The orchestra is some sort of human forest. A wildwood of pernambuco and rosewood and boxwood and spruce, glinting nickel silver, coils of polished brass. The rehearsal studio lights blaze downward; plastic audio deflectors bounce the sound back at you. At the back of the room there are arrays of gongs, aluminium bell plates and tam tams, as if to mark some metallic world’s edge.

Anyone ordinary would be intimidated by this vast human pile, yet conductor Vimbayi Kaziboni is ebullient and irrepressible. He is in Manchester to present a new programme of contemporary music with the BBC Philharmonic. The music he has been rehearsing for the last two days is difficult, unfamiliar, greeted with frowns and scepticism. Much of the music is simply unheard: the programme features two world premieres.

Vimbayi Kaziboni
© Ensemble Modern | Wonge Bergmann

Born in Zimbabwe, Vimbayi Kaziboni emigrated with his family to the US when he was thirteen. Training as a percussionist and playing in youth orchestras in Nebraska, he gained a scholarship to USC Thornton School of Music in Los Angeles. In his second year as an undergraduate he was already arranging his own performances, conducting the second act of The Marriage of Figaro.

After the rehearsal is over, I ask him about being intimidated by the orchestra. “I’m sleepless before every first rehearsal. With every new piece, every new orchestra, if it’s a first rehearsal. Not even a new orchestra, even an old orchestra!” You wouldn’t guess it. Despite the difficulty of the material, Kaziboni is warm, direct, speaks with rapidity. He seems to know the music as if he has performed it hundreds of times. His conducting is rhythmic and clearly articulated, with a certainty of pulse, and with effortlessness in the frequently accelerating and decelerating tempos and changing time signatures of this thorny music. When rehearsing, as he gives two beats before the beginning of the phrase, he frequently says “and– now–”, as if to highlight the presentness of the moment.

Vimbayi Kaziboni in rehearsal with the BBC Philharmonic
© Bachtrack | Lawrence Dunn

Being a percussionist, twentieth-century and contemporary music exerts a strong influence – Kaziboni founded a contemporary music ensemble while still at Thornton. “Percussionists are dealing with colour, rhythm and all these things that you are not dealing with so much in Mozart. In Mozart it might just be the triangle or the timpani.” Other conductors have started out life as percussionists, and it typically gives them an openness to contemporary music, I suggest. “Definitely. Simon Rattle is the most famous, Brad Lubman was a percussionist, Jeffrey Milarsky was a percussionist.”

This openness to colour and to contemporary music has led to an acclaimed career since Kaziboni’s graduation, working with virtually every major contemporary music group across Europe and the US. They include long associations with Ensemble Modern and Ensemble Intercontemporain as well as performances with the London Sinfonietta, Ensemble Contrechamps (Geneva), the International Contemporary Ensemble (New York), amongst others.

Vimbayi Kaziboni conducts Ensemble Modern in Georg Friedrich Haas’ weiter und weiter und weiter...

Conducting this kind of music often poses challenges quite unlike more common practice material. We discuss a recent premiere at Donaueschingen, a new work by Austrian composer Georg Friedrich Haas, which comprises a single, forty-five minute accelerando. “In seven! In seven!” Kaziboni exclaims. “You start at quarter note equals thirty – one... two...” (he draws long, languid movements in the air with his arms) “and you end up at quarter note equals 210! Each acceleration lasts three minutes. From quarter note equals thirty, to 210 – and then it starts again. They’re modulations. At 210, each quarter note becomes a septuplet at quarter note equals 30. And then you do it all over again!”

“There’s just no way of ending a piece like that,” he adds. “So what the composer does is just to allow it to disintegrate – and people leave the stage. When they finish playing, they leave, and then suddenly there’s no one on stage!” (This actually happens during the rehearsal. As the clocks tick over 5pm, musicians begin abruptly to depart, despite a minute of music still being left of the run-through. Kaziboni is unfazed.)

Vimbayi Kaziboni and Ensemble Modern at Donaueschingen 2022
© Heinz Bunse

Kaziboni is in Manchester to conduct the BBC Philharmonic in about as high-tech a project as any orchestra would potentially engage in. It is a showcase for the musical research of PRiSM (Practice and Research in Science and Music), a joint project between the Royal Northern College of Music and Manchester University, drawing together scientists, mathematicians, writers and composers. Founded by composer Emily Howard and mathematician Marcus du Sautoy, two of the pieces on the programme are by Howard – Antisphere, one of her works concerned with geometric forms, and Elliptics, a setting of a by turns abstract and emotive text by poet Michael Symmons Roberts. (Howard and Symmons Roberts had worked together previously with the BBC Philharmonic in 2019 on a project called The Anvil, a multimedia dramatisation of the Peterloo massacre.)

