Interviews

PRXLUDES | Steve Tromans

Steve Tromans, playing prepared piano at Stourbridge Festival of Improvised Music 2021.

“I’m not saying that music is the notes of the piano, and philosophy is just the words. There is philosophy in the notes of the piano, and there is music in the words.” -Steve Tromans

Steve Tromans is a jazz pianist, composer, bandleader, and philosopher based in Birmingham. Over the course of his long and prolific career, Steve has given over 6000 performances across the UK, Europe, India, Bangladesh, and Japan, co-founded Birmingham improv night Fizzle in 2000, worked as a jazz educator and performer in Mongolia in 2006, received commissions from Jazzlines and Birmingham Town Hall/Symphony Hall, and released over 18 albums of music in a variety of styles. Steve’s interests currently lie in the musical-philosophical, having recently attained a PhD at the University of Surrey; Steve spoke to PRXLUDES about his upcoming album ‘Duos and Remixes’, the origins of Fizzle in Birmingham, and his relationship with temporality, ontology, and incompossibility.

Photo: Phil King

Zyggy/PRXLUDES: Hi Steve! I heard you’ve been working a collaborative improvisation record; tell me a bit about this new album…

Steve Tromans: I’ve nearly finished [this] new project, which was started around about this time last year. It emerged from that darkness last year, that isolation we all felt. I was motivated by the sense of disconnection [and] isolation to invite lots of folks, musicians, spoken word artists, to send me something — just three to five minutes, that was the only brief. Even if it’s recorded on phone, it doesn’t matter. And I’ve remixed each one. There’s now thirty-one tracks on the album.

I call it ‘Duos’: and the reason I call it ‘Duos’ is because initially, the idea was [that] I would play some piano or keyboard or something. But it didn’t end up being like that, it’s more like a remixes album; on some of the tracks, I don’t do anything in terms of playing, but my contribution is the remix. I was thinking about it yesterday — I almost changed the title to ‘Remixes’ — but I’m sticking to my guns on ‘Duos’ because my definite feeling is that even that constitutes a duo. Somebody sends you three minutes, and you do something with it on the laptop, change it, and that’s still a connection between two musicians. It’s not like somebody composed this and somebody else arranged it; I like it to be more of a joint composition thing.

How have you found the process of compiling the recordings, especially when it comes to release plans?

I’m hoping to release it early January. I’m still waiting for a couple more final contributions. Some folks send some stuff immediately, others take longer… it’s just the way it is, you know. -laughs- But the first track I received was from a friend of mine, Adam Martin — a really great guitarist — he sent a piece, just him on guitar, and what I did with it was [that] I reversed it, and I played the reversed version against the forward version. I sent it back to him and he really loved it, and it’s the first track on the album. There’s this transformational process. If I was gonna give a research talk about it, I’d say [that] this is a great example of what I mean by how remix can be duo.

Like, remix as collaboration, the artistic response as the collaborative process and so on…

That’s exactly right. It’s not the kind of thing that’s gonna sell millions, so it’s not likely to make a fortune and people go “hang on a minute, how much were you doing, Steve?” It’s not anything that anyone’s gonna fall out [over] royalties about. I don’t put [the track] on the album until the other person is totally okay with it. So it’s been fun; and certainly this time last year, it got me out of the horrible isolated sort of thing — just to be in my room, with my laptop, on something that had come through over the internet, at a time when we couldn’t even really meet up apart from a really distanced walk in the park. You can’t really make music like that.

Do you feel like ‘Duos’ was a way to help you stay connected to the music community?

100% yes. That was the whole point of it. I didn’t expect many contributions, to be honest — but here we are, nearly a year later, it’s up to thirty-one and I’m still waiting for a couple more. There’s a launch gig on the 13th January at the MAC [Midlands Arts Centre] through Tony Dudley-Evans [TDE Promotions]. I can’t invite all thirty-one people — some of them live in the States, and in Europe, so it’s not possible — there’s certainly not the budget, poor Tony would faint. -laughs- But it’s gonna be a sextet; I’m just putting that together at the moment. And the day before that, I’ll click “publish” on Bandcamp, and it’ll be there — and after that, I’ll approach some record labels about putting it out as a full thing, and then at that point, I’ll organise some sort of event where I can invite as many people as possible. My thought about the launch event — certainly the one on the 13th, and whatever other ones transpire — is that it won’t be a case of trying to recreate what happened in the remixes. It’ll be a chance to do something new — and me being an improviser, that’s my thing anyway.

