Für die November/Dezember-Ausgabe des Jazzthetik-Magazins hatte ich die Gelegenheit, mit dem gerade aus seiner Heimat nach Berlin zurückgekehrten australischen Pianisten Paul Hankinson zu sprechen. Diesem bin ich erstmals begegnet, als er Ende 2017, Anfang 2918 seine „Echoes of a Winter Journey“ veröffentlichtlich hat – eine Hommage an Schuberts Winterreise von einer unfassbar fragilen, stillen Schönheit. Eine Musik, die einen begleitet, wenn man nachts auf dem Fußboden liegt, nicht mehr denkt, nur noch fühlt, und dabei selbst Resonanzkörper, wenn nicht gar Klang wird.
Hankinsons heute auf Traumton erschienenes „Dear Emily“ ist eine Fortsetzung dieses Gefühls, dabei aber noch viel mehr: Denn anstatt das Album einem weiteren Komponisten zu widmen und mit dessen musiklischen Ideen zu arbeiten, geht es von klangfremdem Material aus – der Dichtung Emily Elisabeth Dickinsons. Paul Hankinson über die Geheimnisse einer Dichterin, emotionalen Exorzismus, Menschen, die via Telefonanruf in die eigene Privatsphäre eindringen und wie einen der Ozean an Möglichkeiten schon mal regelrecht verschlucken kann.
Victoriah Szirmai: Your new record is called Dear Emily. My first dog was a very dear Emily to me – who is your “Dear Emily”?
Paul Hankinson: Emily Dickinson, the American poet. She’s always been inspiring to me. I kind of encountered her poetry first through songs, songs by Aaron Copland. He set twelve of them to music. And I was working with one of my best friends, Fiora, who is an amazing singer, and we did these twelve songs by Copland. They’re kind of amazing, the music is incredible, but I guess not for everybody. It’s kind of a little alienating in its kind of 1950ies modern classical way, but what stayed with me where those words. I was so … kind of stunned! By the words by Emily Dickinson, and then I kind of read more about her and got to know other poems and realized, actually, that … more and more I started to realize I don’t want them set as songs because – and I think with any good poetry – the silence around the words is actually very important. And they kind of have their own music.
VSz: What exactly is it about Emily Dickinson that fascinates you?
PH: Emily was fascinating to me because she was always sort of depicted as this hermit, this woman who in the last ten years of her life would only wear white, and so she felt a little like a ghost, kind of haunting this house. And I read a lot of literature about her which really painted her in this way, as a complete recluse who had no kind of human contact.
VSz: But she lived with her sister, didn’t she?
PH: This is the thing! And then I read more, and I thought, well, a true kind of recluse doesn’t live with their sister. And she still had friends. She communicated mostly through writing letters, but it wasn’t that she hated humanity. She didn’t really separate herself; she had a great love of people. And nature, especially. There’s a lot that she writes about nature. So she experienced the world! I don’t think she wanted to hide from it. But she was also obviously very sensitive. When people visited the house she would talk to them from behind the door or with the door a little bit open, and sometimes when people would come to play the piano she would just listen from her bedroom. But she would always leave cookies on the piano stool, or a cake or some flowers or something to say thank you. So, I think there was always … there’s a kindness in her which is not … She’s not cold, to me. But what kind of amazes me with her is that she did kind of separate herself in a way from her time, I think the time she lived in, especially as a woman at that time, to write the way that she wrote. It feels so modern! I can’t … I can never accept that she’s born in 1830, it doesn’t make sense to me. And in that way, she reminds me of Beethoven, that last musical Beethoven after he went deaf, the last few years of his life. I think when these kinds of creators are separated somehow – like he through his deafness and she through choosing to not get married and not live a kind of “normal” life for that time – I think it makes their work kind of … modern. They seem to jump a hundred years into the future. And I love that about her. But mostly I love that sometimes I really get the feeling that I’m reading words from a friend. My connection with it is very personal. I mean of course, my brain loves words and I love some of the phrases she uses, they wouldn’t ever come from anyone else, but then there’re these little moments of humor and of warmth that feel like some sort of friendship. Which is beautiful to me.
VSz: Does this fascinate you about her as a poet or as a person, as well?
