ELTON DEAN/MARK HEWINS "Bar Torque"
KEN EGBERT, TONE CLUSTER
"We are all one of many"
(now, er, how many was that again?)
One of Lou Reed's favorite session musicians. Member of The Polite Force,
Gong, Mashu, Research, Soft Heap, New Indus, Going Going, and a solo
firebrand as well on guitars and MIDI. Add to that his stature as Musart's
head wag and Canterbury historian! MARK HEWINS came a bit late to the party,
first drawing the Canterbury trainspotters' attention in the mid-1970s with
the Polite Force, but since then has made up for lost time and joined just
about every band that moved. Irrepressibly cheerful, witty to a fault and no
one's fool when it comes to musicians' and composers' rights, Mark met with
our Third Stage Guild Navigator in Mark's hotel in midtown Manhattan in
March 2001 to talk over recent events, the odd graffiti on the Musart web
site, and lots more.
TONE CLUSTERS: First off, I'd like to ask about a very interesting piece
available for MP3 download on your Musart web site (www.musart.co.uk) which
is called "Churching Nines."
MARK HEWINS: Yes, good choice. In "Churching Nines" I wanted to use a bit of
campanology and integrate it with 'systems music' in order to build upon the
tones of church bells. The piece you hear on the web site is actually a very
short excerpt, scored for six violins, but it can actually be played for as
long or as short a period as you like.
TC: In speaking of 'campanology', are we referring to the Italian word
'campanile', which I think is a name of a free-standing bell tower?
MH: Yes, and campanology is the study of church bells, of course. What I did
was to build upon those tones within a set framework; there's a series of 9
notes there. I'd say there's also a certain Brian Eno influence; he was very
important to me early on.
TC: Listening to the snippet you can hear the bells, and there's also some
of the elasticity there that we can find in Pachelbel's famous 'Canon'. And
when you talk about 'systems music', to what are you referring? Not too
familiar with the term.
MH: Reich, for example, Steve Reich. Some call it 'minimalism', but to me it
suggests other things.
TC: Oh, and the possibility that "Churching Nines" can be elongated or
truncated as you like calls up some similarities to Terry Riley's "In C".
MH: That's a good comparison. You can as you know also shorten or lengthen
the Riley composition, wich is one of the qualities of systems music that I
admire; the elasticity. Interesting, talking about "Churching Nines", as it
isn't altogether part of my main thrust of work and as a result isn't the
piece I thought you'd be asking about.
TC: Hey, not for knowing that Jim Morrison once called the interview a new
art form! Considering how the name of the compositon "Churching Nines" calls
up a whiff of British English and all those standard assumptions of how the
English rock musicians do thing a bit differently from AmericansŠI'm
thinking of the American experimental MIDI/keyboard whiz David Bagsby, who
recently did a Canterbury tribute album on Italy's Mellow RecordsŠ you may
be familiar with him from a CD he released in '98 that did MIDI arrangements
of birdsong [reviewed in TC68].
MH: Oh, yes, taking a step further along from Dave Holland, who did
something similar on his CONFERENCE OF THE BIRDS album [1974, featuring Sam
Rivers, Anthony Braxton and Barry Altschul], perhaps.
TC: Yes, exactly. My favorite ECM release! Well, I was wondering how Bagsby
as an American might do something like "Tenemos Roads" as opposed to Dave
MH: I'd have to hear his rearrangement first, I think, but an interest in
birdsong certainly points to a preference for the pastoral. Hmm, donıt know
what to say beyond that.
TC: Let me ask you about BAR TORQUE, your first CD on MOONJUNE RECORDS,
which is a duet with Elton Dean. You two have been playing and recording
together since 1981 or so, when you joined the final version of Soft Heap
[at the time Pip Pyle, Dean, John Greaves, and Hewings]-
MH(laughing): Oh, not the final version, surely!
TC: Hmmm. Suppose you're right, there...
MH: In fact, there may be a reunion this summer. That is, if we can get some
gigs together, which looks like a possibility, and as you know I have
mastered a Soft Heap live recording from the '80s which will also be
released on MOONJUNE RECORDS at a later date.
TC: Thanks for reminding us about that! [Contact email@example.com for
further info and releases dates-Ed.] Listening to the CD I hear you with
your MIDI pedal array plastering up all sorts of backgrounds for Dean to
react to and solo against, and it's just an unbelievably single-minded and
technically varied performance. Sometimes you're doing the straight acoustic
guitar, other times you call up temple bells or dripping water tones, and
Elton is just as pastoral and reflective as anyone could ask for. And it's
not composed! A little like Lindsay Cooper and Charles Gray's PIA MATER [on
MH: I donıt want to make it seem as though what I do is really background,
though. At no time do I abandon the voice of the guitar, whatever MIDI patch
I use. There are 'backdrops' and there are 'landscapes' here and there, but
that doesn't really imply the sort of arrangement of voices that we tried
for. There's far more interaction than that in BAR TORQUE, and Elton's
playing is, I'll agree, to me it's as lyrical as I've heard him in years.
