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."

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, the Beatles, Bob Dylan. 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."


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, Tubby Hayes and Michel Legrand; he was a fantastic arranger. He would bring me albums when I was at school—Bill Evans, 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 (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 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."

The Memorymoog and Billy Moon

Bourne already has plans for two more albums to follow Montauk Variations. One will feature the Memorymoog analog synthesizer- -"Expect an often hilarious sonic journey through its circuits," warns Bourne's website. The second is a song-based quartet project inspired by A. A. Milne's much-loved Winnie The Pooh stories.

"Yes, that's the plan. I don't know what order they're going to come in, but they are clear ideas. Again, I'm not actively writing out scores for them—I do tend to procrastinate a lot—but when the time comes to put them together, that's when the magic happens."

The Billy Moon project sounds especially fascinating. "Me and [vocalist and songwriter] Seaming To did a concert in 2010 for the London Jazz Festival. We were rehearsing at her mum's house, and I was talking about the Winnie The Pooh books. I hadn't got When We Were Very Young [first published in 1924], so I took it off the bookshelf and opened it up. The dedication was 'To Christopher Robin Milne or, as he prefers to call himself, Billy Moon,' and I thought, 'What a great name.' There's something very English about those stories, which appeals to me. I think it's more to do with this sense of Englishness rather than any specific stories. I still don't know if I'll use text from the books, if I'll write my own or whether Seaming might write some lyrics. I've got a sense of what it's going to be, but I'm hopeless at pinning it down until I actually get the impulse to make the music: then it happens very quickly."

Bourne's future looks rosy, but there's no master plan. A big band, perhaps, or a major composition? "I don't fancy myself as a writer of big-scale works. I like intimate, small, groups. As I expand my own body of work, larger ensembles may come along, but I don't have a career plan—I don't know how to do that. But I am getting a bit of branding, having a game plan with the Leaf Label." Not forgetting Billy Moon.

Selected Discography

Matthew Bourne, Montauk Variations (Leaf Label, 2012)
World Sanguine Report, Third One Rises (Gravid Hands, 2009)
Bourne/Davis/Kane, Lost Something (Edition Records, 2008)

Dave Stapleton and Matthew Bourne, Dismantling The Waterfall (Edition Records, 2008)
Matthew Bourne, The Molde Concert (Foghorn Records, 2007)
The Electric Dr M, The Electric Dr M (Sound, 2003)

Photo Credits
Page 2: Sam Hobbs

All Other Photos: Jon Stanley Austin

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