Talking Heads: Brett Dean

interview by Ben Hogwood

Brett Dean is enjoying a productive start to 2022 in London musical life this year. Late January saw the UK premiere of his Piano Concerto, with Jonathan Biss and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, while the following month Lawrence Power gave a performance of the Viola Concerto with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. The viola is Dean’s ‘home’ instrument, but more recently he has cast his eye further down the stringed instrument range to write for the cello. This work – the Cello Concerto – has had a number of high-profile performances around the world with its dedicatee Alban Gerhardt as soloist. Gerhardt now brings it to the UK for the first time, completing a date originally scheduled during the pandemic.

Australian composer Dean lives in the UK, and Arcana join him on a Zoom call from his home in a village near Newbury. We start by talking about the concerto’s genesis, which runs right back to when composer and soloist met for the first time. “I have known Alban for a long, long time,” he reveals. “His father, Axel, was a colleague of mine when I was playing in the viola section of the Berlin Philharmonic. They all have musician’s names – Alban, Cosima, Pamina – all quite quirky but very definitely music related names. I first encountered Alban when he was a teacher, and I taught his elder sister Manon the viola. For quite some years she has played in the viola section of the Deutsche Oper in Berlin. I’ve known the family and known Alban since he was 16 or 17, and I played in the Berlin Philharmonic when he gave his debut, which would have been in the early 90s. He played the Tchaikovsky Rococo Variations and so it was coming full circle to write not only the Cello Concerto but prior to that I’d written him a piece for cello and piano, which he premiered with Steven Osborne. We’ve been collaborators for quite some time, and in recent years we have played in a string quintet which tours occasionally. It’s been a very special time, and great to unpack this piece with him.

Gerhardt is a fierce advocate of contemporary music. “With even the brand new pieces, he plays them all from memory”, reveals Dean. “He has an extraordinary dedication. He would play that down and say simply that he plays better from memory, but that’s underestimating what must go into that because it’s not easy to commit brand new pieces to memory.” Committing this new piece must have been a labour of love, given the distinctly shaded cello part? “It’s hard for me to judge, but it does have motifs and things you can remember. I do think my instrumental writing does allow and certainly uses motifs that you can remember. At the same time there is plenty of variation and modification and manipulation of those motifs such that it must be easy to end up going down the wrong path! That can happen in standard repertoire, having played quite a few viola concertos from memory – it is a very particular skill. It is liberating, I remember – although it’s been a while since I’ve played any of the big concertos from memory – but it is a great feeling when you get to that point.”

Was Brett writing the Cello Concerto as much for Alban the player as he was for the cello as an instrument? “Certainly”, he says emphatically. “The piece actually started life as a piece for solo cello, which strictly speaking I didn’t write for Alban. It was actually a competition piece for the Feuermann competition in Berlin, back in 2014 or 2015. It was called 11 Oblique Strategies, which was inspired by Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt‘s pack of cards. It is a pack of cards that they put together, and you pull out a card. It was meant for creative artists, in Eno’s case in a studio and stuck for an idea. You go to the pack, pull out a card and it will have some sort of aphorism on it, like building bridges, burning bridges, or “You are sitting in a very large room and it’s very quiet” – things that get the mind ticking over. It became quite a thing back in the ‘70s. Famously David Bowie used these strategies when he was in his Berlin phase, writing Low and Heroes.”

Dean’s approach differed slightly. “With this piece it doesn’t have the spontaneity that Brian Eno built into the idea, because I actually chose eleven cards beforehand and ordered them. I was fascinated by the concept though and given that it was a competition piece for young cellists it seemed an appropriate thing to write a piece that somehow was about the creative and the recreative process. Alban was part of it, because he was the first cellist I ever showed the piece to, and he would run through it for me and with me. That meant I had a profound cellist’s approval. It seemed somehow fitting then when the concerto commission came up to take these ideas, because I was really happy with how the solo piece turned out, as it seemed to be one of those solo pieces that was opening multiple windows for me. He explains further. “Some pieces lead you further than other pieces do, and this piece cracked a few hard nuts for me compositionally. It seemed appropriate to use it as the basis of a piece for Alban, given he’d been part of its early stages. It is for Alban, and also for the cello.”

Dean has a confession to make. “The cello is the instrument I probably would have liked to have been playing. I love the viola, it has been good to me, but there is something about the whole gesture of cello playing that is quite stupendous and grand, and all the mastery and the range it has, I have always enjoyed writing for it. Even with chamber pieces of mine that feature the cello, it ends up having a good time! My quartets have a full prominent part, while I’ve written for the twelve cellos of my former colleagues in Berlin, the piece Twelve Angry Men. So, it was a wonderful and pleasing opportunity to write a concerto and above all for Alban, who I’ve known so long.”

