Name: Tom Rogerson
Occupations: Pianist, keyboardist, composer
Current release: Tom Rogerson's Retreat To Bliss is out via Western Vinyl.
Recommendations: Given the circumstances, I'm going to choose both Russian.
Popova, Painterly Architectonic – series of constructivist pieces. Incredibly, immediately modern, yet full of meaning, and emotional weight, in spite of the abstraction.
Gubaidulina, Piano Concerto – arguably the greatest living composer (now in her nineties.) Such a varied output, it's hard to pick, but this piece is so beautiful and so spare at the same time, as well as feeling like a reappraisal of pitch, duration, frequency, around a sort of ritualised form.
If you enjoyed this interview with Tom Rogerson and would like to know more about his work and music, visit his official website. He is also on Instagram, Facebook, and twitter.
When did you start writing/producing/playing music and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
My sister is 11 years older than me and she was learning piano when I was very little, and apparently I'd climb up after her and try and do the same thing. I was really into banging the white notes, which is essentially what I still do.
I have no idea what drew me to it but it almost felt necessary after a while. I could take everything out on the instrument.
Some people experience intense emotion when listening to music, others see colours or shapes. What is your own listening experience like and how does it influence your approach to music?
It varies, although I don't ever see colours or shapes. I can listen to Mahler and get swept up in it, or I can focus on the counterpoint, harmony, orchestration, depending on what mood I'm in. Sometimes the intellectual experience of music adds to the emotional one, other times it gets in the way. But it's always a physical experience for me, both playing and listening. I cry often both listening and playing, and quite often I'll have no idea why, and not much control over it.
I used to air conduct a lot of classical music when I was a teenager. But then I love listening to loud rock music where I can headbang pretty freely, or some of the best electronic music where it feels transporting.
In terms of influence, I always want that physical, emotional, visceral side to come through and to come first. That's primary. But I'm also always drawn to technical considerations, especially around structure and form, even on the simplest level.
How would you describe your development as an artist in terms of interests and challenges, searching for a personal voice, as well as breakthroughs?
Well, I suppose this album is a breakthrough of sorts.
I've played the piano almost all my life, and I don't feel like much has changed from the start apart from my skill level (I've recently put up my first recording from when I was a teenager on bandcamp because it occurred to me that it really isn't much different from what I'm doing now.)
But for whatever reason, I was writing complicated music for chamber groups as a student, then got into jazz / free improv, then into electronic-rock, and never really committed to the piano even though I was still doing it the whole time.
I think it coincided with quite a few big life events, that I started to think about how to shape what I was doing on the piano into something coherent for recording. That started with the album with Brian Eno, and sort of flowed from there.
Another breakthrough would be not being afraid to use my singing voice. My friend Karl Hyde came round to my house just to encourage me to sing words! So in a sense this album is a record of that search which is obviously ongoing.
The main challenges for me has always been how to focus the music away from free improvisation into something that can be condensed into a track or an album; and how to preserve that freedom within the composed form.
Tell me a bit about your sense of identity and how it influences both your preferences as a listener and your creativity as an artist, please.
It's probably for others to judge! My upbringing was quite traditionally English in some ways, growing up in the countryside, with gently religious parents. We lived next to the church, and that was a really important building. I would say that has influenced me in ways that I probably didn't realise: one example that only occurred to me recently, the bell-ringing on Wednesday evenings and Sunday mornings. I hear a lot of that sound and interest in patterns and repetitions, in my piano playing.
As a listener, I had a pretty good grounding in classical music from a young age, and was in choirs from the age of 8. So all that legacy of European church music was there from the start.
I started composing simple piano stuff when I was 6, and by 11 I wanted to be a composer. But I didn't listen to anything else until about 16 when I got into jazz, and then rock and electronic music.
What, would you say, are the key ideas behind your approach to music and art?
Right now I'm not sure.
When I started Three Trapped Tigers, I had quite a clear concept and philosophy behind it.
