Simon James Phillips

“I just start playing, and wait”

Chair, Simon James Phillips’ new long player for Room40, is a rush of sound; a description of space through piano playing; a description of piano playing through careful use of recording space; emerging from long improvised sessions at the Banff Centre, Canada, the record uses repetition and ringing overlapping tones to generate clouds of sound, creating a complex, engaging listen. One of my favourite records of year so far, it also sent me back to the piano myself for the first time in a few years. I talked to Phillips about the album, his work with The Splitter Orchestra, The Swifter – a trio with B J Nilsen and Andrea Belfi, and Pedal – a duo with Necks pianist Chris Abrahams – and his approach to the piano.

“The Splitter has been an amazing education for me. Their approach to sound and process is incredibly varied and well considered. There are 24 players that approach sound/music/performance/art in very different ways. They’ve really stretched me and given me a real sense of artistry and have further enhanced my sense of sonic art, as opposed to music. On a technical level, they’ve sent me inside the piano with extended techniques etc. that I was for a long time shying away from.”

“I think that my work with The Swifter was different. I’d been wanting to put together this configuration [piano, drums, electronics] for a long time but hadn’t found the right people. Through serendipitous circumstances we actually recorded our first album at the same church during a break from recording my solo Chair. I’d been a long time fan of Benny’s work and somehow managed to talk him into recording. I’d met and played with Andrea three days beforehand and invited him to join. But it was different to my work with Splitter and with Chris (in Pedal), as somehow I had a feeling of having ‘arrived’ and felt more settled with my playing. Of course, I’m learning from them, but in a different way. I love this group and I’m very excited to work with them”

“Chris has influenced me more on his approach to creating. Our playing and sound were similar in many respects but his honesty, curiosity and also courage, are really outstanding. I think he’s one of the most interesting musicians I’ve worked with.”

Talking about technique is not something we get to do very often; the actual physical act of playing sometimes overlooked in the final result, but the regular alternating notes in pieces like Ellipsis – where the steady left hand, intercut with small flurries, swells to fill out the whole space – require precision to get the overtones start appearing. One of the ways you deal with this is by adopting physical strategies, including the Alexander Technique, to approach a state of playing that is free; literally freeing:

“It’s not really a sense of control, more a sense of getting out of the way […] it’s very beautiful to sit and play and be free physically and mentally (although, I’ve not really reached a consistent ‘freeness’). You can feel the vibrations through your fingers when you’re free – which I don’t think all pianists experience. And you somehow move closer to being an observer – closer to being like an audience member. But I’m also against any theatricality in performance. I hate it. I’d love to play in the dark so nobody can see me and they only listen to the music. I don’t want to distract with meaningless movements.”

AMM pianist John Tilbury has said of playing the piano “It is sensual, certainly. Touching the body, touching the piano – it’s a similar thing.” “I’m with John. It is sensual – sensual in that it is more a body awareness than a mental one and the more in shape I am, the more sensual it becomes.”

The way pianos vary; from space to space, from player to player – the way you struggle with a battered old family piano (the way the sustain on my parent’s piano seems to bleed between notes), the way a well maintained concert piano feels (or the weight of it as you wheel it across the studio floor). Tilbury again “truly the piano is an experimental instrument because you can’t wholly control the sounds” You already mentioned the sense of “getting out of the way” of the playing:

“Yes – the piano is tricky. It’s kind of a clumsy instrument. Again, as a classical pianist, I would play with singers or string players and they can produce this beautiful tone that is malleable – they can change the colour, volume and intonation of each note. I couldn’t do this – you play the note and then you have no control. I always had this in mind when playing – and was often dissatisfied with the percussive nature of the piano. I think this is partly why I really became interested in the overtones. You can control them to some extent, but they also take on a life of their own. It’s like playing a duet. The slight indeterminacy also appeals to me on an artistic level.

What I wrote above about getting out of the way in regards to the technical side of the playing – it’s the same, in my mind, with creating and improvising. If I’m trying too hard when I improvise, it often sounds like crap. I have stupid ideas and I force the issue somehow. My experiences with the Splitter Orchestra have helped this. Because the group is so large, there’s not so much pressure to play all the time. So I just wait. I wait until the impulse to play seems very clear or unavoidable. Of course, there are performances where I’m not in ‘good shape’ and I play stupid stuff, but I’m beginning to hone in more and more on this letting go. I think my classical training really worked against this instinct – it was all about control. I think my classical training sometimes worked against this instinct – it was often about control and effort. My education was full of pressure and didn’t allow the space to develop this sense of letting go. I don’t think all classical musicians suffer from this, the really great ones have this balance and are amazing players as a resultThere’s also something about the keyboard. Chris Abrahams mentioned once to me his interest in the keyboard as an interface – there’s always something in between you and the sound source. I realised then that it really is an issue with the piano.”

I find the album calming, exciting, and ‘opening’ – there’s obviously a lot of technical work gone in to this, but do you aim for an emotional reaction? – especially as it exists as a record/LP, as well as a performance?

“I am a very emotional person by nature. I was a very bad practiser of the piano as a child, but I remember that I always found myself at the instrument when I was going through something that was emotionally significant. The emotional side of my playing is something that I try to work against a bit – or at least be aware of and not overdo it. I am a bit worried that perhaps the album is too emotionally evocative – but at the same time, I have to be consistent with who I am and allow it to be there. It’s not so easy – there’s a side of me that doesn’t revel in the emotional side of it, but I know it’s there. I think I also strive to create a sense of complexity alongside this emotional side of the music. I hope that it exists in balance in the album.

I’ve often struggled with how the audience might deal with my work. For the general public (and my mother) I worry that it’s too experimental, and for the experimental crowd, not experimental enough.”

What have you been listening to since you finished the record?

I’ve been listening a lot to Sibelius’ 6th and 7th symphonies (the 6th more). He’s a kind of idol for me. I’ve also been revisiting some of B J Nilsen’s recordings and am looking forward to hearing his new solo record. I’ve been entranced listening to my son Poul whisper very quietly.

Children are on it somehow.

There is music in how they speak.

Patterns and fingers, chair creaks and overtones, new spaces and old instruments.

Chair is out now on Room40. Thanks to Simon and Lawrence.

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