Melbourne pianist and composer Luke Howard is one of ZoneOut’s OG crew. The headline artist at 2019’s ZoneOut Festival in Sydney, Luke’s draws on both the free flowing improvisation of jazz and the structured motivic development of contemporary classical. It’s these two opposing forces – the Yin and the Yang – that fuel the unstable nuclear reactor powering his dynamic musical style.
Now in 2020 – the year of the Pandemic – Luke squeezed in a month of gigs at Melbourne’s upstart new venue Tempo Rubato, just before the city hunkered down for COVID-19 lockdown.
The resultant live album, All That Is Not Solid (Mercury KX), features a selection of music freely improvised by Luke on Tempo Rubato’s 102-key Stuart and Sons piano. It’s a slice of life from a time before isolation, Zoom, and facemasks became the new normal.
I spoke with Luke Howard about the mental state required for musical improvisation, live streaming gigs, and making music in isolation.
ALL THAT IS NOT SOLID
Tell us about how this All That Is Not Solid – an album of almost completely improvised music – came into being?
All That Is Not Solid was recorded over a month of Mondays at Tempo Rubato, which is a new venue in Melbourne. It’s effectively a piano in a warehouse.
I guess you would say it has more of a club aesthetic, but with the goal of presenting classical music. They have a social enterprise model where the profits go to Piano Project, which donates piano lessons to the children of recently arrived immigrants.
They have a beautiful Australian-made 102-key Stuart & Sons piano, which is made from Tasmanian wood. It’s incredible to look at, and it’s got extra pedals, and extra keys. There is also some innovation in the way that mechanics in the bridge works, which changes the sounds, and the overtone series of the instrument.
Did you go into these gigs with any musical blueprint of what you were going to play?
I went into it with a completely blank slate. But in listening back to the recordings it was clear that there are certainly a lot of musical motives that re-occurred from one week to the next. And even some things were fragments of tunes written 10 years ago.
So there’s a lot of stuff floating around. It’s incorrect to say that when you improvise from nothing, you’re actually playing from nothing.
How do you explain the mental state of musical improvisation?
You’re in a mental state where you’re just responding to the sound, and not thinking about it so much. It’s like getting in the pool. You sort of just want to jump in, and then start swimming.
What you’re doing is rescuing – or channeling – ideas, fragments, and gestures. Things that you have unconsciously absorbed throughout your entire music making journey.
You’re trying to delegate the mechanics completely to the part of your brain that can run on autopilot. So that you can be thinking more of; “Where do I want to take this piece?” Or “What kind of arc do I want the set to have?”. All those kinds of higher-level questions.
Although, to be honest, even thinking about those higher-level things sometimes was a little bit distracting. For example, I would think, “OK, I’ve played something that’s quite consonant, and tonal for 10 minutes. Maybe it’s time to go and play some weird stuff”.
And, when I listened back to them, those kinds of moments almost sounded a bit forced. The flip side of that coin is that you want to avoid a meandering mess.
So I’d say it’s less about technique and ideas, and more about having faith in yourself. Letting an idea unfold over time without having to force new ones, and waiting for the next idea to suggest itself. And if it doesn’t, be comfortable with staying where you are.
Keith Jarrett – who is the master of free improvisation – does that well.
This album was recorded just before Melbourne went into its first round of COVID-19 lockdown. During which all of the venues were forced to close. How important is live music to you?
It’s important, definitely. But it’s definitely been interesting doing some live streaming performances.
It’s a different way of interacting with the audience. It’s more intimate, in a way. So much of our discourse is mediated by text now, so it’s actually quite familiar to interact with your audience that way.
The other that is great about the live streaming gig was that you can focus on the sound in a way that you can’t do at a gig. You can record it properly, and you might have a better choice of instrument.
The sonic benefits might be somewhat mitigated by people listening on their phones. But if someone wants to plug some headphones in, or listen to it on something better, then it’s going to sound better than in an environment with clinking glasses.
So you feel positive about the possibility of streaming gigs in the future?
To be honest, I’m a bit of a creature of comfort, a studio rat. While I do love traveling, it’s sometimes nice to do that without the gigs.
But I don’t think staying in your studio and never speaking to anyone is the right way to go. Clearly humans are not meant to do that.
I see a general trend that music generally is becoming less collaborative, and more about isolated people working alone on their computers. Is that something you have experienced?
Yeah, definitely. When I started, you had to go to a studio to make a record that was releasable, and that’s just optional, really.
I still go to an external studio to do certain things, but I can do a lot by myself. I think it depends on the kind of music you make. For electronic music, it doesn’t make any difference where you record.
But I do think that the lack of people playing together at the same time has definitely contributed to a decline in people’s ability to be emotive.
There’s a kind of sixth-sense emotional impact that comes from people playing together. And I reckon that could be one of the reasons why we do prefer a lot of the music from the ’60s and ’70s – when that in-person connection was a necessity.
There are always exceptions, of course. In fact, there are probably as many exceptions as there are rules, but it doesn’t always hit us in the feels the same way.
There’s always a positive side, and things go in cycles. Electronic music crowded out other kinds of music, but I think it will change. People will always want to play music.
Follow Luke Howard at lukehoward.com