But the piano stuff I'm doing now, like I said, it feels like a continuation of something I've always done naturally. It's really hard to describe this, but it's like the piano is a totally separate musical space for me, even a different part of the brain. It's essentially private, and I find I work best subconsciously on it – ie. I improvise, and then see if I like what I came up with, which is the polar opposite of how I would write music for the band or as a composer.
Things that I'd say are consistent though are, I'm interested in getting you to feel something and think something at the same time. I don't care what, and I don't have any idea myself (the music isn't about anything), but it's something about engaging the feelings and the brain at the same time, and telling a story that way.
How would you describe your views on topics like originality and innovation versus perfection and timelessness in music? Are you interested in a “music of the future” or “continuing a tradition”?
Yeah I'm interested in both those things! And I wouldn't see them as opposed necessarily either.
I mean I play the piano which is this enormous hulking museum piece of technology that has cast its shadow over all Western music for 250 years. So one can't sit down and 'make a piano album' without considering that tradition, and trying to find a way of saying something different (though that doesn't have to be futurist – I would say it's pretty hard to be futurist on a piano.)
I don't know if this is relevant but a lot of the music on this album is actually inspired by electronic music, in some cases directly, eg processes like arpeggiation, sequencing, looping, generative principles, granular processing, that I'm consciously trying to mimic. And more generally, it's inspired by trying to wrestle with 'ambient piano' as a concept. There's so much of this music around now, and computers are pretty good at making it themselves. So how to make piano music that is 'ambient' inasmuch as it occupies a single, simple space, but still has interior movement, dynamic, form, and emotional content, and humanity, such that it can't just be made by AI, and is still distinct from Debussy, Scelsi, Budd, Glass, Jarrett, et al? That's regarding this album anyway.
But on the Eno collaboration it very much felt like old and new colliding. And in TTT, I think we're always conscious of trying to do something new.
Over the course of your development, what have been your most important instruments and tools - and what are the most promising strategies for working with them?
It's so simple for me. My piano writing process now relies on Ableton because I capture pretty much everything I do, and order it by date. So I'm constantly recording, listening back, and then making decisions based on performance rather than stopping to try to write. It's sort of back-writing rather than forward-writing: sculpting rather than painting.
Working in other media is completely different. As a composer, I'll use manuscript paper the old fashioned way, and often try to write away from the piano, just with pencil to start with before moving to computer. Regarding gear, I'm not a techy person at all. The only piece of gear I'm emotional about is my trusty old Juno 6 which I bought in 2005 and I've lugged all over the place.
Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please.
God, I always love reading about people's routines, but when it comes to writing my own, I suddenly feel very cagey about it: who would want to know about my routine?!
In any case, I've got two children now so the idea of a routine is laughable these days. But such as it is, I'm in my shed by 10 and work through til 2 on whatever I'm doing. At the moment, that's piano music which as I've said involves lots of improvising, recording, listening back, picking out material that could form the basis of something and then honing in on that material, playing it again and again, pressing record as soon as I think it's getting anywhere, listening back, going again, etc.
Converting improvisation into composition is a surprisingly slow process, but I've really found it so liberating to do things this way rather than (as I used to) sitting down to write something, which feels sort of unnatural. The worst thing is writing lyrics: I find that agonizing and I can go into the shed and spend 3-4 hours to come up with one line. In that time, I'll have checked my phone multiple times, dipped into books to nick a line, endlessly procrastinated on the piano in front of me (most often playing cheesy lounge jazz to take my mind off the task.)
One final thing: I quite often go back in after the kids are in bed, even if it's only for an hour or so. I might be tired but that one hour sets up the next day psychologically – like revisiting the morning's work at the end of the day, one can be more critical, and get a better sense of what needs working on the next day. And quite often in the nighttime session, the idea then develops completely differently.
Another key theme here is how to defeat the censorious conscious brain. The only way to do that is to be tired I find. If I'm tired, my barriers are lower, and music will get through.