Various Algorithms: An Interview with Chris Abrahams of The Necks
For the past three decades, Australian composer and pianist Chris Abrahams has carved out a vibrant niche of improvisational, minimalistic jazz that celebrates extended experiments in sound. Largely through 20+ albums with the Necks, Abrahams’ trio with Tony Buck (drums), and Lloyd Swanton (bass), and bolstered by a number of solo recordings and side collaborations, Abrahams work exists in the long-form. Progression is slow, almost to the point of motionlessness. Melodies are obscured into mere gestures, blurred into a general, peripheral beauty that reveals itself through patience and submersion.
Abrahams recently released his latest solo work Fluid To The Influence on room40, an experimental imprint run by Lawrence English and based out of Australia. The LP sees Abrahams mining an astounding variety of approaches to sound, from piano miniatures and oddly-angled organ motifs to pure tone studies, processed field recordings, and agile musique concrète.
While Abrahams and his bandmates of the Necks are relatively tight-lipped, we caught up via email to trace his earliest musical connections and obsessions, the expectations and demands of his audience, and the virtues of getting lost in collaborative improvisation.
What were your earliest musical connections or obsessions?
My father, although not a musician, was very passionate about jazz, particularly the music of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Benny Goodman. As a child I would listen to piano players like Teddy Wilson, Jimmy Yancey and Meade lux Lewis. As a teenager, my taste in music was not unusual; the Beatles, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Hendrix, Zappa. At the age of about fifteen, I discovered the music of Miles Davis. From between the age of 17 til my early twenties, I pretty well only listened to African American music — Mal Waldron, McCoy Tyner, Cecil Taylor, Ahmed Jamahl, Joseph Bonnet, amongst a plethora of others.
What was your first instrument?
I’ve always played the piano. Friends of my parents were leaving the country (Australia) and needed to store their piano somewhere. It was an old “Steck” upright. I would have been five or so. For a couple of years it stood in the living room and my sister and I began to take lessons from a local pianist. She was better than me but I think it’s safe to say that neither of us were what you’d call child prodigies. Eventually the lessons petered out and for some reason the piano got moved into my bedroom. I believe that anyone with a piano in their bedroom will probably play it regularly. When I was young I also dallied with the guitar.
When I was eleven my mother bought me an extremely cheap electric guitar from a pharmacy in Nelson New Zealand. In my mid teens I bought a bass guitar. I never achieved any real proficiency on the guitar. Eventually, I decided to focus totally on the piano.
There was a period in my final year at high school where I attempted to play the alto saxophone. Unfortunately the instrument was stolen from the boot of my car before I’d made any real progress on it. (Apologies for the depressing end to this answer.)
When did you first start playing music? Performing?
My earliest public performance happened when I was in the fourth grade. Inspired by George Harrison’s concert for Bangladesh, myself and a group of friends put on our own version at the school we attended. Out of this concert, a band emerged, which disbanded when we went on to high school. At high school I started jamming with friends when I was about fourteen, sometimes playing bass guitar. After discovering modern jazz, I began seeking out local musicians and going to concerts and jam sessions. I discovered there was a small but passionate scene in Sydney. I was lucky enough to end up playing with a sax player called Mark Simmonds, who I still think is one of the greatest musicians I’ve ever heard or played with.
How/where do you listen to music?
I prefer listening to music through speakers, although with touring one finds oneself on the headphones a lot. Sometimes I enjoy the “cinematising” that listening to music on headphones in public can create. Recently we played at the Big Ears festival in Knoxville. We were there for three days and the area within which the festival sites were situated allowed me to go to a lot of the shows. This is the perfect situation — one of my favourite aspects of being a musician; a day off at an amazing festival.
You’ve been making music for three decades now. What are some of the highest and lowest points or scenes you’ve come across or been a part of?
Seeing Sun Ra, healthy and performing with the Arkestra at the North Sea jazz festival in 1985. Shortly afterwards, Tony Buck and I visited Jamaica, this was also a highlight. The whole island was pulsating with dance hall reggae, I don’t think I’d ever experienced the feeling of being at the wellspring of a particular idiom; as if the music was coming out of the landscape. We attended a six-hour concert headlined by Yellowman at a drive-in cinema in Kingston (Ram Jam 87). This was an incredible experience for me.
In terms of performances, there have been many highlights; the Gedachtnis Kirk in Berlin, on the organ, was highlight. the first concert the Necks ever played at the Old Darlington School in Sydney remains a highlight; the last show at the Village Underground in London; The Whitney Museum…I could go on. With the sort of music we play, every show is different and each acoustic space has its own thing to offer.
Is Fluid To The Influence all improvised, partially improvised, or not at all improvised?
There are different layers involved in the making of my solo albums. With Fluid to the influence, most of the material was gathered over the preceding 18 months, although some of the organ and piano recordings are from even longer before. With the albums I’ve made for room40, I gather together a reservoir of material made from numerous performances (concert performances and studio performances) and field recordings. I construct the tracks by combining these recordings. The “played” performances tend to be improvised. I spend a great deal of time fine tuning the pieces; adjusting, editing and changing things around. This construction process takes about six months. The final two weeks is probably the most intense. I tend to burn a CD of mixes, listen, take notes, change things, burn another CD of the changed pieces, listen, take notes, change things, burn another CD… This part is probably not generally considered improvised.
What draws you to improvised music, both solo and/or with the Necks?
Improvising has always been what I’ve done, as a player. It’s safe to say that it’s really all I can do in front of a paying audience. I was never a very good student in terms of performing the classical music repertoire.
I love playing the piano at my home, and I play all sorts of things, a lot of Bach actually (poorly). I like the “interactive listening” dimension to sight reading. I’m very drawn to the physicality of piano playing – the feeling of pressing the keys down; for me is a hugely expressive part of the whole thing.
As a listener, I listen to all sorts of music and always have. I’ve listened to a lot of the classical repertoire on records as I did rock music; I wouldn’t make qualitative judgements about music based on whether or not it’s improvised. Whether it’s “Silent Tongues” or “Visions of the Amen” the method by which something is made is for me something that should be hard to ascertain.
There’s an incredible amount of diversity in your solo work. Fluid To The Influence, especially. Have you always experimented in a variety of sounds?
There have been a few occurrences along the way that have been turning points in my musical life. Buying a K2000 sampler was one. This happened in the early nineties, and seriously turned my conceptual musical world on its head. I don’t think I knew what the word “envelope” meant (sonically) before then. It also changed the way I viewed the piano — forcing me to think about it terms of the physics of vibration. The day I first attempted to program the DX7 was another “moment.” I, like many people, I used the DX as a portable piano/organ, never venturing away from the provided green rom cartridges of factory sounds. This elegant FM synth operates along the principle that all sound is made of sine waves, therefore, by combining six sine waves in various algorithms, one can go a long way towards synthesising any sound. Outside of solo piano concerts, the only other keyboard I would do a solo concert on is the DX. I have more elaborate synths, but the DX7 (mark 1) remains my favourite live improvising keyboard.
Another important occurrence was my entry into the world of soundtracks — for radio, tv and cinema. This really broadened my approach to using a DAW. I’ve been commissioned a number of times to produce radio features, often in collaboration with Sherre Delys and Rick Moody. The way I approached my first album for Room40 (Thrown), was very much like a multi channel radio program.
I’ve also done a few multi-part TV documentary soundtracks. This is quite pressured and requires a composer to develop an ease with the recording and arranging software available.
I’ve also now done the music for two feature films (one solo and one with The Necks). All of these experiences helped create confidence in experimentation and broadened the possibilities of what’s possible in the studio; I don’t think I would have made the room40 albums without them.
I was lucky enough to see you perform a solo set in Knoxville at Big Ears, which was a truly transcendental experience. Do you strictly play piano live, or would your solo sets ever incorporate other sounds?
At the moment I’m very much into developing my solo piano performances. However, I have in the past performed solo on pipe organ and on DX 7. I haven’t really developed a method of performing my room40 albums live. I’m very much a keyboard player; the keyboard is an important expressive tool in itself — the feel of it. I perform parts on my albums that are comprised of samples inlaid over a midi keyboard, but to do that sort of thing live is not something I feel comfortable with. I have performed with both DX7 and piano and this might be something I’ll look into in the future.
