni for a better understanding on how to best present his unusual music to the public.
In the run-up to his Bush Hall performance, Toni was interviewed by Classic FM’s Bob Jones and featured on an article on the station’s website entitled Classical Music Mix-Up together with Blur’s bassist Alex James and composer Gabriel Prokofiev, the great grandson of the great Sergei Prokofiev. A live album entitled Live from Bush Hall (2008) with excerpts from the performance at Bush Hall in collaboration with the Sacconi String Quartet, Beth Rodergas, Fran Hardcastle, Louis Sebastian Mander and soprano Amelia Whiteman was released on the 27th of October of 2007.
Name change and 5 new albums (2010 - 2012)
In 2010 Toni decided to abandon the artistic name Momo and present himself by simply Toni Castells. Several other bands around the world shared the same name and it created confusion in the ever increasingly popular global online music distribution systems. Under this new umbrella Toni decided to stop performing for a while and place his focus back into his composition and studio work. Working from his home studio in south-west London, he took the opportunity to develop and finish some of the musical ideas created since the release of ‘Unharmed’ resulting in the publication of 5 new albums: Motherland (2011), Creation (2011), Piano Works (2011), Ob (2011) and 1.60.3600 (2011).
In ‘Motherland’ (2011) he drifted away from the classical influences to experiment with conventional voices and established popular music genres. The overarching theme of the album is love, death and redemption. It featured the voices of singer Jude la Joia, Michela Magas, Jojo Desmond and Roberta Howett. The album’s flagship song Annabel Lee, performed by Roberta Howett, featured excerpts from Edgar Allan Poe’s eponymous poem, the last complete poem composed by the American author. In it the poet explores the death of a beautiful woman. The narrator, who fell in love with Annabel Lee when they were young, has a love for her so strong that he retains his love for her even after her death.
‘Creation’ (2011) deepened Toni’s exploration of how to combine classical music forms with popular contemporary genres. ‘Creation’ features American soprano Rebecca Nelsen, lead soprano at the Volksoper and labelled ‘a star’ by the Wall Street Journal. The album explores human nature and the role of sex in the creation of life. There are insights on how sex is the origin of human mortality because, rather than reproducing clonally as bacteria do, humans only transmit half of their genes to their offspring. Hence, these genes will never naturally exist in the same combination again, making every human being completely unique. The fourth track of the album, the aria ‘Oratori (Sexual Intercourse)’, features the literal Wikipedia definition of the Human Reproductive System in an attempt to explore unusual lyrical content. Further drawing and appropriating from popular culture, Rebecca Nelsen sings words from Shakespeare, North Korea’s Pyongyang's Supreme Military Command, Barack Obama, Italian journalist and professor of sociology Francesco Alberoni and extracts from the book Anastasia from Vladimir Megre.
‘Piano Works’ (2011) is an exploration on simplicity though the composition and recording of a series of basic piano pieces. Toni records his own old Chapel upright piano at home using a cheap dictaphone. ‘Ob’ (2011) is a compilation of old works, tracing Toni’s first musical steps since his arrival to London in the year 2000.
In 2005 Toni is asked to compose the soundtrack of Robert Cameron’s theatrical play ‘1.60.3600’ (2006), which was performed at the Regent's Park Studio (London) and Young Vic (London) in August 2006. Created through a long process of real life interviews and prolonged improvisations with actors, the piece weaved four worlds into a new and unique theatrical event where conventional use of space and time were questioned. The music, composed on piano, consisted of a series of intertwining recurrent themes that mirrored the journey of the main characters in the play. The music was released on an eponymous album in 2011.
Life from Light (2012) - Union Chapel Performance
In 2012 Toni developed a new live show based on the music of ‘Creation’ (2011). The show was entitled ‘Life from Light’ (2012) and was premiered at Union Chapel on the 15th of November 2012. It was subsequently released as a live album and DVD in July 2013. ‘Life from Light’ took its name and inspiration from the eponymous BBC documentary series (BBC 2012) that, over three episodes, described the origins of Life on planet Earth. Inspired by the series, Toni envisaged new dimensions and perspectives to the themes he’d explored in ‘Creation’, wondering about the nature of human beings and the question of their ultimate origin.
