Alexander Hawkins: Retaining The Sense of Discovery

John Sharpe By

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Compositional Underpinnings

AAJ: Changing tack slightly. On a particular radio series on the BBC, the makers were spending months on each single program, richly layering it with references and allusions, which would pass by 95 percent of listeners. In the current drive for economies, they were forced to spend less time on each program. But what they found was that listeners appreciated them less. Even though they hadn't recognized all the layers, they could recognize a reduction in quality. The number of reference points, intricacies and allusions for each of your pieces, outlined in your composition notes to the BBC session, is striking. Without your notes, they would go over most listeners' heads. How important is it to you that the underpinning is understood or recognized?

AH: It depends what mood I'm in. Part of me is a jazz fan and sentimental as a result. It's important to me that a certain bit of a piece came from something that I suddenly remembered from an album. Because I'm fascinated when I discover something in another piece, it would touch me if somebody else realized that was the case. But maybe it wouldn't be important to me. It also depends on how you listen. On a superficial note, I do love listening to [saxophonist] Dexter Gordon and recognizing the quotes, just because it's fun. If you're listening with conscious ears, and say you are listening to some of Braxton's Ghost Trance Music, if I'm listening to that and I spot "Composition 40 (O)" or "Composition 69 I" or whatever, it adds to my appreciation of depth or subtlety of the music. It doesn't make the music any better, it's just fun. So in that respect, it's nice. Sometimes it would mean something to me; sometimes it would tickle me that somebody had spotted something in one of the pieces.

But then again, [Braxton's] Ghost Trance Music is a really interesting example for me because sometimes one of the ways I take that in best is I stop being conscious. I love listening to the details. I love listening to who's doing what in a different subgroup. But actually what I also like is when I zone out, and it all washes over me, and I just experience it. That's one of the things, just how overwhelming it is and friendly at the same time (whereas there is some music which is very arch, listening to Wagner or Stan Kenton, and the scale of it can just be too much if you're in the wrong mood). I would like for a listener to be able to do the same thing with my music, just switch off and experience it, because I like that state of hearing music where it's not background music, but you're not thinking about how it works. So for me, it's important that someone should be able to listen to it and it not be relevant what's going on and why.

Certainly there's never any inside jokes in the music because I really want it to be inclusive. One of the things I struggle with is when people come to me and say, "I didn't understand your music." And it's not a problem for me, because I'm really happy to talk about it on a technical level; I really love talking about music in that sense. But I also think that trying to understand music is not the first way you should be trying to listen to it. If it sounds nice then that's the important thing. Sometimes I like [saxophonist] Peter Brötzmann making a really ugly noise if it sounds intriguing. But for me, that thing of references and allusions, it depends on how I'm listening.

Also, people impose their own histories as a listener. We happen to have similar stylistic references, so if I talk about something coming from Leroy Jenkins, you can relate to that. But I've been working recently on a London Symphony Orchestra-related scheme where I'm working with lots of contemporary classical composers, and where you and I can relate to it in terms of Braxton's multiple orchestra music, they just relate to it in terms of Elliott Carter or Stockhausen multiple orchestra music. And that's really interesting when people say to you, for example listening to [Henry Threadgill's] Zooid, they might hear Threadgill talking about intervallic languages, and a jazz fan, if they've come from slightly straighter jazz, might think, "I can get into this via [saxophonist] Steve Coleman," whereas a contemporary-classical-music fan might think, "I wonder whether this is anything like Elliott Carter or Per Norgaard with the intervals." In a sense, it's just a different way in depending on the listener's perspective.

AAJ: In conceptual art, you need the concept to be able to appreciate it, but music is much more tangible than that because music is music, but the appreciation is nonetheless enhanced by understanding some of what's behind it. So Braxton's Composition Notes (Frog Peak Music, 1995), for example, add whole dimensions of interest to the music. The music is fantastic, but then you get all this other information.

AH: I think that's really important. It's like the whole thing of being a fan, really enthusing about it. It's like why it's fun hanging out in the lobby before a show, because there is that buzz of likeminded people. It adds something for me, like when I listen to [Duke Ellington's trio with Max Roach and Charles Mingus] Money Jungle (United Artists Jazz, 1963), I love it, but it's also cool to me that I know anecdotes about the session. It doesn't change anything, but it might explain why the bass and drums are so wildly out of sync but still totally awesome at the same time. And yet the Composition Notes are exactly the same. I'm a musician, but I'm probably first and foremost a fan—it's just that being a musician gives me a really good seat [laughs]. So the Composition Notes are a great example, and I could happily take them on the road—so now anybody reading this knows, I'm the guy at the airport lugging round Braxton's Composition Notes—and read them at the same time as listening to Curtis Mayfield, because it's just somebody enthusing about music. Now, I could also read them and listen to the compositions, and it would be awesome as well, but it's part of that whole thing of appreciating it.