The Cello Concerto has a long, continuous span across its single movement, so while there are some distinct divisions it is very much one broad section. Dean considers his answer. “I mentioned the cracking of difficult nuts with that solo piece, and I think the thing I was able to unify in that piece, in its many short movements, was the first time I felt I’d been able to approach something in the manner of a composer like György Kurtág, who I admire greatly. The Kafka Fragments are a good case in point. They are around 60 minutes long but are made up of so many small components, and yet it somehow is this single statement. I’ve always been fascinated by how he does that. With the solo cello piece I felt I got somewhere along that path. I had these very contrasting and different eleven sections that somehow hung together in a way that I found pleasing, and that was somehow more than the sum of its parts. It was building on that to come up with this big span in the Cello Concerto, and I’m really pleased that comes across because that’s not a given by any means.”

Another feature of the concerto is its striking orchestral colours, which prompts the question – does he find it advantageous writing for the orchestra having been part of one? “I’m sure”, he says emphatically. “I can’t imagine writing for orchestra without having had the background I’ve had. I’ve always felt it’s a bit like a home game writing for orchestra, because I go back into my orchestral mindset. I do still get a printout of the viola part and play through it, to see what it feels like. Even when I finished writing Hamlet, I got the viola part and slogged through it over a couple of days. It was bloody hard! It doesn’t necessarily make all that much sense. Just the viola part of an opera, but you know, the viola part of something like a cello concerto, given the action in in the divided strings, it gives you an indication of whether the energy is working correctly. It’s incredibly valuable in orchestrating contemporary music to know how to gauge energy. I find it really important to write parts that are challenging for orchestral players, but in that challenge it needs to be achievable, not too complex. That’s what I really liked about pieces in my own time in a professional orchestra. In the early years of the Berlin Philharmonic, it didn’t include that much really contemporary music, but I also did a lot of chamber music, and that included a lot of contemporary music with like-minded younger members of the Philharmonic. Yet as Claudio Abbado took over from Herbert von Karajan, and then Simon Rattle took over from Abbado, the repertoire changed significantly anyway.”

In writing for orchestra, Dean drew inspiration from one of his contemporary composers, Helmut Lachenmann (above). “As he said, an orchestra is an incredible kind of fascinating machine. It’s got 100 moving parts, and they all have a human brain, but getting them all to move in the same direction at the same time is another matter altogether! I met him a few times, and never had lessons with him, but we did talk a bit about those sorts of things. It was fascinating to also see the very different and quite extraordinary sound world that he creates. It’s much more about particular sounds and noises that you can get out of instruments. He could tell a brass player exactly where to put the embouchure to get exactly the sound he needs, which is why he’s been so convincing when he steps in front of an orchestra. On the page they look daunting, but he knows it’s achievable, and I learned a lot from that, to make it somehow a really positive challenge for each and every member of the orchestra rather than giving them a page load of black, notes everywhere! You won’t get the orchestra on side that way.”

The concerto is a collaboration of forces, rather than a contest between them. “That was something I was pleased about. The solo piece had a title Oblique Strategies, but it was about the creative process. It’s not necessarily trying to tell a story in the way quite a few of my pieces, including a couple of the concertante pieces, do. The first movement in my Trumpet Concerto, which I wrote for Håkan Hardenberger (below), is called Fall Of A Superhero. It is about pushing this trumpet to the max, so that actually the trumpet conks out at the end of the first movement. My Clarinet Concerto is called Ariel’s Music, and is a requiem for Elisabeth Glaser who was one of the first but one of the most prominent early campaigners in the AIDS era. She had been infected with HIV in a blood transfusion, and possibly because she was not from the gay community but from a straight community she had traction with the Reagan administration at the time, which was doggedly blaming it on lifestyle choices. That is also very much a ‘one pitted against many’ scenario. In the Cello Concerto I was pleased to try writing a concerto that was more about a collaboration. It is about the cello initiating ideas that get picked up by the orchestra, then sometimes the other way around, and about finding colours of the solo cellist with the orchestra rather than being in competition with them.”

Dean agrees that it is gratifying having the concerto performed several times as part of major orchestral programmes, each time with Gerhardt as soloist. “It’s obviously thrilling for me as a composer, even despite quite a few performances getting ‘Corona’d’! The performance in London was going to happen in 2020 but got rescheduled. That’s the big advantage of having a soloist like Alban, who is such a genuine champion of new music. There are many soloists who, dare I say it, feel it is a good move to commission a new concerto every now and then, but Alban is very committed to the idea in itself. Again, as in Håkan’s case as a trumpeter, you’ve got to build the repertoire. Yes, you can play Haydn and Hummel all your life, but that’s what his guiding principle has been, to create repertoire for the trumpet as a solo instrument. In the cello’s case, there are plenty of great pieces you can rely on, but not as many as the violinists or pianists. Alban’s dedication to really forging new repertoire is extremely genuine, and the other advantage is co-commissioning to get several guaranteed performances, because you’ve got various stakeholders in in the game, which is a blessing. It really makes a huge difference for me as a composer.”

Dean’s mention of Brian Eno earlier in the interview deserves to be revisited, as it implies the composer has been very open in his musical education and what he takes on as a composer. It wasn’t always that way. “The irony is that my education, my practical upbringing, was very much classical. I learned violin as a kid and progressed to the viola and chamber music. Then I went through the conservatory, and it was all classical music. However, the person that really got me fired up as a budding composer, and who awoke the latent, ambitious composer in me was a rock musician, a guy called Simon Hunt from Sydney.”

The two struck up a firm friendship and musical relationship. “We discovered a likeminded need to explore territory other than where we were, other than our day job. I was enjoying hugely my time at the Berlin Philharmonic, and yet I was aware of its limitations. The late von Karajan era was Richard Strauss and Bruckner, Beethoven and Brahms, and not a lot else. He was getting sick of I-IV-V chord progressions, if you like! He was the ‘interesting sounds’ person in this otherwise not especially enterprising rock band, and we started improvising together. It was through that, with close mic-ing of the viola and a piano frame and an early sampler, I was learning as much from being in a studio with Simon as I was playing in the Berlin Philharmonic. Somehow the ambition to compose came as much from retracking sessions in divey studios in inner city Sydney when I was back on holidays, or this little studio we had near Checkpoint Charlie, in the days before the Berlin wall came down. It was very enterprising and kind of pioneering, and I found it was a great complement to donning the tails and playing Bruckner, to be in alternative music cafes playing this new music. I still need the electronic geek to find my way around the studio! I’ve never really learned to operate the studio myself, but it liberated my ear to musical potential, even if it was a recording of shattering glass. Those sorts of things became part of the pieces that Simon and I were making, often for short films. They became part of the vernacular or the vocabulary of sound that I was only too keen to expand. Quite a few pieces of mine, particularly early on, included electronics.”

The appeal of his first discipline is clear, however. “Increasingly, whilst I will still have a kind of an extra few sounds created electronically, I do like to get as much variety of colour as I can out of the orchestra itself. In the Cello Concerto I have written for Hammond Organ for the first time, for example! I couldn’t say why, but there was something about it that was the sound I was after. I like the bizarre aspects of it, the oddness that it brings.”

On a more sombre note, our talk turns to the influence of the recently departed Harrison Birtwistle (above), who Dean has checked as a reference point even in the notes for the concerto. The two did meet, it turns out. “The first time we met was at a concert at the Wigmore Hall in mid-2019. It was a feature of his own music with the Nash Ensemble, including a premiere of a new piece for viola and cello, Duet for Eight Strings, which was performed by Lawrence Power and Adrian Brendel. We chatted together afterwards in the downstairs bar, having been introduced, and as it turned out Harry was staying the night in the Garrick Club. We ended up sharing a taxi together, and I had to pinch myself! Here I was chatting away in the back of a taxi with one of my all-time heroes. I must say that I’m working on a new opera at the moment, and I’m happy to admit I have a vocal score of The Minotaur on my desk. I have to say there are scores of his that I turn to as much as anybody else and more than most. There is a strange arch of clockwork in his music, and yet I find it just so liberating. It frees up the imagination just to listen to it, let alone how he goes about it. It’s like a refresher course for your brain, and emotionally so engaging. I can’t say I knew him well, but I feel very connected to him through some of his pieces – in particular Pulse Shadows, one of my favourite Birtwistle pieces. It is a miracle of invention.”

Dean confirms the opera he is working on, for Bavarian State Opera, is called Two Queens. “It examines the relationship between Mary Stuart and Elizabeth I, but it does so not through Schiller / Donizetti but uses their own words, which have been beautifully put together and distilled by Matthew Jocelyn, who I worked with on Hamlet. It is due to be premiered in two short years, so I’ve got to get my skates on! It is progressing though, and I’m having fun with it.”