There seems to be a stigma about American audiences not having the patience or openness to certain live performances. Do you feel like there’s a distance or disconnect when performing in the US versus Europe or Australia?
On the Necks’ recent tour of America, the audiences felt very focused and connected. It was an incredible experience. Similarly, I felt that the audience for my solo gig at Knoxville was really with me.
A lot depends on the context. The music I play tends to unfold gradually over time, so a situation where an audience is expecting me to open with a spectacular “crowd pleaser” would possibly not be appropriate.
I think that now we’re getting a bit better known and people tend to get what they expect now has made a difference. We’ve had problems with regards to categorisation; what genre of music do we play? This is a basic human need — the need to give names to things and thus grasp for fields of reference. I’m resigned to it — it would be hypocritical of me not to be!
I tend to not do so well in situations where an audience might be expecting a sparkling jazz solo with a backing rhythm session. Also, sometimes I feel that the occasional use of diatonic tonality and recognisable rhythmic “feels” might alienate audiences expecting complete atonality. Over time though I think the Necks has carved out its own niche and people are coming to hear that. I’m really unable to make the sort of distinctions between audiences that you refer to in your question.
How is writing/recording/performing solo different than performing with others, or with the Necks?
Making a solo album takes me a long time. This is fine, because I don’t work to a deadline really (not for an album). Recording with the Necks has always taken place within a finite timeframe. We generally allow two or so weeks to record and mix an album. We spend the first 7 or 8 days laying down tracks and then we take a break. We come back and mix the tracks, sometimes putting more stuff down. We try to finish the record in that time frame. Although on occasions someone has brought in a recording made from outside, generally the album is performed and recorded in the studio with all of us present. This is a very different method to that with which I make a solo album. Here, I amass material over a long period of time, from many and varied sources, and then I combine and construct pieces from that material. I don’t, for instance, say; “this bit here needs some piano” and then go away and record some new piano. I will have hours and hours of piano recordings ready to use and I will, hopefully, choose one that is appropriate.
The making of a solo album can go on for years. I’m still trying to make a solo piano record and have hundreds of hours of music from all sorts of studios that hasn’t really made it public. One of these days…
Can you talk a little bit about how the Necks came to form?
All three of us grew up in Sydney. Tony and I grew up in the same suburb and I met him in the seventies. I was about sixteen from memory. I met Lloyd in 1979. We were all involved in a music scene that was centred on the north shore of the harbour – at least that, for some reason, was where a lot of people came from. Lloyd and I played very regularly in a modern jazz quartet. I played in several projects with Tony. The quartet that Lloyd and I were in came to an end in 1986 and a few months later he rang me up and asked me if I’d be interested in forming another group — this time a trio. We both wanted to play with Tony and he was duly invited.
We decided that we would meet several times a week and just play, with no regard for establishing a conventional repertoire. We wanted to explore a way of playing that didn’t revolve around impressing people with individual virtuosity; rather, we wanted to create long form pieces whereby the sound from our instruments would coalesce and form a distinctive group sound. From the first rehearsal, I was amazed at what we came up with and the way I was compelled to play. For the first time I felt like I was actually listening to what I was playing, as if I were part of the audience. In removing the need to impress, the whole process seemed a whole lot more honest and enjoyable.
Over the years we’ve added considerably to the things we do, but there still remains that core element that we hit upon back in 1986. I’ve been very lucky.
Not to pull back the curtains too much, but how does the Necks’ material come together? Having seen you three times myself, it’s a magical thing to witness live. And how do you manage to reach some climax and fitting comedown in that “one-hour” window you three have perfected.
Like virtually everything we do, it’s intuitive. For me, the basic philosophy behind my approach in the Necks is to let one thing lead to another. It’s conceptually as simple as that. The formal structures and time frames within which our pieces unfold, have been hit upon naturally without premeditation. Forty five minutes to an hour it seems is for us an organic length of time for us to make a piece of music that slowly develops and transcends the instruments with which it’s made.
To pre determine anything is anathema to the way our music is made and if we were to do this, it would sound totally different. Our own excitement at discovering the possibilities of a piece — while we’re playing it — is something our music conveys, it underpins the whole process.
Check out the world debut of Chris Abrahams’ new track “Clung Eloquent”: