This interview with Andy Milne and Benoît Delbecq was conducted by email during April-May 2009.
Tony Reif: You two first met in 1990 I believe at the Banff Centre jazz workshop. And as happens with many young jazz performers from all over the world who come there, it seems it was a transformative experience for both of you, and in fact sowed the seed for this collaboration. The workshop was directed then by Steve Coleman. Could you say something about what it was like for you being there and meeting each other? Did you stay in touch afterwards?
Andy Milne: Back then, I was swimming with all these giants, learning about who I wanted to become in terms of being a creative artist. I always thought Benoît was way ahead of many of us, because at the time he already had very clear ideas, and was executing them. Steve Coleman had a huge influence on me at that time. The fact that I joined his band the year after we were in Banff probably helped my being able to stay in touch with Benoît because Steve toured France frequently, so Benoît and I had a few more opportunities to hang out. There was a period there where we weren’t in steady contact, but when Benoît came to New York for his first solo piano concert, I was of course there and we more or less picked up where we left off.
Benoît Delbecq: Well, I don’t think I was more advanced. I’d had the good fortune to participate in the jazz workshop 3 years before. I was already very involved in the creative scene in Paris in the late 80s, and at the age of 21 (1987) I came to Banff and met and studied with all those giants, among them Muhal Richard Abrams, Dave Holland, of course Steve Coleman…Meanwhile I was studying composition with Solange Ancona, from the Messiaen school, also Mal Waldron, Steve Lacy and David Lacroix, a composer close to my family who had already driven me to write my own music and think about how to develop it in the improv process. It is true I’d been into this process for quite a while in 1990 but I felt I was critically late on various topics where for instance pianists like Andy or Ethan Iverson were totally together. What I had already in mind was that you may forge your own style in composing, that the two processes are closely linked – that’s what Andy means I suppose, but I would say Andy was ahead of me on many parameters!
TR: How did the idea and plans for this collaboration develop? Was it always planned to do it at Banff?
AM: Originally we were actually going to rent a second piano and rehearse at my house in Pennsylvania, compose a couple of tunes together and do 2 or 3 gigs. Then when I was teaching at the Banff Centre in the winter of 2007, the creative inevitable happened during a casual but intense conversation with the then head of audio, Steve Bellamy. I started thinking it would be great to conceive of a 5.0 recording from the ground up and compose music specifically for the format, rather than mixing in surround after the fact. After that it was just a matter of sharing my idea with Benoît and you. The folks at the Banff Centre already saw the value in what I was proposing so they got behind it immediately and dedicated support that really gave the project the robustness that it needed for Benoît and me to come together the way we did.
TR: The piano duo in jazz has a long but sporadic history. Evidently there are technical reasons that might partly account for this, starting with getting two good pianos together in the same place, but also questions of how two musicians who have been trained as soloists to play both melody and harmony can best interact to create something that is more than just denser but less rhythmically precise layers of melody and harmony – which it seems to me is frequently how traditional jazz piano duos have worked out. But of course this is not a traditional piano duo.
So perhaps you could start by telling us how you both conceptualized this collaboration in advance as something different, and how it developed further from there during the process of actually creating and recording the music. Did you tend to think of the two pianos as one large instrument, or as several instruments (given the multiplied options for using preparations, playing under the lid, etc.)?
AM: I’m not sure I had specific sounds in my head, way back at the beginning. My motivation for doing this collaboration was based more on my respect for Benoît as a musician and the curiosity to see what we would do together. What made it unique for me in terms of how I placed it within the history of “jazz piano” was that I knew we’d both be committed to the process of developing a concept and it would be very unlikely that we’d merely accompany each other over our favorite standards. Once we got into the process (which actually began about 6 months before we got together in Banff), clearer ideas of sounds and structures started to emerge for me.
I think of two pianos as one instrument, but 2 players/musicians, so the variations and options for orchestration come from knowing that I’m composing for 2 musicians who can improvise and carry out an independent function when needed.
BD: The first feeling when Andy called me and suggested our duo collaboration was really positive. It actually didn’t have anything to do with the history of the piano duo, but with trying to imagine our sounds and musicianship united together. What an amazing project, I thought. Since we met in Banff in 1990 I have been a fan of Andy’s playing and concepts – and I had always been in touch with his works and collaborations. A piano duo was something I had never worked on on a long-term or recording basis, and it just sounded super exciting. We then sent each other ideas about directions of work and it surely felt we’d go through a very rich and deep experience. My use of prepared piano was naturally part of the project and I was imagining Andy could prepare the piano too (I haven’t heard of any prepared piano duos on the jazz scene…), which was very exciting. On the other hand I was trying to project myself into Andy’s music, and I felt I had some months to approach his unique knowledge closer. In a word, I was impressed and very excited, and actually I didn’t listen to piano duos at all prior to our meeting in Banff.
