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Matthew Bourne: Montauk, Billy Moon and the Lost Pianos

Bruce Lindsay By

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I don't force an agenda onto a situation, because things become less fluid, less flexible, if you do. It means that you struggle and adapt less well. Factors like the environment, temperature, the mood you or others are in that day—the more open you are,
"I've accepted that I'm not a traditional composer who sits and scores things out, plays them, learns them. I just have a rough sense of something and go out and do it. It often ends up being completely different," says pianist, improviser and composer Matthew Bourne. It's a characteristically honest appraisal, but it fails to do justice to Bourne's talent as a writer or player. This approach makes him one of the most fascinating of Britain's contemporary performers; it also makes him a hard man to second-guess. Based on his previous activity, few if any commentators would have been likely to predict the appearance of his beautiful solo piano album Montauk Variations (Leaf Label, 2012).

Born in Avebury in the southwest of England in 1977, Bourne began to teach himself piano after seeing Frank Sinatra on television in 1993, graduated from Leeds College of Music in 2001 and won a BBC Jazz Award for Innovation in 2002. He earns his living as a sideman in France with musicians such as saxophonist Laurent Dehors, and he has been involved as a band member or collaborator with artists and ensembles including World Sanguine Report, Collider, The Electric Dr M, John Zorn, Franck Vigroux, Dave Stapleton and Bourne/Davis/Kane (with drummer Steven Davis and bassist Dave Kane).

There is another Matthew Bourne on the U.K. music scene—a choreographer responsible for some marvelously original interpretations of classic ballets. Bourne the pianist's press information points out that Bourne the choreographer is much older [about 17 years older, in fact] and stresses that the two men are not to be confused. But they do have some things in common. Both are innovative, with reputations for radical approaches to their chosen arts. They consistently produce work that captures the imagination, taking inspiration from what might be referred to as traditional sources as well as from more contemporary sources. Neither man is easily categorized or pigeonholed.

So how would Bourne the pianist describe himself in terms of his musical background in, say, ten seconds? His immediate response is a long and loud burst of laughter. "In ten seconds! I don't know. I think I'm defined by what I'm into as a listener. So I guess it also depends on what project I'm involved with. On my own, I've sampled lots of things from television and films, set them to music and combined them with my approach to the piano. I spent ten years doing that, and it's run its course."

Chapter Index

Montauk Variations

The Recording Process


The Memorymoog and Billy Moon

Montauk Variations

Montauk Variations is, at least in part, Bourne's response to his earlier approach. "I started to feel like I was going through the motions: the sampling was getting in the way of my piano playing. The idea behind Montauk Variations was to make a solo piano album —though I also knew that I was going to add some cello."

Montauk, a beach resort on the tip of Long Island, isn't the most obvious source of inspiration for a musician whose home is in rural Yorkshire, in the north of England. But Bourne had wanted to visit the area for some time. As he puts it, "I'd had this uncanny compulsion to visit Montauk, even if only for a short time." He finally made the trip in 2009, and the effect was immediate. "By the time I returned to New York, I was floating above it all." How long did he spend at Montauk? "About four hours"—a brief visit, but one which proved to be the foundation for a striking set of improvisations.

Promotional materials for the album refer to "two years of thinking and three days of recording." The recording time is clear enough, but what happened in the two years of thinking? "I came back from Montauk with the idea for a solo album mapped out, not in terms of themes or compositions but just a template atmosphere: the feel of the record. I'd broken up from a long-term relationship, which did my head in, so I had thought of writing some text and getting someone to read it over the music." But that never happened: the final concept would develop in a very different way.

Montauk Variations"David Francis at Dartington [Dartington Hall in Devon, in the southwest of England] invited me down there when I told him about my idea for the album. I took him up on the invitation, and when I went down and recorded the pieces [in May, 2011] I realized that they had nothing to do with what I had initially wanted the album to be. It became clear that the music reflected what people had been saying to me about really liking the 'soft bits' in my work—the 'gentle side.'"

Bourne's explanation illustrates his very individual approach to music: his response to influences at the moment of creation, when all planning and preparation can be put to one side. "I would push these comments away for a while, but I've always given myself over to the situation in hand. I don't force an agenda onto a situation, because things become less fluid, less flexible, if you do. It means that you struggle and adapt less well. Factors like the environment, temperature, the mood you or others are in that day—the more open you are, the easier it is to respond."


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