PH: I think it’s both. When the time came to think about making a new album after “Echoes of a Winter Journey”, Stefi and I where talking that we wanted to do another one just with piano because it’s practical in a way for doing concerts and for me it’s also nice to go back to just playing piano trusting that’s kind of enough. It was for quite a lot of years I was kind of adding all these other instruments and singing and doing a lot of things on top of my piano playing just not ever thinking that that was enough for other people. And so it’s been kind of a relief to go back, too. Because where I feel kind of most authentic in my kind of expression is something I’ve been doing since I was three years old, so it’s like talking. It’s actually easier than talking! My most favorite way of communicating is somehow through that instrument.
VSz: Will “Dear Emily” be your second solo piano album?
PH: Yeah. And so of course we thought of using another composer, but then it just felt like a gimmick or like a trick …
VSz: Like a sequel!
PH: Yeah. I didn’t really … want to. Also, it didn’t really feel … I did try. I tried with some Mozart, I tried with some Beethoven and I tried with some Haydn and some Schumann but nothing felt … I think the reason the Schubert worked it is that same thing: It feels modern. When you take those little rhythmic ideas out of the context of the kind of drama of the way that classical music develops and just take it on its own and extend it, it feels very modern and that’s what interested me about Emily Dickinson as well: This feeling that her work is still very now and very present.
VSz: Maybe the closeness of Schubert to Dickinson lies in the fact that the Winter Journey has text as well and you worked from the text and not from the music
PH: Yeah, exactly! I guess I did, that’s true. I’m always inspired by text. As well. I guess I also write … I wouldn’t say “poetry”, but I definitely write songs. I don’t think I have ever written anything I would class as poetry (laughs), but I like words! I love writing them, I love sort of wrestling with them. You obviously do, too.
VSz: I do, too, I have even started to write songs again after a decade-long break. Yeah.
PH: Yeah. And so then … yeah, I was trying to … I then dismissed the idea of using another composer. But I did want to use somebody because I like to make an album which has something underneath it or something flowing through it. It didn’t want to write ten nice piano pieces, it doesn’t feel … strong … to me. And I was thinking about Emily Dickinson, but I didn’t really feel enough of a musical reason to do it. But then I did wake up one morning wondering if there was a piano on that house. And it’s weird that I liked her work for so many years and I never wondered about a piano in her life! And I thought that big old wooden-floored, dusty house …
VSz: Have you ever been there?
PH: I’ve never been there. I haven’t been to that side of America at all but I thought there must have been a piano in that house and then I had this whole kind of fantasy going on about Lavinia, her sister, playing the piano and Emily in her bedroom writing poetry with that sound of the piano in the distance. And I thought that would be a nice kind of feeling to have on the album. But then I started reading about it and found out that Emily did play the piano and that there definitely was a piano in the house, and it sort of played a role in her life. And then I thought that’s for me a much nicer reason to make the album kind of … It is about her and her life and her work but also in a way it’s more about the life of that piano that lived in the house with Emily Dickinson. And sometimes she played, and sometimes other people played. So I became more interested then in the piano and what was played on it.
VSz: Do we know where it was located? I imagine a two-story house with the piano on the ground floor and Emily listening to it from her bedroom upstairs.
PH: Yeah, exactly. The piano was downstairs, and her bedroom was up. Upstairs. And so I was able to find in the Harvard Library her own piano book which had all the sheet music that she had bought during her life …
VSz: In her own handwriting as well?
PH: Yeah, so you can see sometimes when the notes are high, instead of having what we call ledger lines, she writes the names of the letters of the notes like C, E, F – and I do that, too. (laughs) I still do that! I mean, I have been reading music for years but I …
VSz: I do that, too!
