Interview with pianist Chris Burn on the release of the trio cd 'The Middle Distance' (AT24)
with Simon H Fell (double bass) and Philip Thomas (prepared piano)
When did you start playing piano, and what or who were your early passions or influences?
I began playing piano aged nine. Before that I had
learnt trumpet from the age of six and subsequently
guitar. I'm so glad that you separate passions from
influences. Two very different concepts in my opinion.
I could give you a long list of my early musical
experiences and passions; what , if any influence
these had on me I wouldn't like to say. I have fond
memories of the brass band I played in from age 6
playing Wagner arrangements, marches and tunes
such as Barwick Green ( the Archers theme tune).
I also have very early memories of whenever
possible, trying out the piano in my grandmother’s
front room. This instrument was subsequently given
to me and I played it for nearly twenty years. It was
over a semitone flat and because of its age, it
remained that way. This has given me an unusual
sense of pitch, furthered by the fact that my current
piano also has a similarly lowered pitch.
Early teens saw me introduced to Coltrane
and Coleman along with the usual progressive rock
stuff and a large amount of music from the orchestral
repertoire. I remember standing in a record shop
booth listening to Afro Blue and getting very excited
by Coltrane's soprano playing. I have similarly
powerful recollections of a London concert by the Ornette Coleman quartet. What if any of this influenced me I wouldn't like to say; and if early exposure to any musics has influenced me I would be hard pressed to say exactly how it has worked its way through to the stuff I do today. Actually this an area that I would very much like to spend time researching. No coincidence that a track on Cultural Baggage, Ensemble's first CD is called “Influence and Concealment”; and this was the title of a short article I wrote for an LMC magazine.
Could you say how and when you first got involved with experimental music?
As a teenager (b1955) I was always dabbling with stuff but it wasn't until University that I really started to be aware of music that came under this umbrella. This was also the time of my first forays inside the piano. I tried – unsuccessfully - to organise some free jazz stuff and I was part of a group led by Robin Maconie called Intuitive Music Group. We also began listening to records of Stockhausen's groups playing so-called intuitive music. (Robin was an inspirational lecturer at Surrey University who had been an assistant of Stockhausen's.) This was probably my first experience of free improvisation. It was also about this time that we played Feldman's Marginal Intersection, which made a big impression.
I first heard you play on the 1984 LP 'Fonetiks', a duo with John Butcher, which
was also his first disc. 25 years on you still play with John in various contexts,
but how did you meet, and did your experimental playing evolve together?
We met at Surrey University in 1974. I had transferred to there from the Guildhall School of Music, and
he was studying physics. In fact I remember him bringing in a tenor saxophone he had bought from
London and asking me how to blow the thing! (Which amused me me as I didn't play the saxophone. )
We were by then friends and listening to much the same stuff. We played together in jazz orientated
things at University and immediately after, but we had "breathed the air from another planet"; towards
the end of the 70s we were playing free jazz and rapidly moving towards working in free improvisation.
I always joke that what started off as a 22 musician big band playing jazz compositions ended as a free
improvisation duo. It was a very intense period of of my life.
One of your first releases was a cassette of Henry Cowell's music.
How did you discover Cowell, and what qualities in his music attracted you?
I came across the first volume of his piano pieces published by AMP. Then I traced
book two and later, in my search for other scores, was given the phone number of
Sidney Cowell, Henry Cowell's widow. I spoke by to her by phone. She lived in
Shady, New York State where the Cowells had lived for many years. By now she
had lost her sight and had other health problems yet she rattled off a whole list of
publishers' numbers and details and who were the best people to contact. A few
weeks later an avalanche of photocopied music came through my letter box; and
it kept coming for quite some time. Very exciting. I have copies of both published
and unpublished works and sketches, many in his own hand.
What initially drew me to Cowell was his work for inside piano - string piano
is the term he uses - that he had written early on in the twentieth Century. He had
not only started to work directly on the strings of the instrument but as can be seen
from a number of these works he had done so in a studied and systematic way.