With that our allocated time is up – but Dean has shown in that time a keen and alert grasp of the music he is working on and its place in time, with reference to his time with the Berlin Philharmonic, his work within rock music and his vocation as a composer. Go to watch the Cello Concerto in its first London performance and you will get an idea of what he is all about.

Alban Gerhardt is the soloist, with the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Edward Gardner, in Brett Dean’s Cello Concerto at the Royal Festival Hall on Wednesday 27 April. The concerto will be complemented by Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem and Vaughan Williams’ Symphony no.5. For more information on tickets, click here

Talking Heads: Leo Abrahams

Arcana is paying a visit to the studio of musician and producer Leo Abrahams. We are there to talk primarily about Scene Memory II, his recent solo guitar album – sequel to a first Scene Memory of 2006. Perhaps inevitably discussion wavers during the course of the interview, and we end up talking about a number of the prestigious musical acts with whom Abrahams has worked and about influences on his music, who range far and wide.

We begin, however, in Siberia – which is where Scene Memory II has its musical origins. In what seems an unlikely turn of events, Abrahams was touring the region. “I have a Russian friend, a promoter, and it’s his life’s project to bring obscure music to the far reaches of Russia. For many years he’s organised what are effectively travelling festivals, which start out in the west of Russia, and drive all the way across to Vladivostok, gigging all along the way. It’s quite incredible, and it’s almost like a performance art project. He’s quite a mischievous character, but very passionate about what he does.  The tours are called Muzenergo, and back in 2013 I did one of those tours with a project I had called Amoral Avatar, and before that, when I did the Scene Memory album in 2006 he got me over to do some gigs in Moscow. That was where we started our association. The Amoral Avatar tour was a killer, with virtually no sleep – two hours a night on a coach, juddering down these roads. It was really brutal but a wonderful experience.”

The audiences proved engaging, too. “Everywhere you went, even in the very small towns in Siberia, everyone would turn out to hear it. They want to hear challenging music, they’re very interested in it. They’re partly interested because Western musicians have bothered to come to thi very remote place, and partly it’s a legacy of Soviet arts education, or the meaning of art in the Soviet system – it’s kind of a hangover from that. There’s something important, something for everybody that’s worth experiencing. So I started having the idea of making another solo guitar record some time ago, but I was struggling to write it. I thought the best solution would be to actually go on tour and force myself to improvise, and see what comes out. That coincided with my friend Iouri offering me this opportunity to tour together. I don’t think I would have been able to break the block if it hadn’t been for that experience. It was quite difficult, because although I have experience with live improvisation I have no experience with solo live improvisation. It is a whole different ballgame, because you don’t have anyone else to spark off. It was an immensely rewarding experience – it didn’t always go well, but even the failures were instructive.”

There’s no better environment for coming face to face with your limitations, and then finding ways around them. I think a lot of what I found on that tour was that I was trying to be too clever, and trying to hide behind the technology a bit. When I listened back to the recordings, I could hear my nerves. It wasn’t all bad, but it made me what I had to change to make it a viable record, as opposed to a novelty act – like look how many sounds this bloke can make with his guitar! Some nights people came to the show, and because I’d played with Roxy Music people were expecting to hear proper guitar solos. Some guys came up to me at the end and said, “Why didn’t you play guitar? It was all backing tracks!” It was guitar, but they just weren’t ready for that. In one way that validated my sonic aspirations for it, but in another way it was a failure because it felt like there was no performance for the uneducated listener to latch on to. That was also instructive. I did one gig in a Science University, outside Moscow, which was absolutely incredible because all these young students completely understood intuitively all of the structural principles that I was trying to implement. They got all the Morton Feldman-inspired ideas of imperfect symmetry and inaccurate memory, all these playful techniques. I was really not – and still am not able – to execute them properly, but they still saw those principles. and that was astounding. We finished the concert and then they all came up to the stage when we had this little seminar. It was quite amazing, and I thought I’ve finally found my audience after 20 years – science students!”

Some of the material on Scene Memory II, and the space created – for your interviewer at least – harks back to early ECM records, and a sense of time and place that seems to fall in with Pat Metheny’s solo work for the label. Could this be the case with Abrahams, reflecting his Siberian surroundings? “Maybe it was an ingredient, yeah – but even before I was in Russia, I was reaching for some of that sense of space. I would always refer it to the people who work on ECM who were in turn influenced by John Cage and Morton Feldman. It’s in this area, harmonically and structurally, that is in between – I don’t want to say classical and jazz, but more of a liminal space. I think part of that could be related on some level to the wide openness of Siberia, but in the end it’s a holistic feature rather than a linear progression of influences.”

Given the time Abrahams takes to work with other artists, did he need to devote special time to his solo work? “Yeah. I do find it difficult to switch back and forth. I always feel like I need at least five clear days, without even doing a session or mixing for anybody. I need to know I’ve got a week to just go into my own space and to waste time if I have to waste time. That’s important, but

Fortunately it’s always been the case that I’ve had these little pockets of time. Sometimes they don’t come along for a long time because I’m busy working for other people. It means that whenever I run out of work there is a backlog of ideas that I’m keen to jump into. I really love working with other people, and I never work on anything that I don’t like, which is an enormous privilege. It has also meant that I don’t have to make my own music work for me economically. It’s a passion, and it feeds into my work with others, but I’ve never thought of it as a career. It’s always something that I want to investigate for myself. In a way it’s like my little holiday.”

This would seem a relatively unusual spot for a musician to be in, but in a good way. “Yeah. It goes back to seeing one’s career as a sort of ecosystem, in a holistic way. It’s an area that fertilises other areas, a part of the whole. All other things are tangential.” It is possible to imagine a Venn diagram, with the solo work as one element. “Yeah, and to be honest, in future I think I would like it to be a bigger part of the picture. This record is the first one I really wanted to go and promote. I have made all my other records out of curiosity than anything else. Once they were finished, and I could listen to them, and they were released, that was the end of it. This one is more like the beginning of an area I would like to keep exploring, and to do live performances. I feel like I’ve found an area I want to explore again, and making a completely different record next time, which is what I’ve always done before.”

The earlier albums are certainly a different style to Scene Memory II – which is a guitar-only album, if using a number of techniques to secure the sounds. There is one effect that sounds like bowing, but Abrahams reveals how he gets it. “It’s the sustained elements, made with something called the Plus Pedal. It looks like a piano sustain pedal, and it freezes little bits of the sound. There have been pedals that have done that before, based around. granular synthesis, but the way this particular thing does it is very pure, implemented very beautifully. All the predecessors have been somewhat clunky or even a bit abrasive. This pedal opened up a lot of possibilities I hadn’t considered before. The way the pieces on the record are made is through the guitar going directly into the computer on one channel, and then changing the plugins. There’s another channel that goes to the Plus Pedal, and then that goes into another block on the computer – and there’s a whole other set of chains of plugins. It becomes like duetting with oneself, not looping in the sense that you’re playing over the previous idea, but you’re always resampling tiny bits of what you’re playing, sometimes with unexpected results – and that’s the fun bit.”

Abrahams uses the extremities of the guitar’s range, from high harmonics down to glitchy, percussive throbs that sound like drums pads but aren’t – such as the track above, Spiral Trem. “Literally every sound on the record is the guitar”, he confirms, “because it’s so processed. That particular sound is like a distortion gating, which gives you a thud. Then you EQ the thud, and it acts as a kick drum. Some of these things go so far away from the source sound that it’s arguable whether it really is guitar. There is an analogue physical instrument at the start of that chain, which by its nature is inconsistent. Rather than feeding the same thing into that system all the time it’s always changing, and I think that’s what helps give the music a sort of irregularity that relates it to a real instrument, rather than it being a sample.”

He expands further. “I did actually try playing acoustic guitar through those patches, but it was very difficult to make it work live because obviously, being an acoustic instrument, it picks up everything that’s coming back. It became slightly ungainly. I’m still thinking about ways to solve that. A lot of the pieces were made with this Telecaster”, he says, turning to the stand of guitars next to him and picking up a metallic instrument. “It has a hollow metal body and still feeds back quite easily. The body itself is kind of microphonic but feels really alive, but it’s stable enough not to compromise the performance by getting the wrong material into the patches. That’s definitely one of the areas I want to explore, to bring in more acoustic properties.”

The feeling is that Abrahams is at the start of a longer-term project. “I think so, and I feel excited about it. It’s as much the restriction as the openness which is inspiring, because some days I come in and sit down and have lots of synths and piano, and have all these colours. What do you do? It has to be dictated by either the musical idea, which is exciting, and then you orchestrate the idea, or it’s the idea of a framework that’s exciting. It’s like looking through a tiny hole into quite a big world, and that’s how I feel. After a lot of dabbling back and forth I have realised the guitar is my instrument, and I wanted to explore sounds but through the guitar.”