PH: It’s not really the best system of musical notation but it’s … It was nice to see that she does that as well. And it was also interesting that she played a lot of kind of folk music like Irish folk tunes. I mean, in “The Last Rose of Summer” I reference a few times on the album but that was in her piano book, and this piece called “Beethoven’s Dream” which I then kind of turned into being inspired by the “Moonlight Sonata” because I read in a letter about a time that a young student from the conservatorium came and played that in the house which was kind of … It was like a dream come true, when I read that letter. Because I had always imagined that music, the moonlight, somehow wafting in that house and then to find out that it actually did happen was kind of exciting. And when I first was thinking about Lavinia playing the piano before I found out it was actually Emily, I imagined Haydn for some reason. There’s this little moment of Haydn which I put on the album. But my first kind of fantasy was like Lavinia playing it, and then I found out later that this Lady named Mabel Loomis Todd – who has actually ended up being one of the first people to edit Emily’s very first volume of poems and I think they shouldn’t have edited them maybe as much as they did, but, you know, it was a different time, and at least they got her work out, at least it got published! – she wrote that she would play Haydn and Chopin and Scarlatti. And so then I thought I can put this Haydn piece on there because I don’t know that she played that exact piece but I do know that at least she played Haydn. And I just loved the idea of Emily listening, you know, up the stairs and through the walls to this kind of muted piano music. And also her cousin, John, wrote about how she would improvise at night this “heavenly music”, and I would give anything to hear a recording of what she played. So a lot of the album is kind of projection and fantasy and … yeah, I guess, creating my own little world inspired by or based on, but it’s … I mean, none of this is super real it’s kind of just making a little world.
VSz: Would you say it’s like a letter to her or a letter exchange with her, a dialogue, maybe?
PH: A conversation? I’d like to think it’s like a dialogue. It’s definitely … I definitely think there’s a feeling of friendship. Or I would hope. I mean I can’t say for sure that she would want to be my friend but I would definitely want to be her friend! And so I don’t want it to feel like all kind of brainy and intellectual. It’s something I was afraid of also with the Schubert album that it feels a little like … it can feel a little like an exclusive club, you know, to base something on classical music or to base something on poetry. And I really don’t want it to feel like that. I think the things in her poetry which kind of struck me are really the things that everyone would really relate to.
VSz: Would you say that the album works for every listener – even those who are not familiar with her poetry at all?
PH: Exactly. Even if you listen to it thinking of your first dog. I think anyone can project anything they want to. For me, it just really helps when I’m writing to have something running through everything and also to have something which kind of limits my ideas. Otherwise, I just get overwhelmed with so many possibilities.
VSz: As some kind of self-disciplining?
PH: Yeah, there’s a kind of focus which I really need. Otherwise I can’t even start. I just get sort of too swallowed up by, you know, the ocean of Möglichkeiten. I think that happens to everybody, it’s not just me. But for me it helps to just have a limited number of things I can work with.
VSz: Let’s go back to the idea of a letter exchange between Emily and you. I think this form of communication would really please her because in contrast to a real dialogue where you are forced to react directly, on the point, in real time, a letter exchange gives you the freedom to choose when and how to react, it allows you to take your time. Maybe that’s why I also prefer texting and messenging over phone calls and face-to-face talks.
PH: Oh yeah, me too. I feel the same! It suits me much more to write. I mean, now we’re writing emails but definitely this kind of letter writing much more than … I mean, a phone call always gives me a kind of panic attack when I see my phone ringing.
VSz: You also see your phone ringing instead of hearing it? The second-best idea of my life was to turn my phones off. Maybe by chance I see if somebody tries to call me, but usually I don’t. So, you can’t reach me directly, which I prefer.
PH: Yeah, me too.
VSz: I really hate it if …
PH: It feels so aggressive!
VSz: … somebody breaks into my life! Even if I just happen to be on the sofa, reading the newspaper …
PH: Yeah! It’s violent, right?
VSz: It’s passive-aggressive!
PH: I agree!
VSz: Furthermore, I would never call somebody apart from their offices.
PH: I understand. But even then I have to build up the … I have to pace up and down a little bit … to get ready to make the call.
VSz: I just don’t want to break into people’s privacy. You never know what they are doing in the very moment you try to call them. Maybe they are just having a deep conversation with their partners or something …
VSz: And then the telephone rings and you are like, oh hi, I wanted to talk about this and that, but you don’t know if it really suits them
PH: I agree, absolutely! But to answer your initial question, I think it is more like an exchange. Because I think … you know, some of the pieces are based on a line of the poetry which feels like one kind of idea from … and then another one will be based on the piano piece that she played and another one on a piano piece somebody else played in the house. So there are different kind of elements to this conversation that I guess I’m commenting on.