AAJ: One of the defining characteristics of your compositions, and one of the reasons they bear so much repeated listening, is that they often sound multilayered, as if there are several things happening at the same time. Why are you drawn to this way of working?

AH: Initially, I thought that was something I had probably picked up in Braxton's music, obviously in the mid-'80s quartets, but more conspicuously in the Ghost Trance Music. I was just intrigued by the sound. It seems to me an interesting way of creating a sound. In part, for me, it's a reaction against this thing in music education fetishizing being tight in a very literal sense of everything being just so. Maybe it's also a legacy of fusion. Sometimes it can be very important and awesome. But it just struck me that these multiple layers is more how it should feel for me—more freedom. It's just a reaction against that tightness.

But then having said that initially, I would go back and listen to things— like probably my favorite small-group session in the history of the music is this 1941 [trumpeter] Rex Stewart session. It's a small group of Ellingtonians. There's a piece on that called "Menelik, the Lion of Judah," which I went back and listened to, and I wondered why I was so intrigued by this. Because basically there is loads of different stuff going on at the same time. Rhythmically, you listen to it and it sets up a groove, and then the melody—it is in time, but it comes at a completely wonky place in the bar. And then—I actually only realized this literally last night when [vibraphonist] Corey Mwamba told me—he said, "Yeah, this is bi-tonal, this piece." The saxophones play in one key, and Rex Stewart plays the melody in a different key. So actually it's there all along. So for me, those multiple events are something that just grows organically out of playing jazz with a loose-limbed freedom of feel. So just in the same way that King Oliver and Luis Russell, that post-Armstrong band, is loose and Money Jungle is loose, it's a small leap, then, to having multiple layers. Listening to [drummer] Elvin Jones play with that wide open beat, that's not so far away from people doing different stuff at the same time. So I just hear it growing organically from that, and it's just an interesting way to create levels of detail and intrigue.

And also, I just love the way it seems to mirror your day-to-day experience. So we're here, and there's the piped music, there's a couple over there, and there's the waiter who comes occasionally. So it's just a musical way of mirroring what it means to experience being every day: there's just sound everywhere. And of course, as soon as you start being prepared to have stuff going on at different times, then it means you can recapture the magic of having a band all playing the same thing at the same time, because that sounds newly fresh—just in the same way that head-solo-head is a great option because as soon as things stop being norms, then they become really interesting options again.

AAJ: Have you had any formal compositional training or felt the need for that?

AH: No, I haven't had any formal training. The need for it? Not really. I say this because having studied classical music to a relatively high degree as a player, there are various norms of notation and just nuts and bolts—things like what can be done on an instrument, what's the range of this instrument, how would I present music to players of this instrument—that stuff I'm familiar with from just having done it. So maybe I would have felt the need to study these things. So having studied Bach chorales, harmony and two-part counterpoint, fugue and so on, just under my own steam, there are things that I find really interesting about studying composition. But I shy away from anything too didactic. For sure, I've talked to [drummer] Harris Eisenstadt about Wadada [Leo Smith]. The thought of being able to show a composition to him would be fantastic. I actually worked with him for a week last year, and on the final concert we performed a piece of his and a sort of trumpet concerto I wrote for him. Just having him looking at that piece ... So I can totally conceive of a type of composition lesson that would be fantastic, but in terms of studying it formally, it's not something that really appeals.

AAJ: You've talked in the past about getting away from the model that blurs composition and improvisation. Can you talk more about what you mean by that?

AH: It occurred to me that when people talk about blurring these boundary lines, because that seems to be a vogue thing for musicians to put in biographies, it's either such a really elusive issue or such an obvious issue that it's not really worth talking about either way. For example, if you listen to any of the great improvisers, if I listen to Sonny Rollins play "Rhythm-a-Ning" or play "Oleo," they're basically the same chord changes, but he's not just playing "I Got Rhythm." He's not playing the same solo on both. So he could play both rhythm changes in B-flat, but he's not; he's playing on the tune. It struck me that you improvise on and within the composition, so talking about them as two different behaviors is maybe slightly deceptive.

