Alexander Hawkins – “Music is all consuming for me”

Marta Jundziłł

British pianist, composer, improviser and individualist.  PhD criminologist by training. In this conversation, Alexander Hawkins  told me about his attitude to solo projects, releasing his own music, coopaeration with Evan Parker and his opinion about…. Brexit.

Recently, you’ve recorded a live album “Nirguna”, with Francois Carrier. How had your cooperation with him begun? When had he invited you to the project?
As you say, this album is a live one. François and Michel Lambert were touring Europe, and for the London leg of their trip, invited John Edwards and me to join them as guests for a concert at the Vortex Jazz Club. This was in fact the one and only time we’ve played - or indeed met! - but of course with improvised music, interesting things can happen on those first meetings, and I thing this album captures this.
In the same time, you’ve recorded a solo album “Iron Into Wind”. Tell me about differences in your musical approach, while playing in the band and playing solo. What is more demanding to you and why?
This is a really interesting question. My starting point is that I try to go into any musical situation with an open mind. Rather than imposing a preconception on the context, I want to remain open to possibilities at all times. Having said that, playing solo is a particular luxury, because there are of course no responsibilities to other players. Group playing for me need a particular degree of sensitivity and common enterprise: this is one of the wonderful things about it. When playing alone, you have to generate your own information, but you can also make whatever decisions you want to, since you are the only one who has to deal with their consequences on stage. So it is difficult to say which is more demanding. I think the common answer would be that solo is more demanding: in simple terms, you are responsible for all of the elements of the music: you are the rhythm, you are the melody, you are the harmony, you are the texture, and so on. There is no scope for sitting back and letting other people on stage carry the hard work (even though I don’t believe a player should ever really be doing this in any context). But ensemble playing is also demanding: and the mindsets/skills of sensitivity, proactivity, reactivity, listening, empathy and so on are probably more elusive than any technical skills at the instrument.

Two years ago you’ve recorded a duo album with Evan Parker. Could you point some main experiences which you’ve gained while cooperating with him?
In fact, the duo with Evan was recorded back in 2015, although I have been fortunate enough to have worked with Evan for a decade. He has been an incredible part of my musical experience both as a player, and long before I was lucky enough to play with him, as a listener. As a young musician, working with someone of Evan’s stature is often very important just from the point of view of validation: I suspect many of us experience self-doubts as musicians, and to be given opportunities by an established master in this way is an important reassurance. A lot of my learning from him has of course been ‘empirical’ - learning through doing. Exposure to his playing at such close quarters certainly affects how I think about interaction, phrasing, language, and so on. I have also learnt a great deal just from spending time with him off the bandstand.

I’ve noticed that two of your releases was made by your own label – Alexander Hawkins Music. Why have you decided to start publishing music by your own? And why had you stopped doing this?
Part of self-releasing those two albums was a question of experimentation: it seemed a very interesting way to publish music, and of course it allows you complete self-determination. All of the creative control remains with the artist, all of the rights are centralized, and so on. Part was also a practical decision: I had two projects I had recorded which I wanted to make available within a certain timescale (in the case of the trio, we had a tour coming up), and I wanted to get the album out in a much shorter time than would typically be possible with another label, since these of course have different scheduling concerns to a single artist imprint. I remain very positive about the self-release model. The only reason I haven’t done it recently is that I have been fortunate enough to begin working with Intakt. They are an incredible group of people, who produce music of amazing quality, with absolutely the same care that I invest in my own work, and who I trust completely in the enterprise of getting the music out to whoever possible, and with maximum integrity.

Nowadays, people are listening to more music on streaming services, instead of buying cd’s. How is it in your case? Do you use more streaming services while listening music than regular cd’s?
Myself, I definitely favour physical formats. Part of this could be force of habit; but certainly part is because I like to engage with the object: to appreciate the information on the album sleeve; to enjoy the cover art; and so on. I also feel that the physical interaction with the format affects the concentration with which we listen: so for example, my sense is often that the concentration on a vinyl record, which of course we have to get up and turn after a certain amount of time, is more intense than in the case of a digital playlist.

I personally also favour listening to complete albums or works rather than the individual tracks approach, which seems to be more where digital streaming points. None of this is to say that I have a problem with listening digitally, I should say. If it is the only format in which I can find some music, I will happily listen that way; and as a touring musician, of course, I listen to much of my music on the road in digital formats. I can also see that digital platforms can potentially present creative opportunities to artists, although these aren’t necessarily terribly extensively explored at this point, at least to my knowledge.