Abrahams has worked with a wide variety of musicians, including Brian Eno, Katie Melua, Jon Hopkins and Paul Simon, to name just four different examples. Has he shared any music with them, or is it a private project? “No, I’m quite shy about it. I think it’s out there, if people want to find it, but I don’t force it on people. I struggle even to use my mailing list. Sometimes I read the press that I’ve done and I come off as being almost pathologically self-effacing. I do think what I’m doing is interesting, but I do struggle to promote myself and I think that’s what differentiates artists from whatever it is I am – maybe artisan. There’s a really positive thing that makes people want to share, and I don’t really have that. I more enjoy just making it, but some artists have an extra gene.

One of Abrahams’ collaborators is former Wild Beasts vocalist Hayden Thorpe – he played the well-received second album for the singer, Moondust For My Diamond, earlier in 2021, and produced the first, Diviner, in 2019. “I’m really lucky because I do believe in all the collaborations that I do, and my heart’s in all of them. I feel like that part of me is quite satisfied, but as I said before, there’s something about this record which has made me want to try and reach out a little bit more. Last year, I did a couple of collaboration records, which I found really rewarding, and it ignited something in me, and gave me the confidence to do something solo again. That was really positive. In terms of sharing, I’ll show people if they’re interested, but if they’re not, I won’t. Brian Eno, for example, constantly has people trying to show him their music. I never wanted to be one of those people. I understand why people do it, but he is actually, after all this time, first and foremost my friend. If he wants to hear what I’m doing he’ll ask, and sometimes he does. I don’t want to impose.”

Sometimes it works the other way round. “I played on the last Harry Styles record, and he was so nice and really engaged. At the end of the session, with a great deal of sincerity, he took me aside and said, “Let me know when you’re doing a gig, I’d really like to come.” He’d heard all these ambient guitar sounds and he was into it. And I will. I could tell he wasn’t just being polite, he was interested, as a human being.” One of the Styles tracks on which Abrahams appears is the single Falling. “The thing is on those sessions, though, is that you do ten tracks or so but don’t know which ones made it through. I did a lot of tracks and I think I got on to three or four on the final mix. Falling is a beautiful song. He (Styles) is definitely in it for the same reason as somebody who maybe isn’t working in such a mass market. He’s fundamentally interested in music, which shouldn’t really need to be said, but it’s obvious.”

It occurs to me that the friendship with Brian Eno is helped by this lack of persistence on Abrahams’ part. “Maybe. I think the more time you spend with someone, the more you come to understand them and consider things.” The two worked closely together on Eno’s 2010 album Small Craft On A Milk Sea, which was billed as Brian Eno with Leo Abrahams and Jon Hopkins. “That was characteristically generous”, he says of the billing, “especially at the time before Jon was quite as huge as he is now. It was a really nice thing to do. He does a lot of jamming with people, and that record came out of jamming, but on this occasion he finished it quite unexpectedly. At that point he was often giving me big batches of files that he’d made with different people, and asking me to help him edit and mix them. Sometimes it would be released and sometimes it wouldn’t, but with the Small Craft record he just e-mailed Jon and I one day and said, “By the way, I finished that record!” We were both really surprised, and glad about it. He must have felt quite strongly about it.”

With the earlier reference to Morton Feldman, it is fascinating that people perceive the music as being ambient because it’s slower, and that it wouldn’t have intensity – but as Small Craft On A Milk Sea shows, that is not the case – and also Scene Memory II. The album could be listened to as an accompaniment, but never as background music. It remains an intense experience. Abrahams agrees. “That’s right. In a way it invites you in to have a different experience. Within the category of quiet music or even within ambient music there is a lot of different kinds of intention on the part of the composer.”

He gives a specific example. “Even the hypnotic quality that Feldman might want to induce as opposed to Brian or Jon is for very different reasons, and by very different means. The thing that really touches me about Feldman is that it is quiet music, but it is also very hyper-focused and dense. Sometimes it is quite fast in terms of its rate of change. It is written music, and sometimes his music is a conversation with the performer, and even quite playful, challenging the performer in playful ways to heighten their attention, so that what the audience experiences is not some kind of blissed-out manifestation, it’s a hyper concentrated and focused performance of something that is quiet and spacious. For example, quite often he will notate the music in a purposefully complicated way because he wants you to count in a certain way that’s more difficult, so that the music comes out sounding a certain way. It’s a little bit like the Rite of Spring. Somebody in 1917 wrote out the Rite of Spring in 4/4! You could do the same with Morton Feldman but you would definitely lose something. That is key, because what I definitely wasn’t trying wasn’t trying to do was make a pad and then disappear in variations to maintain interest, but essentially in a static space. I definitely didn’t want to do that. I think I wanted it to be more like seeing the elements of each patch as being like sculptures in a gallery. You’re moving round and looking at a sculpture from different angles, and I wanted to contemplate this sonic object, without sounding too pretentious! I wanted it to be focused, and not drifty.”

