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Interviews

Matthew Bourne: Montauk, Billy Moon and the Lost Pianos

By Published: March 6, 2012
The Recording Process

Bourne's three-day stay at Dartington included a formal concert. "The idea was that I would record in the daytime then do a gig in the evening. So we had plenty of time to set up, experiment with microphones, get a great sound. After the gig, the security guy was happy for us to stay as long as we wanted, so we did. Most of the music came out between midnight and two in the morning. In the day, there were lots of disturbances: a guy mowing the lawn, people in the corridor, doors opening and closing. Then we recorded the gig one evening and kept on recording into the night. Everything was so quiet. Sam Hobbs recorded it; he's a really good friend and musical associate of mine. I'd get tired and he'd say, 'No, you're not tired, man. Just have a cup of tea and keep going.'"

Montauk Variations is a composite of recordings from the Dartington concert and late-night recording session and some tunes from a Manchester recording session, which took place two weeks after Dartington, as Bourne explains. "The first two tracks ['Air' and 'The Mystic'] are from the concert. 'Air' was the first tune I played that night. The prepared piano pieces—I used stones and things in the instrument—were recorded in Manchester. I hired a Bösendorfer and got the use of St. Margaret's Rectory for free to do some recording. 'Infinitude' was from these sessions. In Manchester the piano was different, the temperature, everything was different. It didn't make sense to try to recreate the Dartington vibe. 'Juliet' is another Manchester piece. It was just piano and didn't really go anywhere, so I decided to add cello parts."

These cello parts, used sparingly across three or four tunes, increase the emotional intensity of the pieces. They sound as though they were planned to the finest detail, but once again Bourne is keen to emphasize the overall approach to the sessions: "It all happened very organically. ... I didn't practice specifically for it; I didn't think, 'Oh, I'll do these things in advance.'"

The only non-original composition on Montauk Variations is Charlie Chaplin's "Smile." Most recordings of Chaplin's classic seem to be rather too cheerful for the lyric which is, after all, about broken hearts, cloudy skies, fear and sorrow. Bourne's version teases out the underlying sadness of the song, emphasizing its inherent melancholy while still conveying the beauty of the melody. His relationship with the song turns out to have been a long one. "We had a primary-school teacher called Tony West, who taught us that song. He was quite hip: he got us singing Joni Mitchell
Joni Mitchell
Joni Mitchell
b.1943
vocalist
, the Beatles, Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan
b.1941
composer/conductor
. It was brilliant, the stuff we sang just for singing's sake.

"The version of 'Smile' is something I'd arranged for Annette Peacock. I'd been in contact with her about doing a project, but time, life and logistics got in the way. So I thought I'd use the tune on Montauk Variations. I couldn't remember it, so I tried to figure it out at one in the morning and did three takes. The album version was the last of the three. I knew I wanted to do a suite of improvised pieces around a theme—in this case, a sense of place that I'd got in my brain—and at the end was going to be 'Smile.' I knew it, I knew how long I wanted it to be. Then I forgot about all of it. But it came together anyway.

"By the time I did the recording I didn't intend to do 'Smile,' but it does work. It was very difficult to choose the tracks and the running order. We ended up with a good few hours of music. The Dartington tunes are lyrical, meditative, pieces. In Manchester it was more experimental: stones and hymn books in the piano. So there were two separate documents, if you like. Were we going to represent one or the other? Or if we mixed them, how would we represent the two very different sound worlds?"

So the visit to Montauk was a couple of years before the recordings took place—an inspiration for the idea of the album rather than for the music that Bourne created. "Yeah," Bourne agrees. "But I liked the sound of the title. I thought that it would get people thinking."

Dedications

Many tunes on Montauk Variations are dedicated to specific people: friends, collaborators and inspirations. The tunes weren't written with these people in mind, however. "None of them were," Bourne says. "But once I started to listen back to them, I got the sense that the music was worth dedicating to the people who believed that I could come up with this kind of compositions. The dedications are a way of tying things together, saying thank you to the people who made a difference. I'm known for being a bit of a wild card. If I'm being honest, I felt there was some tacit pressure to conform to that perception. The people who knew me really well, who know I can play nice chord sequences, weren't putting that pressure on, and some of the pieces just seemed to be right to dedicate to them."

"Étude Psychotique"—the "fast one," as Bourne describes it—is dedicated to Zorn. "As this is the only piece on the album like it— fast, brief—I felt it was the appropriate piece for him. I've got a few of his scores. On a piece called 'Le Momo' [on Madness, Love And Mysticism (Tzadik, 2001)] the performance directions are all in French. One of them is 'psychotique,' so that's how I named the piece. It's just based on a little practice piece I do; it's not really a study. I sent it to him, and he loved it. He's a very supportive figure."

The three pieces dedicated to Bourne's late friend Philip Butler- Francis seemed to fit together well, according to Bourne. "There's a piano piece and a cello piece, both in E-flat major, then another piece in E-flat minor that had a sort of 'bells tolling' feel, not to be too morbid about it. I felt that they fitted together. I went to school with Philip. His father, David Francis, worked at the BBC for years. He arranged for musicians and singers like Elaine Delmar
Elaine Delmar
Elaine Delmar
b.1939
vocalist
, Tubby Hayes
Tubby Hayes
Tubby Hayes
1935 - 1973
saxophone
and Michel Legrand
Michel Legrand
Michel Legrand
b.1932
piano
; he was a fantastic arranger. He would bring me albums when I was at school—Bill Evans
Bill Evans
Bill Evans
1929 - 1980
piano
, for example. He really influenced me."

As well as Zorn, Chaplin and Butler-Francis, Bourne also spoke of his debt to musicians such as Keith Tippett
Keith Tippett
Keith Tippett
b.1947
piano
(name-checked on "One For You, Keith"), Cyril Scott and Olivier Messiaen. Such a varied list of influences is matched by the varied strands of Bourne's own career. Is this career carefully planned or mostly opportunistic? As he explains, it's a complex mix of both. "I think I've suffered from doing too much collaborative work and not enough projects that have my name at the top. Apart from a few large- scale projects for the Fuse Festival in Leeds and a 2009 project called Songs From A Lost Piano, I've never had a working band or a regular thing that I do. It comes down to the fact that I've really lacked confidence in my ability to lead something of my own. I'm actually quite a sensitive guy, so I've buried myself in others' work or in collaborations."

Montauk Variations is the start of a new phase for Bourne: a phase that includes his move to a new record company, the Leaf Label, based in Leeds. "I've known [label boss] Tony Morley for years, and I just thought I should start a relationship with Leaf—no thoughts of world domination. It's a kind of leap of faith, this solo album. It's not by any means definitive, just a way of reaching out to a slightly different audience, a new fan base. But I don't expect to get famous from it."

The label is small, but its roster is top quality, including leading- edge groups such as Polar Bear
Polar Bear
Polar Bear

band/orchestra
and Wildbirds and Peacedrums. Bourne is definitely a fan. "You can't really define the Leaf Label. If you check its artist roster, it's all about the musicians rather than a house style. The musicians are all completely different. Very few labels are like that." The label and Bourne seem to share this varied, eclectic, idiosyncratic approach. Kindred spirits, perhaps? "Yeah, perhaps," Bourne replies, but he doesn't follow through with any more thoughts on the subject.

On the album sleeve there's a stark but effective logo, and the phrase "Matthew Bourne Presents" precedes the title. It's a deliberate move to create an identity. "I thought that if I'm going to create a body of work, a group of albums, then when people see the logo they'll spot that it's a Matthew Bourne project, that I've curated it. So yeah, it's a deliberate thing. The idea came from the Lost Piano project; the full title was 'Matthew Bourne Presents Songs From A Lost Piano.' It's not too circuslike, but it works as a bit of a banner."


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