All the songs from ‘Creation’ were adapted for their live presentation and rearranged for a bespoke chamber ensemble comprising soprano, countertenor, female singer, piano, harp, violin, erhu, cello, trumpet, electric bass guitar, acoustic guitar, electric guitar with distortion, acoustic drums and electronic drums. Nature sounds such as birdsong, wind swirls and water textures were used as a sonic backdrop to the entire length of the piece, as if the performance was taking place in nature itself. Bespoke video art created in collaboration with London based video artist and RCA graduate Thomas Yeomans was also projected on a large screen behind the performers.
For the Union Chapel premiere Toni collaborated with British soprano from Portuguese and Iraqi descent Susan Jiwey, recipient of the Prix Bernac award for Best Singer at the Ravel International Academy. Susan was accompanied on stage by countertenor Oliver Gerrish and singer Roberta Howett. To develop the electronic side of the show, Toni collaborated with Adam John Williams, award-winning multi-disciplinary digital artist based in London who is also the director of the Music Tech Fest Hack Camp.
Life from Light (2014) - Collaboration with Tete-a-Tete Opera
“Life from Light” was readapted in 2014 by invitation of the Tete-a-Tete Opera Festival and, sponsored by the Arts Council England, was performed over two nights at London’s Kings Place Hall One in August 2014. For these performances Toni collaborated with soprano Meeta Raval. Meeta was a finalist at the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World 2011, winning the Dame Eva Turner Prize for “a soprano with dramatic potential” and the inaugural prize-winner at the Royal Academy of Music Pavarotti Prize. Meeta was accompanied on stage by soprano Camilla Kerslake, countertenor Oliver Gerrish and singer Roberta Howett. Adam John Williams still worked on the electronic parts of the performances.
To add a further dimension to his music, Toni also collaborated with Cuban jazz trumpeter Yelfris Valdés. Classically trained, from the age of 16 Yelfris started to play professionally participating in the most important Jazz and World Music festivals in Cuba, North America and Europe. In 2015 Yelfris became part of band for Carlos Acosta’s Cubanía at the Royal Opera House. Yelfris performed “Life from Light”’s scored trumpet part, complementing it with his jazz improvisations.
Slaves of Time (2015)
In 2015 Toni released his sixth studio album entitled “Slaves of Time” (2015) featuring his long term collaborator soprano Rebecca Nelsen. In the album Toni he explored his growing obsession with destiny, time and man’s obsession to try and control both. The album is more fractured than Toni’s previous work, reflecting struggles he is going through on his personal life. The theme of ‘choice’ is reflected across the album in a similar way to Jaco Van Dormael’s Mr. Nobody, how the choices we make can take us into different paths. Paraphrasing Tennessee Williams Van Dormael concludes that “every path is the right path. Everything could’ve been anything else and it would have had just as much meaning.” Toni explores the same subject from a different angle, wondering whether we somehow have already chosen the path we’ll eventually take, including its mistakes, to learn certain lessons.
In ‘Slaves of Time’ Toni also experimented for the first time with blending rap vocals with his operatic trademark sound. For this he collaborated with rapper Olly Hodding (known as OJ Hodding). The inclusion of rap vocals is the most innovative element in this album. On that subject, producer Will.I.Am discussed back in 2015 during an episode of The Voice at the BBC that “in 1991 Mary J Blige did something that no one was really doing in music, when she put R&B and rap, people were rapping and singing all on the same song. And that hasn’t been done in opera, no one’s attempted it.”
‘2045: The Year Man Becomes Immortal?’ (2016)
In 2016 Toni writes “2045: The Year Man Becomes Immortal?”, a live show based on the music of ‘Slaves of Time’ with some new compositions. Toni arranged the songs for a bespoke chamber ensemble comprising two sopranos, countertenor, chamber female choir, piano, violin, cello, cor anglais, electric bass guitar, acoustic guitar and electronic drums. Like in “Life from Light”, nature sounds were again used as a sonic backdrop to the entire length of the piece. In this occasion however these were combined with stellar sonification sounds of Kepler stars created by NASA. Whereas “Life from Light” intended to create an immersive experience as if the show was being experienced in nature, “2045: The Year Man Becomes Immortal” aimed to transcend the domains of planet Earth and include sounds from our Universe.
