Blog

March 11th, 2016

Making Irrealis

May 27th, 2022

DÉBUT

FRIENDSHIP, COLLABORATION, AND THE UNREAL

These pieces were made barely moments after recording a piece for another project – caught impulsively, but also on the precipice of velleity from which much of my work seems to emerge. There is a liminality to these proceedings, but on the conclusion of each piece, there seemed an impetus to continue onto the next, and again to the next. Recorded in one sitting, these seven pieces are meditations of a sort, each possessing an implicit musical character that is dedicated to those individuals to whom I feel the music belongs.

My own Public Relations blurb above is not an accurate account of how the music came into being. The following is an attempt to discuss the resulting music through the mechanisms of friendship and collaboration, the slippery meaning behind the album title, the whys and hows of deciding on whom to gift my music; and how the physicalisation of all this was mirrored in the making of the album artwork.

INTERIORITY LEADS THE WAY – Robert Bresson

All of this started way back (exactly ten years ago), when a gentleman came to buy a synthesiser from me on a particularly hostile evening, clutching a cache of records under his arm… Little did I know that this was Glenn Armstrong – aesthete, curator, producer, founder of Coup D’Archet record label, lovely human being. I had no idea that this meeting would also lead to a very dear friendship, and even less that we would collaborate on one of the most unique and extraordinary projects I’ve ever been involved with. The work in question (let’s call it Project S) is firmly under wraps for the time being, but I’m mentioning it here because it is precisely the journey of our friendship, and of the ups and downs of making work together that led directly to the music on Irrealis. 

In short, these pieces resulted because of a failed attempt to remedy a wobbly track, and to divine a similar spirit to the Project S recording sessions that had taken place some twelve months prior. Although this track fix was out of my reach, it was the weight of experience only an intense immersion (of many years) in a substantive project that brought about the setting in which this music could emerge.

I owe much to the assignment of my collaborator in that these pieces are succinct, impulsive, and are contrasting in narrative, melodic sensibility, and harmonic character to the subject of Project S, and emerge from a quality of lack, or absence. My view here is that music is more of an appearance from a reassembled table of contents, or scrobbled inventory of experience. It is a meshwork of practice, communion with the piano, thinking, listening, and refining or building through abstract means, those links and bridges between disparate ideas; and sometimes of holding on to the threads of things heard and noted years ago, only for them to reemerge, refracted through the physicalisation of performance in the present. By acknowledging an absence of intent (velleity), I also acknowledge the Catch-22 that Irrealis was only possible due to the significance of friendship(s), and the weight of preceding simpatico collaborative work (not to mention the consumption of a shit-ton of Co-Op Viognier, C19th literature, art, discussions about modernist furniture, Full-English breakfasts, Alfred Deller, 1960s/1970s British Jazz, Samson François, and rare vinyl heard through some of the finest valve HiFi amplifiers courtesy of Gary Wood). 

With all of this now in focus, what follows is a brief account of how these things are realised through performative mechanisms.

COMMUNION

With the piano already prepared, failed attempts recorded – the seven consecutive improvisations that followed capture the sound of exploring a new instrument for the first time. Placing foreign objects on/in between the piano strings is not my usual style – preferring the limitation of bare hands and the possibility of bloody injury…

Pianist and composer Keith Tippett was someone who also favoured the alteration of a conventional piano sound to introduce different ‘characters’ into a performance – his own solution to the problem of ‘fixed’ preparations (the insertion of screws, nuts, bolts etc. can be time consuming to set up, and almost as long to remove, depending on the situation), was through utilising light pieces of wood, large pebbles, music boxes, plastic toys etc., that could be easily placed/removed. Here though, I approximated the setup from the original Project S sessions:

PROJECT S

IRREALIS

THE FIRST IDEA

Each of the pieces begin with what I refer to as the first idea, which is simply a way to describe the act of surrender by deliberate listening to whatever sound(s) arise in the first instance, intentional or otherwise (it is often those which arise unintentionally that are of most use or interest to an improviser). It’s a kind of bearing witness to sound, and then committing to following its lead over any preconceived ideas that might have arisen otherwise. In addition, the piano on Irrealis was only prepared from the middle C key upwards (the lowest note in the aforementioned Project S piece). Aside from Jane, all of the pieces are played with middle C as the lowest note – with the reduced range providing useful limitation. 