He's known for being more experimental, of course, but I consciously
attempted to introduce his playing into another direction, and sometimes he
himself was surprised by what came out!
TC: So maybe it's more in the manner of you and him playing with different
gauges of brush rather than you functioning as background and he as
MH: Yes, thanks, thatıs more what we went for. And you're right, one of the
improvising choices was which MIDI voice to use at what time.
TC: And at no point does Elton ever sound surprised! Thatıs his saxello he's
using on this record, is it?
TC: You notice I've been using terms here like 'painting with different
gauges of brush' and 'background' to describe music when the music isn't
available to hear first hand. One doesn't have that problem when one is
talking about the other arts.
MH: You have to be less direct, I think, because music is that much more
abstract in itself. You have no choice but to fall back on approximations
because music goes to the conscious mind through another door entirely.
TC: Yeah, it's either you borrow from other artistic fields or you just
listen. And that barrier doesn't serve the critics well, and as result, the
music either. Remembering the TC article about critics in Issue 75, for
MH: And that extends to my evaluation in your magazine of Kid A [by
Radiohead; reviewed in issue 76]. I went track by track and was very
concrete about it, very precise, not knowing the reactions were going to be
TC: But you reviewed it as a musician and a composer would do, while us
critics were grasping at straws and quoting Derrida and other impedimenta.
MH: Oh, that does some good! Not everyone can read sheet music.
TC: Well, as long as one has certain humility accessible.
MH: As I said about KID A at the time, I was interested at how well it had
sold, considering the actual musical expression sounds more like something
one would find in Bruce [Gallanter]'s store [Downtown Music Gallery in NYC].
TC: And that brings up a point: how do you think the fact that a CD as
unwilling to play by the rules as Kid A is currently up for a Grammy Award
and has sold over a million copies bodes for the remainder of the creative
musicians out there?
MH: It's all a question of availability and notification of availability. I
think that there is a place for Kid A and a similar one for BAR TORQUE, and
I have no doubt that with promotional ability like Capitol Records' behind
us, BAR TORQUE would also do very well.
TC: So sometimes music sells just because it happens to be good, and because
people know about it. Even now!
MH: Yeah, absolutely. And an example of that is another project of ours
you've recently reviewed, New Indus's NEWER DEVOTIONS [ Mark's duet with
Paul Bhattacharjee, on Impetus Records UK , reviewed in TC76]. I have
to believe that Impetus' not sending out enough review copies kept it from
selling more than, oh, I donıt know, a few thousand.
TC: And NEWER DEVOTIONS is a nice bracing change in a world that, I have to
agree with our reviewer, is becoming more secular by the day. And this is a
born-again agnostic talking! This recording has in its repeating structures
and its raga underpinnings and in its, I'd have to call, quiet intensity, a
very mystical Eastern fell, very open to the sky.
MH: Well, it's important to give something back, if you will. And yet the
basis remains one of improvisation within a landscape that is agreed upon by
the players. My partner in this group, Paul Bhattacharjee, is an actor first
and foremost. I provided him with some instruments and he improvised some
lyrics over the systemic patterns we created, much of them in Sanskrit and
devotional base in the Hindu religion, and the feeling you're describing was
synthesized by those elements.
TC: And it's very much a success on those terms. Now you've mentioned the
word 'landscape' several times, and I wonder if that is your verbal
designation for the field of improvisational possibility created by two
musicians who are performing.
MH: Close, but not exactly. It's more like a place for the solo voice to
spring from. My solo recordings DOLPHIN CONFERENCE, for example, or BIG BIG
SPACES, is very much a 'solo' recording in a way that NEWER DEVOTIONS of
course isn't, but either way there is still a landscape and a solo voice
within it. I may be a conventional sort of thinker here.
TC: Our reviewer of NEWER DEVOTIONS pointed out the tendency of Western
civilization to place religion in a box 'over there' while the Eastern
civilizations will often integrate the religious and the secular; in fact
the two concepts seem to have far less meaning because they are far less
MH: Isn't that the understood thing, though, "Oh, there's a church, that's
where God is".
TC: And religion becomes something one visits early or late in life,
MH: But in the Eastern idiom it's made a bit more clear that one has
obligations, I think.
TC: What about the artist in these two idioms, East and West? Does the
artist have obligations to the civilization they find themselves in? And if
so, what are they?
MH: Certainly the artist does, and wherever he or she happens to be form,
the obligations are the same; they are to address the big questions. Life,
TC: Makes me think of my favorite track by Egg, "I will be absorbed", in
which the song points out that once the muse is properly expressed, there's
no longer any reason for the artist to continue.
MH (laughing): U2 said that as well!!!
TC: Oh, yes, "I Still Haven't Found what I'm Looking For"Šbut in order to
address the questions they have to communicate, don't they? And does that
call abstraction into question?
MH: Oh, no, there aren't any guarantees, the artist hasn't at all failed if
the messages alters when it's been received.
TC: But an artist wants to communicate somethingŠand is that one of things
that can make an artist conservative? Such as yet another Caravan reunion,
or those folks who ask you, "Oh, why donıt you get The Polite Force back
together again?" [That was Mark H's first recorded band, in the mid-70's;
their one CD, CANTERBURY KNIGHTS, is on Voiceprint UK]
MH: Certainly, if there were some interest The Polite Force could do
something. But we would be performing music stopped in time, you see, there
having been no way of continuing beyond the point at which we left it. You
progress and what you said before becomes redundant. Time to move on, as
we've all been doing!
TC: Before we move on, fill in some of your background for us, please; in
previous chats you've mentioned affiliations with the South African
musicians who came to prominence in the '70s on Ogun Records, and with the
London Musicians Collective.
MH: Certainly! The Collective has been the base for the most experimental
music in London for the last 20 years or so. I used to play there a lot in
the first few years of its existence. Its nearest equivalent was the old
Knitting Factory, I suppose; but it was always beset by political infighting
and an 'I'm a much more legitimate improviser than you' type of attitude,
which always put me, and many others, off being more involved in what was
meant to be a cooperative musical collective. I haven't been back for years.
My old mate Eddie Prevost still runs a workshop there monthly so maybe I'll
stick my head round the door again, one of these days. Now, I was in three
of Dudu Pukwana's live band lineups. I always enjoyed playing with the guys
from South Africa, a lot of whom became resident in London during the
apartheid years. We used to do a lot of benefit gigs under the 'Jazz against
apartheid' banner. There was one memorable gig I did with drummer John
Stevens and Dudu as a trio at the Arts theatre club in London; boy, was it
energetic! I remember it being a full-on improv session and the audience
being flattened against the back wall, but no one left the gig so it must
have been interesting! Another South African related incident I can think of
was at a festival; again a trio, but with Louis Moholo and Paul Rogers
playing bass. That band later had Andrew Cyrille on drums instead of Louis,
and we toured in the UK. I had first met Andrew in New York when I was
recording with him and Dennis Gonzalez for Russ Summers' label; that one was
called THE EARTH AND HEART, now released on the Music and Arts label on CD.
Mervyn Africa is probably the musician, piano by the way, I have played with
most from South Africa, though. He was in my regular gigging band in the
80's, The Music Doctors, which did a BBC broadcast with Elton Dean and Lol
Coxhill both playing sax. I released this on the old Musart cassette label,
now unfortunately defunct, however I hope one day these sessions will be
available on CD.
TC: Any thoughts about Going Going, a band you had in the '80s with Richard
Sinclair that didnıt record?
MH: Sure, Richard was and still is a wonderful technician and a wonderful
player. There are things he can do on the electric bass which can't be
duplicated. I think what let us down with Going Going was a sense of
organization that could have kept the band together longer. But if any group
of mine from those days were any sort of a classic, that would be the trio
version of Caravan of Dreams which is consisted of Richard, Andy Ward, and
myself. At that time I had begun experimenting with MIDI so the
simple-sounding lineup of guitar, bass, drums was not really a factor. And
along with that Andy's a superb drummer, which you've heard evidence of
repeatedly in any number of places.
TC: If 'Canterbury' is anything other than a plastic musical category
divider at HMV, how do you fit into it?
MH: Well, I donıt know how much I relate directly to Canterbury since I was
from Herne Bay [Richard S.' hometown as well -Ed.]! And that is only one of
the many facets of my experience as I run a studio, I am a session musician
and I have been doing a CD project for some time now with [blues singer and
former Delivery vocalist] Carol Grimes, among other things. But I was a bit
younger than some of the musicians we know and love well from that
loose-knit group and I was very lucky to have my sensibilities tested by
them, like Hugh[Hopper] in our duet CD, ADREAMOR [on Impetuous UK], which
later developed into Mashu when Shamal Maitra joined in. And Soft Heap as
well, of course.
TC: Since we're looking through old photographs here, how about a few
thoughts on your tenure with Gong in '99?
MH: I did 29 gigs with them on the 30th Anniversary tour, as you know, since
you came to see the gig at the Knitting Factory.
TC: You were bouncing around onstage having as much fun as we all were
having, quite a sight with the unruly sock hanging off the machine head of
your guitar. And one of our reviewers ["The 30th Anniversary Gong Tour
Considered as a Round-The World Teapot Race", TC 72] said you'd turned Gong
into a guitar band, and nicely too!
MH: When you are a hired hand, as it were, for Gong, you are there to play
the trilogy and a few other bits. And that's lovely music, absolutely, but
it's all been thoroughly explored by Steve Hillage. Not easy to improve on
what Steve did already!
TC: To be fair, later Gong releases like SHAPESHIFTER have been pretty
solid. They should do more of the later things in concert as well. Hmm,
change of subject, we're playing with dynamite here. You had mentioned that
you were doing a project with Theo Travis.
MH: Yes, Theo, who's still working with Gong, and I have just finished
recording our 'Guerilla Musicians' duo CD and it should be mastered before
the spring, though we do have scheduling problems there. Of course, we also
have to find a company with enough foresight to release it!
TC: One echo I was very glad to hear on the BAR TORQUE CD was your
valedictory on the MIDI at the end of the third piece; it had a large amount
of the late [former Gilgamesh and National Health keyboard player] Alan
Gowen's sensibility to it. Could you talk a bit about Alan, please?
MH: I knew him to say hello to, saw him in the street occasionally since we
lived in adjoining London neighborhoods at the time, Tooting Bec an Tooting
Broadway. I'm sorry to say he and I never did have a chance to perform
together. In fact I took Alan's place in Soft Heap at the last minute; he
had leukemia and had seemed better but died suddenly right before a Soft
Heap gig in Cardiff. As you've heard, Soft Heap is a combination of 'Soft
Machine' and the first letters of the first names of each of the band
members, but when Alan died the band decided to keep it 'Heap' anyway to
honor his memory. A lovely thing to do, I think.
TC: Agreed! Along with the recent Cuneiform CD of Gilgamesh outtakes.
MH: But another thing which I hope comes out on some label at some time is a
performance by Steve Miller, Phil Miller and myself, a live recording we
did not long before Steve [former member of Delivery and the Hatfields,early
on] died; see, he's another we've lost, along with Alan and Lady June.
TC: I remember telling Pip Pyle after Steve passed on that I wanted all you
folks to stay healthy and be around for a nice long time and continue to
confuse the hell out of us, and his response was, "Well, I can tell you I've
quit drinking. For the fourth or fifth time today!" (Laughter) Had also
wanted to ask about your BIG BIG SPACES 2 project, following on from the one
reviewed in TC 75.
MH: Yes, "Tag it, Float it"! Well, it's a piece far more beholden to drones
of various kinds. We were conversing about this some time back, you and I,
and I have to admit that the point at which we were discussing last, it's
still right there. The version you heard was about 38 minutes in length, and
as I mentioned I doubled the length by halving the tempo. It now is
subtitled "The Refrigerator" since that's what it sounds like! (Laughter)
TC: Oh, I donıt know, if Morton Feldman could get away with that sort of
motivic glacier music, why not you?
MH: I suppose it awaits further development and as with many musicians I
won't know what the next step for it is to be until it suddenly dawns. But
thatıs limbo for you! In fact, my ongoing CD project with Carol Grimes is
similarly held up, but not for want of ideas.
TC: Scheduling difficulties?
MH: A bit, yes, and every time we meet we seem to be coming at the material
we've amassed in a slightly different way. Once we're done I wonder what
might become of the thematic unity of it all, where it's going to point from
track to track.
TC: Could be interesting to listen to from front to back, with all the
little course corrections and altering trajectories! What other goodies are
due to emerge from Musart over the upcoming year or so?
MH: As you remember our speaking about before, I've recorded 3 albums with a
band called Research, one of which, PERPETUAL CITY, has just been released
in Impetus. The first SOCIAL SYSTEMS, featured the great Django Bates on
keys and came out on Konnex. They have just re-issued it on CD but I noticed
on the cover Django seems to be called Fruitbat now.
TC: Love the british sense of humor! Much better sense of the absurd than we
have. Well, last question for you: recent zoologist papers published in
certain scientific journals have theorized that animals experience music and
musical expression, to say nothing of expressing themselves musically, in
much the same way that humans do. My reaction was, all these guys with Ph.Ds
and all that took this long to figure out something that has been painfully
obvious all along? How about your ideas on that?
MH: Oh, not sure I can improve on thatŠbut it IS one reason I did DOLPHIN
CONFERENCE. If nothing else, for heaven's sake, think of the songs of the
whales! It's all around us, music, isn't it?
c Tone Cluster, 2001
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