What about your music? Are you wheeling to putting it on the Internet?
I don’t have a problem as such with it being online, and of course, as a professional musician, it’s virtually a requirement to have some kind of online presence. Naturally I am uncomfortable with the piracy which is a characteristic of many online platforms; but I think it is naive to think that I myself can keep my music off the internet. Sadly there will always be someone out there who acquires the music, and makes it available through unofficial channels. I think our challenge is to try to create a culture of value and respect amongst the music community such that people are not inclined to try to get ‘something for nothing’.

I know, that it can be annoying question (in many interviews, people ask you about it) but I’m very curious about your PhD at criminology: Why had you decided to study law? And why didn’t you stop at master degree? What are your memories from college days?
Oh please don’t worry - it’s not an annoying question at all! I have always wanted to be a professional musician, and so my interest in law was never ‘career’-based. Law and society is simply another thing in which I am interested. I’m also sure that many musicians have non-musical interests which they have pursued to a high degree, and in turn, that this perspective helps their music to develop in interesting ways. Studying to PhD level was in part purely the drive to know more, and in more depth. But all the time I was studying law, I was of course studying music intensively in my own time, and my years at University were very important to my technical develop as a pianist: I didn’t have many people to play with (Cambridge is a wonderful music town, but at that time, did not have much of a scene for jazz and improvised music), and so spent many hours on private instrumental practice.

Had you noticed some differences in perception / popularity of your music now and ten years ago? Are people more eager to listening to improvised forms?
This is a tough question to answer. For my own part, I suppose it’s true that I’m a more developed musician than I was 10 years ago, so perhaps people are more eager to listen to my own music now than then, simply for this reason, rather than the ecology of the scene as such. That said, here in the UK, there is a definitely a resurgence in interest in jazz and related forms at the moment: and although much of this interest is in a mainstream into which I don’t really fit, I am very happy to see it. But I think ‘the audience’ isn’t a single idea, and differs by country, by city, and even by area of the city. Certainly, many audiences were very generous towards me 10 years ago, and continue to be these days. So, are people more eager? I don’t really know. As we have seen the politics of much of the planet lurch alarmingly to the right in these last 10 years, perhaps we might also see the listening habits of certain people changing towards something less mainstream by way of reaction to this. But - and this is probably the social scientist in me speaking! - this is pure conjecture, or at best, anecdotal; it would need to complex research to understand the situation more fully.

How potential Brexit will affect your life as a musician? Are there any aspects which can possibly change for you?
One of the most problematic aspects of Brexit for me is that so much of the narrative of leaving the European Union has been tied in to an extremely worrying nationalist streak: and this frightening jerk to the right in politics affects us all as humans, quite apart from as musicians (I am not arguing here that everyone who voted to leave the Union has right-wing inclinations: although I myself voted to remain, there are aspects of the left-wing argument against the European Union to which I am sympathetic). But to answer the question in a practical sense: one of the frustrating things about Brexit is that we simply don't know how our lives will be affected as people who have to travel abroad to work. One possibility is that we will need visas. Of course, that can be arranged, but not knowing is very unsettling. Visas could potentially cost time and money. For musicians such as myself who have been playing for a few years, this wouldn't necessarily be a problem (although it's worth noting that in countries such as the United States, the visas can indeed pose a problem in terms of time and cost, however long we've been playing for); but one concern I have is that visa costs and requirements could potentially make it extremely difficult for young musicians to break into Europe for the first time. But as I say, this is conjecture, and the main issue I think at the current time is that we simply don't know what will happen; and that uncertainty helps no-one (apart, perhaps, from certain lawyers or careerist politicians).

You’re playing in many projects, both as a leader, coleader, sideman and guest. You seem to be a quite busy man. What are your ways to relax and take a breath?
Well, music is all-consuming for me: I don’t feel that I ever need a rest from it. I’m always listening to it, trying to write it, reading about it, and practising it. The difference is really whether I’m attempting to do this whilst travelling, or whether I’m able to do it in a more relaxed setting at home! But for sure, I’m interested in many non-musical things too. I read a lot; I like to cook; and, although I sometimes feel that I hate everything about it apart from the game itself, I love football too (for Polish readers who also love football: continued big respect to Jan Tomaszewski from here in the UK!).