Trish Clowes: From Shorter, Lovano and the Sphinx

Bruce Lindsay By

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Both albums contain tunes inspired by literary works. On Tangent there's "Coloured Eye," based on a poem by Clowes' friend, Jessie Jones, and "The Master And Margarita," which shares its title with Mikhail Bulgakov's satire on 1930's Russia (first published in English in 1967). "I like writing something that represents or says something about something I love. I'd read The Master and Margarita a lot, and then I wrote the piece and felt that it shared the magic and mystery of the book, so I gave it that title. With poems, the text directly influences the music. I'd read Coloured Eye and felt I could do something with it musically: it gave me musical images, if you like. I bought the complete works of Oscar Wilde and found "The Sphinx." I felt, again, that this was a poem that gave me musical images. Once I find the right poem I find it easy to compose the music. Both of these poems have so many images in them that I could just literally sit down and sing the text on the spot, if that makes sense. There's no point forcing anything. It's about finding things that I felt I could do something with."

The combination of literature and music is something Clowes looks set to continue with in the future. "Yes I think so. There's plenty of time. I can see myself writing a songs album at some point." Would this mean that she becomes a lyricist as well as a composer? "I don't know. That's not something I'm very comfortable with, because I don't do it very much, but who knows?"

As a performer and writer, Clowes takes great delight in working with musicians she feels connected to on a personal level. "For me the people are really important. There's a reason why I work with each of these people: there is some sort of connection. The string quartet on the album, for instance. I knew Thomas Gould [the violinist] a little. I hadn't worked with him but Louise McMonagle, the cellist, who I'm very good friends with, recommended him. Adam Robinson, the viola player, has a group called the Threads Orchestra, which Chris [Montague] is part of. I'd written a piece for that orchestra so I had a connection with Adam too. I like to keep things like that if I can." It's a surprise to hear that the quartet hasn't worked together previously, for as improvisers they sound like a very cohesive unit. "I was so pleased, we all worked. Everyone really clicked, gelled straight away."

Heidi Parsons, another cellist who appears on both albums, is a friend of Clowes and McMonagle from their student days, while Kathleen Willison, the vocalist on "Coloured Eye" and "The Sphinx," is also an old friend. "She's a stunning singer but she doesn't gig that much at the moment. She's a lovely young mum, looking after her children. I had a few singing lessons with her while I was studying, that's how we met. I felt that her voice, her style, were close to how I might interpret something, although I'm not saying I can sing as well as her, so it seemed quite natural to involve her in my work."

A strong thread of improvisation runs through the second album, including the nonet pieces. Clowes builds varying levels of structure within which this improvisation can appear. "For the small band tunes I gave them lead sheets: I like to create strong melodies but leave space too. On 'On Off' there is a melody and a little background riff and quite a specific bass line. The more people there are the less space there is so I need to address that. If you're going to have nine people in an ensemble you need to ensure that the music is written for nine people. It's not a problem, but it is important. As compositions get more complex, you have to balance interesting writing with space for improvisation.

"The opposite is the case too. I hate listening to jazz that boxes in improvisation, where the improvisation has to happen in a strict space between two tightly written sections. Lots of wonderful music has been written like that, coming out of the popular song form, but to me when I write I'm always thinking about where improvisation can take place rather than simply building in a section. I try to avoid that. I'll have a melody and decide that a piano or guitar could improvise over it, or a string section could have a conversation at that point. The solos don't just happen in one place." That well-established format of head, solos, head can be formulaic. I'm not criticizing that form; I just think that we should be playing around with it a lot more."

As a musician who is regularly crossing between jazz and contemporary classical music, what sort of value does Clowes see in such labels? "I just write what comes into my head. If you want to challenge, or try to challenge, ideas about genre then I think labels are okay. Used in the right way they give people an idea of where you're coming from and what to expect. We thought about that kind of thing with Emulsion, we were very careful with the language we used. We referred to improvisation rather than jazz and to contemporary composition rather than contemporary classical or contemporary jazz. If someone wants to describe my music as contemporary jazz because that's how it will be understood by their readers or their audience, then that's fine as well."

Outside her own projects, Clowes is involved in a range of other activities including the SE Collective, based in south east London, and the Odd Trio with McMonagle and drummer Tim Giles. She has also been a part of Andy Sheppard's Sax Massive, a 200-saxophone ensemble: she opened her performance with the group at the 2011 Norfolk and Norwich Festival by playing through a second floor office window while baritone saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings performed on the roof of a nearby library.

The Emulsion festival is another key project that she has initiated and which looks set to expand. The first Emulsion was a one-day festival which featured newly commissioned works from musicians including Clowes' early mentor and teacher, Iain Ballamy. It may have started small, but there are ambitious plans for its future. "The 2013 festival will mainly be led by Luke Styles, a contemporary classical musician [who currently holds the prestigious post of Young Composer In Residence at Glyndebourne Opera House]. The 2012 Festival did contain some contemporary classical music but it was in a jazz club and most people would probably describe it as mostly jazz. Next year it's at Kings Place and they want it to flip around so contemporary classical is the main focus. Luke will lead and free me up to think about the third one in 2014. We're hoping to get funding to expand the activity, adding a series of workshops through the year. I don't intend to make it change."
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