Alexander Hawkins: ‘Music for 16 Musicians’, the Latest Instalment of a Long Debate?

Alexander Hawkins’ new, large-scale work, Music for Sixteen Musicians provides a capacious alembic for the pianist’s alchemy, and has been given a very comprehensive review by Daniel Spicer in this month’s Wire (February 2021). These comments are therefore merely a few extra thoughts to add to Daniel’s.

I’m a massive fan of Hawkins, and he must now surely be our most distinguished keyboard player? (Tracey and Tippett having passed, and with Howard Riley now sadly largely incapacitated) This latest (along with his other recent solo, duet and quartet recordings) is released on the Swiss Intakt label, which was initially set up to provide an outlet for another distinguished pianist, Irene Schweizer, but is probably best known for it’s cataloguing of Barry Guy’s London Jazz Composers Orchestra (LJCO) records. Guy’s interest in, and love of, classical music (of all stripes, especially Baroque, and apart from 19th century Romanticism) is well known, and the LJCO’s use of symphonic structures reflects this, so I was interested to note the label’s turning towards Hawkins, whose versatility and open-minded musical catholicism match Guy’s, (Intakt and the LJCO have now parted company, just to say.) I also noted the album’s similar typography to that of ECM Records, whose version of Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians is particularly resonant here. Another ECM recording that I am drawn back to, as a point of comparison, is Roscoe Mitchell’s Composition/Improvisation Nos. 1, 2 & 3 (ECM 1872), another extended work that co-situates jazz/free improvisation with what Martin Davidson called ‘European non-improvised art music’ (ENIAM) in John Wickes’ history of British modern jazz.

Daniel Spicer describes the similarity of the first track to Gyorgy Ligeti’s ‘Lontano’, and James Fei, who writes the notes for the record sleeve, cites Luciano Berio’s ‘Sequences’’ as a reference point that should be familiar to the ‘Hawkins generation’ (my own expression). Now, ENAM is not really my field, but from what I can gather, Berio’s compositions give room for ‘extended techniques’ for various instruments (connecting it directly to the free improvisation grid?). Barry Guy has recorded an interpretation for double bass of ‘Sequenza XIV’ (originally intended for the cello),’’Sequenza VII’, originally aimed at the oboe, has been reworked for soprano saxophone. (Not by Evan Parker, incidentally, but you get the point.) Barry Guy has expressed his love of Krzysztof Penderecki (to whom parts of the recording under discussion bear some comparison to) and Iannis Xenakis (whose work for solo double bass, ‘Theraps’, he has performed successfully, even to the high standards demanded by it’s composer). Derek Bailey and John Stevens regularly cited Anton Webern as an admired influence. Although both John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen claimed to despise improvisation as an informing influence, the latter’s Aus Dem Sieben Tagen was improvisation by a different name, and the former’s ‘prepared piano’ has provided generations of free improvisers with a methodology. To return to the theme of one of my recent blogs. Eddie Prevost’s latest book, ‘An Uncommon Music for the Common Man’ explored potential overlaps between free improv and ‘modern’ classical music. (much of which is now nearly 100 years old!).

To my under-qualified ears, Music for16 Musicians demonstrates a more seamless syncretism (if we have to use such a word) than Roscoe Mitchell’s ‘improvisation’, meaning no disrespect to the latter’s axis of some of London and Chicago’s finest improvisers. 16 Musicians uses the talents of the Riot Ensemble, who generally, as far as I can ascertain, are one of several string quartets who mainly perform ‘contemporary classical’ as a living, but are also very flexible and polymorphic when they want to be. It also employs Evan Parker, who very neatly acts as a link to Mitchell’s Transatlantic Art Ensemble. (Parker performs, along with Barry Guy and Paul Lytton, on Composition/Improvisation 1,2 & 3.) Both of these two  works are significant achievements, but for me (at least initially, I only got the album a few days back), Hawkins’ work feels like the ‘jazz/improv’ side hasn’t been essentially rinsed out. (As it has, for example, in Ornette’s string-driven things?). Roscoe’s work, on the other hand, apart from the free jazz ‘blowout’ that is the 18-minute ‘III’, tends to veer towards ENIAM. But then again, with artists of this calibre, the listener is often unable to distinguish between ‘Composition//Improvisation’. (Hence the slash?).

And so the age-old ‘false binaries’ debate continues…

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The banner picture is by the late Mal Dean (1941-1974), which featured on the cover of the 1972 Incus Records vinyl release, Live Performances at Verity's Place, by two free improvisation pioneers, the English guitarist Derek Bailey and Dutch percussionist Han Bennink.