Pianist and composer, Alexander Hawkins, has a new album, Togetherness Music (For Sixteen Musicians), released by Intakt Records, featuring Evan Parker and the Riot Ensemble. It was recorded in one day in July 2020 in Oxfordshire, near to where Hawkins is based and is released to celebrate Hawkins’ 40th birthday. Geoff Winston found out more about the history of the music spanning several years, and about the logistics of recording such an ambitious work in these disruptive times:
LondonJazz News: The six movements of Togetherness Music include two commissions – a BBC Radio 3 commission (which became Movement II) and an Aaron Holloway-Nahum/Riot Ensemble commission (which became Movements I, III and V) – leaving the other two movements which are, presumably, self-generated?
Alexander Hawkins: That’s correct.
LJN: What governed the order in which these compositions are positioned? Was there an ‘umbrella’ concept binding the sections over a long timescale, or were these individual compositions which you felt related well to the others and were melded together to form one work?
AH: The piece could be thought of in two parts, each of three movements. The third and sixth movements are related in how they deal with the harmony, and in the nature of the generating material. A long melodic stream of mostly even length notes, with a number of melodic cells shared between the two. They are both largely ‘tutti’ pieces.
The first and fourth movements, those beginning each ‘half’, are both solo features, for Evan Parker, and then myself. In the original 2019 performances of the piece, we were the featured soloists, which was Aaron’s original concept for his commission.
The second and the fifth movements were therefore open for contrast. The second is the one which is the most improvised in the piece, though, as you can hear, there are those written elements; and the fifth is the most thoroughly composed. Each string player is reading a part throughout.
So in a sense the structure is:
1: Solo feature — 2: Improvised contrast — 3: Tutti culmination
4: Solo feature — 5: Composed contrast — 6: Tutti culmination
Additionally, all of these movements share a motivic ‘DNA’ – in this case, an essential melodic cell which is the compositional basis of each. I suppose I had some kind of intuition that these various commissioned movements belonged together, so early on in the first lockdown, I tried to analyse whether there was any technical basis to this observation. When I spotted this ‘DNA’ I realised that I must subconsciously have had a certain set of ideas on my mind over the period when the pieces were originally conceived. I was then able to rework the movements, and to devise the overarching structure under which the movements could fit together.
LJN: Before this recording, had you performed any of the movements live and with these musicians, or for radio?
AH: The Radio 3 movement, in its earlier incarnation, was part of a piece called One Tree Found, which was commission by the BBC for its Baroque season (LINK). We also performed the piece at Cafe Oto, and for the WDR at a festival in Germany. This was over the period 2012-4, if I remember correctly. This piece was scored completely differently.
The Riot Ensemble commission was performed twice – at the MAC in Birmingham, and then at Cafe Oto, in very early 2019. This line-up was, I think, an 11 piece ensemble, different from the recording, but much more similar in thrust to what is heard on the album.
LJN: How was the recording put together? I see that Challow Park Studios is close to you, in Oxfordshire, and the whole album was recorded in one day. Was this recorded during a serious lockdown or when things were more relaxed? And the mixing was over a few weeks in September.
AH: The recording was on July 30 – so we were just in one of the more relaxed periods. As to mixing, Alex Bonney and I did a full, socially distanced, day together in London, and then worked on tweaks here and there remotely. Happily, Alex and I work together a lot, so I completely trust him with these things, and we have enough of an understanding that we’re able to work remotely.
LJN: As it was in Covid times, what were the constraints? Could musicians play alongside each other, but distanced? Were all the individual musicians, or groups of musicians recorded separately and then mixed and assembled in the studio?
AH: The miracle of this is that we played this music completely live – there is no overdubbing or multi-tracking whatsoever. We were very fortunate, in that the studio was extremely large, and due to the ingenuity of Will Biggs, the engineer, we were able to devise a floor plan which both respected social distancing, and made sense from the musical and recording fidelity point of view.
This layout was actually quite a mathematical teaser in the end. I forget precisely, but we had to take on board considerations such as the wind players needing more ‘distance’ than string players, and so on. So with a lot of hand sanitiser, and everyone’s incredible patience and goodwill with layout, travel and so forth, we were able to do it all safely.
We rehearsed in London however, where the room was not so big, and here we did break up the rehearsal into sections, so that we never had too many people in the room. Not only was safety a major concern, but I didn’t want anyone to be anxious. This was the best way to keep everyone relaxed, and focussed just on the music. And happily, this happened. The atmosphere in the recording was wonderful, because we were simply all so happy to be playing after all that time!
LJN: Were there any single takes? I’ve heard that Evan has not ventured far, if at all, from his home. Did he record his mesmerising playing at home or in Challow Park Studios? It would have been amazing if everybody had got together on the same day and recorded together.
AH: Indeed – it feels almost too good to be true that we were were able to get together, but as I say, somehow, we made it happen. Because of how the piece is constructed, that’s the only way in which it could have worked. But I also feel that the chemistry in the room is so important, that I wouldn’t have wanted to have people separated in any way. Yes, there were some single takes. The fifth movement, for example, was definitely done in one. The Riot Ensemble are so phenomenally gifted, it’s small wonder! I think others were done in two, and three at the very most – and when it was more than two, it was always for ‘choice’ rather than to ‘get it right’, which, due to the musicians involved and the rehearsals, happened first or second time at most.
LJN: Mark Sanders worked with his great range of percussion equipment. Did he bring it all to the studio? And were you playing on your own piano, or the one at the studio?
AH: Mark brought everything to the studio, and yes, it was the beautiful Fazioli piano in the studio.
LJN: On Evan, I’m sure his playing was with his incredible technique where it can sound as if he’s playing more than one sax simultaneously, yet I think there is some play between right and left channel. I just wanted to make sure, in case there was any multi-tracking.
AH: I know exactly what you mean about Evan. Everything you hear is him playing in real time. On occasion, such as very gently towards the end of his opening solo, he is being live processed by Matt Wright’s electronics and, in fact, I had asked Matt to be incredibly subtle with his manipulations in various places, and often to keep the sounds as ‘analogue’ as possible, in order to create exactly that sort of liminal ‘is it/isn’t it?’ effect you describe.
LJN: The recording quality is very high – crisp, clear, excellent definition, and rich. The great sense of space, which I think is very much at the heart of the enterprise, is captured so well.
AH: I’m also delighted with how that worked – it was an interesting process trying to decide how we wanted the overall soundscape to ‘feel’.
LJN: And just to round off, I see that this CD will be released to celebrate your 40th birthday. When is your 40th?
AH: May 3rd!
Alexander Hawkins: Piano, Composition
Evan Parker: Soprano Saxophone
Aaron Holloway-Nahum: Conductor
Rachel Musson: Flute, Tenor Saxophone
Percy Pursglove: Trumpet
James Arben: Flute, Bass Clarinet
Neil Charles: Double Bass
Mark Sanders: Drums, Percussion
Matthew Wright: Electronics
Benedict Taylor: Viola
Hannah Marshall: Cello
The Riot Ensemble: Mandhira de Saram and Marie Schreer: Violins, Stephen Upshaw: Viola,
Louise McMonagle: Cello, Marianne Schofield: Double bass
The 6 movements of Togetherness Music
1. Indistinguishable From Magic
2 Sea No Shore
3 Ensemble Equals Together
4 Leaving the Classroom of a Beloved Teacher
5 Ecstatic Baobabs
6 Optimism of the Will
Togetherness Music is available from Intakt Records (LINK) . All music by Alexander Hawkins (PRS)