Abrahams talks in a way that suggests he has explored a good deal of modern classical music. “When I was a teenager, I thought I was going to be a ‘classical’ composer. I went to the Royal Academy of Music, and I quite quickly realised when I got there that it probably wasn’t for me – not just because I didn’t want it, but because I wasn’t really good enough. I showed enough promise to get in, but I don’t think I really had what it took to be a professional composer. Also, in those days, there was something called crossover, and my teacher was a wonderful composer and teacher called Steve Martland (above). He was a great person and artist, but he was in this category called crossover, which in a way was a bit unfair. His teacher, Louis Andriessen, had the same thing – because the music was rhythmic, or used ‘band’ instruments, it was termed as crossover. Thankfully, due in large part to their innovations, that term is gone now and it’s just music. That’s definitely a good thing. I think the difference is much more in the composer’s intention rather than the finished results. Experiments in notation and incorporating improvisation, or aleatoric elements, have been around for a very long time – 100 years or so – and I think we’re still playing in that ambiguous world about how much is written and how much isn’t. There is a certain quality that makes some quiet music clearly meditative, and other quiet music is clearly cerebral – and there’s a lot in between.”

Our talk moves to the shorter piano pieces of Schoenberg and Webern, with which Abrahams is familiar. “Those pieces are so, so wonderful”, he exclaims. “It’s really interesting, I think because their compositional philosophy was so intimidating and intellectual that it closed their music off to a lot of people who might enjoy it on a visceral level. They didn’t want people to enjoy their music on a visceral level, it was just that time in early 20th century, when people were ‘manifesto-ised’ to an insane degree. I love that period of art history, Russian Suprematism. In that area there were so many manifestos coming out from artists, but it doesn’t mean we have to experience the art as a manifesto anymore, because it’s part of history. One of the CDs I listen to most is a double CD of Schoenberg and Webern piano music, and I love Berg’s Piano Sonata too. It’s like he had the heart of a romantic and the head of a 20th century composer.”

“It’s moving to think of those days”, says Abrahams. “Because art meant so much, and orchestral music meant so much, people would travel from all over Europe to experience it. The victory of those people who broke the mould is that we now live in a creative world where there aren’t really those borders – but maybe there isn’t quite as much passion either.”

Returning to the inspirational figure of Steve Martland, what did he learn from his teacher? “It’s a very hard question because in a way, I think I was too young (to be kind to myself), or maybe too incompetent (to be unkind to myself), to really have learned compositional things that I might have been able to learn. Maybe he saw that. But what I really remember of him is his passion. He cared so deeply about justice. He had very clear ideas about what was right and wrong in music, and would express them in quite provocative ways. He knew that he was going too far sometimes, but he also did really believe it. He had very passionate views, which was fine and inspiring, even if you disagreed. He set up his own band too. I met him when I was fifteen, on a course called Strikeout. He would take us all to a retreat, and we’d write a piece for two weeks which would be performed by the band. It was an incredible thing to do. He must have had some sort of Arts Council funding, but it was a passion project.”

Things did not always run smoothly, however. “His main gripe with the academy at the time, where he eventually became a visiting professor, was that they didn’t take music seriously enough. He was very frustrated by that. He felt he was supposed to be the enfant terrible of the situation, but he was actually the only one taking education seriously. He sort of stormed out in the end, because one day a student reprimanded him for coming in dressed in a T-shirt and jeans, which tells you a lot about the place because the seriousness of intention and the love for what you’re doing was far exceeding that of anyone else working there. That was a terrible day. He was a wonderful man.”

His hairstyle and disposition are not too dissimilar from another self-professed enfant terrible, Nigel Kennedy. “It’s partly a class thing”, says Abrahams, “but Nigel Kennedy had a sort of a dissolute quality, which isn’t cultivated – that’s just who he is. Steve was more like a Marine, with discipline – discipline with a smile behind it, which you can hear in his music. That was who he was. He was a humanitarian without a doubt, but in art he liked precision and discipline, and sharp edges. When he died, I still felt as if people weren’t getting to the core of the person. He was a mystery, even to some of his closest friends, but I’ve always carried this deep fondness and appreciation for him.”

There is a final, classic, Martland story. “We were on this composition retreat, and I sat down to rehearse with the band. I’d written myself an electric guitar part, and we started playing. I was 15 or 16. He stopped, and said to me, “When you’re playing the guitar, please can you try and look less like you’re having a shit!” That has literally stayed with me until now. Sometimes I’m on stage and I think, have I got that face on?!”