VSz: But she’s not commenting back
PH: No, not really. But in a way, yeah.
VSz: Yeah. Your album opens with the „Mighty Autumn Afternoon“ – is this related to her Indian Summer poem, where nature’s decline is symbolized by the last communion („Oh sacrament of summer days, Oh, last communion of the haze“)?
PH: No, it’s another poem, but I love that one, too! It’s from a poem that starts “Going to Heaven!” And I think out of all of her poems it’s the one which moves me the most, in a way, because she is talking about this idea of going to heaven and the fact that her parents believed that that’s what would happen after they died. And it’s a kind of poem where she’s wrestling with the idea and in some moments – it’s so beautiful! –she loves the idea, she says “If you should get there first/Save just a little space for me/ Close to the two I lost”, so she’s talking of her parents, and then she says “The smallest »Robe« will fit me/And just a bit of »Crown«/For you know we do not mind our dress/When we are going home”, and I love that line so much because it’s so true; I always dress kind of like comfortably on the plane and I just think like mom and dad don’t care what I’m wearing because, you know, it’s just … that feeling of going home is so beautiful. But then, after a while … so, the start of the poem is all of these lovely ideas of going home and seeing them again, and then after a while she starts to reject the idea for herself, she says “I’m glad I don’t believe it/For it would stop my breath/And I’d like to look a little more/At such a curious Earth!” And then the last lines of the poem “I’m glad they did believe it/Whom I have never found/Since the mighty Autumn afternoon/I left them in the ground”. And it has always moved me. I mean, my parents are still here, and I feel really lucky that I have this kind of really nice friendship with them now, but … yeah, it’s such a … I just feel … I feel that line “since the mighty Autumn afternoon”, I can sort of see the … trees, the …
PH: Yeah, there’s comfort, there is this power, there is this sort of strength out of the earth. There’s comfort but there’s also a kind of … for me, a kind of terror, because I know it’s coming …
VSz: I mean that there’s comfort to know the parents believed in an afterlife, in their happily ever after …
PH: Yes, right, exactly, that’s it!
VSz: So, they were just fine. The ones whom they left behind where not, that’s the terror about it.
PH: Yeah, that’s true. And I originally … I was … When I first started thinking about the album, I wanted to call the whole album “Since the Mighty Autumn Afternoon” because I think that was such a strong feeling! But for me now it’s a nice way in because I thought so much of trees, I thought so much of the movement of wind and those leaves kind of rustling and big, big old trees like oak trees … There was a big oak tree in her backyard, so she would look at it from her window, and it’s still there right now, and I think that tree, even though I don’t reference it directly on the album, it was really in my head and heart a lot, kind of feeling these old trees who knew her but they are still there, you know what I mean?
VSz: Like everlasting witnesses?
PH: Yeah, somehow.
VSz: What I think is interesting: You talk about the might, the power, but the music is so very gentle, so minimalistic, it breathes so much space … this first, long-held note, I think it must be a B paired with a lower third …
PH: Yeah, a G sharp and a B.
VSz: But not the G sharp that is three notes lower than the B but …
PH: … ten, yeah.
VSz: An interval that will re-appear on the seventh track!
PH: Yeah, it comes back.
VSz: Let’s talk about this a bit later. Just speaking about all this power and might and blowing winds and rustling trees … and then you have this very minimal musical approach … how …
PH: It’s minimal but it feels big. I mean, to me, those two notes feel … massive. Even if it’s just two notes.
VSz: Really? They feel so fragile to me!
PH: Yeah, it’s fragile as well, but it’s like … there’s another poem where she talks about “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain”, that’s the first line. I mean, who writes that?
VSz: Oh, I feel that every day! (both laughing)
PH: Yeah, you feel it but you don’t write it down. (laughs) And after a little while she says, “Then Space – began to toll//As all the Heavens were a Bell”, and so I think of that feeling where there’s suddenly bells in space … And for me, I don’t know, there’s something in those two notes which is kind of … there’s space between them and space around them.
VSz: A lot!
PH: Yeah. It never … I mean, it sounds like two notes, but it doesn’t feel like two notes. To me.
VSz: At first, I thought, it was just one single note. And just then I started to hear the harmony. And I was amazed, because then I thought the harmony would just appear on the seventh track and the opener would still be a single tone, until I realized that the harmony has been there right from the start. The B is very dominant, you don’t really hear the G sharp unless you haven’t tried to play it yourself.
PH: That’s interesting, yeah.
VSz: But I mean I don’t suppose the everyday listener is going to jump straight to their piano to check on the notes …
PH: Don’t believe that, either! (both laughing)
VSz: But I still think that keys or better, modes, are very important because each comes with their own character.
PH: Yeah, for me, too. They really do. I mean I’m not like … I don’t have synesthesia. where I see colors, but it feels like colors. I think they definitely have … I’m definitely sensitive to which Tonart I’m in and which Tonart I choose for things and it’s always based of a kind of instinctual feeling that it can’t be anything else.
VSz: For me, it’s not only that those modes feel differently, it’s also a lot about their historic attribution. For example, I just came up with a song in B-major and was told that b-major is no good, it’s an evil Tonart …
PH: Because B was the devil, yeah. When I bring it back, later in the album, on the seventh track, you said?
PH: Then I deliberately halfway through the piece modulate it down to B flat and G. And I think I wanted to make peace with that beginning. I wanted to bring … I feel that once it goes down a half tone it’s warmer and gentler.
PH: I feel that beginning is very confronting, for me that G sharp minor is very bright and very …
VSz: Even if it’s so fragile it’s like a wake-up call.
PH: Yeah, it’s sharp. And then I don’t even know if people will notice that it drops – it’s kind of strange the way it modulates but then that same thing comes back, and for me it’s now suddenly peaceful and welcoming. And then I wanted from that moment for the rest of the album to have that kind of … to me, it feels more … personal.
VSz: It’s very interesting that you divide the album into the first seven pieces and the rest. I also had the feeling that with the repetition if the opening interval a circle was closed which means the first seven pieces for me feel like an album in the album and the rest is like an appendix, like a b-part or something …
PH: That’s interesting, that makes sense!
VSz: And I have to admit that the b-part doesn’t speak to me a much as the a-part. For me, the album would be finished after seven tracks. Is this something you had in mind while creating it?
PH: That’s interesting. I didn’t really think about it so consciously but when you say that it makes sense to me. I mean, I did, I did that. I did that modulation and I did do that on purpose and I also feel like the second half of the album is … uhm … is less challenging. I guess that’s kind of on purpose. I don’t know if this is good or not.
VSz: “Less challenging” is nicely put. When I am reviewing an album, I always take some kind of track-by-track notes; and two of the pieces of the second half really left me kind of clueless, so the only thing I’ve noted down was a big questionmark.
PH: Which two?
VSz: Let me just check. I have my interview here and – oh yeah, over here is what I call “Rezinotizen”.
PH: You’re so cool!
VSz (laughs): Thank you! (both laughing) It’s the ninth and the eleventh. “The Last Rose of Summer” and “I Will Forget the Light”. Oh, and there’s another one, “The Warmth He Gave”, which didn’t give me any warmth at all or at least the warmth couldn’t get through to me … This is the first piece on the album that gets really loud but I didn’t experience any warmth at all listening to it.
PH: It’s from a poem where she talks to her heart. She says “Heart, we will forget him!/You and I, tonight!/You may forget the warmth he gave/I will forget the light.” So that’s the kind of deal she’s making.
VSz: Then it makes sense that the warmth doesn’t reach the listener. It’s about forgetting the warmth!
PH: I think it’s a little on purpose, yeah. She’s trying to have distance and trying to actually be a little cold in order to forget somebody.
VSz: And this is exactly what the piece does: keeping its distance and acting a little cold. I’m not sure if this goes for all listeners but this is what I experience.
PH: And then at the end she sort of tells her heart to hurry and forget because if it takes too much longer then she will remember him. So … yeah. It was tricky, those two pieces. I think the distance is on purpose because of what she’s wanting to do. But I guess the danger is that … yeah, that the listener will be wanting to feel the warmth because …
VSz: Because he’s expecting it after reading the title?
PH: Yeah, maybe. I did think about … I wanted to use those two lines, those two tracks next to each other because it’s the first time I actually used two lines from a poem in succession. But I knew there was a danger in not putting the first line “Heart, we will forget him!” because that’s really the feeling in both pieces. I actually did feel these things in the past and I don’t want them anymore. I don’t want to be haunted by them.
