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Andy Summers: Creating Light from Dark

Nenad Georgievski By

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Andy Summers is a renowned modern guitarist and composer. He is also an accomplished photographer and a traveler. While he may be better known for his achievements during his time in one of the most popular and beloved rock bands in music history, The Police, Summers, in his own memoir "One Train Later" and the music documentary which is based on this memoir, titled "Can't Stand Losing You," reveal a career full of great ups and downs, joys and disappointments.

This year marks the 40th anniversary since the band, The Police was formed. During the brief period the band was active, from 1977—until 1986, they released five albums and were the biggest band in the world until they called it quits while still dominating top music charts. Undoubtedly, the band had enormous success which was confirmed decades later when they reunited for a sold-out world tour in 2007, which is the third highest-grossing concert tours of all time.

Ever since The Police parted ways in the mid-'80s, he has been significantly expanding his horizons across a prolific solo career that spans 14 diverse solo albums and several other collaborative projects and film soundtracks. His albums have drawn inspiration from a wide array of influences and styles such as classical, jazz, world, rock, avant-garde, Brazilian, and has easily straddled the boundaries between the genres into his own mélange. His latest album titled Triboluminescence falls into a category of its own. Inspired by his travels, listeners will encounter Summers combining different sounds, moods, and places into something unrecognizable and revelatory, yet beautiful.

Apart from music, Summers is also an accomplished photographer. Over four decades, he has been taking photographs while on the road, capturing stunning shots of people and places. As a result, he has had countless exhibitions and has published several books of his work, most notably I'll Be Watching You: With The Police 1980-1983 by renowned publisher Taschen which chronicled life with the band in its heyday, in a manner that no photographer ever could. He took shots of stadiums, fans, hotels, the band, and even a several selfies. By his own admission, he says his photography may indeed be influenced by his absorption with music and that in a sense the photography he creates is a visual counterpart to the music that never leaves his head.

All About Jazz: The new album is mysteriously titled as Triboluminescence. Could you please describe the meaning of the album's name?

Andy Summers: The name can be easily misinterpreted, but it actually means creating light from dark. It's a scientific word. It's like striking something so that it creates light. I thought that it was a good metaphor for making music because apart from a computer in your head, as you've been working for many years and then you start creating music with nothing. So it's always a blank page, you go in and light the candle and see what you can find. It's the same with this album like the making of any other album. It's one of the things about making art, where you make something, from nothing.

AAJ: Does this term actually describe your creative approach to making music?

AS: It does. Whatever you do creatively, you start making music and you're going along, find creative compositions, but you are really waiting for the muse to strike. It's a phrase actually -it is waiting for me to strike, for the Gods to come and to help you out (laughs). You are hoping for some luck. It usually comes about by looking at it, and I've talked about it a lot, you get into the zone of creativity. However, there is irony in that, I can give a simple example, where I would start working on a composition, and I would play for a couple of hours and I would work to make or compose a piece of music. And then you give up and sort of play something random and then in one second you pop out a better idea than what you were doing in the previous two hours. That's the stuff you are looking for and you get away with that. That's intriguing. You have to have a lot of fortitude, an ability to stay with the program, use what's in your head and hope that some luck occurs and then you tempt your own sense of aesthetics and experience too. What kind of music you are trying to create in fact.

AAJ: To what extent does improvisation play a role in your compositional process?

AS: I'm a great improviser. I've been doing it all my life. I play with a lot of classical musicians and basically, and this is true—classical guitarists can't improvise. It's a very strange phenomenon to me. I'm all over the instrument. It is no problem for me, I can play through anything. I started doing it when I was 12 years old. Classical guitar players and classical players generally can't improvise. They usually have to play from notes on a written page. It's very different. I improvise and I have ideas that I make in my head. It's information that comes from a lot of different places, stuff that has been around all my life. I'm literally looking to create something that is interesting to me, something that catches my eye, I feel fresh. That becomes an important factor to me and we can feel that in terms of Triboluminescence. I'm pushing boundaries of anything that is considered with sort of a standard approach to improvising or structure. I've been playing music since I was six years old and went to university, I played classical guitar for years, I played jazz all my life. My whole person is music, really—I'm definitely a musician (laughs).

Throughout many years of being so closely involved with music, of course, you develop your own ideas about your sense of aesthetics. You get finer and finer, more and more selective until you come to making a record which is a point in your life and it's gonna be a statement of where you are or what you're currently feeling. So all these things come into play as you are making a record and you say, "It's something I did 20 years ago, I don't want to do it again" or I think that would sound very square in today's world. Many factors come into it as you are all trying to put 10, 11, 12 pieces of music together to make an album that overall has a statement which should be cohesive and clear and this is what you are trying to do. This is what I'm trying to do with this record and the previous one, Metal Dog. So, it's not just going into the studio jamming, I'm thinking about it on many levels. I say that but there is another side where I'm in the studio, where I'm surrounded by instruments and sounds and everything and sometimes they influence me. But if they do influence me, they are going to go towards a particular aesthetic that I'm trying to get this time around.

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