A random scrape and pluck it was not! He also systematized keyboard clusters. I found the whole Cowell experience very exciting. His own CD of the pieces is a delight, as is the commentary he provides at the end of the disc. I have since remained very attracted to this earlier period of his work. I don't find his later music as interesting as the early compositions, but nevertheless his seemingly constant need to create and create afresh is inspirational.
You've always combined a commitment to improvisation with an interest in composition and the work
of contemporary composers. Do you see any conflict between improvised and composed music? And
does it affect your playing?
Personally I feel no conflict. In fact each may inform the other in various ways. However, by and large
I keep them as separate activities. The impetus to compose again in the 1990s – I had stopped about
the time I became fully committed to free improvisation in the late 70s/early 80s - came from consider-
ations of how to work with certain material, generated by keyboard techniques I was using as an
improviser. It seemed to me valid to use this material in both fully notated compositions and – at that
time - in specifically solo improvisations. In fact at times the boundaries became a little blurred and
my compositions have certainly hinted at transcribed improvisation, and perhaps vice versa. But that
is nothing new. So it is not always clear cut, but essentially, for me they are different activities. In
terms of the broader politics of contemporary music do I see any conflict between improvised and
composed musics? Oh yes.
You've also worked a good deal with larger ensembles of improvisers, especially through your own
group Ensemble. With Ensemble you have often experimented with different kinds of scores and
semi-composed pieces. Is this just because free improvisation with larger groups often becomes
a sprawling mess, or are you generally interested in structured improvisation?
With Ensemble it was more a case of using a varying degrees of composition to generate things that
in the absence of a score would (probably) not happen; and yes possibly to avoid others. In Ensemble
– the octet, the eleven piece and with Ensembles since – we have worked with musicians who
empathise with this concept. The degree of compositional control has varied with each composer;
initially myself and John (Butcher) produced the scores. Generally I plan out groupings of musicians
and rarely go beyond those specifications. Others use more detailed material. We only ever played
one fully notated piece which was by Axel (Dörner). Richard Barrett's piece for us mixed the very
specific with freely improvised passages. Other pieces were freely improvised or worked with
schemes devised in rehearsals.
From the start your improvisation involved playing inside the piano at least as much as on the keyboard.
Nowadays inside piano playing is widespread within improvisation, but 30 years ago you were unusual
in the extent to which you did this. What were you looking for by going inside the piano so much?
To be honest I was trying to escape from keyboard playing. I got to a stage where truly, I didn't want to
play one single note of conventionally articulated piano sound. (Conversely I remember John Butcher
saying it is important not to deny the true nature of the instrument.) Whilst in the early days I tried for
my keyboard playing to sound like McCoy Tyner, Keith Tippett or Cecil Taylor I failed to find any sense of
individuality by pursuing what was essentially hero
worship/pastiche. So I went inside and worked on the
strings. Interestingly in my mind I made little connection
with Cage's prepared piano. Mine was and has remained
unprepared(!), working directly on the strings with
real time manipulation. Early on, John Butcher, John
Corbett, myself and others were rehearsing at the
Workers Music Association off Westbourne Park Road
in London. They had a big old grand piano - a Bluthner
I think - and I always had the lid open. I started working
directly on the strings, at first mixing keyboard and
inside work then later working almost exclusively on
the strings. Trumpeter John Corbett had also been
fond of subverting my keyboard playing by throwing
objects onto the strings whilst I played.
In recent years it has been relatively easy for
me to introduce some electronics into my work; the
way I use effects units is very similar to the way I
manipulate the strings of the instrument. Incidentally,
still, to this day if the sound of a conventionally struck
piano note escapes when I am working on the strings
I think of it as a mistake. However as I indicate above,
I have re introduced the conventionally played piano
sounds into my work, albeit with uncommon keyboard
The piano has a formidable history as the dominant instrument within western music for most of the past 300 years. Do you ever find this heavy weight of history and tradition daunting when you sit down to make music?
No, I don't have that problem in an aesthetic sense. I certainly don't feel steeped in 300 years of keyboard repertoire, though occasionally I find myself throwing in a small quote from something or other. In fact I think my pianism owes more to jazz pianists and jazz trumpeters than it does to the so called classical tradition. (Influence or passion?)
My main worry, however, is will the piano technician approve of what I do? I always check with the owner or technician before I mark up the piano prior to playing. Over the years I have tried to make my playing techniques as piano-friendly as possible and by and large they are. I try and steer clear of new Steinways etc as they make me nervous. I guess what concerns me is that here is a hugely expensive instrument that has been honed for the performance of 19th century music and they won't want me fiddling with its innards. (Cowell drew gasps from the audience when he went inside.) As it happens I prefer older, smaller, grand or baby grand pianos; though John Butcher always likes me working with large pianos for the richness of the harmonics. If the promoter is really unhappy about inside playing then I stay on the keyboard and work with other material.
You – along with John Butcher, Phil Durrant, John Russell, Phil
Wachsmann etc - belong to what I still think of as an interim
generation within UK improvisation; younger than the pioneers
from the 60's, but older than the generation of the so-called
New London Silence (Rhodri Davies, Mark Wastell etc). A few
years ago at a time when there was a certain tension between
generations you seemed to be able to play with both older and
younger improvisers, and included both within Ensemble. Do
you see yourself as straddling two different approaches to
improvisation, or is this too simplistic a notion?
It's a difficult one this because as improvisers you work with
many musicians in a variety of contexts; you probably adapt
your playing for each situation and generally I am very happy to
do so. It is not uncommon for groups to favour a particular
way of working to the exclusion of others. Initially I was
enthusiastic to work in Assumed Possibilities - Rhodri Davies,
Mark Wastell and Phil Durrant, all musicians who had played
with Ensemble - and particularly enjoyed the second CD.
However there came a time when these enthusiasms deserted
me and I actually felt uncomfortable with the more rigorous
approach they had taken. For me it had become far too
mannered, perhaps even didactic. This was now a music that
in fact, I felt very distanced from. So I resigned. And felt much
better for it. (And I am sure this was the best course of action
for the others.)
This did raise in my mind the whole question of how far one is prepared to adapt ones own playing to fit in with different musical settings. Indeed, can there be a value in working in situations that are way outside your usual areas of performance? Chameleon or maverick ? With Assumed Possibilities it was a sensitive issue and a difficult one, particularly when long standing friendships seem to exacerbate the problem.
How did the ‘Middle Distance’ trio with Simon Fell and Philip Thomas come about?
Had you played as a trio before the recording session?
We hadn't played as a trio but Simon and myself had performed a short duo on
Phil Thomas's Comprovisation festival in Sheffield. We wanted to further this
work and the opportunity came to record for Another Timbre. A trio was
requested and Simon suggested we work with Phil Thomas. An inspired choice.
The lunchtime concert prior to the recording session was the inaugural meeting
of the group; prior to this Phil had worked with both of us, performing
compositions of ours and playing in a large festival group.
Have you often played with another pianist and did it present any problems?
Is it something you would do again?
This session presented no problems such as those sometimes encountered when
similar instruments play together. In fact I had little idea as to what Phil's
approach was to be until I saw that his designated piano had been substantially
prepared. This was a masterstroke as it immediately defined and separated the
sound of the two instruments. And of course Phil is a skilled interpreter of Cage
and is used to working with preparations. Certainly it is something I would love
to do again.
Playing with another pianist has been a very occasional pursuit for obvious
reasons; however I do remember a four hands at one piano I performed with
Veryan Weston at the Red Rose. Quite a theatrical performance, and very enjoyable.
Do you manage to earn a living from music, or do you need to hold down a day job?
Music is all I do but my work has always included some music teaching.
E-mail interview conducted by Simon Reynell, November 2009
Photos of Chris Burn © Hannes Schneider, with thanks