Part 2

Could you describe your creative process on the basis of a piece, live performance or album that's particularly dear to you, please?

The creative process on this latest album was interesting as it's my first solo album.

I had a lot of sessions recorded which were pure improvisation sessions, with up to 4-5 hours of improvised pieces each, and I sifted through them looking for ideas (from a bar to a whole track) that I could recreate. Some of them (like the first and penultimate track on the album) are basically complete improvs which I've then relearned because I liked them. This is that thing of me learning to trust the subconscious. And then relearning is often a case of editing furiously: I use a lot of timings as I find I can repeat things for ages and lose all track of time, and things sound very different in the context of a 40 minute album (choosing to repeat a section for 3 minutes in an album of 10 tracks is a very different decision from doing it on a gig, for example.)

Also structure is really important. I often worry about an idea for ages, end up generating multiple variants of it, and directions it could go in. I'll often end up sketching all these out on A3 manuscript with numbers, and then try and piece together the material from there. And normally a lot of the ideas get ditched and it gets boiled down to something much simpler which is then recorded and the rest of those roads not taken are forgotten. But they exist somewhere in the memory of the piece, and when I perform it, because all the music is always open to improvisation, there's always the possibility they'll get rediscovered.

I've also been doing a weekly improvisation on Instagram, which I find really helpful for both generating ideas, and roadtesting concepts and sounds (rather than specific material, which is better tested in a gig.) I think of it like a sketchbook. But I need the (online) audience to make it work. If I was just noodling in my studio, I wouldn't learn half as much.

If I'm stuck I like covering or transcribing music which is miles away from the piano, to see how it works and if it opens any doors. My way round creative block now (which I've definitely had in the past) is to keep going all the time, and to have material constantly on the go, including tracks that I recorded 10-15 years ago. It makes organisation and discipline quite tricky – I often work pretty spontaneously, one day on one track, another day on another, so that 5 or 10 tracks are inching forward simultaneously without ever finishing them! But then what is it to 'finish' a track anyway?

Another essential way round block for me is to embrace the contingency of it all, it's all imperfect, and make a virtue of that.

Listening can be both a solitary and a communal activity. Likewise, creating music can be private or collaborative. Can you talk about your preferences in this regard and how these constellations influence creative results?

I agree, and I've done a fair amount of both.

Piano has always been private to me, I think that's the reason I've struggled to record it til relatively late in my career, and I find gigging very difficult in that way. I'd rather imagine the crowd isn't there. On the other hand, there's a danger to making too much music like that. First of all, I find I get bored of my own company, and my own sound! Sometimes I know exactly what I'm going to do next. But once you're into the realm of second-guessing yourself, I find that can be a vicious circle.

Collaboration for me is so important and all the lessons from that can be carried back into private work. I run an improv night in London called Proof Positive where I invite friends down to play who often haven't played together and see what happens. It's really healthy to be able to do that, even if it's a disaster, you learn stuff (and having an audience present is important too, it changes the process.) I'm lucky enough to have collaborated with one of the all-time great collaborators in Brian Eno which was an education, not least in quite important things like ego – when to have it and when not to have it.

Collaboration inevitably requires compromise, submitting to being part of a whole. I find the psychology of that so interesting, and I think it's a crucial part of the narrative for the listener too, whether it's bands, orchestras or improv collectives! Having played in a band for 10 years, there's no better feeling than that time that the three of us have reached somewhere that individually none of us could have got to.

How do your work and your creativity relate to the world and what is the role of music in society?

In the band I was very sure that this was modern music, with transgressive potential, using radical forms, which I put down to youthful confidence. And those gigs would often go off, they could be moments of intense freedom for all concerned, and that's very important.

This music is so private that its relation to the social world is harder for me to outline, except that maybe it's something to do with transcendence? I'm not sure. I'd be wary of going too far down a holistic / therapeutic explanation. I'm aware that this kind of music can get bracketed as that, and especially the piano often gets co-opted in that way, as it does into muzak and things like that.

For me, the social power of music is often about the interaction between performer and listener, and how the experience of music can transform a physical space, and engage a listener. Ie it's not a passive experience for them. I see my work as very much of the world, partly because of the improvisatory elements within it, which are intrinsically contingent and present.

In recording the album we've tried to keep in the sounds of the keys, my breathing, my shifting around, etc. because I don't believe in the ideal of recording perfection.

As for the role of music in society in general, this is a huge topic. All I'll say is that the kind of music I'm currently making, I don't think it's inappropriate to see it as in some way quasi-religious. I think for a lot of people in the UK/Europe, culture is now a substitute for religion in terms of something that helps people to think and feel and make sense of their lives, something to practice, even something that articulates a framework of values, whatever they may be.

Art can be a way of dealing with the big topics in life: Life, loss, death, love, pain, and many more. In which way and on which occasions has music – both your own or that of others - contributed to your understanding of these questions?

Music and art have been essential to processing these questions throughout my life, though 'understanding' might be going too far.

I've played the piano almost since I can remember so it's no exaggeration to say that it's always been there for me to process whatever mood I'm in, and it rarely fails in that regard. I would play the piano for hours a day when I was a teenager to shake off whatever adolescent rage I was feeling about whichever girl or teacher or situation. I also composed hours and hours of music at that time which I'm sure was some kind of sublimation.

This record is very much a response to the birth of my child, the death of my father and my diagnosis with blood cancer. But I don't want to suggest that it's all direct. I actually don't think the music is that different from what I was already doing on the piano, nor will my next album sound different.

In terms of everything else, I got heavily into literature in my teens as well, and remember feeling like Blake and Hamlet held the answers to everything, the same way my friends were feeling about bands (I didn't get into any non-classical music til later on, and I regret not having had that sense of massive identity investment that teenagers have in bands.)

There seems to be increasing interest in a functional, “rational” and scientific approach to music. How do you see the connection between music and science and what can these two fields reveal about each other?  

Science is already hardwired into so much music production, albeit at quite a basic level. Anyone who's worked an analogue synthesiser has to have a vague idea of how the sound is being produced and changed.

From my point of view, I wasn't good at science at school, and I have a hard time following it, so it interests me but I wouldn't say it's particularly a conscious part of my creative process.

Creativity can reach many different corners of our lives. Do you feel as though writing or performing a piece of music is inherently different from something like making a great cup of coffee? What do you express through music that you couldn't or wouldn't in more 'mundane' tasks?

Er yes.

As I've already said, my music isn't really about anything, but it is expressive. So maybe you could say it's 'about' its expression, expressivity, but it's deeper than that because it IS expression. In a way that making coffee is not.

Music that only appeals to the senses without considering anything deeper behind it is normally not that interesting to me, in the same way as coffee is not that interesting to me.

Music is vibration in the air, captured by our ear drums. From your perspective as a creator and listener, do you have an explanation how it able to transmit such diverse and potentially deep messages?

No I don't I'm afraid, but does anyone? We're all guessing to some extent which I think is great, that's part of the mystery and beauty of music, one of the reasons it is so transporting is that we can't get a handle on it and I'm not sure I'd want to.

It's precisely its supra-verbal / trans-rational essence that makes it so necessary, especially in a culture which is increasingly instrumentalised, calibrated, surveilled.

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