“For us, that’s really exciting as well; thinking about how you communicate with each other in a room. How you make a piece that’s structural, meaningful and has compositional depth, but also has a sense of breadth and spontaneity to it.”Pete Harden
The Hague-based duo Avenue Azure is a project spearheaded by guitarist Pete Harden and pianist Saskia Lankhoorn. For over a decade and a half, the two have been performing, recording and touring together as part of Ensemble Klang – one of the leading contemporary music ensembles in The Netherlands – with the recent formation of Avenue Azure stemming from a “desire to seek out new ways of working”.
Culminating after several years of performing and writing music together, the duo have recently released their self-titled debut album on Ensemble Klang records. Clocking in at under 45 minutes, the recorded is filled with six atmospheric tracks that sit between song and atmospheric ambient pieces, self-penned as “almost-songs”.
In the lead up to the release of their debut album, Patrick Ellis sat down with Saskia Lankhoorn and Pete Harden to discuss their formation, inspirations, meanings behind the record, and their approach to organic collaboration, moments of transition, stillness, whispering intensity, and more…
Patrick/PRXLUDES: How did Avenue Azure form? I assume that it came out of Ensemble Klang?
Saskia Lankhoorn: Yeah — we were playing together in the group already for 15 years, and we were also working on Pete’s music. Pete always works in a very open way with musicians and I think when we worked on [his] music, we felt connected in that sense of being open to creating things together, and then I just wanted to open up as a classical musician to just say, “let’s just try some things out.” There’s always a score in front of my face, and “let’s see what happens if we just try to explore this musical connection that we are having” — that’s the start.
Pete Harden: We had played some duo pieces that people had written for [Ensemble] Klang. There was a piece by Gijs van der Heijden that was selected for Gaudeamus and we came and played that, and we enjoyed the working process. We had quite strong shared tastes and aesthetics. And also, for me as a composer, [I thought]: wouldn’t it be great not to prepare anything before we sit in a room together with instruments? So instead of trying to form this thing in your head, or try to write it all down — or think about the why’s and the how’s and the reasons for everything being — just saying, “why don’t we free it up, wouldn’t it be great to have the starting point as the musicians and the instruments in the room?”
Saskia: As a pianist you always get music from other people, but I feel that there is music to be played that I haven’t heard yet, so I wanted to create that myself. Feeling that there is more music in the piano that I would like to explore myself.
Pete: I hadn’t thought about this for a long time, but some of the tracks on the album are based on material that came out of those very first sessions — those first few moments where we went “ok, let’s throw this stuff into the room and see what happens” — they were embryonic versions of the tracks that you hear on the album now.
Patrick: I personally first had heard of Avenue Azure on the billing for a Post-Paradise Concert years back. I was going to ask what were the early performances like? I assume that this material was embryonic at that time as well?
Saskia: Yeah, we really grew in that. We got lucky [and] befriended programmers from halls that said, “Come and play, just come and play.” It’s nice to also be able to just do that — not having to organise a gig, where everything’s ready and everything is set, and everything is thought out before. It’s a loose and nice way of just trying things out. We got that trust from people around us, and that made us also experience how it is to perform this live, and we have been growing in that as well; growing in how the performance should be, how it should look.
Pete: Yeah, totally. Part of the development of the material was having it in the room and thinking about the methodology for creating it, letting these sounds breathe their own life, and then taking it in front of an audience and just going “what happens when we start sharing it?” For example, in Birmingham in the Post-Paradise [series], we had this beautiful upright piano with this wonderful character and quality, but it’s equally special in an enormous hall with a concert grand, where the silence in the hall is sacred too. They were all learning experiences, and they all shaped the way the music ended up on the album.
There’s actually only one track on the album that had never been performed live: ‘Cyane’s Message’, a track that we made for a project of Bernd Herzogenrath who’s a wonderful German writer, organiser, maker and professor. During the lockdown, he created a project called (c)ovid’s Metamorphoses, loosely based around the idea of the “broken telephone game”, in which new artworks were created and passed from one artist to the next on a daily basis. So a writer would write a text one day, and they would pass it onto a video maker the next day, who would get that text and make a video, and send the video to the next person.
Saskia: We had 48 hours [to make it], so we thought and spoke about it, and from that we made the track.
Pete: We were in a week that included Lawrence English, Reinaldo Laddaga, and Lane Shi Otayonii. We received a text and a photograph, and created ‘Cyane’s Message’ on the basis of that. We passed it to the Chinese filmmaker Xu Xin, who used it as part of a soundtrack for a film, which had some strikingly similar imagery to photos and films we’d made ourselves on the day of creation. In total there were 133 artists [who] participated in the whole project, writers, photographers, film-makers, composers, and we were just one little link in the chain.
