Marc Hannaford is a well-known Australian pianist who has established himself in the New York jazz and improvised music scene since his arrival from Australia in 2013. He has performed and recorded with improvised music luminaries such as Tim Berne, Tom Rainey, Mark Helias, Tony Malaby, Jen Shyu, and Ellery Eskelin. His most recent release, Can You See With Two Sets of Eyes? was pronounced “advanced, contemporary, improvised, virtuosic music might sound like, a decade or more into the future” (The Weekend Australian).
Marc won the 2013 Music Council of Australia’s Freedman Fellowship, the 2013 Jazz “Bell” award for most original album (Sarcophile), and the 2013 Australian Performing Rights Association’s Art Award for best work (“Anda Two”). Other awards and nominations have come from the National Jazz Awards, The A.R.I.A. awards, The AIR awards, The Australia Council for the Arts, the Ian Potter Foundation, University of Melbourne, and the International Song Contest.
Marc current resides in New York. He has performed at lauded New York venues The Stone, The Jazz Gallery, Spectrum, Greenwich Music House, Cornelia Street Café, Barbès, and Ibeam, and in Australia under the auspices of The Wangaratta Festival of Jazz, The Stonnington Jazz Festival, Jazzgroove, The Melbourne Jazz Fringe Festival, The Melbourne Jazz Co-operative, The Make-It-Up Club, The Sydney Improvised Music Association. His collaborators have included Tony Malaby, Tom Rainey, Tim Berne, Scott Tinkler, Ingrid Laubrock, Anna Webber, Simon Barker, John Rodgers, Ken Edie, Satoshi Takeishi, Simon Jermyn, and Ben Gerstein.
Marc is a lecturer in music theory at Columbia University whose research focuses on improvisation, jazz, race, gender, disability, and experimentalism.
The Street talked to Marc Hannaford in New York City before his tour to Australia and performance with his trio at The Street Theatre.
WHAT ARE THE POSSIBILITIES OF THE PIANO FOR YOU AS AN INSTRUMENT?
The piano is both a percussion and orchestral instrument, and I try to approach it as a synthesis of both of these aspects. The hammers inside the instrument provide a uniquely rhythmic attack that affords the piano a notable rhythmic character. I try to remain very aware of rhythm in my music, and thinking about the piano as a set of pitched drums helps me attend to music’s temporal aspects in both my playing and composing.
Historically, both improvisers and composers have utilized the orchestral potential of the piano. It is one of the few instruments that can nimbly cover the entire orchestral register. This agility affords many possibilities for placing the piano within an ensemble. In a trio with bass and drums, such as the one that I will bring to Australia, the piano can sit within the ensemble texture in multifarious ways, which engenders a wide range of sonic profiles.
Our repertoire for this tour expresses many of these rhythmic and orchestral possibilities, which allows the ensemble to both encompass traditional instrumental arrangements and navigate new ones.
YOU HAVE BEEN DESCRIBED AS A PIANIST WHO HAS TAKEN FULL CONTROL OF THE MUSIC HISTORIES THAT INTEREST YOU. TELL US MORE ABOUT THESE HISTORIES AND THE NEW SOUNDS AND COMPOSITIONS YOU CREATE FROM THEM.
I listen to a wide spectrum of music with the attitude that anything might resonate with my creative practice. There are many Australian artists who have influenced the way I play, think about, and compose music, including Miroslav Bukovsky, Scott Tinkler, Allan Browne, Paul McNamara, Matt McMahon, Bernie McGann, Mark Simmonds, David Tolley, John Rodgers, Ken Edie, Eugene Ball, Andrea Keller, Phil Treloar, Simon Barker, and Jenny Barnes, among others. My approach to music has been profoundly shaped through studying recordings, speaking with, and/or playing with these artists. Sometimes that influence is direct—I might take some very concrete ideas from a musician and/or their music and deliberately apply them to my own—but other times the influence functions more like osmosis; that is, reflecting on the variety of musical approaches in this community provides aesthetic and conceptual shifts in my own practice.
I have studied and continue to study the history of jazz and jazz piano. Improvising pianists such as Jelly Roll Morton, James P. Johnson, Duke Ellington, Art Tatum, Earl Hines, Mary Lou Williams, Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, Herbie Nichols, Andrew Hill, Elmo Hope, The Legendary Hasaan, Lennie Tristano, McCoy Tyner, Geri Allen, Don Pullen, Muhal Richard Abrams, Amina Claudine Myers, Cecil Taylor, Paul Bley, Keith Jarrett, Jason Moran, Craig Taborn, Vijay Iyer, Cory Smythe, Kris Davis, and Matt Mitchell have all prompted me to rethink my approach to the piano. Other improvisers, such as Sonny Rollins, Anthony Braxton, Henry Threadgill, Anna Webber, Ingrid Laubrock, Ellery Eskelin, Tom Rainey, Tony Malaby, Ben Gerstein, Evan Parker, Pauline Oliveros, and George Lewis, just to name a few, have also directly and indirectly influenced my thinking and playing in ways that are difficult to articulate in words. The music of non-improvising composers such as Elliott Carter, Thomas Adès, Ruth Crawford Seeger, Anton Webern, Morton Feldman, and Iannis Xenakis have pushed my faculties as both a pianist and composer—finding ways to confront some of these composers’ ideas in an improvised setting constitutes one of the primary drives in my work.
Influence is a difficult concept to locate, partially because it is everywhere all of the time, but also because it can take so many different forms. Furthermore, the influence of the above artists arises through various mediums—recordings, personal conversation, playing together, etc. My approach has always been to combine concentrated and directed practice and research with critical reflection. I often ask myself how I might incorporate particular sounds, concepts, or structures in my work while also remaining true to who I am. This approach means that particular influences may not necessarily be aurally discernible—although they may. Rather, I hope that my music expresses a spirit of inquisitive exploration and pays tribute to others work through my development of an individualized creative approach, rather than mimicry.
YOU STUDIED AT ANU BEFORE MOVING TO MELBOURNE AND NOW NEW YORK. WHAT WAS THE IMPACT OF STUDYING AT THE CANBERRA SCHOOL OF MUSIC ON YOUR MUSIC?
Studying in the jazz department of the ANU School of Music laid the foundation of who I have become as an artist. I am so grateful for the opportunity to study with such great teachers and fellow students. I worked very hard while I was a student and absorbed as much as I could from both faculty and visiting artists. Mike Price, Mike Nelson, Paul McNamara, Eric Ajaye, Col Hoorweg, Dave Panichi, John Mackey, and Miroslav Bukosvky were incredibly generous with their time and expertise, and supported me as I gradually progressed from an amateur into a professional musician.
I often recall lessons that I learnt during my four years at ANU as a way of keeping me focused and centred. The persistence of these lessons is testament to the great course and teachers that I experienced during this period.
THIS IS THE FIRST TIME YOU HAVE BROUGHT YOUR NEW YORK-BASED TRIO TO AUSTRALIA. WHAT CAN WE EXPECT?
Audiences can expect to hear an empathetic group negotiate a set of unique compositions that allow for both highly synchronized rhythmic and harmonic coordination and flexible group improvisation. Each of my groups represents a new perspective on my creative practice, and this trio represents the latest iteration of my efforts to express my artistic personality with honesty, integrity, and tenacity.
An artefact of working single-mindedly on my idiosyncratic musical universe is that the music we will play is clearly an expression of both my personal compositional interests and our collective personalities as improvisers. Thus although the audience will recognize familiar concepts and musical structures, they will also hear both the individual musical universes that my compositions enact and the trio’s empathetic negotiation of them through improvisation.
WHAT DOORS HAVE OPENED UP FOR YOU BY LIVING IN NEW YORK?
One of the great things about living in New York is that you are surrounded by a cast of musicians and artists who are dedicated to constantly developing their art. The energy in this city is very different to other places in the world: things move very quickly and intensely. Channelling this energy can be exhausting—sometimes I wish the city would let up and let me catch my breath—but it also imbues a sense of urgency to my practice and pushes me to work harder and be truer to my artistic vision.
I have also been lucky enough to meet, play with, and become friends with many inspirational musicians. These collaborations sometimes lead to other opportunities, such as performances, tours, and recordings, and I have been fortunate to have a number of chances to perform at prominent venues and with musicians I admire. New York has also afforded me with opportunities to hear musicians perform live that I were not able to hear in Australia. I think that it is crucial to hear and see your idols in a live setting, because it provides a complementary perspective on their work that is largely unavailable through recording. In exceptional circumstances I have been able to meet and talk with musicians and artists whose work profoundly affects me. My conversations with Muhal Richard Abrams, Roscoe Mitchell, Evan Parker, George Lewis, and Amina Claudine Myers, for example, were important and life-changing events.
PLEASE SHARE YOUR PERSPECTIVE ON THE AUSTRALIAN MUSIC/JAZZ SCENE.
I am often inspired by the work and dedication of many Australian musicians, both past and present. Australia has an incredible rich history of jazz/improvised music/experimental practice, and I am consistently amazed and encouraged by the diversity of practices and perspectives in the country. I occasionally wish that we had a more robust infrastructure around our scene, similar to the ones in New York and parts of Europe, but I also recognize that there are particular advantages to not having a large industry connected to our work. I would also like to stress that documenting our scene, through recordings, books, film, photos etc., is crucial, and I hope that we can mobilize to create and preserve a central repository of our music for future generations.
As a dedicated pedagogue, I also happily note that multiple educational institutions are developing and diversifying their programs to address the increasingly fluid boundaries between various contemporary experimental musical practices. I am excited to discover the new work that it comes out of these programs and others like them.
DO YOU HAVE ADVICE FOR ASPIRING MUSICIANS?
Master your chosen medium of expression, research the rich histories of music and art making that resonate with you, bravely follow your muse, surround yourself with empathetic and inspiring musicians and artists, and do not be afraid to push the boundaries of what you think is possible.
WHAT’S INSPIRING YOU CREATIVELY AT THE MOMENT?
I am currently exploring two primary courses of creative practice. First, I have been excavating Elliott Carter’s Night Fantasies, a piece for solo piano, in order to expand my orchestral and textural command of the piano. I have inaugurated a series of short compositions for improvisers that are based on excerpts of this extraordinarily rich piece. My trio will perform some of these pieces during our Australian tour.
Second, lately I have been fascinated with the concepts of indeterminacy, improvisation, interaction, and agency. I am exploring relations between them using multiple synthesizers, in combination with both my own playing on acoustic piano and other improvisers. Improvisers are adept at incorporating randomness into an ongoing improvisation, such that the synthesizers occasionally sound as if they are approaching sentience. This liminal space between agency and indeterminacy represents an exciting space for me to examine my understanding of improvisation. Philosopher Eric Lewis’s recent book, Intents and Purposes: Philosophy and the Aesthetics of Improvisation, resonates with some of my thinking on this topic.
WHAT MUSIC ARE YOU LISTENING TO CURRENTLY?
Lately I have been listening to music by Slauson Malone, Matt Mitchell, Tyshawn Sorey, Ingrid Laubrock, Vince Staples, Georgia Anne Muldrow, Psalm One, Brett Naucke, Moor Mother, and Keith Fullerton Whitman.