TR: Did you use any overdubbing, and if so for what purposes? And how did you both think about the various possible relationships between rhythm and timbre, for example?
AM: We didn’t do any overdubbing, although in one case we recorded a piece in two sections to allow the time to perform very specific preparations on the pianos that couldn’t have been achieved on the fly during the take.
When we were composing I tried to think of the 360 degrees of the room space and the more immediate space within and around each piano. When I composed the intro to “Ice Storm” I thought very consciously about creating compositional elements that would play with the sense of the space between the 2 pianos. I used rhythm mostly, to create 5-channel imaging effects within the music. I tried to think the same way with timbre when I composed “Chander Logic.”
BD: In my solo piano works just as in Andy’s solo works, there is great attention to the relation between rhythm and timbre. I believe both of us have come to a personal idea of “rythmnicity” in composing and improvising. I recall we didn’t think for a single second about overdubbing, because the duo empathy didn’t need it at all. That is, we would focus on the playing only, the sound, and the sonic aspects…in a word: the vibe! Indeed one track needed two different takes to be pasted together, for reasons of the piano preparations. When performing the duo live, we have to be quite strategic in the organization of pieces not to find ourselves preparing the piano for 2 minutes in the middle of a set…
TR: In terms of your own distinct languages of composition and styles of improvisation (melody/harmony/rhythm/timbre/space etc.), in this collaboration it seems to me that perhaps you, Andy, moved a little farther towards Benoît than he did towards you (although Benoît your composition “Task Sharing” sounds quite Milne-ish to me). Could you both talk about how in practice you discovered those balancing points where your different styles met and produced the synergy that we hear?
AM: I think we actually moved towards each other pretty equally, but I think in order to experience that balance one has to look to some hidden places. For example, I think I influenced Benoît in areas like rehearsal technique and energy output, but I agree it’s perhaps easier to hear how Benoît influenced me by virtue of how I employed some of his preparation techniques. I think we came to our meeting point very naturally because we were always feeding off of each other’s intensity in different areas, so it propelled us to develop our own ways (based upon our distinct languages) for processing the influence we were experiencing.
BD: I think Andy is totally right. In terms of the sonic approach it might sound a little bit more oriented in “my” direction (although I didn’t invent prepared piano!!!) – not sure though on a vibe approach – and that’s only because of the radical sound of preparations. We wrote the new tunes in total synergy and we came to this set of tunes through concentrated teamwork. The level of influence Andy had on me during our stay in Banff was very strong. I learned from his rehearsing routine, especially for his own tunes, chords sequences and grids, and it did open new directions for me – you may hear this in my lines that are definitely Milne-ish sometimes. When listening to the takes at home I couldn’t help it, I was laughing all the time since I quite often thought “But who played that line?” and so on…In brief, we’ve found something like a group sound, and what I know from group playing is that one’s always influencing the others and this goes round nicely in circles.
TR: I’m also curious about how the co-composed pieces (“Portrait of Giorgio Thelos” – which I think is quite Delbecqian, and “Pyramides” – quite Milne-ish) were written/created. AM: I think the most significant aspect in understanding this collaboration is just how important the effect of our being in residence together was. We ate together, practiced frequently together, researched together, and hung out and joked together after a long day of work. This contributed greatly to our getting to a special place, so when we composed “Portrait of Giorgio Thelos” and “Pyramides” together it was really quite natural and easy. With “Portrait” we had been discussing Ligeti and then started playing a Monk tune. We started discussing (perhaps jokingly at first), combining what we had been exploring, and then…we went to our respective corners and contributed something. I wrote a melody and Benoît wrote a chord sequence, however we did so with no pre-determined agreement. We just recognized, through intense listening, how to feel where the other was coming from. I can’t explain it really, but it was magical. For “Pyramides” I composed a few bars and then gave the paper to Benoît with the understanding that he could and probably would make changes, but ultimately complete the idea. It took about 20 minutes and it was complete. The interesting thing about this experience was discovering how much fun relinquishing an idea to another composer/improviser can be, particularly when their response is delivered in a few minutes. It actually led to my creating an exercise for my students.
BD: It was a totally new experience, this back and forth momentum in composing. Andy says it all. I’ve always tried to combine different terrains in my compositions and till then I ignored that it could be extended to such an experiment – usually composing is quite a ticklish subject, and I’m happy we’ve jumped the “barrier” – I guess we’ll do some more in the future! Giorgio Thelos takes its name from Gyorgy (Ligeti) and Thelonious (Monk) – an imaginary person – well the details are in the booklet.
TR: Several pieces go through sudden shifts of tempo and/or tone – were these planned or did they just happen?
AM: I think partly what you’re hearing are the more dramatic differences in our playing approaches. Despite all the ways we influenced each other to the point that we sometimes weren’t sure who played what, we each have our own voice, and the challenge (if you can even call it that, rather than a pleasure) was balancing these two forces. BD: Well, time shifting is part of our playing parameters. I think our attention to the pace of the music and phraseology allowed a total freedom for each of us, and this is what you actually hear.
TR: One of the new aspects of this duo is the interest in acoustic space as a variable, integral part of the music itself – something that Benoît has been working on for some time. Andy, in your writing about the project you refer to developing “complex rhythmic, melodic and harmonic relationships involving timbre, texture, room acoustics, space, and time.” Could you both give us some examples of how these aspects of the music were discovered and recorded, and also how your 3-week residency together at the Banff Centre to develop and record the music enhanced the results.
AM: I think I was always very aware of the 360 degree, 5.0 spectrum when recording this CD, but I also tried to hear from that place when composing. For example, I was always thinking about the resultant clarity that would be produced by the combination of two harmonic structures or two rhythmic phrases. Thinking about how these elements would translate in different parts of the room was helpful in determining what to compose and play. Being in residence at Banff enabled us to interact with our producer and engineer at any time, as well as visit, listen to music and rehearse in the room we’d be recording in. For me, this was a huge advantage as it provided lots of useful feedback to what I’d been thinking about.
TR: Also, in terms of acoustic spaces that we hear, were they mostly created through placing pianos in different parts of the room and setting up room mics in different places? AM: In fact we spent about 3 hours alone with our producer Amandine Pras in the studio, tweaking the position of the pianos for optimal clarity for both Benoît and me and the room, based upon the projected position of the microphone array. We experimented with one alternate setup at the end of the session but basically once we found the right placement, we left it alone.
BD: I think the crucial point was the pianos’ positioning in space, which we found in the practice studio after quite some moving around, a couple of days after we began the duo practice. We placed the pianos at about one and a half metres from each other, and this way the way the soundboards were affecting things was felt intensely by both of us. As a result of that, the writing and rehearsing process could then be oriented in terms of a sonic approach to the 5.0 array. My worry was that Andy produces a stronger sound compared to mine, so I used this system of natural monitoring, orienting the foldable part of the piano lid at the appropriate angle, a system I regularly use when I perform acoustically with Kartet for instance. At this point, the magic could operate on a regular basis! And, of course, being able to rehearse like this for such a time was a great privilege, a privilege we could then blossom with, until we got into the concert hall for the recording. Amandine’s suggestions were crucial too all through the process, and I recall the time she placed an acoustic wooden panel 15 meters away from us, turning it very slowly until I had the right wall reflection return… all those details were of course injected into the playing… not to speak of the amazing quality of the two Steinways… Since I had experience with multi-channel recording, I was also checking that the feeling of the room was being well reproduced on the recording, which is what happened – I haven’t heard it in 10 months, but back in June 2008 at Zen Mastering it was all there. As far as the playback of the recording recalling the feeling of the recording itself, I’m happy, it was a very special process that involved quite a lot of people, the sum of it leading to a very simple feeling after all. And Amandine and Andy did a few positioning tricks in the mix that I approved immediately.
TR: Did you also use reverbs?
AM: We did use some reverb in the mix but mostly played with the natural room reverb. TR: And Benoît, what is the Dlooper application you used on a few pieces (“Divide Comedy,” “Mu-turn,” “Trespassing”) and what kinds of effects/processing does it contribute? Is it related to the ambient sampling, looping, treating and feeding back into an ongoing performance moments of music just played that Steve Argelles does on your record Pursuit and in the Poolplayers collaboration? Towards the end of “Divide Comedy” are we only hearing processed sound?
BD: Dlooper is a Max-MSP stand-alone application Tom Mays programmed for me at my request in 2004. It is a multi-track looper that can superimpose 8 stereo channels, and output them on 8 different channels. Here I chose to play a stereo mix of those layers into speakers that were placed in the back of the concert hall, just as if there was some radio making comments on our statements, playing with the memory of what has been just played. The 5.0 microphone tree found itself being the “mixer” – what I mean is that I was interested in having a stereo signal sent into speakers so as to artefact the room reflections and reverb. I trigger the rec/play mode of each separate track with a Midi foot pedal – and the program image interface shows the layers’ waveforms. I can also play any layer an octave lower (twice as slow) or higher, and so on, with the feet. The coda of “Divide Comedy” is featuring this audio tool, just as in the other tracks you mention. I proposed this little spice in the music because I felt it could create a complementary magic to the music. I recall that Andy and I keep playing in this section, but surely in pppp mode!
What Steve does in both Pursuit and Poolplayers is a bit different sonically speaking, but it is the same idea of instant recycling (in both senses!). On Pursuit he used echoplex delays and a Sherman filter, on Poolplayers he used mostly Usine, a piece of software written by Olivier Sens in Paris (sensomusic.com), software he uses as a basis for live-sound processing. Dlooper doesn’t offer filtering features yet – which is why I went through an analog mixing desk before going into the speakers. Tom Mays is now developing a program called tapemovie (tapemovie.com), and I will soon switch to this which features a lot more, including the possibility to write your own virtual filter circuits and all the rest of it…and the use of a webcam to process audio signals.
TR: And what about the multi-channel mix – Andy, what sorts of things did you do there that pushed the spatialization even further?
AM: I haven’t had the pleasure of hearing it in 11 months, but in some cases we created shifts in the positioning of each piano to coincide with musical events. In other cases we created movement within the sonic image to blur musical artefacts. In general I took a lot of time during the mix to generate a 5.0 balance that didn’t use the rears to only represent the back of the room, but rather to use it to feature certain musical moments.
BD: In total trust, I let Andy and Amandine mix the whole project (I was unable to join the mix sessions), and I’m very happy with the different options they’ve chosen for each track. TR: More specifically how did you Andy and Amandine work together on the mixing? I believe she has a lot of technical experience with multi-channel sonics.
AM: In songs like “Chander Logic” and “Ice Storm” there were certain sounds that I wanted to appear from a specific direction or channel, so I was very aware of what I wanted, but in other cases I tried to approach each mix with fresh ears so that I could discover something, a part of the room and/or sound, to focus on. Amandine and I developed a synergy quite similar to the one Benoît and I developed, so that really enhanced the mixing process. There were times when I had very clear ideas and she trusted my instincts. When I wasn’t sure, Amandine’s experience in the recording studio and her connection to the music helped to shed light on where we could go. Again, there was a lot of trust built during this residency, so that accounted for a lot in terms of our ability to find common ground. What made it fun was Amandine’s ability to conceptualize some of my more bizarre ideas, and make them a reality.
TR: Did the wintery environment of Banff affect the music much?
AM: Winter affected our breathing, energy and state of being so I suppose it affected the music in some way. Banff is such a special place for both of us, that I think we would have felt it, regardless the season.
BD: Banff definitely has a very unique energy. Probably the altitude, also the vibe of the site (before the western world build the railway, three different native groups were celebrating events at the meeting of those three valleys…), the people who founded it… who knows. I had experienced that creative vibe both in 1987 and 1990 when I attended the Jazz Workshop. I am quite familiar with the Nordic climate (I tour Finland in the winter regularly), I like it a lot. Of course winter keeps you inside, a favorable period for practice and conceptual brain-tickling! It was damn cold outside and our focus was total, from morning till sometimes late at night – until we went for a beer and chilled.
TR: There are humorous references in the liner note, but I sense that there was quite a special atmosphere, a kind of creative cocoon with marvelous technological extensions, that really affected how things turned out, and that the results might have been less rich under other circumstances.
AM: I’m happy that much of the Banff creative environment is detected on this recording. For me, it was all over the place. My feeling is that when you get a creative idea at the Banff Centre, the energy, resources and support are almost always there to make it happen. Some of these ideas have humour associated with them but generally, regardless their nature, if they happen, it’s probably because they were supposed to.
BD: What else to say – Andy started the liner notes, and, just like with some of the compositional process, I wrote other parts… to a point where we’d end up calling each other on the phone and laugh for a minute till we could speak normally…
TR: As sequenced, some tunes flow into each other, others are separated more. Was there much thought as you were recording or mixing about how certain pieces might relate to others in a final sequence?
AM: By the time we got to mixing we had agreed on some of the sequencing, so that helped us make mixing decisions. Ironically, we ended up making some changes to the sequence after we’d all taken some time away from the project, so the final CD really represents the patience we took to arrive at our destination.
TR: My usual last question – where does it go from here? What hopes do you have to tour the project and what kinds of situations – short of two Steinways in the same great room! – would be productive to perform in?
AM: Benoît and I remain very committed to this collaboration, despite the obvious challenges of securing bookings at venues with two appropriate instruments. We’ve been talking about creative ways to present this music in the absence of two concert grands. I’m currently booking dates for spring 2010 in the US and Canada and Benoît says there’s some interest for the same period in Europe. We’ve got a couple of gigs in late June (New York and Ottawa) to help launch the CD but there will definitely be more to come.