TITLE

Irrealis is a grammatical marker / set of linguistic moods that refer to any clause that may be imaginary instead of actually true / indicate action(s) that are not known to have occurred at the moment the speaker is talking. It is also the title of a poem by Dorothy Lehane, taken from Places of Articulation (Dancing Girl Press, 2014). The following paragraph retrospectively forces a definition onto the music – creating a bullshit narrative which implies that I chose this word deliberately – over simply appropriating it because I liked its ambiguity and irrelevance:

Irrealis also describes, in a lateral sense, my own process of musicking – where personal communion with, or escape, into the intangible / invisible world of sound is a place of unconditional trust and truth. I cannot however commune and receive simultaneously. It is only through recording, and listening afterwards, that a temporary glimpse into this irreal universe is possible, where the outcome often appears imaginary, or dream-like in the real world. And whilst we’re at it, these pieces are also an expression of sonic unreality; a hybrid created by an interdependence of conventional piano architecture, some Blu-Tack, and a few packs of M6 roof bolts from B&Q.

DEDICATION

I’m rather fond of dedicating or gifting my work to those who are/have been significant to me (most often the latter), extending to anyone who has had an involvement in or around the time of making the music, listed under ‘personal gratitude’ somewhere on the album sleeve(s). The process usually involves listening to any given piece several times until it evokes the idea of something, or someone – followed by a shortlist, then leaving it for a few days until making the final decision. A while ago I figured that most titles of anything are always abstract, and so why not be named after people? My official quip about dedications is that you don’t want one – with most dedicatees being either ex-girlfriends or dead (but curiously never a combination of both). There are however exceptions to this rule, especially in Irrealis, where the ratio of ex-girlfriend/dead : living is 2 : 7.

  • Jane is for my mother; 

  • Laurent Dehors is a kindred spirit. I love him dearly, and feel blessed to have known him and played so much incredible music with him over the last sixteen years; 

  • Alice is an ex, yet thankfully we remain friends; 

  • Armando is dedicated to the late pioneering jazz pianist Armando Anthony ‘Chick’ Corea – I’ve long enjoyed his music, and this dedication is made on account of the presence of some ‘Chick-sounding’ right hand phrases.

ART

SPLIT & THE PEOPLE POWERED PRESS

Oli Bentley is founder of Split, an independent design studio based at Salts Works, West Yorkshire – and is also home to the largest letterpress in the World – the People Powered Press. Oli wanted to make a letterpress printing that mirrored the quick, impulsive approach to preparing the piano and making the music, and thus used a selection of wood and metal type, and other letterpress wood blocks – all originally destined for use in other ways. The design was made entirely in the bed of the printing press, and without any sort of digital mock up or design beforehand.

If you look closely, you can also see guitarist/vocalist Jon Gomm’s very own signature plectrum. Jon is an old friend, and he just so happened to be crossing the road outside. This serendipitous meeting meant that he had to be involved: creative work as an extension of human relationships…

You said it was like some sort of dream

(how are you at endings?)

FIN



Studio Build Part I // Not making a brick but building a wall

December 16th, 2020

INTROIT

What follows is a sort of photo blog, chronicling the period between April-December 2020. This was time spent neither making any new music, nor being particularly creative.

I felt a sense that this is what was expected of musicians (or of myself) – as if the pandemic has presented an unmissable and golden opportunity to create, to invent radical ways of expressing one’s creativity through a series of meaningful musical statements, and as musicians, we should make it our duty to rise to this occasion, or something. I’m being deliberately obtuse, but this is only as I felt the pressure to create at a time where there was no excuse not to. These circumstances have had the opposite effect, and permitted a stillness and the suspension of being habitually musical for a little while. Suddenly there was time to reimagine, reassess and reaffirm immediate surroundings after almost twenty years of physical transience, collaboration, travel, and communing with the invisible power in music. Instead, I have swapped this for communing with the very literal bedrock on which my home rests – moving vast quantities of earth and stone to create and alter a physical space, and perhaps uncovering opportunities to learn something about myself whilst doing it.

In short, I’m building a studio, and have decided to chart its progress through a series of blogs – mainly as not to forget what / how things happened, and also as it’s a useful place to gather images captured during the work itself.  The very opposite of Grand Designs magazine (they rarely if ever show photographs other than the completed project). First, the access to the house itself had to be widened, making it easier for site vehicles to enter. Before launching into detail, an epiphany from March 2020:

NO ONE ELSE IS GOING TO HELP YOU

Although I’ve learned much from the endeavours that follow, letting go of the concept that others might blindly help you out – professional or otherwise; was a rare moment of clarity. Almost everything that follows (save for the wall rebuild), was done by hand, and was done alone.

THE WORK

Previously, the swing-round up to the driveway entrance was extremely problematic for most vehicles. A newly-erected fence to the left of the approach made access by anything exceeding the wheelbase dimensions of a small transit van virtually impossible. Removing the gate/gatepost didn’t really make much difference.

 

Note the lower wall/raised garden area leading to the coal sheds, and beyond that – one of two 13+ft Leylandii hedgerows.

LEYLANDII HEDGEROW REMOVAL – BEFORE / AFTER

 

 

(UN)CONTROLLED SHED DEMOLITION & WALL #1 DISASSEMBLY

With the trees removed, attention was turned to demolishing the sheds at the head of the wall, behind which stood a 1200-litre oil tank, which was then sold on eBay, along with the external boiler, for £500.

 

It was then collected by a couple who PUSHED the tank from the house almost half a mile to the main road and into a truck that wouldn’t fit down the lane. They were able to heat their water thenceforth, and I looked forward to cold showers for at least the following month.

  

With the demolition of stone buildings, chipping off old mortar/cement from the stone by hand was needed so it can be reused for dry stone walling. Taking around a day and a half to clean the stone with a lump hammer and chisel was a strangely meditative act. Stone by stone, all of the lower wall was disassembled, exposing the earth/bank behind it. Up to this point, all of this work was done without machinery – everything completed by hand/wheelbarrow, save for those occasions where a garden tractor and trailer was used to move loose stone to the ever-growing piles of stone around the house.

JCB 8014 – ACQUISITION / OPERATION

Three separate people advised purchasing a mini excavator as a way to save on throwing money away on operator/hire costs for the duration of the project ahead. As plant machinery depreciates much slower than cars, for example, I stand to sell it at not too much less than I paid for it. Although I now love it too much to think of parting with it…

At no point in my life to date did I ever think I would purchase a JCB after viewing a two-minute WhatsApp video of it in action from Matt at Budd Plant, then teach myself to operate it after studying a PDF of the Operator’s Manual and a couple of YouTube videos. But I did. Despite my additional delivery instructions, it arrived on the back of a vehicle that was almost too large for the main road itself. A human being can crawl on hands and knees faster than it takes to track a JCB up a half-mile lane.

After an interminable journey home, the work began. The difficulties included, but were not limited to:

Complete unfamiliarity and lack of any practical experience whatsoever with the machine;

As the driveway is already very narrow, squaring up to the work was not possible, and often collected only very small loads;

Avoiding neighbouring windows was essential, whereas utility meter boxes are fair game;

Both the lack of and/or effectiveness of using a dumper truck (including another person to operate it) meant tracking back and forth from worksite to garden to dump loads of earth was both time consuming and tedious;

Attempting to excavate/collect at high/above ground level and at odd angles;

Figuring out how to use excavated earth to level/grade uneven ground on a sloped site.

With these difficulties present, I was able to achieve a haphazard baptism of fire that boasted few witnesses. Since taking ownership in May, I’ve clocked just over 130 hours of time on this machine and can beat anyone in my postcode at a game of Tiddlywinks using only the edge of the grading bucket.

BEDROCK

And then, the fun began: the closer to the field wall base the excavation became, the enormity of the stones uncovered increased in disproportionate size and frequency. The JCB can do much to prise these from the ground, but may of them caused the excavator to tilt forward or fling it backwards if it lost its grip, meaning that many of the larger stones / boulders had to be started off using a pinch bar (point & chisel) and shovel to loosen the surrounding earth/small stones holding them in place. This was the case along its almost 40-metre length, including the lowering of the footpath section behind where the trees once were.


 

What often seemed like medium-sized stones on the surface, turned out to be three times their size once unearthed. Below are two photos of the same piece of stone. This and many others like it are now a striking feature in some of the base sections of the rebuilt wall.

UTILITIES – GAS & ELECTRICITY

GAS

Oh yeah, and as I’d completely removed the means to heat hot water, meant that I had to carefully locate the mains gas supply in the field above, then dig a near-vertical trench from the field level to a depth of 500mm below driveway level (a total 3 metres in height), and over to the house . Here’s how that went:

This last photograph belies a whole day of jackhammering through 1m of solid rock to reach the required trench depth for the supply pipe. Bastard.

ELECTRICITY

Neighbouring this trench by only a few feet, was the mains electricity supply – uncovered whilst excavating the wall base. Without the necessary slack to bury it behind the newly-built wall, more time and expense ensued, which meant rebuilding/negotiating it for six weeks before the cable could be extended. Bastard.

STRIPPING OUT

Stripping Out is a dry stone walling term used to describe the systematic dismantling and laying out of the stone on the ground, placed as close as possible to the wall base, in descending size order. With the raised bank now removed, and the earth used to flatten the upper garden slope beneath the fenced footpath section, stripping out of the main field wall could now begin. The JCB was perfect for loosening/pulling the stones out, but these still had to be manoeuvred and placed out as described above by hand. Kind of. In addition, there was a never-ending amount of loose earth and smaller stones – making the work unbearably dusty in hot weather, and almost unworkable in the wet. The following photos are in no particular order, but show the general mayhem, confined site space, and the increasing levels of insanity experienced on a daily basis.

 

   
                     

ON THE SEEMING INSURMOUNTABILITY OF THIS TASK

Around now seems apposite to introduce an element of quasi-philosophical reflection on this endeavour. Looking at these photographs months after the event is an odd experience. Collected here in this fashion, their flattened expression says nothing of what was going on internally for me. Pretty much every day I woke up at 6am for yoga practice, had coffee, then ventured out. On approaching wherever I’d left off the previous day, I’d purposefully ignore the enormity of the work ahead – instead focussing on a single/set of stubborn rocks or a pile of earth that seemed never to diminish, until wondering what the hell I was doing with my life. More coffee (+biscuits) usually followed after several hours, then back out again. Then lunch. After that, I’d typically work continuously, hitting my stride at around 17:00, then work until around 18:00, or sometimes later. In light of the current situation, I felt blessed by the good weather, the temperature, the outside space; and although I cannot say the same for the pandemic, I did nonetheless feel that this enforced stasis was grounding me to a sense of place in a way I’d never experienced before. As mentioned in the opening paragraph of this blog, the years of moving around have never appeared more vivid than in their absence. So day after day, for what seemed like countless weeks, I worked at nothing. At the conclusion of each day I would look at what I’d done, and see nothing. My father, who visited me during the summer, came out one day to help with some of the work, and remarked on this sense of slowness, and on the visible lack of progress after the passing of many hours spent trying to unsuccessfully force a single rock from the ground. There is very little to show for it, almost forever.

Then there was the indescribable joy of cleaning up, cooking a simple meal at the end of the day, and then sitting outside to eat it with a glass of something alcoholic and being completely overwhelmed by tiredness in some sort of post-marathon relief.

This was followed by more alcohol and time at the piano with some Ravel, Debussy or anything else that took my fancy. William Baines, perhaps. Then bed. Then repeat all of the above for as long as it takes.

I was not consciously working on my own music, nor on composition, nor working on technique or facility. There was no searching, no furrowed brow artistic struggle to become anything other than someone who enjoys playing a bit of piano to unwind after some hard manual graft.

