Matthew Bourne is a name we should immediately add to the list of contemporary pianists with a complex and valuable sound. But, unlike the young pups on the neo-classical scene - Nils Frahm, Peter Broderick, etc. - his background isn't in soundtrack music or folk, but in jazz. His first album on The Leaf Label, entitled “Montauk Variations”, features delicate pieces inspired by important forces in avant-garde jazz such as John Zorn, classic cinema and variety theatre (the closing track, “Smile”, is a version of an original Charles Chaplin song). It seeks refuge in impressionism, in order to come up with a smooth, quiet and beautiful sound. The way he plays seems risky and unpredictable, but it's not: Matthew Bourne focusses on every minor note or empty interval; he manages to produce unexpected timbres and profound emotional effects. It is, in fact, why we need to know more about him, so we asked him ten questions about his relationship with his piano.
When sitting at the piano, playing, or just having it by your side - what’s the physical and emotional reaction you experience?
Usually it's about communing with the instrument when I sit down to play, especially when I am by myself.
Tell us about your own piano. Where was it built, how long have you had it? How many did you have previously? Where did you get it?
My piano is a small (low-level) Steinway upright (an American model from the 1940’s). I was lucky enough to pay a very good price for it thanks to the generosity of Besbrode Pianos, Leeds. I have had it for around five years. Prior to this, I did nearly all of my practice on a Technics SX-P30 weighted keyboard.
Imagine this same piano could be modified somehow to achieve new sounds. What would you like it to have?
I’m most likely to stick to the sounds that I find there naturally – there are still many things waiting to be discovered. However, I do have a passion for analogue synthesizers, so if I want to indulge in modified sound I usually turn to the few synthesizers that I have lying around at home!
You have to make a mixtape for a loved person, but you can only choose jazz (piano solo) and classical music (modern classical as well). What kind of music would we find there?
I think you might well find all kinds of things! György Ligeti, Bill Evans, John Zorn, Frederic Mompou, Maurice Ravel, Fred Hersch, Keith Tippett, Annette Peacock . . .
Tell us about your right hand, your left hand and your feet. What are the strong features of each part of the body when playing, and what are the liabilities you find?
All of these things are at the periphery of the whole playing mechanism – I would argue that the mind and rhythm are the strongest parts of any piano/instrumental playing/performance. I guess I’m always drawn to sound first and am so preoccupied with it that I’m not really paying that much attention to the specific parts of the body on their own, but just concentrating on how to respond to and move on from one sound to the next (and making sure that the ego doesn’t try and take full control over this process – it's a constant struggle!).
What kind of playing was the right for “Montauk Variations”?
That which you will find on the record!
Imagine you try to modify the sound of the piano with objects, specifically books. Which books would you place inside the instrument?
Funnily enough, the majority of the material recorded during the Manchester recording sessions at St. Margaret’s Rectory (of which “Within”, “One For You”, “Keith” and “Abrade” feature on the album) involved placing various-sized hymn books inside the piano. I also used various-sized stones/rocks found at St. Margaret’s, which rocked back and forth over the strings – creating the effects in “One For You” and “Keith”. I was inspired by British pianist Keith Tippett, whom I first saw use stones within the piano's interior. Although none of the “books” material was selected for the album, some of it has been used since in the reinterpretation of two Amon Tobin tracks (where I collaborated with long-time friend, musical collaborator and producer, Sam Hobbs): “Piece Of Paper” and “Lost And Found” from Tobin's recent album “ISAM”. The reinterpretations can be found on Tobin's forthcoming release on Ninja Tune Records. So, it was very useful to have built up a library of sounds for use in future projects/pieces of work.
If you could be reincarnated as one pianist, who would you choose, and why?
I don't think I would choose to do it at all! If pushed I would choose me (!), and if I wasn't allowed that, it would probably be John Ogdon, who was a human being with superhuman musicianship.
Which musician do you admire the most, today, because of a) the quality of the compositions and b) the quality of the playing skills?
That is a tough question. Without a doubt it would be bassist Barre Phillips . . . If I had to choose a pianist, then I think it would be composer and vocalist Annette Peacock. Although I’m pretty sure she would not regard herself as a pianist as such, her compositional sensibilities - combined with her own piano interjections/commentary and personal lyrics - make her a peerless master of elliptical compositional form and purity of touch.
There is a model of Adidas trainers inspired by Lang Lang. What kind of trainer design would you love to see inspired by Matthew Bourne?
Great! I think I'll just stick to playing the piano – besides, I never wear any kind of shoes when I perform, so I would be rubbish as the subject of an endorsement deal for any footwear company! My favourite footwear of choice is, unfortunately, cheap flip-flops (when it's warm enough to wear them!).