Turning to the future, Abrahams has plenty of irons in the fire. “Yeah, I’ve actually just finished quite a few productions and mixes and stuff like that this week. One of them’s a Syrian composer called Maya Youssef, who plays in Canada – her music is beautiful, and I’m really happy to have worked on that. I’ve got some guitar sessions dotted around, but I want to try and use the next couple of months to work on my own music. I’ve got quite a lot of unfinished ideas in a slightly more ambient or even neoclassical form, than this kind of atonal and abrasive world that I’ve been in. Some of it will be pure synth, and no guitar. I’d like to try and finish those pieces. There is also one of the collaboration records that I did last year called Krononaut, with a jazz drummer Martin France and trumpeter Arve Henriksen on trumpet. We’re going to do another record, I’m not sure if Arve can but Martin and I are going to get together here in January. It’s another one of those times where I’ve got not quite such an intense production schedule, and I want to use it.”

Now the studio is where he wants it, is the writing more fluent? “It’s early days because I’ve only been here since July, and since then it’s been non-stop work. When I used to work from home in a little bedroom studio, I used to sort of fall out of bed and start work. I knew I’d had a good day when I’d not got out of my dressing gown by lunchtime!”

Scene Memory II is out now on figureight records. You can listen to and purchase the album via this Bandcamp embed:

Playlist – Sound of Mind 8: On camera

With the curfew situation as it is in the UK, we will get to know our home surroundings in minute detail as the days go by!

In that time we are likely to watch a lot more TV than we normally do, so with that in mind, here is a playlist of music associated with the screen – which handily gives us an hour without adverts that will hopefully calm and inspire by turn.

The selection starts with my favourite piece of Thomas Newman, from The Road to Perdition, before taking in music from Clint Eastwood Jr, Hans Zimmer‘s brilliant Interstellar, Daft Punk, Hannah Peel and an excerpt from this year’s Oscar winner, Hildur Guðnadóttir, and her remarkable score for The Joker.

Later on we hear from Angelo Badalamenti‘s Twin Peaks score, Cliff Martinez‘s music for Drive, Brian Eno and finally M83 – whose Outro has played out a good many programs. Hope you enjoy the music!

Ben Hogwood

Playlist – Sound of Mind

With the world in such a weird place at the moment, now seems like a good time to share a playlist of ambient music to ease the mind.

This one, homemade on the hoof, includes some personal favourites from Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Brian Eno, The Orb and a whole lot more:

I hope you enjoy it – and if you have any suggestions for future playlists please get in touch. Happy to do a whole load more!

Ben Hogwood

On record: Brian Eno – Reflection (Warp)



After the musical horror story that was 2016, it is perhaps important to remember there were some good bits along the way as well. One of those very much still with us is Brian Eno, who released the excellent album The Ship in April last year.

The timing of this new ambient album – 1 January 2017 – seems to be making a statement that this should be a year where we start to look forward again, embrace the idea of new music and allow it to soothe our furrowed brows.

What’s the music like?

Reflection is nothing new. That is not a criticism, more an observation that this single-movement work, continuing themes explored in Discreet Music of 1975 and Thursday Afternoon ten years later, retains all of the Brian Eno signature brushstrokes and textures.

From the first flourish of notes the mood is immediately set, and Reflection changes very little over the course of the next hour. After a few listens, however, the structure becomes more obvious and it also becomes clear that there is actually an exquisite tension at work, Eno setting down one pitch centre (G) and gradually working against it with notes based more in the area of C. He does this very subtly, and with consonant harmonies, so there is never any explicit threat to the peaceful nature of the writing, but there are little flecks of dissonance.

As the piece progresses it becomes like a lunar body on a slow journey, with the passing of twinkling stars and unblinking planets all around. Some of these are faster moving bodies, leaving tracers in the sky, while others are slow and ponderous, taking a while to go by. The music does become more animated but not by much, and fades into the distance gracefully.

Does it all work?

It all depends on where you listen to it. Headphones are recommended, and public transport, where the album has mostly been experienced, is the ideal setting. Eno manages to do just enough to avoid Reflections becoming pure background music, but if it is experienced as that it is at once calming and soothing, if a little on the dark side. The occasional frissons of tension keep the listener from sinking into complete complacency.

Is it recommended?

Yes. It is another example of Brian Eno’s mastery of the longer ambient structure, even though Reflections does not have any particular surprises in store. It puts the listener in a heightened state of mindfulness, definitely not a bad thing at this point in January!

Ben Hogwood

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