Let’s rewind a little, and to an edition of Chipping Norton Music Festival, sometime in the early 1990s… I remember playing in a couple of concerts and receiving feedback from adjudicators, and in one such concert, a burly-looking man strolled up to the piano and played a Chopin Scherzo (in Bb Minor). He didn’t have the appearance of a musician, but someone of a very different vocation. I could see it immediately in his hands: they resembled those of my farmer uncle, Erik Tutt. Erik had thick, leathery, weatherbeaten hands that could milk cows or work mechanised farm equipment with ease and deftness. Back in Chippy, I found the man’s performance of Chopin simultaneously exhilarating and hilarious. This was someone whose embodiment of the piece seemed so total, and was playing the music purely for the joy of it – not to be a professional, but to be something that gave context to and is an extension of the quotidian of daily life. I have no idea whether he was or was not a professional musician, a farmer, a part-time care assistant, or what. But my reading of the potential of this performance was something I have solidified and carried with me ever since. The concept of being able to enjoy the power in music and not be a professional musician was exciting to me – as it offered an alternative solace to a teenager looking to music for alternative routes, or lateral answers to deep-seated inadequacies. Making a short story long, falling into this daily routine almost by accident this year, I managed to fulfil something of that dream: I became that man at the music festival.

FIELD RETAINING WALL – REBUILD

Philip Dolphin is arguably one of the finest dry stone wallers in the country – and luckily, lives only up the road in Skipton. Out of three people I contacted, Philip was the only person to respond and not be intimidated by the scale off the work. He’s also one of the nicest people on the planet. Philip and his colleague (also named Phil, pictured below), turned up day after day, and made a work of art.

 

 

    

STILE

In 2013, on the day I collected the keys to the house, the footath was overgrown, badly maintained, and its surface was waterlogged due to a blocked field drain. Here’s how it looked before/after the rebuild:

On lowering the footpath level, I uncovered a second field drain, which appeared to be out of commission, so simply filled it in/carried on with the rest of the work. Then it rained, and I discovered that it wasn’t out of commission at all. Further excavation was required to find/uncover the drain, and attempt to bridge or link the disjointed flow of water. Mistake successfully corrected, after much unnecessary work. Lesson learned…

DRIVEWAY / GATES & RAILINGS

Up to now, all of the work had churned up the driveway/footpath surfaces into a horizontal mud landslide, so twelve tonnes of crushed sandstone (14mm-00mm) was delivered, compacted. And to say nothing of the hardcore beneath it, taking many hours of sledgehammer work to reduce various site rubble down to a usable size (cue Peter Gabriel’s Sledgehammer / DIY). Andrew Brind fabricated the gates and estate railings, which were fitted, welded, and painted on site.

EPILOGUE : STONE

And now for some poetry: pictured below is a piece of Cotswold stone – quarried only a few miles from my childhood ends near Ebrington, Gloustershire. My very good friend, Glenn Armstrong collected it, and, brandishing his stonemason’s tools for the first time in thirty-one years, cut and made impeccable work of the inscription. It’s uncanny: a stone object associated with my boyhood past, situated within my current geography, hand carved by a dear friend in my youthful(!) present. Now that is a gift…

I’ll leave it there. Wishing everyone a safe and sound Christmas holiday, and let’s hope we all emerge into a much less insane 2021. x

Stay tuned for Part II. In the next instalment you will learn how I got into/out of this…

TO BE CONTINUED…



Be ready, always: on working with Keith Tippett

April 9th, 2020

ENTÊTE

This blog is a mixture of personal reflection, thoughts on process, on how working with Keith Tippett has helped reshape the topography of my piano/performance practice, and deserved praise for the work and pianism of one of the most significant musicians of our time.

BACKGROUND

Since discovering Keith Tippett’s music (Mujician I, II, III / Dedicated to You, But You Weren’t Listening / Septober Energy / Frames) as a student at Leeds College of Music in the late 1990s, I’ve been fascinated and stimulated by Keith’s musical universe. I remember one of our first meetings – he was a guesting with Stitch Winston’s Modern Surfaces, just over the road at The Wardrobe. I was part of a trio with bassist Riaan Vosloo, and drummer Dave Black – we played odd lunchtimes, and before most of the evening concerts organised by Leeds Jazz (usually in front of the main artists whilst they ate their pre-gig meal) – in exchange for £5, a little food, and free entry into the gigs downstairs. I saw Keith’s name in the programme, and prepared arrangements of a couple of his own compositions and included them in the set. Thanks to the supportive management at the time (James & Martin Hudson), we were given carte blanche and weren’t afraid of playing out or making more adventurous moves in this setting, and, as a trio, had mastered the subtle art of doing what we wanted musically; without upsetting any of the punters (avant-garde subterfuge). So, we did our thing. Sitting downstairs before the gig, I felt a hand on my shoulder and the words “Were you the piano player from upstairs?”. I confessed, and Keith then complemented me on the music, on not being afraid to play more adventurous stuff on a restaurant gig, and generally reaching out in support of what we were up to. To have confirmation that we were on the right track from someone like Keith, was huge. 

 

Over the years, Keith and I continued to meet at gigs, chat about music, and even once Keith phoned me at home after listening to a recording of a 2003 Bath Jazz Festival commission with Bourne Davis Kane; offering generous words of support. It wasn’t until we met by chance backstage at the 2016 Herts Jazz Festival that Keith suggested we do some playing together. I was travelling to London that evening, and met up the following day with John Cumming for a long-overdue pint… I mentioned the conversation with Keith, and wondered if anyone would be interested in hearing us play live – to which John responded with “Well, I would – how about a gig at Kings Place at London Jazz Festival next year?”.

RECALIBRATION

“There’s too much directing going on around here” –  Orson Welles

Keith and I had arranged to meet up in Bristol once a month for several months leading up to the 2017 LJF concert. Initially, I was daunted by the prospect of playing with someone whose approach to piano playing I so admired, and had stolen (or at least attempted) so much from. Our first musical meeting, after several afternoons of conversation at Keith’s home, took place at The Victoria Rooms under the auspices of Bristol University, and set the format for all subsequent occasions: playing, conversation, playing, tea break/conversation, playing, etc.

I recall the very first few minutes of playing together and immediately realised that something unfamiliar was occurring, internally. I found myself shunted from my usual ‘place’ into another dimension altogether: suddenly there was no room for superficiality of any kind, and the conscious directorial prompts usually present in these situations (“do this” / “do that” / “go here next” / “damn – I should have warmed up as I can’t articulate myself clearly – and sound shit” / “that’s Keith Tippett sitting over there, and I can’t be fucking about…”), were unbearably loud and intrusive. They were not the TRUTH of the situation. I had been unaware as to how loud these internal prompts had become, and amazed at how active and alive they are in their guise as comforting whispers as part of my practice both on and offstage.

Unearthing these interruptions prompted a need to confront and reevaluate their function: What are they doing for me now? What use are they? and ultimately – Are they the truth? Probably not.  My hunch is that these are leftovers – mental artefacts that were an important part of a highly frenetic thought processes that informed my earlier solo work, where Zorn-like musical jump cuts were a prominent feature, and ‘fifth gear’ thinking ahead to the next texture/gesture/sample/technique, was an absolute necessity for the effectiveness of musical execution. In this particular setting, there seemed neither use nor room for them, and have watched them gradually still, transmute themselves into more useful characteristics, or become muted altogether. Whatever is happening, I don’t wish to observe too closely, nor consciously action my evaluations onto/into the processes that are naturally unfolding. Cue Orson Welles…

COMMUNION

Typically, Keith and I would naturally play for around twenty/twenty-five minutes a session, with around three sessions in each meeting. Before our first concert in London, we were kindly given access to Colston Hall, Bristol, on a Sunday afternoon. Filmed by Ray Kane, the session below is a rare and intimate excerpt of this meeting, and illustrates the emergence of a burgeoning musical synergy.

Having now played with Keith a number of times, I was beginning to intimately understand the range and scale of Keith’s dedication to the instrument through daily practice. Note that this work does not make its appearance by way of quotation or verbatim account (incidentally, neither of us ‘practice’ improvisation at home). One example of this can be found on the re-release of Keith’s seminal, and largely overlooked solo piano album, The Unlonely Raindancer. The titles on this album were taken from a series of recordings that were made on a solo tour of The Netherlands in 1979. They are unmatched in their musical imaginativeness and pianistic virtuosity. Even more startling is that these pieces are only fragments of a much larger whole: whilst on tour, Keith was playing three sets a night for almost a fortnight, with each set averaging from twenty-five to forty minutes in duration. The title track is taken from a single thirty-minute set, and (on the album), concludes as things are beginning to pick up in the context of the full set:

Alongside the transmutation of practice-specific work into a more spontaneous-sounding language in performance, are the often shorter, gestural ‘thumbprints’ each musician possesses that also find their way into a performance. The presence of a lexicon of techniques or favourite phrases is certainly not foreign to many improvising musicians – particularly in more conventional jazz settings, where any number might figure in various guises thought the course of a solo. To paraphrase jazz pianist, composer, and educator Bill Kinghorn:

“Whatever it is we do in the practice room we can only hope that this work translates through into an improvisation, somehow… To repeat verbatim is not the objective. But rather, that this daily work may manifest or reveal itself, refracted through the lens of each performance situation. That’s the fascinating thing about it: no one can explain exactly how it works…”

Keith’s view of how he uses his own familiar elements takes a more structural view, and one that considers them amidst a conceptual and durational reach; where their emergence are as a direct result of how each improvisation progresses:

“It’s not so much that they are thrown in arbitrarily, it’s more about how and where they are placed within the architecture of an improvisation; and about being able to survey the whole landscape of the piece as it unfolds.”

Surveying and evaluating an unfolding sonic landscape will be familiar to anyone who has witnessed any substantial improvised performance. One phenomenon that is common to all of our duo performances is a perceptual ‘shortening’, or suspension of chronological time whilst onstage. Curiously enough, this feeling is almost always shared by our audiences, and have received many remarks such as “It felt as if only ten minutes had gone by”, or, “Really, was that forty minutes?”. Such responses correlate exactly with our own perception of events, and confirm my own feelings in respect to the gradual erosion of aforementioned ‘mental artefacts’.  A deeper immersion and attention to the music at hand is the result, and an absence of obstruction that permits a triangulation of events between performer, music, and audience: where the audience is not merely a passive presence; experiencing it, but an equal participant in its creation. This was definitely the case for our concert at the 2018 Marsden Jazz Festival, where our musical journey was very much felt together with the audience. It was my very first experience of an audience rising unanimously rise to their feet, and despite the emotive impact of the situation, Keith remarked as we left the stage:

Not even the very best gigs feel like that – they won’t forget that for a good while. They were transported, just as we were”. 

Keith has often describes his own motivation for making improvised music as a desire to “transport people out of chronological time”. Anyone who has seen Keith perform, will have observed the concentrated reverence and space that Keith affords which are both prologue and epilogue to these improvisations: eyes fully closed in respect for any sounds which have yet to arise, or at its close, to dissolve completely – and for other ‘inaudible’ elements that have been summoned during the course of the playing to leave the space in their own time. 

 

PRACTICE

After spending much time in Keith’s orbit, I am fully convinced that a consistent and deep immersion in work at the piano has prepared him for uninterrupted communion with the instrument in the moment of performance, and, as mentioned above, is accompanied by a quality of reverence that reveals itself almost instantly to anyone who has seen Keith perform. Not that I would wish to imitate or mirror the effects of Keith’s practice, but to take inspiration from the spirit in which it is undertaken and use this as a basis to inform my own intuitive investigations.

GRATITUDE

In conclusion, a few words of thanks is deserved to those who have made this duo a reality on practical and logistical levels: Richard Brown and Arts Council England, and John Cumming from Serious for supporting this project from the very beginning; Polly Eldridge, Maija Handover, and Chloe Arnett from Sound UK; Dr. Peter Scott & Professor John Pickard at the Department of Music at Bristol University, and Todd Wills at Colston Hall for their generosity and access to rehearsal space; Sam Hobbs and Ray Kane for rehearsal and concert recording/filming respectively; Philip Bourne, Paul Hudson, and PJ Davy for photography; a special thank you to Serious, Barney Stevenson, and Ben Eshmade – all of whom worked especially hard to make some very special gigs happen. To Geoff Amos, for always being there at the right moment. And finally to Keith and Julie Tippett – for their friendship and kindness, a warm stove, and those all-important pre-road trip cups of tea. x



Help the grand piano to stand on its own (four) feet for the very first time

October 6th, 2019

Not so long ago, I visited Sarah Nicolls at her studio in Brighton, and was introduced to her ‘inside out’ piano: a grand piano with its frame and interior displayed on the vertical plane, opposed to the traditional, horizontal position. There are many benefits to such reorganisation – not least for the opportunity to become fully immersed in its sound, close up; but also for ease of access for the exploration of its (now outside) interior.

