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Sunday, March 28, 2021

Conversation With Alexander Hawkins

Alexander Hawkins. Cafe OTO, April 2018. (c) Cristina Marx/Photomusix

By Lee Rice Epstein

Almost immediately after listening to the album, I reached out to Alexander Hawkins to discuss some of what was behind the making of Togetherness Music, both pragmatically and philosophically. We communicated by email over several weeks, and what follows is slightly edited for clarity.

First, regarding the logistics of the recording. Given the state of things with COVID-19, what was the process for arranging the recording session [July 30, 2020, at Challow Park Studios, Oxfordshire, UK]?

Remarkably, there was a window over here in the UK when something of this scale was safe, and legal. Where I was fortunate was in the floorplan of the studio near Oxford I wanted to use: it actually has an extremely large live room, and this meant that we could lay everything out with the appropriate social distancing, but also without compromising either sight lines between players and conductor, or indeed an optimal layout from a sonic point of view. I would never have dreamt of inviting musicians into a situation where they might feel uneasy (especially given that with the dearth of work over the pandemic period, there were very real pressures to accept work); this would never be the right thing to do ethically, or simply from the perspective of teasing out the best playing possible. But thankfully, due to the amazing work of the studio, and the patience and good humour of everyone involved, the session itself was very relaxed; and actually, more than that—a very real thrill for all of us, given that it had been many months since most had played with other people.

There are threads of multiple motifs and concepts from previous compositions throughout. James Fei discusses this in the liner notes, but how long have you been working on Togetherness Music as a complete suite?

Three of the movements here originated in a commission from Aaron Holloway-Nahum and the Riot Ensemble, and we performed these in a couple of concerts in early 2019. These concerts were really wonderful, and especially during the second, the music was really beginning to 'breathe'. Almost immediately afterwards, I began to think about how I could develop things to reflect some of the potential directions I was hearing during the concerts. I had some kind of intuition that the Riot commission music could sit alongside a couple of other ideas I had lying around; and so around the time the first lockdown began, I began to look at the music in more detail to see if there was any more concrete basis to this intuition.

Essentially, what I noticed was that each of these units of material I was looking to work with was organised around some basic transformations of a simple motif. Once I had that, the rest more or less fell into place. In its final form, the piece can be thought of in two halves (the third and fourth movements segue from one another, so as to not to make anything too obvious): a solo feature (in movement I, for Evan; in movement IV, for me), followed by a contrast (movement II is the most open, movement V is the most through-composed); followed by a tutti (movement III and VI share a technique for harmonisation the melody line, and numerous cells of this line are shared between the two movements).

And then there is the addition of another "Baobabs" composition. At this point, there have been solo, trio, quartet, and ensemble recordings (on Song Singular , Alexander Hawkins Trio, the Alexander Hawkins Ensemble albums No Now Is So and Step Wide, Step Deep , the piece “Sun[g]” from the ensemble album Unit[e], and the Convergence Quartet album Song/Dance). I know of at least two others, “Unequal Baobabs (Goal by Garrincha)” and the site-specific LSO performance of “Unknown Baobabs.” And in this recording, I hear threads of the original, some of which sound like they're moving almost in reverse? Could you talk a bit more about“Ecstatic Baobabs” and its change in structure from the more formally additive versions?

As you say, the 'Baobabs' series are all variations on an additive structure: cell A, then cell A+B, A+B+C, and so on. My big inspiration for these pieces was Braxton's composition 23C, although of course, there are other wonderful incarnations of the idea, such as Rzewski's 'Coming Together'. Various pieces in the series simply change the melody, although there are certain melodic cells which are common to many of them (a certain group of three trills appears in most, for example). Others change the rules of repetition in some way—so for example, in the trio and sextet versions, one group of instruments plays the material additively, at the same time as another deals with it subtractively.

'Ecstatic Baobabs' has its own melody, and a slightly different take on the structure too. Usually the scores for these pieces are presented as a simple melody line, with strategically placed repeat bars marking out the geography for the performer. For this version, I started by producing a score like this; but then improvised a separate realisation of this score for each instrumentalist, and transcribed these realisations—which I then reworked so as to be more idiomatic for the strings (the harmonics, and so on). So the actual parts for this movement actually appear to be more or less through-composed, and without repeat bars (I say 'more or less', because there are also short windows for guided improvisation embedded in the line).

There is one other element here, and you are absolutely correct: two of the string players (Hannah Marshall and Benedict Taylor) are not playing a part for 'Ecstatic Baobabs', but instead for the original 'Baobabs' composition, so that we have this sense of a ghost of something familiar within the texture. At some stage, I would like to perform all of the Baobabs series simultaneously, and this is a small step towards how that might work.

Evan Parker seems so thoroughly stitched to the performance, even as his part is improvised. Did you, Parker, and Aaron Holloway-Nahum discuss a plan for his improvisation?

Throughout most of the score, and for all of the musicians, the directions as to when to start and stop improvising are indicated (for the most part, these windows are buried within notation; and in various passages, there is 'guided' improvisation—perhaps as to a language in which to begin, or how to relate to the ensemble). However, once we had established this rough organisation, the instruction was very much not to feel constrained by these indications if that felt like an interesting musical choice in the context: in other words, we were always looking to play music first, and the composition second. Evan's part was slightly different, in that apart from one very small set of gestures within the ensemble in movement IV, he never had any notation to play explicitly, or any guidance as to language (although he did have the same guidance as others as to when to come to the fore, etc.).

However, for example in movements III and VI, he did have the principal melodic voice in front of him, so that he always had the option to follow or deliberately avoid contours, pitch sets, and so on, in his improvising. The other way in which he is stitched-in is through instructions in the ensemble parts. So, for instance, the way the all-interval chord (with which the ensemble enters at the opening of the piece) collapses into the octave unison is flexible, and behaves differently depending on how Evan approaches his opening improvisation.

But perhaps how I should have tackled this question is initially not to have talked about the composition, but to have focused on Evan and stated the obvious: he is such a master that I'm not sure I could write anything which would be anywhere near as interesting as what he would do himself. At the same time as being such a powerful individual voice, he is also peerless as an ensemble musician: part of his magic is how he is able to tailor such a deeply personal language to the musical 'moment'—in other words, I feel that knitting himself of his own accord into a context in a fascinating way is simply part of his brilliancy.

Bimhuis, Amsterdam, December 2, 2018.  (c) Cristina Marx/Photomusix

[At some point in listening to Togetherness Music, I began to think about Bill Dixon's late albums, like 17 Musicians in Search of a Sound: Darfur , Tapestries for Small Orchestra , and Envoi . To me, a strength of Hawkins's compositions are the bidirectionality of the ensemble's movement. And I find some overlaps with the depth and lushness of Dixon's approach; thinking about Dixon led me to some questions I had about the titling of the pieces here, specifically ones that could work as either political or autobiographical gestures. So, I asked about this.]

Titles are a really interesting one for me. I'm one of those people who don't experience music visually, or in a narrative sense. So the things I write (or indeed play) are never 'depictions of', or 'impressions of', or indeed really 'about' anything.(I should say that I of course love much music which is explicitly programmatic—whether that's the Berlioz 'Symphonie Fantastique,' “Circus '68 '69” from Liberation Music Orchestra, or whatever—it's just that those aren't the terms on which I can personally engage with it). I suppose in this sense, I'd align myself more with a 'music about music' aesthetic. But actually, I think this can potentially be quite liberating when it comes to the title of the piece, which can then do a number of things… perhaps express some commentary on matters internal or external to the piece; perhaps provide a playground for technical play (little word games or something. Evan is fond of this idea, I sense: he was delighted with his 'Leaps in Leicester' concept for our duo CD some years back); and so on. Actually, I once read some really interesting comments from Muhal Richard Abrams, in which he said something essentially very similar to this with respect to titles.

[To understand more about Abrams and his approach towards composition titles, as well as directing improvisation within ensemble settings, I recommend reading Frank Oteri's wonderful and lengthy interview with Abrams from 2016 .]

Titling can actually be fairly laborious for me—the ideas very rarely 'flow' (the one exception being the concept for Unit[e] , where CD one's titles consist of two words, with the addition of a bracketed letter before those which follow, where those on CD two are formed by the addition of a bracketed letter afterwards). So as a result, a few years ago, I started keeping lists of interesting phrases/ideas in a notebook, which seemed to have some kind of resonance. These phrases were often from things I was reading—hence 'Iron Into Wind' and the subtitle 'Pears From An Elm' (both from Eduardo Galeano, whom I love). To the extent I can, these appear without context in my notebook, so that I can 'forget' what they're about, and paraphrase/repurpose/manipulate them etc., much as I do various musical jottings I have.

So as to the titles on Togetherness Music:

1) Indistinguishable from Magic: I don't actually know where I got this from. Clearly the phrase comes from Arthur C. Clarke, but I have to admit, I've never read Clarke—and I didn't realise the attribution when I found the title! At any rate, it seems to be a nice reflection on music itself, and also what Evan has pioneered with his circular breathed soprano language.

2) Sea No Shore: there's a little more to this one. I have a background in playing the organ, and this is a hymn tune/harmonisation I've always loved [“How Shall I Sing That Majesty”]. I'm firmly agnostic, but nonetheless, these hymns often have wonderful poetry in them. The final verse of this one is as follows:

How great a being, Lord, is Thine,

Which doth all beings keep!

Thy knowledge is the only line

To sound so vast a deep.

Thou art a sea without a shore,

A sun without a sphere;

Thy time is now and evermore,

Thy place is everywhere.

Well, those first four lines I can do without… but what amazing imagery in the next two! Then one day I was listening to the radio with my partner, when this came on, and she remarked how she had always loved these lines too. At that point, I was beginning work on this commission for the Berlin Jazz Festival , and so a manipulation of that 'A sun without a sphere' (= 'Sun No Sphere' = 'Sunnosphere') felt like an intriguing title. I was also in the process of looking for titles for this album (that's something else I should have mentioned above, 99% of the time, the repertoire gets recorded long before it has a name!), and so the sister title also felt very interesting: 'a sea without a shore' = 'Sea No Shore'.

3) Ensemble Equals Together: this was actually very nearly the title for the Unit[e] album. Absolutely—this is, as you say, one with a definite political thought behind it: I believe the perfect state of being for a musical ensemble (and therefore by extension…) is one where a group of 'equals' (a starting point which so many macho narratives of the heroic jazz soloist ignore—echoes here too of 'the reality of the sweating brow' from Braxton's Tri-Axium Writings) do something 'together'(hence ideas of solidarity, collective action, common enterprise etc.). Then there is the more playful reading of this as a straight fact from e.g. a french language textbook: 'Ensemble = Together' as in 'this means that'.

4) Leaving the Classroom of a Beloved Teacher: I can't for the life of me find the reference, but bizarrely, I can visualise the series of books from which I'm pretty sure the phrase originated! (Penguin recently published a series of excerpts from larger works—usually 50-60 page 'pamphlets'—which they sold for £1; and I found these a really interesting way to sample some authors, to find a 'way in' for further reading). But I think your observation about something potentially autobiographical is spot on. It's not a 'concrete' gesture, but I guess maybe it potentially just invites interesting questions… who is doing the 'leaving'? who is the teacher? Or is the teacher a 'genre' (jazz? classical music?)? Etc. I guess what's significant for me here is not that a listener would think about how these questions apply to me as the person doing the 'leaving'—I think that would be far too self-important! More that these layers of questions are there if anyone wants to sit and reflect on the titles. I'm also perfectly happy if someone listens to the music and never notices the title, just in the same way that I'm perfectly happy if people aren't concerned about some of the technical musical details which are buried in the composition.

On technical musical details, there's another one to go into here, and which is relevant (more obliquely) to 'leaving the classroom of a beloved teacher'. It's a bit of a strange one to go into, but it's to do with being able to let go of certain obsessive-compulsive behaviours which from time to time I struggle with/have struggled with (it's much, much less prevalent than it used to be!). So those walking bass parts in the two cellos and two basses: this is a form of notation which I first used in the composition 'Sarah Teaches Kirsty to Read' . In these earlier forms, I used a (very simple!) cipher I devised to translate texts into notation, and I did this pretty obsessively and exactingly in various incarnations of the idea. Pitches and rhythms were specifically worked out etc. More recently, I've been able to be less concerned with these precise transcriptions of texts—so this is the 'leaving'. The 'beloved teacher' bit on this reading: obviously one of the very beneficial aspects of obsessive compulsive behaviour when working on the technical aspects of the instrument is the hangup with repetition. So when I was at University in particular (between the ages of 18–24), I had these obsessions with practising technical exercises in multiples of 3 (actually, in my case, only 3 and 9 were the 'significant' numbers). For all this could be debilitating/embarrassing in various respects, it is nonetheless true that repetition is incredibly beneficial when it comes to developing technical strength. So it was 'beloved' in helping me shore up my technical foundations!