Saskia: It also depicts that we work very freely, so if those things happen, then we can just jump on that wave and see what we can make. It also helps us to explore what we actually are and how we work, so we’re very open in that sense and anything can happen.
Pete: The pieces are built up. There are no scores, and we both have our own notation systems, but they don’t necessarily correspond with each other. There’s no one score – but you [Saskia] have your notes with how you navigate the piece, and I have my notes for how I navigate those pieces.
Saskia: It’s a bit theatrical, in that sense. We remember what it is for ourselves, but it’s always quite the same. So it’s not that it’s improvised — everything has its place — but there’s an interrelation between the different layers that results in some mobility and freedom when we play.
Patrick: On your website, you describe the album as being full of “almost-songs” and I got that from listening to the whole record. The vocals are very abstracted, and there’s a lot of timbral detail going for both the piano and the guitars. When you started devising these tracks, did you have any reference points that you were bouncing off, or was it just the act of working together to create something?
Saskia: For me, yes — my reference point is my own fantasy in my own mind, and the sound that you make.
Pete: It’s a good question, I never thought about it. There’s no reference actually, apart from the music that we’ve maybe both made and the music that sits in our hands. So the amazing classical repertoire that sits in your [Saskia’s] fingers, and some of the guitar chords from old pop songs that reside somewhere in my own muscle memory. But apart from that, no there’s no reference. And it means at some point, we make the album, we toss it out there, and people say, “Oh, it’s sort of like ghostly folk music” — we never thought about that. Maybe ambient, maybe dream pop, maybe jazzy sometimes — all of these references, these genres, have nothing to do with it. The music resides in its own cloud.
Saskia: I’m not really interested in the traditional “virtuosic” way of playing piano in this duo. I wanted to explore just the sound of the piano itself; maybe just long notes for a very long time, or maybe hardly any piano. But when you sit behind your piano, you could play a note and listen to it for a long time — and I want to communicate that in our music. And in that sense, it’s very meditative music, really still listening.
Patrick: You talked about doing multiple shows where it was very open ended and free, where the curators were receptive to you trying things. Going from those early stages of performing these sketches to the final record, what was the in between process? Did you demo things? Did you refine down certain parameters or frameworks before going into the studio?
Pete: It got refined in the process of recording. Most of the tracks were recorded on multiple occasions in multiple spaces, and each time it just took another little turn, another little refinement. Then a lot of work was done by playing with the production, chopping up some things, adding a track here or there, or sometimes pulling out layers where we thought it was too much. So there was a lot done in the production process which was a lot of fun as well, and that was done over a long space of time.
Saskia: And we incorporated those production processes in our live performances, so that [the tracks] keep on growing with how we perform it.
Pete: The fun part is we’ll take those pieces back onto the concert stage. We did a little concert a couple of weeks ago, we [had] the album launch at the end of March, we’ve done some things in Amsterdam and Maastricht in April, and I think now that we’ve got that refined sense of structure, we are going to start adding visual elements to that was well.
We found this amazing photographer in Maastricht — Satellite June — who works in analogue format, with these beautiful old cameras, and we went down for an afternoon to take some photos in this dappled sunlight. We associate the album with where we live on the North Sea coast, and every evening from about now — where the sun is starting to get lower — and that dusky sunset quality where the light changes so rapidly between four in the afternoon and ten o’clock at night. And you have the sun setting over the ocean and at the end of the horizon; you don’t know whether it’s the ocean or the sky, where you have the greyness of the cloud dappling with the foggy, muddy waters of the North Sea. We also associated that quality of nature and landscape and light with the music we made.
And what was great going down to Maastricht, sitting between all of these countries — between Belgium, Germany and The Netherlands — [and] having this dappled sunlight imprinting a totally different idea of light, colour and shade onto the music. That’s now shaping some of the visual elements for the concert.
Patrick: Again, in terms of the visuals – on the record cover, it’s got the two of you going up and down a staircase, with a side panel that’s abstracted and green. Is there something behind that?
Pete: They’re all analogue photos that Satellite June took. A lot of it is looking at us through some slightly dusty panes of glass — like in a greenhouse, or glass that’s got a crack running through it — and then with the sunlight dappling through the leaves.
Saskia: And the staircase image of us crossing paths… You cross things all the time that can be inspiring, but you also move on — and I think we tried to get that moment where we just looked at each other and then moved on. This fraction of a moment where you meet someone on a staircase could be an inspiration for a piece or one note in the whole piece. So the picture could be explained like that. I’m wearing a concert dress, but I’m in nature, and Pete’s wearing his concert outfit; but we’re in a place that’s been abandoned somehow.
Pete: The music is definitely about flow. One of the tracks has river in the title, [there’s] reference to nature in the title, references to sunset, synonyms for the sunset. It’s about this moment of transition where you’re facing each other, where you’re still going in the same direction, but you’re facing entirely new directions. It was quite spontaneous, but it had meaning when you looked back at it.
And the title as well — [of both] the group and the album — is also just about this sense of travel, motion, and breath. For some reason, I have these French boulevards in my mind, as an avenue with trees and people playing Pétanque on a hot summer evening. There’s a sense of motion and place.
Patrick: In terms of the tones and production choices, there’s a lot of clean and reverberant guitars with some tremolo arm going on, and also piano-wise there is a lot of prepared piano and processing as well. Were those all decisions informed by those live performances, and was it a reaction or response to some of the more confrontational repertoire that you play in Ensemble Klang?
Saskia: For me, I work very visually, so if I think of an image that I would like to be sounding, then the instrument is the piano, either [through] playing or processing. It’s all based on images and feeling, it’s not in a reaction to something or in a reaction to loud music or fast music. It’s just a thing we make, and this album is about that. The next album could be about something else; [it] could have a lot of rhythm, could have something completely different, it’s just trying to get into this state with music.
Pete: Yeah, there was a rule for the tracks that we assembled onto this album, and that was no rhythm. You [Saskia] were very strict about it. When I was playing a steady rhythm you would be like, “No rhythm!” I think that’s an important element of unification.
It’s interesting what you say about it being a contrast to the Klang repertoire. What I think of for this duo and album as well, it takes the quality of amplification — that we do use for Ensemble Klang a lot — but then the intensity doesn’t come from a bold impact, but a sonic caress. It’s quite loud and all-consuming, but you’re whispering almost, and the guitars are just caressed with the flesh of the thumb — played very softly but then warmed up.
Saskia: Like you’re looking very closely at something and then it just becomes very big. Though we’re both playing in Ensemble Klang, it does show the versatility that is present within the ensemble. If you look closely at what the ensemble has done in recent years with our repertoire, [it has become] very very broad with what we do and sound as a group. Being on the label of Ensemble Klang records as a sub-group does make sense if you listen to all the other albums.
Pete: It’s also another step for the label as well, because it’s the first time that we’re putting something out by any other group. The two of us are embedded within Ensemble Klang, but this is quite a different tangent — still this falls into the same family. We’ve got a few other releases planned in the coming months as well, which are other groups, but also belong to the same family. So it’s a really exciting step for us and something that everybody is enthusiastic about. It means that we can also expand the artwork that we’ve had: all those profile albums of composers, like Ivan Vukosavljević’s The Burning, fit into that same visual identity, and now we’re throwing something else in which is totally different, but still part of the same aesthetic in many ways.
Saskia: It shows that the ensemble is always constantly renewing itself, seeing how we can explore new worlds, new ideas, new people. It’s not about being fixed somewhere in time, it’s about constantly developing. And then also, [the] group stays so fresh and open to new things. It shows the horizon that the group has.
Patrick: Could you please tell me about each of the tracks on the album?
Pete: Fortunately we have the CD in front of us! The first one ‘Avenue Pasteur’…
Saskia: That’s like a real avenue, those piano lines — -ping- — that point in the distance to where you’re going, a long road that’s ahead of us.
Pete: A lot of the tracks start in a very playful way, just having material under our fingers and doing stuff. ‘Avenue Pasteur’ started with me playing with screwdrivers on the guitar, and I got very upset, because I had these rusty screwdrivers and then if you moved the screwdriver under the strings then you would have this wonderful -whirl sound-. I was absolutely delighted with this discovery. I think actually when we flew to Birmingham I lost the two screwdrivers at airport security, because you couldn’t take them in hand luggage, which was stupid. [I thought] “Ok, well I’ll find some others, they’ll be fine” — and I’ve never found screwdrivers that do as well as those ones that I wrote the piece with.
Saskia: So this is an ode to a screwdriver basically…
Pete: So there’s these screwdrivers, and these textures that run, but it has this weird, just like a guitar slide. And you [Saskia] came with these beautiful piano arpeggios which spanned the full breadth of the piano range.
Saskia: Yeah, and ‘Early Black’, there I sing a few words about dusk in different situations, could be personal, could be in life, could be between people. I suddenly have to think about this painter, Giorgio de Chirico, where you have big shadows of people, and you see the shadow already and you know the shadows maybe will become real.