But the core of the evening is to be Robert Laidlow’s new three-movement work Silicon, drawing together his research on artificial intelligence in music and its application in an orchestral context. “Each movement uses AI in a slightly different way,” he says, before the performance on Saturday. “In the first movement, the AI generated sheet music: I would write some music, and the AI would continue it. It’s a sort of conversational structure at the beginning, which gets weirder and weirder. In the second movement, you can literally hear the AI in real-time being played by the synth player. The instrument takes one sound and uses AI to transform it into another sound. What you hear is a transformation, like a mask, placed over the audio.”

The third movement is different again: “we took about thirty years of BBC Philharmonic broadcasts and trained an AI to make new broadcasts based on what it learnt, from this huge archive. You do hear orchestral sounds, but because it doesn’t differentiate between sound and music in the way that we do, you also hear the audience clapping, the presenters introducing the concerts, the orchestra tuning up, and all those other sounds that are really part of the DNA of the orchestra.”

Vimbayi Kaziboni conducts Robert Laidlow’s Silicon with the BBC Philharmonic
© BBC | Beth Wells

Listening to the concert on Saturday evening, what really strikes me is the humanity of the music. Laidlow’s piece is about the gaze of the machine on the human world. On the variousness and multiplicity of human music-making, and how machines have been taught to imitate and generate their own responses to it. It is the third movement that is most emotionally affecting: a bespoke AI algorithm trained on thousands of hours of broadcasts from the very orchestra we are watching. The orchestra is interacting with its machine-gaze reflection, its own historical existence, its own refracted past. I am drawn back to Kaziboni’s spoken impulse when rehearsing, his “and– now–” upbeat. How it crystallises this interaction between past and future.

I first watched Kaziboni conduct in a performance he gave of Gérard Grisey’s Les Espaces Acoustiques – a huge hundred-minute cycle of ensemble and orchestral pieces from the 1970s and 80s, the pinnacle of French Spectralism. I am reminded of its concluding piece, Transitoires, during the last movement of Silicon – in both works, the orchestra builds into a huge mass of sound, a wall of pure timbre. “Grisey might be my favourite composer,” Kaziboni says. “The first time you hear Transitoires, it’s amazing. In Les Espaces up until then, the music is building, and it’s exhilarating, you’re focused the whole time, it’s fascinating – but Transitoires changes your life. Hearing it in a good hall, you think ‘whoa, what is that?!’ It’s the first time you really hear the whole band. That was the last time my life changed with music, with Transitoires.”

Vimbayi Kaziboni conducting Les Espaces Acoustiques with Ensemble Contrechamps

Kaziboni’s projects over the coming months include a new premiere by the US composer George Lewis. Over the past two years, Kaziboni has been performing a programme for Ensemble Modern, put together by Lewis: Afro-Modernism in Contemporary Music. Lewis’s work has for several decades been focused on issues of Black history and experience within the musical avant-garde, but this programme represents the first time he has gathered together a whole group of composers with similar musical outlooks. The composers included are from around the world: Daniel Kidane, Tania León, Jessie Cox, Alvin Singleton, Hannah Kendall, and Andile Khumalo. With the programme now having been performed in Berlin, Frankfurt, Essen, Hamburg, Cologne, Amsterdam, and soon Vienna, in many ways the project is quite unprecedented.

Kaziboni talks specifically about South African composer Andile Khumalo’s music: “I think he’s really interesting! There’s a piece called Cry Out, for a small band, I love that piece. He’s doing what he calls ‘Afro-Spectralism’! The moments when you hear the spectralism happening, it’s a wonderfully different sound world. For example, in the piano concerto that we do in the Afro-Modernism programme, the piano is always coloured by the marimba, he alludes a lot to the African xylophone, balafon, and I think it’s fascinating. As far as colour goes, it has this kind of multi-style.”

Ensemble Modern’s Afro-Modernism in Contemporary Music project curated by George Lewis

“The Afro-Modernism project is very important because it’s the first very seriously high-profile iteration of music and politics of this kind,” Kaziboni continues. It is only recently that the classical music world has began to wholeheartedly respond to the Movement for Black Lives, and this project by Ensemble Modern represents a significant response. “George Lewis has been doing certain things individually. He was writing a lot of pieces and articles, but for the first time you saw others co-signing, and Ensemble Modern deciding to do this project and do it everywhere. And there was a two-day symposium, where many people gathered together to talk about all this – this was in the height of the pandemic. It’s wild. So that was big for German contemporary music.”

I think again about Kaziboni’s comment on the “life-changing” nature of Transitoires, and of how music interacts with life – represents it, takes on its aspects, reflects parts of it back to us. How music is made out of life, and if we allow it to, it might be able to alter it completely.