Anyway, in this piece, and actually, this pattern was beginning in the last couple of versions of the notation, I was able to be much less precise about this encoding. Somehow, I'd got over the hangup about doing it all very precisely, realising that actually, there was a more elegant, simpler way to notate the sound I was after.

5) Ecstatic Baobabs: we talked about the Baobabs thing. The other word in these titles is usually much more impressionistic. E.g. 'Imperfect Baobabs'—this appeared in a commission from the BBC for their baroque season. One theory of the etymology of the word 'baroque' is that it comes from the word 'barocco', meaning 'strange' or, in the case of a pearl, 'irregular' or 'imperfect'—hence 'Imperfect Baobabs'. Here, the 'Ecstatic' was tied into that idea of a really quiet ecstasy, e.g. that astonishing final note Sonny Rollins plays in 'Loverman', from the album with Coleman Hawkins.

6) Optimism of the Will: The reference is to Gramsci (I'm no kind of expert whatsoever on his work, but when I was doing my PhD, I did also teach undergraduates a course about the criminal justice system, and Gramsci is hugely influential obviously in the sociology here). Gramsci's dictum was to do with 'Pessimism of the Intellect, Optimism of the Will' (I think it was originally from his 'Prison Notebooks'). I think his pessimism in this context (1930s) was about the growth of authoritarianism; but the 'optimism' was about the possibilities for certain forms of socialism to counter this trend. I think that these ideas are almost alarmingly relevant these days!

Hence too, the sentiments from titles 3) and 6) in particular, the title, 'Togetherness Music'… and just the music itself hopefully bearing out the possibility of radical individualism, but within a framework of mutual respect and solidarity, ideas which I think have in fact always been borne out by the very greatest big bands, with my hero in this respect being Ellington. I always feel that no band was ever so stacked with immediately identifiable individuals, but also, no other ensemble ever felt so much like a band.

[From here, we went down a number of paths, from Luciano Berio's “Points On the Curve To Find” and Anthony Braxton's Ghost Trance Music, to the malleability and portability of Togetherness Music. One thing in particular that I was (and still am) curious about is whether Braxton's influence will be felt more as a mentor, or are his musics laying the groundwork for further evolutions of his conceptual framework. Hawkins dug into this fairly deeply and shared the scores to illustrate how the notation works on paper.]

I recently had a commission for a piece of solo music, and I did consider using one of the string parts from 'EcstaticBaobabs' as a starting point for transformations, but in the end, took another path. (Some of my pieces do have things deliberately built into them which are devices for recontextualising/moving between them—e.g., the trills in the 'Baobabs' pieces are there as 'portals' from jumping between comparable points in the compositions—but this isn't an idea I've had the chance to play with in performance/on recording yet.) In Braxton, the system has evolved to the point now where essentially, there are a lot of different ways to move between compositions. There are scenarios where a conductor can cue things, but more usual is either that the musicians cue amongst themselves, or indeed that an individual musician without the grouping makes their own choice. I sense that one of the crucial aspects for Braxton is creating something which is in many senses egalitarian and 'decentralised'. I've been lucky enough to participate in two of the Sonic Genomes now, and this in some ways is the fullest expression of this idea, a durational performance, which activates an entire space (in Italy, 8 hours in a huge museum; in Germany, 6 hours in a similar space) with subgroupings—which themselves are mutable—of musicians, creating a giant 3D collage, like a huge sound playground.

At this point, my own experiments in this direction are much less fully developed than Anthony's: in part because I'm trying to figure out whether what he is providing amounts to a generalisable methodology which any ensemble can use with any pool of material (which I think is how increasingly I lean), or whether it's something very specific to his language, meaning that other composers really ought to try to find their own way to address these issues of non-linear composition and delegation of compositional 'authority'.

So a very modest example of how it might work in something of mine is the basic score for 'Baobabs': in measure 6 a series of trills correspond to measure 7 of 'Imperfect Baobabs'. The idea being that each time in the structure that these trills occur, the performer could hop between the two compositions, or alternatively, jump off into an improvisation initially based on the trilling language. A lot of the activities of groupings of players are determined by them rather than necessarily determined by the structure of a conductor within some of these pieces.

Read the review of Togetherness Music here.