“2045: The Year Man Becomes Immortal?” was an article published on Time Magazine in 2011 by Lev Grossman. The article features Ray Kurzweil, Director of Engineering at Google Inc., who describes how we are approaching a moment when computers will become intelligent, and not just intelligent but more intelligent than humans, a phenomenon known as Technological Singularity. When that happens, humanity – our bodies, our minds, our civilization – will be completely and irreversibly transformed. Kurzweil believes that this moment is not only inevitable but imminent. According to his calculations, the end of human civilization as we know it is about 30 years away. Similarly, Vernor Vinge argues in his paper The Coming Technological Singularity that “we are on the edge of change comparable to the rise of human life on Earth. The precise cause of this change is the imminent creation by technology of entities with greater than human intelligence.” He also argues in his paper that shortly after achieving technological singularity, “the human era will be ended.”
Technological Singularity added a new dimension to the obsessions Toni reflected on “Slaves of Time”: destiny, time and man’s obsession to try and control both. Technological Singularity was the ultimate expression of man’s intention to try and control time and one’s inevitable destiny. Technological Singularity arises from the belief in oblivion after death, a belief Toni found contradictory with the law of conservation of energy in physics. “2045: The Year Man Becomes Immortal?” is therefore an exploration of what it means to live, die and wondering about the possibility of an afterlife. It wonders whether what makes us human is actually the fact that we are mortal, or whether we are already immortal, spiritual beings having a human existence.
“2045: The Year Man Becomes Immortal?” is 55min. long and is structured in 5 sections mirroring the five stages of a fruit tree, a classic metaphor for the cyclic nature of life. The first three sections explore the process from life to death, the last two open to door to immortality. These two blocks are exactly separated at the Golden Ratio at 34min. All the timings of the individual segments and subsegments of the piece follow nature’s omnipresent Fibonacci Sequence.
Music, Art and Philanthropy
While in London Toni has been involved in a variety of events that combine music, art and philanthropy. 'Buy Music Get Art' was a groundbreaking scheme created by Toni Castells in 2008, becoming the first time a work of contemporary art was sold through a limited edition music CD. Edvarda Braanaas’s 'Ceci n'est pas une fille’ was divided into 100 shares, each of which was sold through 100 limited edition CDs of Toni's 2007 performance in Bush Hall. The 'Buy Music Get Art' scheme was launched in 2008 at Maddox Arts Gallery in Mayfair at the opening of “Viva Lolita”, exhibition curated by James Putnam.
'Love in the Sky' was created in 2007 by Toni Castells with the intention of bringing together a group of young and emerging artists and make them collaborate in trying to capture the essence of LOVE through an image. 'Love in the Sky' launched successfully on the 30th of June of 2009 at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, thanks to funding from the Lottery Fund and in collaboration with Nina Rennie-Gustard from Nueluxe.
Participating artists were Colin Barnes, Matt Black, Rudy de Belgeonne, Johnny Blue Eyes, Nigel Burnett Hodd, Ned Conran, Liz Dalton, Goldie, Gary Harvey, Eleanor Lyndsay-Finn, Max Lowry, Bruno Maag, Munir Malik, Hoda Mazloomian, Natalie Meyjes, Ben Moore, Jody Norbury, Paul Persky, Dan Prescott, Petroc Sesti, Sara Shamsavari, Baccara Smart, Stedhead, Zak Walters, Leah Wood, Ada Zanditon.
The works of art the artists created, always in collaboration, were auctioned on the night by ex-Sotheby's and Christie's Auctioneer Terence Rodriguez on benefit of Coram, a charity who's been providing better chances for underprivileged children since 1739, raising in excess of £8,000.
Toni is also the founder of Xmas Rocks for Charity, a fundraising Christmas time concert that took place in 2007 at the Notting Hill Community Church to raise money for Depression Alliance and the Mood Foundation.
In the years to come Toni had the opportunity to collaborate with Multi-Grammy Award-Winning classical producer Michael Haas, Spanish pop star, X-Factor finalist Roberta Howett, sopranos Hayley Westenra, Camilla Kerslake and Laura Wright and American tenor Noah Stewart in his number 1 self-titled debut album writing “Campos de Oro”, the Spanish adaptation of Sting’s “Fields of Gold”.