Thinking about current groups, like Zooid, if somebody were to say to me, "What are the musicians doing?" I could probably describe it, but it wouldn't make sense to me to say the points at which they were playing something composed and improvised. For example, if you are stipulating tools for players to work with, is that a compositional decision or is that an improvisational one? And does it add anything to our understanding of the music to make a decision on this question? Actually, it would be far more remarkable if you were able to improvise unaffected by the composition you were playing. That would be totally remarkable if you were to play a head to a tune and then improvise in a totally unrelated way. So it strikes me that we almost take it as read that the composition and improvisation are intimately linked.

I totally understand that they are different types of behavior in the sense that composition you can present to somebody on a piece of paper, and it maybe asks for a few more fixed things to happen than improvisation. But when we talk about great improvisers, we talk about improvising compositionally, and we clearly think that's a good thing, and then we also talk about compositions flowing as if they were improvised. I was guilty; I had it in my bio that I was interested in blurring those boundary lines, and I thought, "Actually, I don't even know what I mean by that." [Laughs.] I understand what people mean when they say that, how we mediate getting from more fully composed to more fully improvised behaviors. But actually, all of jazz improvisation, all of playing on a standard tune, is to do with this, and improvising compositionally is what you do. It would be far more remarkable if you could improvise non- compositionally.

And similarly, when you are improvising, even free improvising, it would be remarkable if each idea was totally unrelated to the last. But it's not. You develop things. Take the Instant Composers Pool's Groupcomposing (ICP, 1970). I think they are onto something because improvisation is composing in that sense. Who would be held up as the arch free improviser? You think of someone like Derek Bailey. But if you talk to guitarists or just listen, he is working on things timbrally or working with certain hand shapes. So even though it's not a composition in terms of having a manuscript in front of you, it's still working and developing ideas. So that's what I was getting at.

AAJ: While some of your song titles refer openly to Art Tatum, Elmo Hope or Bud Powell, others are more oblique with hidden references—is that a trickster persona coming through? Do you like to have something that's always a mystery?

AH: Not as such. I like it to be intriguing. I hate in-jokes. I'd never want to give someone the runaround, but by the same token I would want it to be intriguing, in the same way I want to play an intriguing chord on the piano. For me, the title doesn't describe a piece. The pieces aren't about things. The title just has some connection to the piece that is part of that atmosphere. It's like we were saying about reading the Composition Notes: it's just part of the experience of listening to the music again. So for example, on the BBC session, and it will be on the new record, there's a totally cryptic-seeming selection of letters on one of the titles, but it was just the name of a fishing village in Greenland I'd seen in a newspaper. I just looked at it and thought it seemed intriguing. If you stuck it in Google, you would soon discover it was just the name of a fishing village, but it just looks cool.

I love the trickster thing with Cecil Taylor. For example, on one of the Berlin things [In Berlin (FMP, 1998)], there was a tune called "Legba Crossing." That's a West African god that you also find in voodoo, but then I was thinking, Legbar, that's also a chicken, and what do chickens do? They cross things. So I was thinking, "Is that a chicken crossing the road pun?" I don't know. Maybe you heard it here first. Perhaps Cecil will be reading this thinking, "No, it's definitely not a chicken pun." [Laughs.]

AAJ: One of the things you mentioned before was being a bandleader. That entails lots of responsibilities and is increasingly hard in the economic environment we are in. Why do you want to do it?

AH: 'Cause it's the way to make music happen. As a pianist, there's another environmental issue, which is just the lack of instruments. It's a dying instrument on the club stage. And how are you ever going to get to the festival stage if you're not out there? The keyboard is a different instrument. It's not quite as acute as saying to a double bassist, play electric, but playing piano and playing keyboard are two different things, and I hate playing keyboards, and I love playing pianos. So how the music happens is affected by the economic climate, but the music will always happen. Being a bandleader is just part of the broader question of why do you do it.

AAJ: But not everybody is a bandleader.

AH: That's true. I suppose, given my interest in composition and liking to do things in slightly idiosyncratic ways, being a composer who contributes to other groups is harder—which is why I really like the Convergence Quartet because it's a collaborative context in which it works. But it's because I have these musical things I would like to try to realize, sounds that I would like to make happen. And I guess I'm just very lucky in that there are people who are prepared to give me a chance to do that. In the beginning, financially what do you do? Well, you play lots of weddings and pub gigs, and you subsidize your creative music, as it were. Then hopefully you begin to generate opportunities for your own music.