 

Sarah’s idea is to commission a prototype of this instrument, the Standing Grand, from the extraordinary craftsman David Klavins, and thus, moving a step closer to making this concept a reality for all pianists. The idea that one could transport this instrument anywhere, is an extremely attractive proposition for any pianist, whose bookings are almost certainly dictated by the availability of a quality instrument at the venue.

Even if such an instrument is present, those practicing at the more contemporary or adventurous end of the scale may well encounter resistance: choice of repertoire, stylistic predisposition, or pianistic approach, can often be enough for many venues or institutions to categorically refuse access to their ‘good’ piano. Unfortunately, it is the culture of dedicated and persistent ignorance that fails to perceive logical explanation to the contrary. The existence of a Standing Grand would mean an end to this perennial dilemma faced by many pianists.

A little while back, Geoff Smith (also based in Brighton) introduced the Fluid Piano to the world, and, with one masterstroke of  innovation, turned the piano into a multicultural instrument. The Standing Grand is of the same vital importance: a seismic shift needs to occur in the perception of what a piano can and needs to be for pianists, instrument manufacturers, and for the wider context of music making in the 21st Century.

Innovations of this kind are all too rare, but you can help change this! With only nine days to go in the Standing Grand Kickstarter campaign, Sarah is just shy of £8000 too make this a reality so, please share the news of this project as much as you can. If 173 people could give £50, or 87 people give £100…

GO SARAH!!

 

Standing Grand Kickstarter

Future Pianos

Sarah Nicolls

David Klavins



Mike Westbrook’s Letter

April 22nd, 2018

On discovering the work of various figures from British Jazz, I quickly came to the Music of Mike Westbrook – albums such as MetropolisMarching Songs Vol. 1 & 2, Love Songs, Release, and Citadel/Room 315 (composed in the old Leeds Polytechnic building; now part of Leeds Metropolitan University), were the ones always leaning against my record player as a student. I couldn’t get enough.

I decided to write to Mike with a view to forming a similar band to his ‘Concert Band’ line-up (as on Celebration / Release / Love Songs, et al.), and playing some of that repertoire. Below is the letter I received in reply:

I can remember my initial response as one of disappointment – sad that scores of this material were no longer available. So, I slipped it inside my belovéd copy of Metropolis. I would forget that I had this letter, save for when I took the record from its sleeve whenever I came to play it (I practically wore it out when I first bought it – a story for another time). Every time I have taken the record from its sleeve over the last twenty years(!), the letter presents itself, and I always read it, in full.

It is curious how, through re-reading this letter many, many times, it has revealed certain truths that completely eluded me as a burgeoning student of Jazz in the late 1990s. The following sentences are particularly profound, and continued to reveal new depths, and to resonate with me more deeply with each reading:

 

“I’m not sure that playing by contemporary musicians material that was created by and written for specific people at a particular time, would be a valuable exercise.

Ultimately, however much one learns and absorbs from the past, and from other people’s stuff, the great opportunity, and challenge that Jazz presents is to create one’s own musical language for one’s own time and circumstances. The message I got from the great artists I admire, Ellington, Charlie Parker, Jelly Roll Morton and countless others, is that everything is possible – you just have to find your own way to do it!”

 

That’s absolutely right.

It is perhaps the single most important piece of advice any musician could receive. The letter is like an old friend – reenforcing my own philosophy on music making, and giving me continued encouragement to find my own path, my own voice.

I was prompted to write this little blog on watching a video of Mike’s latest solo piano record, PARIS. Mike’s piano playing has an assured elegance, colour, light, and shade. It is the counterpart to his unique voice as a composer of large-scale works for ensembles, both large and small; and I love how Mike controls and distills his vast musical universe into a singular essence at the keyboard.

Mike Westbrook is an example to anyone embarking on a lifetime of music making: to always keep moving, creating new opportunities, and to look forward to the next musical adventure…

 

Thank you, Mike, for replying to that young, naive student, all those years ago. x