VSz: So, these pieces work as a kind of emotional exorcism for you?
PH: “Emotional exorcism” is good. Yeah, that’s the feeling of it.
VSz: And this might be the reason why it doesn’t suck you in as a listener, because it’s the artist’s emotional exorcism and not your own. It stops right in front of you and you watch it and say, yeah, it’s nice but what exactly has this to do with my life? The other pieces come much nearer; they touch you, they don’t stop right in front of you.
PH: It’s nice to talk to you about it because I … I haven’t really with anyone. Who has listened to it.
VSz: There’s another piece which is called “The revery alone”. Does the “revery” here cite Dickinson’s poem in which she creates a prairie out of a bee and clover and a daydream?
PH: Yeah, it’s this one.
VSz: “To make a prairie it takes a clover …”
PH: “…and one bee …”
Both: “One clover, and a bee/And revery/The revery alone will do/If bees are few.”
VSz: So nice!
PH: This is really one of my favorite poems because it has humor.
VSz: You could read this one even to children!
PH: Exactly, yeah. And that’s what you do … You do encounter that often in her poetry but in that poem it’s so … that gentle humor and that warmth and … I love that poem! Because for me, it’s about creativity. And accepting that we’re not always gonna have all the ingrediencies …
VSz: For whatever we plan to do.
PH: Exactly. Yeah, so it is that revery from that poem.
VSz: The patient listener will be surprised by a hidden track. There are about ten minutes of silence and then … yeah. Can you tell me a bit about it? What is it called, why is it there – just everything!
PH: The name of it is “Toward eternity” which comes from one of her probably most famous poems: “Because I could not stop for Death/He kindly stopped for me”, and the last line of the poem is “the Horses‘ Heads/Were toward Eternity” and that’s this feeling she’s going off.
VSz: Into the sunset.
PH: Even beyond. “We passed the Setting Sun”. And keep going.
VSz: Like the closing scene of a western where the lonely hero on his horse disappears over the horizon.
PH: Exactly, the silhouette of the chariot. It’s quite incredible, that poems, because also in the rhythm you can feel …
VSz: The horses?
PH: The horses and the chariot rocking … it’s amazing. But I … originally, I planned for it to be the last track on the album but then I didn’t really like it. It felt too much.
VSz: You just did not want to have a thirteen-piece-album.
PH: Yeah, somehow. I don’t know.
VSz: Because it’s an unlucky number?
PH: No, I just felt when I listened through it all, it’s enough. I didn’t have the patience. When that one started, I really sort of felt a bit like, you know, “not another!”. It might have just been my mood on that day but I wanted to reference the song “There is no Place Like Home” – “Home, Sweet Home” is the name of the song, but the last line is “there’s no place like home, there’s no place like home”, because I think it was in her piano book and so I knew that she played it. It’s a really old, beautiful little song and so that melody is in the left hand and I have the kind of pattern from “Will No One Guide a Little Boat” there. I wanted to tie it all together with this piece, and then come these chords which are kind of like the organ referencing this kind of heaven idea again … I think I tried to do too many things with that piece and I was trying to be very … sort of artist in the last phase of the work and just cut it. And then Wolfgang, the Tonmeister … he liked it! And he said let’s make it a silent track. And I did like that idea because … not even of that piece especially, but just the idea of a silent track on this album I liked, because there was something so secretive about Emily and the way she worked and the fact that so much of her work, most of her work, was discovered after she died. After she died, Lavinia found in her bedroom nearly one thousand eight hundred poems, all hidden in shoe boxes. Or sometimes she would put the pages in between two pages of another book and then she sewed the pages together, so this is the level of secrecy we are talking about. I love it! And so … yeah, they discovered all these poems. And so the idea of a hidden track was nice. And I did want this “Home, Sweet Home” song to be referenced because I think it was nice for me to find it in her book because when I was young I used to play piano at this old people’s home just around the corner. Every Monday night I would go there …
VSz: Because they had a piano?