How improvisatory do you feel like your process with ‘Duos’ was?

What was wonderful about it — and what I’ve actually done with every one of the thirty-one tracks — I made a point that as soon as I received the contribution, I worked on it immediately, I worked on it swiftly. And everything I’ve done in terms of the process and of the remix I’ve done intuitively; going with the flow — working like an improviser — not always with any steadfast idea of what I’m gonna use. Over the course of the year, I’ve gotten better at using the software, as well, but eventually, over that period of time, I’ve gotten bored of using some of the processes — “really, Steve, are you gonna go back to that one? Is that your only palette?” -laughs- So I’ve been testing myself.

I did the most recent one a couple of days ago, with a guy called Richard Scott. He lives somewhere up north, I don’t remember exactly where… -laughs- He was in a band of mine for a while called Dead as Dillinger — I guess that band does still exist, minus gigs. The last one we played was at Supersonic Festival, which was organised by Ideas of Noise. It was me, Richard Scott, and Tymoteusz Jozwiak, who’s a Polish drummer. I played a Korg Monotron — you seen one of those?

I haven’t — what exactly is it?

It’s like a little stylophone. It’s got the keyboard that you play like a stylophone… It’s the instrument that I played at the event at Centrala [Don’t Mind Control] — it can really kick out all sorts of things, by messing with the dials. It went down really well. The pragmatics were interesting — because there was a main stage and we were outside of that — when we were soundchecking, they were already doing some stuff on the main stage, and that was really noisy. My original idea was maybe “It’s a noise festival, why don’t we go totally the opposite and make some subtle little sounds?” — but because of all the noise that was coming from the other room, I turned to [the others] and said “we’re just gonna have to make a lot of noise.” So we really went for it, it was really cool.

But getting back to the question about approach — Richard sent me something through a couple of days ago. When it was a year ago, when I was 100% desperate for musical interaction, that’s when I began this new process of immediately tackling the remix, and giving it all my energy. And now I’ve got a bit more time to think about what I might do — I don’t wanna do that, I want to keep that same mindset. Richard plays viola, and he sings; and I spoke to him at the very start of this year about being part of the project… and he said he’d been practicing yodeling during the lockdown. -laughs- But what he actually sent me was him playing piano, and it’s beautiful and I’ve remixed it accordingly.

He’s not the only person to have surprised me like that. To mention a few of the names, Lee Griffiths — phenomenal sax player — sent me him doing a vocal thing, spoken word thing. It was some Samuel Beckett; he performed it extraordinarily well. In my remix, I made it so you couldn’t hear that it was Beckett. Instead, you get this chorus of voices; you can’t make out any words, so it transforms the spoken word into music in a really nice way. Lee loved it, it’s on the album. And Sarah Kershaw — an old friend of mine who lives in London — she’s a noted pianist, but she sent me herself playing clarinet. -laughs- She produced this amazing duet with herself, actually, of two clarinet lines — and they end up coming out sounding like oboes. I love the way that everyone’s surprised me, constantly.

It’s always wonderful seeing the way people are able to use this opportunity to do something outside of their “traditional” discipline.

That’s it. Si Paton sent one in — he’s playing electric bass, wonderful performance. Another friend of mine, Mike Green, who plays double bass [and] electric bass — he thought about it for a while, but then he recorded himself doing the washing up. -laughs- At one point, he’s slamming a drawer, and he said there’s this one drawer he hates in the kitchen because it doesn’t quite close properly. So he incorporated that — there’s this major percussion [effect]. And I’m sure he won’t mind me saying this, but… he said he’d also been under a little bit of pressure to do the washing up! -laughs- So I love the fact that this completely experimental music project ticked two boxes: he’d produced something that was fascinating to listen to, and then he also did the washing up. And Mike is a big fan of thrash music — and so what I did is I thoroughly distorted it — but then because he plays the electric bass, I used this filter which picked out about five different octaves of [the] bottom E. That’s the constant theme through the whole of the remix. So again, it’s a duo…

It’s almost like doing something free in a collaboration — you’ll immediately pick up on something your collaborator has done as you listen, even if it’s remote.

Indeed. It would’ve been the year 2000 — me and the same guy, Mike Green, we both discovered we were getting into free improvisation. Up until that point — from the mid to late ‘90s — we’d been playing jazz in a jazz trio, which was at the time me, Mike Green, and Mitch Perrins on drums. We were playing a few different venues in Birmingham, doing regular gigs, and we were playing the jazz standard repertoire — straight ahead jazz. But me and Mike started getting into the free improv thing. And at that time, Swordfish Records was just off New Street.

Swordfish Records, in its original location in Needless Alley, Birmingham, in the ’90s.

I’m not sure if I’ve heard of it — this was before my time, right?

It still exists. It’s by the law courts in Birmingham, now — I don’t know the name of the actual street, [but] they’re still going. At a particular time in the late ‘90s, we were kinda spoiled in Birmingham: there was Swordfish Records off New Street, halfway down New Street there was Tower Records, and then Dillon’s Music — which is now the Apple Store. -laughs- Further down, we had HMV and Virgin… All these places were really close together. So you could have a wonderful afternoon wandering around, looking at the different collection.

But at Swordfish, the one day I walked in — and I’d looked through all the jazz section, and I was like “I don’t know”… There wasn’t the internet, as such, at the time, [and] if you wanted to buy some new music, you had that note burning in your pocket and you wanted to take something home, you know? I didn’t wanna go home empty-handed. And I noticed at Swordfish, there was this other section called “free”, or “experimental” — and I’d not long read the Michael Nyman book Experimental Music, and at one point he’d written about a band that incorporated Derek Bailey. I’d heard about Derek Bailey, but I didn’t really know anything about him other than that he was an English free improvising guitarist. And at this new section at Swordfish, I saw some Derek Bailey albums; unfortunately at that time, CDs were really overpriced, so I ended up going home with an album of Derek’s that had been produced by John Zorn, and was like “this must be interesting, this has gotta be interesting”… This cost me £19.99, which was real painful. The only painful thing about it. [The album] is called ‘Guitars, Drums ’n’ Bass’ — it’s actually a drum and bass album, so I don’t know why they called it ‘Guitars, Drums ’n’ Bass’. It’s essentially Derek Bailey on electric guitar, and a guy called DJ Ninj — who at the time was based in Birmingham — who had written some really fabulous drum and bass stuff.

And so I bought that, shared that with Mike Green, we started getting into this free improv idea. Around 2000, we decided we wanted to put on some gigs [doing] the free improv thing. We spoke to a few other friends — Trevor Lines, a double bass player; Miles Levin, a drummer; and Ian Muir, who plays guitar — and we decided to launch a free improv night which was Fizzle.

Wow! And that’s still going strong, two decades later…

We called it Fizzle originally, [because] we couldn’t think of a name — Birmingham Musicians Collective, Birmingham Musicians Co-Operative, what are we gonna call it? And then Trevor Lines eventually said “Why don’t we call it anything? Just call it Fizzle.” And so it became Fizzle, which began life at the Old Moseley Arms.

Oh, right! Of all the places… -laughs-

Yeah, in the upstairs room. -laughs- Eventually, when me and the guys stepped down from running it, a piano player called Mike Hurley took it over, and after he moved away that’s when Andrew Woodhead took it over. So that’s the lineage of that whole thing. But it essentially came out of this desire to do something new. And the beauty of having a record store like Swordfish just there, with a whole section of Derek Bailey, John Zorn, a whole bunch of Japanese stuff — at the time, I didn’t even know what I was buying, but I’d just take the chance on it — all sorts of mind-blowing things. So in a big way, this ‘Duos’ project: even though it’s new stuff, it’s almost like a return to that experience of finding and making music that challenges me, and makes me interested to hear something new.

Exterior of The Old Moseley Arms, the original location of Fizzle. Photo: Steve Nicholls

I’m almost envious. That childhood wonder for me was going on Limewire and discovering Linkin Park — which is a completely different experience from physically going into a record store.

Times have changed. What’s nice about now is [that] you can find things straight away. I read about La Monte Young, Terry Riley, a lot of other artists when I was a teenager, and it was sometimes ten or more years before I’d actually get my hands on anything, [on] what they’ve done. I knew about it, because I’d read the print off the page, and I was desperate to hear this stuff, but I didn’t know what it sounded like. Alvin Lucier, ‘I am sitting in a room’, was another one, actually. It was something I was fascinated by, this “process music”, as it was called then.

It was the year 2000, I’d gone down to the South Bank to watch the London Musicians’ Collective festival. They don’t exist anymore. The once thing that exists from that time is Resonance FM — that came from the LMC. I watched Toshimaru Nakamura perform with his no-input mixing desk, which actually caught fire during the middle of his set. -laughs- There was, like, some smoke rising from the [mixing desk]. And in one of the intervals, there was a guy selling CDs, and in all that pile of CDs, I found Alvin Lucier’s ‘I am sitting in a room’.

That’s amazing — after you’d been searching for it for more than a decade!

So that went on, straight away. And what’s interesting about that time is [that] I didn’t have the facility to copy it, or give to my friends, and it wasn’t something I wanted to give out — it was so precious to me, after waiting for so long to get hold of it. I just wanted to keep it by me. -laughs- So Mike Green had an answer machine — which was quite a new thing at the time — so I knew he was out, and I called him up about four time, and I played different bits of the forty-five minutes of ‘I am sitting in a room’… So he could hear, on his phone, what it sounded like! -laughs- It sounds ridiculous now, compared to [now] — you can find it online…

I read an interesting thing about that particular work. I can’t remember the author, but it was in a book about new music: when that came out originally, it was on an LP, so there were two sides. The beauty of the CD version is that you could listen to all forty-five minutes in one ago, but the LP version you had to turn over. And the author has said — and this appeals to me as a musical-philosophical question — “is it okay to just listen to the second side?” -laughs-

I mean, would you say it is?

I think I’d say it is. But it also defeats the process.

But is the process “the” most important thing in the piece?

When it’s released on album, it becomes something different, doesn’t it? It changes its nature. It’s an ontological change. Ontology is the study of the nature of being — so ontologically speaking, it’s a different thing. The easiest example of that is: you’ve got an improvised gig, you’re in the audience, it’s an event in itself. If somebody records it and releases it as an album, it changes its nature, because at that point you can listen to that bit, you can listen to that [other] bit… it’s no problem. Especially if it’s on your laptop or your phone, you can move the timeline along the bottom. Whereas when it actually happened, of course you can’t do that.

Unless you can turn back time. -laughs-

So if you’re gonna be a “process music puritan” — which I don’t think there any need to be, but if you are gonna be — you would say that you must listen to ‘I am sitting in a room’ in its absolute entirety, from 0:00 to the end. And that would be the experience of the work. But that seems borderline tyrannical.

I watched a film last night, and it’s a film I’ve seen many many times. It’s ‘2010: The Year We Make Contact’ — it’s a sequel to ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ — so I was watching [it] last night and I got a little bit sleepy. And I know it so well [that] I moved it forward to the last forty minutes or so. The reason I mention this is following on from that discussion about process music, and ‘I am sitting in a room’, and what constitutes the full experience of a music event, or filmic event… I don’t feel guilty, but it feels [like] I broke some cardinal rule of movies, that you should watch it from beginning to end. I broke that, I went against that, because I was tired [and] I knew I was gonna fall asleep. And I’d not thought about what I’d actually done until our discussion just now. If you went to the movies to see it, there’s no way you could tap the [guy] and say “excuse me mate, do you mind moving it along a bit?” -laughs-

Steve Tromans, extract from ‘Directions in Music’, an eleven-hour performance at Harmonic Festival 2011, Birmingham.

An example of that for me in Barcelona recently at Festival Mixtur, they played Feldman’s ‘Piano, Violin, Viola, Cello’ — and sitting through all 75 minutes of that was an ordeal. Going through all the mental motions of that…

Late Feldman — his late works — he really got stuck into the long duration stuff, didn’t he? ‘String Quartet, No. 2’ is about six hours. I’ve got that on CD, there was an option to buy it on DVD so you could hear it without the “annoyance” of changing CDs… -laughs- ‘For Philip Guston’ is about four hours long.

In the same Feldman book, actually — Give My Regards to Eighth Street — there’s a transcript of him introducing a performance of ‘For Philip Guston’, and he gives a wonderful anecdote. He says [that] years ago, in New York City, there weren’t that many Chinese restaurants, and for those who liked Chinese food — him, John Cage, and friends — they used to spend a lot of time waiting on the street to get a table at some of these places, because the places [were] very small. He said that the proprietor of their favourite restaurant had said [that] the secret to really great food was to have a kitchen the same size as the restaurant — equal fifty-fifty. -laughs- And that’s why he was never gonna expand and have more tables. And Morton Feldman told that anecdote before this performance of ‘For Philip Guston’, for four hours, and he said “to give that due credit, I should speak about this piece for four hours.” And everyone laughed, and of course, he didn’t. Which in itself is a beautiful musical-philosophical thing: the difference between spoken word and music practice — music-making — I guess the question would be, how is it that we can talk about a four hour long piece in thirty seconds?

I guess the difference is the summary of ideas versus the experience of the ideas?

I can’t remember the exact title of an Igor Stravinsky work — I think it’s called “haiku”, or “haikus” — if I remember right, the settings are very brief (that’s my memory of hearing it, like a Webern ‘Six Bagatelles’ kind of brevity). And my memory of hearing it on Radio 3 is that it didn’t feel enough — in a way that reading a haiku does feel like enough.

If you added any more to a haiku, it wouldn’t be a haiku — it’d totally destroy the nature of the format.

Quite right. Back in 2004, I did what was then my first solo album, that was called Jewel in the Lotus — I suppose I say “was called”, because I’ve sold all the copies of it now and I don’t even have one myself. -laughs- But at the time, I called [it] “an album of musical haiku” — and the reason I called it that is because I wanted to limit each track to around three, four, five minutes. That was the idea. And what’s interesting with the ‘Duos’ album, now, is that was my brief to all the contributors [and] fellow artists: three to five minutes, less if you like, doesn’t need to be this huge, long, thing. Length of a pop song, things like that.

So I did this album of musical haiku, but the question that remained in my head: the two worlds are not that compatible, the spoken word, or written, world; and the music world. I don’t see any reason why somebody couldn’t write a musical haiku that was thirty minutes long, three hours long, three weeks long, as long as it had that same sense of encapsulating a world. I guess Feldman’s ‘String Quartet, No. 2’, in six hours, still manages to encapsulate this beautiful world. He was fascinated by mosaic, what he described as “oriental rugs”, the repetitions and patterns with that — and he wanted to write the quartet like a rug.

Exactly. You get immersed into this world, and you’re then just “in the world”, whether that’s just for three minutes — like the piece by Sara Stevanovic I also saw at Mixtur — or for over an hour with Feldman. You forget about the duration after a while.

It happens, doesn’t it? In 2011, I did a solo piano marathon at the MAC, and that was part of a festival that was running at the time by the Harmonic Festival. That was organised at the time by Chris Mapp — the bass player, and all sorts of other things — and Percy Pursglove. It ran in 2010 and 2011, and in 2011 I twisted their arm and said I [wanted] to do a long-duration thing. And I played for eleven hours, on a keyboard in what ended up being the cafe area of the MAC. I think Chris suggested the idea of it being a silent disco. -laughs- But what was lovely was [that] listeners could give £10 to hire a set of headphones, and they could roam anywhere they liked in the building — bearing in mind, throughout that whole day there were a load of other events going on in the building. I found out different folks found out how far it could stretch, and the signal actually stretched into the park, and the pond, as well! Chris Mapp took a series of really good-looking photographs of audience members with their headphones, listening. There’s one really beautiful one with Tony Dudley-Evans, somebody eating an ice cream… and there was a dog.

Audience members outside listening to Steve Tromans’ ‘Directions in Music’ in Cannon Hill Park, Birmingham. Photo: Russ Escritt

I’m assuming the dog didn’t have headphones on. -laughs-

No, unfortunately not. It would’ve made the picture absolutely perfect. But that was the first time I did a long durational thing. I’ve done two more since in 2012 and 2013, and those two were with a wonderful singer-songwriter called Sara McCarthy. She did this project which she called ‘Sounding Cov’, and it was to heal Coventry. And the reason Coventry needed healing is that she works with geography — cityscapes in terms of [their] geography — and it was deliberately timed that when we performed, it was the eleven hours of the bombing [of Coventry] in World War Two. So her idea was to commemorate that each year — but not just commemorate it, [but] to try and heal that terrible negative energy that had been implanted in the cityscape.

The first time I did it in 2012, the extraordinary thing was [that] Sara sang Sanskrit mantras — and accompanied herself on harmonium — and me and some other folks provided the backing. We took breaks. But she actually carried on, eleven hours straight through, which I thought was phenomenal. I saw her do exactly the same thing, exactly a year later, when she did it again.

My experience of the durational thing, though — the solo piano thing at the MAC and the following two years with Sara — was exactly as you said. There’s this amazing, transformational point in time when you don’t feel five minutes anymore, or ten minutes — and with the eleven hour thing, hours would just come and go: “Oh, it’s five o’clock in the morning, what just happened?” Our experience of time had gotten smoothed out into the way a tree experiences time, or a river, or the Sun… a much more natural process.

I get that. A time that’s not judged by our own human limitations.

I understand why they do it, and appreciate it. If you’re doing a gig — always the second set, of course — and the promoter comes up and politely taps the watch, “It’s getting very near, the venue are gonna want us out soon…” All those logistical kind of things. That chronological world — chronos-time — is something that can be beautifully gotten away from in the long-durational performances. But it takes time. There’s a period of adjustment, acclimatisation… But you’re acclimatising to time.

Like your brain is still operating on one timeframe, expecting the piece to go somewhere, even if you know logically that it won’t.

I guess you went somewhere. You went somewhere, that was what went somewhere more than the music. When one gets more and more into the music, it becomes more about a collectively shared journey than anything that’s specifically notated down in the score. Less a narrative, or teleology… less an arrow of “this is where it’s all going”, and more “here is an environment, a temporal space for you to be able to go somewhere yourself.”

The whole dynamic, I guess, changes depending on the environment. A cafe in the MAC people can come and go from is radically different from a traditional concert hall environment.

I’ll tell you a brief anecdote. Very early on the Fizzle days, a very famous musician came to play, and it was organised by a big promoter, locally, as well. A load of people came to watch the gig, and it was the biggest crowd we’d had at that point bar none; people [were] queueing up the stairs, there was a slight bit of concern about health and safety, how many people we could cram into the upstairs room… All of this. In the end, everyone was in there and they were happy. The guy himself — the big star — arrived late, was in a bit of a grumpy mood and sort of sat outside in a car for a long time. Eventually, he decided he wanted to play and that was fine.

But while we were all waiting, one of the audience members came up to me — while I was within earshot of one of the other players who was in the band — and he said “I always think we should suffer for this music, as an audience.” He went “I don’t think it should be in a concert hall, in a symphony hall, it should be in exactly this kind of place, all crammed in” — that was a time when smoking was [still] allowed indoors, so it was unbelievably smoke-thick in the upstairs room — “I believe we should suffer for free jazz, for this free improv you can’t find anywhere else.” The guy that was saying that to me was a well-respected academic, and I was nodding and agreeing — it sort of made me feel better as part of the promotion that someone actually wanted it to be like that — and one of the players came past me and he went “bollocks”. -laughs-

That’s absolutely fantastic.

And I immediately swing around, and his point of view was like “Hang on a minute — no, we shouldn’t be crammed into a smoky little space in the upstairs room of a pub, we should be allowed to perform in symphony halls [and] a beautiful outdoor stage.” Let’s give ourselves the opportunity to do that instead of accept the fact that this is all we’re gonna get. Honestly, within thirty seconds, [I got] those two extraordinary different perspectives on how music should be presented and experiences… and I agreed with both. -laughs-

Steve Tromans, playing with Sarah McCarthy as part of Sounding Cov 2012, Coventry.

It’s interesting you’ve spoken about the dichotomies between music and spoken word — as you’ve written an album, ‘Ellipses’, that encompasses both.

The reason that the album’s called ‘Ellipses’… Well, there are two reasons. The most fundamental one is [the] ellipses — the three dots — [and] it became a triple album, hence “ellipses”. I’m still doing research between music and philosophy: what do you put between the two? In my PhD, and a load of my research talks, I talk about the “musical-philosophical” — I put a hyphen between the two, and the reason I put a hyphen is to show a relationship, or some kind of resonance, between the two. The thing I found when I was doing guest lectures and conference presentations… I found this really interesting temporal experience between talking and performing. What I tried to do every time was to actually perform live, and you can’t do that at every conference — especially if it’s in philosophy or performing arts, there’s not necessarily a piano there to play. [But] I thought it was important to present my music, rather than just “talk” about it, or play little clips. As I experimented with the format of these talks, I got into a thing where I would “compose” it — to the extent where I would spend as much time performing as talking. So I suppose that plays completely back to the Morton Feldman thing, [talking] for four hours about a four hour piece… -laughs-

How did the idea of using performance in your research talks come about?

