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On being at the piano

Posted on 12 April 2020

On being at the piano

In conversation with

Melbourne composer Luke Howard 

By Kathryn Carter

You can see a small space, sometimes, between a pianist’s fingers and their piano keys. An aperture that expands and contracts in synchronistic tandem with the notes that they are playing. The small space looks empty, but it is this void that holds the heart of what it is that must be heard, keeping the artist’s secret safe awhile before dispersing it into the world. 

‘After silence,’ English writer and philosopher Aldous Huxley once wrote, ‘that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.’ One man who appreciates this sentiment is Luke Howard, a pianist and composer who has been making music in his hometown of Melbourne for close to forty years. As intoxicating as they are implicit, Howard’s compositions hypnotise those they touch with a lucidity that has become synonymous with his style, weaving sounds that tell stories in purposefully-mutable narrations.

When it comes to paving one’s own path in the creative arts, a clear direction is rarely readily-defined. Even so, despite the undeniable challenges of staking a claim in the music business, Luke Howard continues to prove that it can be done in Melbourne if your dreams are anchored in authenticity and determination. 

KATHRYN CARTER: When you were a boy, who did you dream of becoming as an adult?

LUKE HOWARD: Amusingly, I dreamt of being a composer that lived in Europe. I have a mental picture of a nice big estate in the middle of, what was it, the French countryside? Clearly, I was oblivious to the economic realities of this occupation. I didn’t revisit the idea of becoming a composer—as opposed to a performer—until only the past few years, and I won’t be revisiting the idea of living in Europe for some time, given the current situation.

KC: Perhaps a dream to be filed away for the more distant future, yes. What is your earliest memory of hearing music?

LH: That’s a good question. I remember some children’s songs, and making up some pieces on the keyboard when I was probably 4 or 5-years-old,  but I don’t have a distinct first “musical memory”. There were some records I liked as a kid—Kate Bush, Elton John, Dave Brubeck—but those came a bit later. It would be fascinating to know what the very first piece of music we heard was…

KC: It’s not hard to imagine you sitting at the keyboard as a child;  like there was a part of you that may have always known where your journey was headed. To the point of being at the keyboard, you’ve said in the past that you’re quite particular about the instruments you will play on. Can you tell me what it feels like to sit down at your piano? Does it feel as though, in a way, you’ve returned home?

LH: It is important to perform and record on quality instruments that are in tune; instruments that have a good sound, which you don’t always find at venues. Beyond that, I’m not too fussy and I don’t think I have a particularly strong connection [even] with my own piano, in part because I presently spend more time in front of the computer. The idea of returning home is, for me, more associated with being at the piano itself; I do love that these 88 keys have remained a constant in my life for over almost 40 years. They give back exactly as much as you put in.

KC: As artists, we organically foster intimate connections with our tools over time, but often the art that is created by those connections extends out into the world to touch others. When you work, do you make music with the listener in mind, or is it more about losing yourself in the essence of the emotion or idea that first inspires the composition?

LH: I do hope that my music has an emotional connection with the audience, but I don’t write specifically with the listener in mind; I think that would just lead to second-guessing oneself. I think the second part of your question sums up the process well.

Luke Howard, courtesy of the artist

KC: German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once said: “Without music, life would be a mistake.” What do you think it is about music that makes it such an essential part of our lives?

LH: I think it is the combination of it being able to affect us emotionally, whilst [also] being sufficiently abstract, such that how it affects us is not prescribed. In the moment you are listening to it, it is whatever you want it to be.

KC: Speaking of the abstract, metamorphic nature of music, your compositions have been described as absolutely heavenly and categorised as being a part of their own ambient masterclass. How would you yourself describe your sound?

LH: I’d like to attend an ambient masterclass – probably everyone would fall asleep! I aim for an essential simplicity, without sentimentality.

KC: Musicians and composers are often asked about other musicians and composers. But how do other creative disciplines—visual arts, literature, architecture etc—play a part in your creative process, if at all?

LH: I don’t draw a direct relationship between other art forms and music, although there are formal elements in visual art and design—such as the paintings of Rothko, or the graphic designs of Josef Müller-Brockmann and Max Bill—that I do relate to. It’s more osmosis than process.

KC: On the point of osmosis. As your career has progressed, and you yourself have grown as an individual, how has your music changed?

LH: I think I have become better at editing out the noise and focusing on the essential simplicity I referred to earlier. Sometimes I can’t help myself and play too many notes, though.

KC: Over the course of your career, have you implemented any daily practices that have helped to strengthen the confidence you have in your creativity?

LH: The only daily practice I’ve implemented is attempting to focus on music at the beginning, middle and end of each day, and not beating myself up too much if I procrastinate and do something else instead.

KC: Artistic pursuits often require you to give a great deal of yourself to the work. How do you remain creatively charged when you’re working on a project?

LH: It can be difficult. I like to work quickly so that the charge doesn’t dissipate before the process is finished. Also, I find that keeping the outcome in mind—particularly if it includes an interesting physical or performance manifestation—is a good motivator. Design the album cover first, and then write the music, for example—I’ve never actually done that, though! Having said that, some things just take time. Most projects take at least one year from first conception to release.

Luke Howard, courtesy of the artist

KC: Do you ever experience complete creative blocks? How do you pull yourself out of these kinds of situations?

LH: I just acknowledge that they exist, go for a walk, and set limitations on myself, and/or an aggressive deadline. Or, have someone else set them for me. 

KC: That open acknowledgement and honesty with self is so important, I feel. Your third solo album, Open Heart Story, explored fragmented relationships, childhood memories and the passage of time. To what degree do you feel your own history continues to inform your work—both consciously and subconsciously?

LH: In the case of Open Heart Story, it did so in a very intimate and exposed fashion. With other projects, such as The Sand That Ate The Sea—which was informed by the film it was scored for—there were external drivers. I suspect the biggest input into my music is most likely the sum total of all the music I have ever listened to. I can, for example, occasionally pick out a motif as originating from, say, a Keith Jarrett album I listened to 20 years ago.

KC: And do you ever see—or hear—yourself in your music?

LH: I do, in the sense that there’s a distinct melodic identity which I don’t seem able to suppress, try as I might. I recently transcribed a bunch of voice memo ideas, and I thought: well they’re awfully similar to one another. Does this show a lack of ideas, or an individual voice? Sometimes it can be hard to tell.

KC: I think fine, blurred lines such as these are often destined to remain obscure. Can you tell us about what you’re currently working on?

LH: I am in the stages of planning a new album. But mostly I am reading the news and taking copies of my new sheet music book—cue plug—to the post office.

KC: How would you describe the journey of creating an album, or composition, from the first iota of inspiration to its completion?

LH: Hard work interspersed with naps! There are a few distinct phases, the most amorphous is the initial gathering of ideas—which, in the absence of a strict deadline, could conceivably take forever. Then comes the arranging and recording, which are creative in a different way—becoming more akin to problem-solving than pure creativity. So these are somewhat easier to do once the ball is rolling. That’s a general rule, it just depends on the nature and instrumentation of the record. Some of my favourite releases—such as Open Road and Ten Sails—were, by contrast, recorded live in one or two days. There’s a real spontaneity and lack of expectation in those records, which I love.

KC: American novelist Jack Kerouac once mused: “The only truth is music.” Do you feel that your compositions often convey emotions that you could not possibly express in actions or words?

LH: Absolutely. There are some feelings which are difficult to express: particularly in this current world where my friends overseas feel more distant than ever, there’s suddenly a strong sense of sehnsucht (nostalgia), but also a feeling of gratitude for everything I’ve experienced. Lately, I’ve been thinking a bit about how the act of remembering creates a new memory. Things more immediately personal can always be expressed in words, but they can also be expressed in music with less vulnerability, too.

KC: You have performed and travelled all over the world. What does Melbourne offer creatives that you’re yet to come across in any other city?

LH: It’s home, my friends and family are here, and there are many amazing musicians to collaborate with. Apart from that [though], it’s located in the wrong part of the world completely!

KC: What advice would you give to someone who may feel nervous about pursuing an artistic discipline, given how hard it sometimes feels to succeed in the creative industries?

LH: I would say: to separate the arts industry from the art itself. You don’t need to have a career in it to make good art. But you do need to dedicate time to it, irrespective of success. Or, at least, to be able to define success in a way that doesn’t require it to be popular.

KC: On the point of advice, German composer and pianist Ludwig van Beethoven once recommended: “Don’t only practice your art, but force your way into its secrets, for it and knowledge can raise men to the divine.” Do you feel as though there always needs to be a certain element of tension and struggle in any creative process, a certain amount of wrestling with abstract ideas until they become something that can be shared, something more fully-formed?

LH: Yes.

KC: Succinct, I like it. And what does it take to create the music of tomorrow?

LH: Being informed about the music of the past, combined with a curiosity and desire to find something new.

KC: What will they play at your funeral?

LH: Perhaps something I haven’t written yet? Otherwise I have plenty of appropriate pieces, I feel. Or, you know, there’s always Adagio for Strings.

To the explore more of the work of Luke Howard, visit www.lukehoward.com/

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