PH: They had a piano and they would have these kind of variety concerts and I would, you know, get dressed up in my suit and so there and play these old songs that they would all sing to. And that was one of the songs. And I always really loved it, I loved their shaky voices singing it, you know? And so I guess it was nice for me to remember that but also to realize that she had played it and that it meant something to her. I mean, it’s a little cliché, a reclusive person who stayed home who loved this song about home … but for me, I didn’t want it to feel like that. It’s more about this idea of home more than the building itself.
VSz: Like she refers to death as going home as in “For you know we do not mind our dress/When we are going home”?
PH: Yes. Yeah, that’s right.
VSz: Which closes another circle from the very first song to the very last hidden one! Would you call the pieces of the album “songs” at all or would you prefer to refer to them as “pieces”?
PH: I would call them pieces.
VSz: Ans if you had to choose between these two – would you describe yourself as a Jazz-loving classical piano player or a classically trained jazz piano player?
PH: I think just a piano player. I started to play piano when I was three, just by ear. Just sort of played things that I heard, and I played everything! I mean, as a three-year-old I’m not thinking, is this Jazz, is this Classical, is this a tv commercial or is this a piece from my favorite tv show. And quite often I was just wanting to play what people liked, so I would ask people what their favorite song is and get them to sing it to me and work out how to play it, and I didn’t really start having lessons until I was six, and I didn’t get into classical music really until quite a lot later, like fourteen, fifteen, I think. Then I became incredibly geeky about classical music and fell in love with it. Jazz I came to even later, and I still feel like I could never call myself a Jazz pianist cause I would feel like a fraud, like an imposter, even though I have always improvised and all of my work is based on improvisation, I never feel like I … I don’t really use what would be commonly called Jazz harmonies …
VSz: … phrases …
PH: Yeah, that’s not really in my language that I use. I do have a huge appreciation for it and my brain really likes it. Somehow, when I come to write this music, I find those harmonies too strong. I tend to dismiss also things which feel very classical, I throw them away as well. I tend to go to this kind of meditative or very simple language; I’m not sure if that’s good or bad (laughs)
VSz: Simple in a sense that what you are actually playing is just as important as what you are not playing?
VSz: So, it’s about the silence …
PH: Yeah, it has a lot to do with silence. And the space between things. I think as I get older, my mind really appreciates that. In music, but also just in life. These moments where we can actually breathe out and reflect. And the space around things. When I was younger, I wanted information. I wanted those jazz chords and I wanted symphonies, and I wanted development, I wanted ideas to be going somewhere. My brain was always switched on in that way. And now, I don’t really want an idea to take me down this crazy road. I just want to sit with it for a little while until I feel that I know it or that I’m peaceful with it, somehow.
VSz: Because of the information overkill that surrounds and overwhelms us every day nowadays?
PH: Maybe. Maybe it’s a reaction to that. I think when I was very little, playing the piano … I wouldn’t have ever used words like “meditation” or “therapy” or “hypnotical”, I did not ever put a label on it, but it was that for me. I would just improvise for … I don’t know how long, maybe an hour …
VSz: In an attempt of self-therapy …
PH: Yeah. And I think for me, even as a kid, it was … it made me calm. I was always calm after I played the piano. And I think that feeling comes back around now, at this point in my life. I appreciate it, somehow. It is like a kind of therapy. And I think what I liked about putting that “Echoes of a Winter Journey” album into the world, what felt good about sharing it, is that people would tell me that it was like that for them, that it was a moment of peace in their day. And then I felt like that is a really nice role to play. If I can play a role in a community and I can give someone a little bit of peace or quiet or reflection rather than bombard them with more information, then that feels good to me, too. I feel like I definitely want to have a role to play in people’s lives as a musician. I don’t feel any kind of need – and I guess that’s what has also changed – I don’t feel a need to do it for myself. I want it to be useful. And it doesn’t really matter what it is that I’m making, but if it’s useful for people, then it feels good to do it.
VSz: Healing music. Medicine music, maybe.
PH: Yeah. I think it’s always … it’s always played that role for me. And it’s nice to realize that it can for other people, and it doesn’t have to be impressive. I don’t have to show … you know, I don’t have to impress. My ego doesn’t need it. That’s just not what it’s about for me. It was, definitely, when I was younger. I wanted to show how fast I could play or how interesting chords I could come up with. I’m not so interested in that anymore.