In a standard twenty-minute presentation slot at a conference, I’d divide it into four sections. And I’d always start with a performance. It was suggested to me years ago by an old research mentor — Professor Susan Melrose, who has been a really wonderful pioneer of the need for artists to be involved in what tends to get called “high-level research”. The new style PhD — which my PhD is, as well — is called “practice as research”, or “practice-research”… there are so many different labels, or categorisations, depending on how you feel about where the practice is placed within that research. In Europe, on the continent, I found people calling it “artistic research”… Whatever you want to call it, what’s happening is [that] artists themselves are finding their voice in the research world, whereas a more traditional thing is [that] the music element becomes an object.

And it’s just the score that’s a primary source, then?

That’s right. But the music element, the artistic element, is this object that is pounced upon through various methodologies, and something new is discovered. Whereas this new idea of artistic research — or whatever it should be called — is given equal footing. So that was my decision, through the advice of Susan Melrose, who herself isn’t a practitioner of the arts. What seems extraordinary is [that] there are certain figures who, on paper, would belong to the older tradition, who have opened the doors wide for us artists to get involved in research. It’s extraordinary, and it’s wonderful.

Susan said to me one time: “Put the music up front, remind the audience what it is you’re actually talking about.” And so I do a twenty-minute slot on a conference paper, and I’d start with five minutes of performance, [then] five minutes of talk, and that was that. What I found very, very interesting about that process was that it was quite uncomfortable. In the “. . .” between the two, there was a complete change of temporal experience. And I felt it myself. I’d go from talking, five minutes of very intense, highly structured academic speak about music practice — five minutes is a long time to bombard an audience with different concepts, philosophical and otherwise — [to] five minutes of piano performance… It’s nothing, really.

The performance breezes by, right?

That’s right. And then I’d stop playing the piano and I’d go back to talking, again, and there was a weird thing that happened in my brain, in my head, where I had to go back into that world. So in my PhD, I’m all about this resonance between the two — this hyphen between the two — but in my actual experience of presenting on it, or performing it, I felt the ellipses instead. Like an acclimatisation, [like] an audience getting used to longer performances.

[On] a complete aside, I lived in Mongolia for a year. I taught English, and taught jazz, and ran a jazz club — all sorts of stories to tell. I worked with folk singers and met shamans… -laughs- I got to Mongolia on the Trans-Siberian train, which took five days from Moscow. But it meant that by the time I got to Mongolia — which is much higher altitude — I didn’t have altitude sickness. Whereas any of the other teachers that went over there [did] — everyone else flew, and they were ill for a couple of days afterwards with altitude sickness. It feels the same thing to move from spoken word to performance. There’s a sudden acclimatisation that needs to happen, like walking out of a very air-conditioned building into blazing hot sunshine, and vice versa. So my experience of spoken word to music was a very direct experience of the difference between the two. In my PhD thesis, I found a way around that by having the reader listen at the same time as reading, sometimes — which is a completely new language, if you like. It’s a completely new way of presentation.

Usually, one takes precedence over the other, right? It’s novel to make somebody do both at the same time, actively so.

The main thing you get told with a PhD is “make an original contribution to knowledge”, so I thought, well, here’s my opportunity. I did explain — as of course you do — in the introduction that that is what should be done by the reader, to listen at certain points. The examiners liked it, they went for it; they both said that they’d found it difficult, but they embraced it as part of this original contribution to knowledge.

So how does all of that feed into ‘Ellipses’?

On the ‘Ellipses’ album, I didn’t go into the studio with that idea. The only thing I went into the studio with the idea of was to improvise everything. But the album was recorded on the exact same day that my PhD was officially awarded; [so] what happened was, my head was so full of PhD stuff.

I’d just started — and continue to do — a series of YouTube videos where I improvise talks about music. Those are intended to be far less intense versions; I like to think of it as an improvised performance, [that] also won’t alienate people that aren’t in love with heavy philosophical concepts. -laughs- But for ‘Ellipses’, I knew I wanted to speak as well as play, but I didn’t know how I was gonna do it. True to my form of what I’d learned through conferences, I started with piano performance — so the first track is a piano improvisation — but when I started talking, I didn’t know what I was gonna talk about. On the triple album, I don’t actually start mixing the two straight away; they are separate. But I found [that] at the moment I started mixing the two together in real-time — not something that I contrived for the thesis, [but rather] me in the studio talking at the same time as playing — I found that was the moment where I actually found that resonance I was seeking between music and philosophy. I’m not saying that music is the notes of the piano, and philosophy is just the words. There is philosophy in the notes of the piano, and there is music in the words. So I finally found that long sought for coming-together of those two things. It was really an important studio experience, and a very important album for me in that respect.

That duality is always fascinating. Sometimes it doesn’t feel like a duality at all.

At my [PhD] confirmation ceremony, the internal guy said [that] all these questions were completely away from what I was actually going for. One of the pieces I wrote for the PhD… I wanted something I could do between the two hands, and I wanted to give a sense of [a] multiverse — this multiverse of possibilities — which is from the philosophy of Deleuze, which was a major focus of my PhD. I called it ‘In the Garden of the Incompossible’. I wrote this score, which is essentially all the various possibilities of major or minor triads that include the note F sharp. That’s it. It’s just a grid, and when I perform the piece, I walk around the garden. I can do [them] in different ways — arpeggiated, various other articulations. The note F#… it doesn’t matter [whether] it’s an F#. I guess if you had really good ears, all you would hear on those seven improvisations is F#, all the way through. -laughs- But the one guy questioned it and said “why F sharp?” — or why triads, or whatever. The reason I chose triads is [that] I wanted to use what I felt were the basic building blocks of music — something I felt that everyone knows.

That’s the beauty of it, right? Sometimes you need to use simple elements to better communicate the complexity…

Exactly. And the merging of the two, between the hands, produce this idea [that] all of these things existed in the same multiverse, even though — if you were gonna analyse it in completely, very old-fashioned terms — there’s no way those two triads should be going together. And for me, that was the Garden of the Incompossible.

The incompossible is a notion from the philosopher Leibniz, in the late seventeenth/early eighteenth century, and he had this notion that God put together things that he called “compossible”, things that would work together. The universe where all the things worked together was the best of all possible universes. And things that didn’t work together, or didn’t resonate properly, didn’t harmonise, were “incompossible”; they couldn’t be put together. Now Gilles Deleuze came along in the early 1990s, and took Leibniz’ philosophy and made it his own. He believed — and I agree with this — that incompossibility is actually the ground for compossibility. And of course, here we are, in 2021, [and] I don’t think there are many research lectures you can go into and play a D major triad and a D minor triad at the same time, and somebody say that doesn’t work. -laughs-

Even the use of triads themselves, some people would call conventional. I recall having a composition lesson recently where that was the case.

That’s what it was for me. In fact, originally, the piece had a middle C — and I changed it to F# because it felt better under my fingers. That was it. But those kinds of things, when presented to, say, a music research audience… If you don’t include the philosophical context for it, all you’re presenting to them is “I had a bit of fun with some triads.” Whereas the philosophical angle, actually — to go back to Deleuze and Leibniz — there’s this idea of Adam in the Garden of Eden. It’s something I talk about on the ‘Ellipses’ album. In a nutshell, it’s this: is there a universe where Adam eats the apple, and another universe where Adam doesn’t eat the apple? And those universes are completely separate because of this one act?

I know it’s an allegorical Bible story, but it’s useful. So Deleuze comes along, and really helpfully says: well actually, I can imagine a multiverse (he doesn’t use that term, but I think it’s a better term) where Adam both eats and doesn’t eat the apple, and how can those things exist at the same time? And he boiled it down — not without a sense of humour — [to]: Adam is the first man, he has a wife, and he lived in a garden. And so if you take those three elements, and make them into a multiverse… -laughs- No matter what else happens to Adam, those three things are still there. It doesn’t matter if he eats the apple or not, after that; they still exist. So, for me, the F# was Adam.

So the F#, the triads, everything had to exist, as that was the foundation…

And then after that, it’s a matter of the listener’s personal taste; whether the chords work well together or not. It doesn’t necessarily matter, because they all exist in this Garden of the Incompossible — this beautiful multiverse where it’s all okay. If I’d expanded it beyond triads, it would have lost its impact.

Like a haiku.

Yes. -laughs- Isn’t that interesting.

Steve Tromans’ work can be found at:

Literary references:

Musical references:

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