Pete: ‘Early Black’ is a track that took quite a long journey. It started as a short two minute thing with some guitar chords and then a voice over it — of all the “almost-songs” it’s the closest to a song. The guitar chords had this weird loopy pattern, but they were always changing and always moving, and it had this very simple form. The second half of the track came later, and we shortened it, tightened it up to 6 minutes 20 on the album, when we do it live it’s closer to 10 minutes. It has a bit more breath and space in it.
Saskia: And ‘Cyane’s Message’ is the piece written for the Bernd Herzogenrath’s project, and it’s about being above the level of the water and sinking slowly – it just goes down a semitone within 7/8 minutes.
Pete: You [Saskia] came with the plan. We were cycling to the studio that morning; we knew we only had a day, and on the bike you said, “It’s going to be like this, we’re going to do this and this.” We have a little Korg mono-synth, which is a very simple analogue synth. We have a load of little toys that lie around, like a drum machine on an iPad in ‘Avenue Pasteur’, and an analogue synth for noise making. So it was 8 minutes, record this journey across the analogue synth of moving down a semitone, and then you recorded another layer on top — the strung piano chords — and the guitar has these butterfly clips. And if you have a butterfly clip on some harmonic nodes or near the pickups, then you can just ping the butterfly clip and you hear this amazing gong sound. It’s a gift to guitar players.
Saskia: And the sound of the strung piano, it’s like you can see through very shallow water, you can see the seaweed. And ‘River Chorale’…
Pete: It’s the only one without electronics, it’s just guitar and piano.
Saskia: We both came with separate patterns of chords and we started playing them together.
Pete: Yeah, it’s just a phasing chorale, you have 5 chords and I have 7 chords, and they just move across each other, and we’re both on a loop, and then at some point we go “ok, we’ve got to our 35 [chords]”, and move on.
Saskia: But sometimes I forget one chord of the loop, or we make mistakes… so then the piece is not that strict, sometimes things happen as well. I tried to end it by emulating grey noise, but on the piano.
And then ‘Saguaro Blossom’, I think that I remember that I wanted to play more high notes. I started to just play this little arpeggio and then I think you [Pete] started to do something, and I wanted to sing a bit more, [and did] something about a flower in a desert. And that’s where the title came from.
Pete: It starts with a little piano tremolo chord, and that’s been recorded on a couple of different pianos — one of them hasn’t been tuned for a while, another has — so you get this quarter-tonal waviness.
Saskia: I wanted to make this giant wave sound [from processed recorded piano].
Pete: All of that track basically comes out of the piano, and the guitar is doing these eBow long held dyads, and there’s a lot of Digitech Whammy pedal going on, which is sort of…
Saskia: Cool stuff!
Pete: It’s very nostalgic. I relate that sound to 1990s Radiohead; so many bands I listened to when I was young were using the Digitech Whammy pedal. What’s fun about it is you get these settings where [you] can get your normal sound and add a second or third above what you’re playing, which is basically designed for single notes. But then it’s nice to play whole chords, so at the end of it you get this little chorale, which is just guitar chords that are stacked on top of each other with the whammy pedal.
And the last one is ‘Dark Tenderness’ — it’s definitely another “almost song”. It’s maybe my favourite track on the album, it finishes too soon and I like pieces that finish too soon. It starts and it hangs, then it whittles away.
Patrick: Final thing before you go: after the album is out, you’ve got a few more shows coming up. You’re doing a residency in Tilburg later this year — please tell me more about that?
Saskia: The start of the new album!
Pete: Yeah, at Het Concreet. That’s an analogue studio, run by a couple of amazing musicians, and over the course of an 18 month period, they have invited musicians, composers, makers and thinkers to come and work with them for three days in the studio, without coming with anything. We will finish with a little concert and just present for however many people can squeeze in and hopefully live stream it as well.
Saskia: Meeting new people and musicians, [it] will give us plenty of new ideas for the next thing that we are going to make.
Pete: That line of interest and studio work is not nostalgia nor regressive, it’s about embracing [the] sense of freedom that affords you. For us, that’s really exciting as well; thinking about how you communicate with each other in a room. How you make a piece that’s structural, meaningful and has compositional depth, but also has a sense of breadth and spontaneity to it.
Saskia: Or maybe not depth, but then you can use certain bits to create something with depth later on, that can be gems of things that we use. When we start creating, it’s a different thing to composing where you really fix it.
Avenue Azure’s debut album is available for streaming and download at:
Check out more by Avenue Azure, Ensemble Klang, and Saskia and Pete: