I don’t need Cage to teach me about applying indeterminacy and Zen to music when I’ve got Legba / Ellegua…
“Music is a communal endeavour. Music is something that I think brings people and societies together to experience, for certain moments, reality as a one — as one thing that’s connected as opposed to separate.”
Shabaka Hutchings is a British-Barbadian composer and bandleader based in London. We interviewed Shabaka as part of Sound and Music’s newest podcast series, and features alongside Alwynne Pritchard and Oliver Leith Episode 5: Invitations which you can listen here.
LOCKDOWN + CIRCULAR MUSIC
It’s been a continual challenge, I think that actually only now finding some sense of equilibrium. In terms of what it means to make music for yourself. It’s actually something I’ve been thinking about in relation to the traditions of bow music in southern Africa, where a lot of the music is performance for oneself. That’s obviously reflected in the way of the mouth bow, the harmonics are reflected in the performer’s head. They can hear more for soundscape than than the listener outside, and I’d always found that aspect of music making fascinating — where the individual making the music is the primary vessel for the music
This lockdown has been about a way of making music where I’m happy with my own musical performance, as opposed to having it being interchanged between myself and other performers. There was a period of trauma, where I was missing that connection, missing that ability to bounce ideas, to have my ideas reflected off other people, or audience feedback. The more that I’m coming through the lockdown, the more much the getting to a place where I’m I’m enjoying just playing for myself, finding ways of entertaining myself musically.
It is something that maybe was there before but I was unable to really delve into in any great depth just because of the actual mechanics of being a touring musician. Being a being a professional musician is something separate to being a creative musician. It becomes your job, the act of making music becomes a commodity that you have to reproduce.
It’s been reflected in this locked down by, you know, being able to go into a way of performing like circular breathing in music. For instance, Circadian Clocks is an example of that kind of approach to playing.
When I make my living with music I play in bands and I play tunes, forms that have beginnings and ends. They are linear in terms of the structure. Being in the lockdown, being outside of that mechanism of having to perform music for an audience or for commercial purpose — I could delve into that circular idea of music, that idea of time that you’re not going to necessarily get in the performances that I’m normally associated with. A big part of being in lockdown is about being me considering my performance and time in a circular way, as something that doesn’t necessarily stop. From my reading of what you might call traditional African ontologies, it seems like the idea of circularity is integral to that outlook. It’s something that I’ve always wanted to explore in terms of considering the circle as opposed to the line and see how that affects my music.
WHAT IS MUSIC
Music, or progress, is a way of reconciling the past. Really understanding it from different perspectives. All of the music that you listen to is the past, it just depends if you have a kind of hierarchy in terms of how far back is more precious. Anytime you put on a CD and press play or an album, you’re engaging with the past.
I’m a Barbadian British person who is engaged in an American art form, in terms of jazz and that’s what I or even kind of her baton in that classical music, which I was trained to music college. In performing music, I’ve got to consider what it means to go into these histories, to go into cultures that have been formed outside of the trajectory that I am coming from. I’m intersecting with the culture. As soon as there’s that point of impact, I need to consider what my position is to the past that I’m engaged in: how do I reconcile myself to perform in jazz? It’s been a turbulent relationship. The result of that turbulence has been the products that you can see musically — everything that I’ve done has been trying to reconcile myself to the history of American life, American music, or the history of classical music or the history of African music, in a broad sense.
Music can be an expressive articulation of ideas and thoughts that we don’t have the capacity to describe in any kind of semantic language. It can be sentiments that need to be to be released on a cathartic level that we just have no outlet for societally. A function of music is the ability to express those things, those ideas or sentiments or all those impulses in sound. Music is a communal endeavour. Music is something that I think brings people and societies together to experience, for certain moments, reality as a one — as one thing that’s connected as opposed to separate.
If you think of the top music performances, you know, the performances that people see as historical, it’s been those performances where everyone in the space has been taken away or has been transported into the world of the performer, into the almost sacred.
I’ve been fascinated for a long time with the idea of disappearing in music. The way that I’ve been trained in performing my instrument has generally been singular. I go to music lessons as an individual; I play my music to the teacher and then I go home; I practise for myself; and then I take what I’ve discovered singularly and I try to apply it in a group setting.
And that works. — but, in general, the struggle has been to allow myself to disappear from a point of singularity to a point of community. There is that all present danger of staying singular within the musical situation. You practise and practise all of these things, and if you stay with in that mode that you’re practising in, that singular mode, you get into a group situation where everyone else performs music around the singular.
For me, the ultimate musical experience is when everyone can meld into one organism — and that’s where the human connection is. The ability to actually connect with other people on a very true sense, on a sense that has little hierarchical structure — a level of just pure being. It might happen just in fleeting moments, when everyone is just being one kind of chugging organism — what I’m trying to describe is a state of the singular becoming the communal, where all the actual interactions between humans became one thing. It isn’t separate beings trying to play music together; but separate beings becoming one being — that is music.