Tuesday, November 05, 2013

Q and A with Alexander Hawkins: On the Sofa Series #1

Alexander Hawkins (Part One )
The first Q and A for the Sofa Series brings pianist Alex Hawkins into focus

 Katan500: Favourite colour?
AH:  Very specifically, which ever blue Chelsea are playing in at the time.
Katan500: Jazz is... In 150 characters?
AH: I'm not sure I want to try to define it, save that I know it when I hear it...
Katan500: Cats or dogs?
AH: Cats!
Katan500: How do you relax?
AH:  By listening to music, by writing music, by practising music. And by watching football.
Katan500: You realize this is the warm up...
AH: Hmm....
Katan500: You have gained yourself a reputation for creating your own distinctive ‘sound world’ how would you describe your sound world?

AH: Describing my own soundworld is very difficult...I suppose I'd rather that people just listened - that'd give the most accurate picture. Of course, I suppose there are some very basic things that I try to do. For a start, I'm interested in a range of musical behaviours ranging from the realisation of fully scored music, through to almost completely open improvisational languages. I don't like to sign up to the talk which is slightly in vogue of mixing composition and improvisation, because I don't really think that they're necessarily different behaviours: I think they exist much more on a continuum. Essentially for me, I'm into free music. But this is freedom to rather than freedom from. Options and possibilities are my thing I suppose; I wouldn't want to close anything off. In practice, this can mean various things. For example, I'm interested in groups really developing empathy, such that the musicians feel free to desert or distort the composition if this is what feels right at the time. I'm into devolving decision-making; giving musicians leeway to introduce things (or not) in their own time, perhaps with their own sub-grouping of the ensemble. Another thing I like to do is assemble musicians who to my ears have really individual voices, and though there are lots of precedents for this approach, for me personally, it comes from my love of Ellington.

Katan500: Who do you admire / has been an influence on you?

AH: As to who I admire and who has been an influence on me, I will wear out my keyboard before I can get halfway down the list. I love this music, have done for as long as I can remember, and listen incessantly. Goodness knows I'd have more money in the bank if I didn't buy records like I do. Additionally, I'd like to think that I try to learn even from the things I don't really like. And of course - the relationship between admiration and influence is not a straightforward one.

Katan500: What if you were on Desert Island Discs...

AH:  I couldn't bring myself to choose between Tatum and Ellington; those are my two real heroes, and I couldn't be without either. Also Rollins, Monk, Cecil Taylor, Earl Hines, Teddy Wilson, Billie Holiday, Fletcher Henderson, Sun Ra, Dolphy, Roscoe Mitchell, Clifford Brown, John Kirby, Louis Moholo-Moholo, Anthony Braxton...the list goes on and on. Morton. Coltrane. Threadgill. Don't get me started on piano players. I am obsessed with Hampton Hawes' music...Mary Lou Williams...Elmo Hope is one of my favourite pianists in the world...Herbie Nichols...Hasaan Ibn Ali...Muhal Richard Abrams...Amina Claudine Myers...Chris McGregor...Mal Waldron...Al Haig...Dick Twardzik...Joe Albany...Fats Waller of course...Albert Ammons...Meade Lux Lewis... Of course, that list only touches on the 'jazz' tradition; and naturally, I listen to anything which is of interest - the label on it isn't really important. So for example I've recently been checking out some birdsong again (I can't lie - inspired by Radio 4's 'Tweet of the Day')...also some early Elliott Carter...Kathleen Ferrier doing Mahler...Glenn Gould playing Byrd...Lipatti playing Scarlatti...'Curtis Live' has been in heavy rotation recently too... I don't want to do the trendy thing though and say I listen to everything. I definitely don't - there's a whole load of stuff which I draw a bit of a blank on. And that list is a long one too. A very long one. And anyone who knows me would be able to reveal some bizarre and massive holes in my listening below in the comments section to this, I'm sure of it...

Katan500: That's quite a list.Your reviews are always glowing. Looking at the way you have been reviewed there is always a feeling of a master in the making... the marrying of brains and soul. Would you like to comment? Feel free to blush...

AH: I'm blushing. I can't comment on the first bit. [Katan500: Yes you can...] I don't want to be disingenuous... of course, I'm hugely flattered whenever something is positively reviewed. Music is about communication, and if something I've done has managed to achieve that in a small way here or there, then that is definitely important to me. I really don't like musicians being disparaging about critics: there are lazy critics, but also lazy musicians. There are critics who can't play, and musicians who can't write. And so on.
I suppose I think one of the things which is most key about development and attainment is an absolute and genuine devotion to those processes, and just generally 'pushing on'. I have a horror of coasting and/or repeating myself, and I suppose I'm worried that being self-regarding about some vague idea of 'stature' in some ways could lead someone to be less hungry to evolve and generally improve. Also, as an musician, I'm privileged to work closely and on a very frequent basis with people whose playing inspires/intrigues/baffles/fascinates etc... me to amazing degrees. This really keeps you honest - it's always abundantly clear that there's more to learn and achieve. I also feel this extremely keenly just through my listening - I'm a music lover at least as much as I am a musician: it's easy to listen to things from decades and decades ago, and realise quite how much there is still to.

Katan500: What about brains and soul....

AH: This can be a little difficult to comment on. I think it's deeply problematic to view them (I'm not suggesting that you do this in your question, of course!) as mutually exclusive. For one, the ideas are difficult to pin down. Part of the magic of the music is that yes, it can be a communal experience, but also a very personal one. So much to say that what speaks to one person - is 'soulful' to them - won't necessarily to another person. One of my absolutely heroes is Art Tatum, and I frequently hear it said that he's a great technician, but lacks 'soul'. Personally, I just don't hear it...I simply can't get my head around this, to the extent that, I suppose, I even feel offended by the sentiment; but at the same time, I do recognise that how I feel Tatum can't/shouldn't have a bearing on how others feel about him. Myself, I can't identify with Keith Jarrett's music in the slightest; it doesn't resonate with what I'm searching for in any respects that I perceive, and to be honest, it leaves me completely cold. Yet whilst I'm puzzled by some people's reaction to him, I can't deny the sincerity of those people's reactions. There's of course fascinating literature on the question of people's reactions to music - I love William Benzon's 'Beethoven's Anvil', for example. Brains are also a difficult idea. As someone who used to play the organ, I'm familiar with - say - many Bach fugues. 'Brainy' music, for sure: and according to the norms of western classical music, unbelievably crafted. But work at a technique long and hard enough, and it *will* come; and in that light, simplicity looks like an extraordinary technical gift. Look no further than the unbelievable construction of a Monk composition.

Katan500: Sounds to me like the soul-brains dichotomy is also a stylistic attempt to classify -  if people are able to say so and so is 'soulful', whereas so and so is 'cerebral' interesting discourses start to emerge...

AH: Take a Bach fugue: for me, there's a genuine beauty, a soulfulness, in the realisation of form. For a similar reason, the Alhambra is beautiful; the design of the London Underground map is beautiful; game 6 (was it 6? I think so) of Bobby Fischer/Boris Spassky is beautiful; etc. etc. It's in some ways his most austere stuff, but there is something really magical about the formal qualities of Bach's Musical Offering, the Art of Fugue, or the late canons, etc. I don't even think it's necessarily to do with someone transcending their formal constraints; it's less mystical than that for me: it's that it's a beautiful achievement for someone to be able to fulfil formal requirements in a creative way.

Katan500: Rules are cool...

AH: Rules do NOT make music less free, so long as you choose to adopt them, and feel completely free not to adopt them. Same goes for football: watch videos of Socrates, Eusebio, Zidane. Are they less free because they've agreed not to use their hands, and accepted that the ball going over a touchline will give possession back to the other team? There are interesting analogues to with discussions of instrumental technique versus soulfulness...but are they really anathema to each other? What about the amazing exuberance of late 60s Freddie Hubbard? I think part of the beauty of that is just hearing an ebullient personality enjoy how great they are a playing an instrument. Same with those 60s Rollins European trio performances; or those albums where Johnny Griffin will double time anything in sight. Historically too, the brains/soul discussion has taken some awkward turns. Anthony Braxton has written brilliantly about this. As an African-American musician, he was criticised for surrendering the 'soulful' which - it was clumsily assumed - 'should' have been his preserve to the 'cerebral', essentially through showing too much interest in composition and non-'jazz' music. It's not hard to see the racially loaded aspects of this line of thought. To bring it back to the question a little bit though... soul is extremely important to me, insofar as we're talking about music as a communicative enterprise. And brains are too, in that I often think extremely hard about what I'm trying to do, or how I'm trying to do it; and in that I'm interested in how different compositional strategies can be used to expand a musician's freedom to communicate/freedom of expression. I really believe that there is no necessary contradiction between the two ideas (without denying, for example, that fussy, over-thought music can easily hinder expression). And similarly, none of this is to deny something which I think is hugely important, which is the role of the unconscious, mistakes, and so on. Mistakes can be great - beautiful, and inspirational. Playing what you know is great, but playing what you didn't know you had is even better. Empirically speaking, as musicians we all occasionally realise that we've drifted into that amazing space where we're really not thinking at all, and 'just' playing. That really is magical.

katan500:  Your album All There, Ever Out was very well received, chosen as one of the Guardian's top five Jazz albums for 2012, do you think it will be a hard act to follow?

AH: In a sense, my answer has to be yes. I try to put everything, creatively, into making records. When I make an album as leader, I work as hard as I can to make it represent absolutely the best and most 'advanced' state of being of that ensemble at that time. So on that basis, it has to seem like a difficult act to follow at the time. However, I suppose the more you do these things, you realise that if you continue to work hard, the inspiration do come, and possible directions do appear. But if the question is touching on 'am I anxious?', then if I'm brutally honest, yes - I do care what people think, and I suppose I would be hurt in some way if people said 'this isn't as good as its predecessor', even if it would - sort of - be comparing apples with oranges!

Katan500: How do you think you have ‘matured’ since then?

AH: Goodness! I don't know...there are certainly things I've been thinking hard about. Economy is one. I want to be able to write and play fewer notes, and really to pare things down to structural essentials. It's not a fear of density - if everything creating a welter of sound is there for a reason, then no problem...Cecil Taylor's can be some of the most structurally economical stuff out there. But I get cross with myself, for example, when I *do* because I *can*. Listening to recordings from a few years ago, I can be horrified at the number of notes I'm spraying around. But when I think of the musicians who really touch me - Monk, Mal Waldron, Henry Threadgill, Roscoe Mitchell, Wadada - there's a magic and which comes from the SPACE and the focus. So I hope I'm moving in the right direction there. I'm also more and more concerned with the architecture of pieces. As a composer, I feel that it's relatively easy to focus on details, and the moment to moment linear progression of a piece, but I'm increasingly preoccupied with the overall 'map'. How does the overall shape work? What are the ways to allow structural flexibility and freedom, yet still create something with the overall coherence of, say, a sonata form, a theme and variations, or head-solos-head?


Alex Hawkins with Louis Moholo-Moholo 18 Nov 20.30
Alex Hawkins curates: 21 Nov  23.00 , 22 Nov 23.3023 Nov 23.30  
*Alex Hawkins photograph above courtesy of 'Edu Hawkins Music Photography'.

1 comment:

Miles said...

Hey, Alex. "Honour your mistake as a hidden intention" -- my favourite of Brian Eno's oblique strategies. And I surely don't need to remind you which namesake of mine said "Play half".

Don't worry, you're definitely moving in the right direction: Wadadawards!