One of the things I do have a problem with is musicians who have a sense of entitlement. It's nice to be treated well, just as it is in any walk of life. Professionally, you want to be treated well. But musicians grumbling about not having gigs, that's not for me. We're not entitled to do what we do and get paid for it. It's a luxury to be able to make music in this professional sense. We could go and work a proper job, as it were. Now, like the next guy, there are certainly musicians out there who are wildly talented who I think, "How can they not be given opportunities?" But in terms of saying, "Why isn't this promoter calling me?" or "Why isn't this festival giving me a gig?" well, the answer is that there is a lot of amazing music happening, and you can't have a gig everywhere all the time. And after all, I would like to think that socially it is very important to have music. But we don't have an entitlement to make music for money. You have to generate your own opportunities.

AAJ: Is part of it that you have to look after the business side and you have to put effort into that?

AH: You have to put effort in, and I do feel for musicians who put effort in and get small returns, which of course is another problem. But if I decide to start writing poetry or start painting pictures, it would be bizarre if I started to get indignant because galleries weren't offering me exhibitions. And, yes, it would be tragic in a way if I'd trained for years and years to be able to do certain things, but no one made me do that. But we are very lucky to be able to do what we do. Of course, everyone should be allowed to make music, but we're talking about making a living out of doing it. No one's ever stopping anyone from making music. Maybe they're stopping me from a big project with a massive symphony orchestra because that requires backing, but in terms of getting people together to play my music, no problem. I've made it happen, like countless others, with or without gigs. It's just that gigs make it easier, and I'm very fortunate in that sense that I can get a few. Obviously, it's always great to have more. It's just the people who sit back and wait for the gigs to come to them who I have less truck with.

AAJ: So you are moving forward rapidly. You have four new releases to come over next six months or so. Do you have other goals you are aspiring to in terms of where you want to go?

AH: One of the things that's funny, I guess it's the same with many self-employed jobs, is that there's no obvious career progression. Other than that, I just want to carry on making music that I really like and that I hope other people really like. In a practical sense, I would like to be able to generate more opportunities for myself. I would really love to start working abroad a lot more as a bandleader, just because of the idiomatic directions I find myself, domestic opportunities are more limited. In that sense, there's a progression I have in mind, but in terms of artistically what I'd like to achieve, it's retaining that sense of discovery. I was talking with my publisher recently about where we see it all going, and I said that I want to sit down whenever I want to write a piece with that terror of "I've no idea what it's going to be like" [laughs], because at least that way you know that you are investing the effort. That anxiety of being scared you are going to do something that you've done before, and it's just not going to be very interesting, is nice in a way.

Of course, there are certain musicians I would love to play with more. For example, any occasion I get to play with Louis Moholo is one of the greatest musical experiences you can possibly have, so I would love to do that more—and in fact, we're touring next year. I just worked very briefly with Wadada Leo Smith last year, which was amazing, and of course I would love to do that again. I mentioned playing with Marshall Allen last year, and I would be completely crazy if I didn't want to do that again.

AAJ: Anybody else whom you've not played with so far who might be reading this?

AH: Well, the person I most want to play with is the person who's going to read this and give me a gig [laughs]. The person I heard earlier in the year, and on the other side of the fence I got to interview for the BBC, was Roscoe Mitchell. I would love obviously to play with him. Braxton is one of my big heroes, and maybe there's a context in which that might happen—I just don't know, because you can never be presumptuous. But there are a lot of leaders whose music I love who I feel I could do something interesting with the music. And of course I would love to, and those are just some of them. I don't know how a piano would sound in Henry Threadgill's music, but I'd love to try. How would that work, how would chords work? I've no idea, but that would be great. Of course, all the people I listen to, I'd love to try and play their music. Except for Sonny Rollins, who is one of my complete heroes, but I really don't want to get asked to do a gig with him, because I just really, really, really wouldn't be any good at all and would freeze ... So just because they are my hero doesn't mean I want to play with them, but to a large extent it does mean that [laughs].

Selected Discography

Louis Moholo-Moholo/Alexander Hawkins, Keep Your Heart Straight (Ogun 2012)

Nick Malcolm Quartet, Glimmers (FMR, 2012)

Alexander Hawkins Ensemble, All There, Ever Out (Babel, 2012)

The Convergence Quartet, Song/Dance (Clean Feed, 2011)

Decoy with Joe McPhee, Oto (Bo'Weavil, 2010)

Decoy (Volume 1), Spirit (Bo'Weavil, 2009)

Decoy (Volume 2), The Deep (Bo'Weavil, 2009)

Alexander Hawkins Ensemble, No Now is So (FMR, 2009)

Barkingside, Barkingside (Emanem, 2008)

The Convergence Quartet, Live in Oxford (FMR, 2007)

Oxford Improvisers Orchestra, Accession—a Piece of Europe (NMR, 2006)

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