In Conversation: Luke Howard

In Conversation: Luke Howard

Exploring contemporary classical, the composition process and building a creative career. 

Luke Howard
Melbourne, Australia

In Conversation: Luke Howard

Exploring contemporary classical, the composition process and building a creative career. 

This is, surprisingly, the first time you’ve played at the Melbourne International Jazz Festival with the Luke Howard Trio! Can you tell me about the trio and what you’ve been up to recently?

I have a long history of playing and performing jazz, but I guess because I’ve been away from Melbourne for so long it’s just never happened to work out! The Luke Howard Trio has been around since 2008, and I think we’re more of a bunch of people playing together now - it feels like a band, because we know how each other plays. We actually just made a new record, so there will be some new tunes at our Jazz Festival concert. We had Sing Sing for two days to put down all out tracks, and we kind of learnt them as we went because the deadline crept up on us all. When you’re working to such a strict deadline you can surprise yourself, and it was a really busy two days because when you’re recording tracks you don’t know super well it takes quite a few takes to get them to sound how you want them. When you’re recording a piece from memory it’s often the earlier takes that stick, but in this case we kind of warmed into it. 

You’ve written quite a bit of new music recently, for both your trio and your solo work. Do you find that the two different styles influence each other, or do you keep them separate? 

They're both pretty different, but I do sometimes recycle tunes between two. I think the deeper solo stuff that I’ve done doesn’t necessarily translate to a trio concert though, because it feels too composed. The music I write for the trio is quite composed as well, but I’m conscious of leaving space for the other chaps. We’ve become quite a bit clearer recently about which composition structures work for us because while the trio is not super jazzy, it does come from that world and it’s hard not to slip into some of those roles. In terms of my composition across the two though, things unconsciously interchange, but sometimes I have to leave one language at the door when I’m thinking about the other. 

What is your relationship with the jazz and classical worlds, and how did this neo-classical/contemporary classical vibe that your solo works now sit in fit into your musical experience? 

I learnt classical piano as a kid but I was more interested in improvising and making up tunes, so I started jazz at the VCA. I got super into that for a while but then felt like I needed a break, and I didn’t really have any contacts in that world so I started to look into other things to clear my head a bit. I discovered lots of those crossover artists accidentally while overseas. I think I potentially would have discovered that kind of contemporary classical world in Melbourne, but it might have taken me a bit longer to get into it. The trio must been influenced by that, because if you look at the most recent record, our style has become a lot more compositional. The contemporary classical sound world is really resonating at the moment, particularly in Europe, but here in Australia as well. 

Regardless of what you’re writing, what is your compositional process? How do you get started? 

Improvising at the piano is always the starting point for my compositions. My experience of harmony and counterpoint comes from a voice leading approach to playing jazz standards, which is the product of a teacher I had who also had a classical background but was performing jazz. That’s not a super uncommon transition in the piano world. He taught me about how voice leading can work in jazz harmony rather than just learning how to voice chords in the left hand. A lot of it was based on the things you learn in AMEB theory, like what notes work well together and how to double, but the difference was that I was learning in real time through jazz improvisation. It made me think about how harmony could be much more horizontal. Whether I’m in the genesis phase of a composition and just noodling around some ideas or I’m arranging something where I can break all the rules, knowing this kind of approach is a great starting point. I think if you could learn improvisation without it being tied to jazz, that would be so good for composers and performers. Eventually everyone figures out what kind of music they want to make, and that’s not always tied to a very specific style or aesthetic, so it’s good to have lots of tools that you can pull out when you need them. If I studied composition, I’d probably be better at different things, but I had jazz and that’s my starting point now. I think your technique should be better than your ideas, because then everything’s possible and you keep getting better. 

Outside of compositional technique and theoretical know-how, what non-musical skills have helped you build your musical career?

There are so many things that no one teaches you at university! I think we’re sold a dram that if you practice really hard you’ll get really good and you’ll have a great career as a result. I think that dream is important, because it does make you dig deep and work hard, but the business side of the industry is important and I think I’ve embraced it a bit more as I’ve gotten older. I’ve always enjoyed admin things, because while some of it is boring, you can’t be creative all the time and I find it exciting to watch a project unfold. 50% of my non-procrastinating time is spent sending emails and chasing people up. You’re answering emails and organising rehearsals and making sure everything is going to happen when you need it to happen. It’s important to have your head screwed on about the non-musical things: show up on time, get back to people as soon as you can - being a professional is important. I think some people are scared of mixing business and arts and as a result some artists try not to make their music too accessible. I don’t think aiming for accessibility as your principal goal is a great idea, but I’m not ashamed of making music that resonates with lots of non-musicians. I have peers and friends that make music that I sometimes think is more interesting than what I’m doing, but they don’t have the tenacity in the business department. I think things are incrementally going well because I work a bit every day, and I keep showing up on time. 

You mentioned not making accessibility your primary goal, but I imagine it’s something that you do have to think about at some point. How do you approach considering your audience? 

Honestly, I try not to let it weigh on my mind. I think there is a bit of an expectation once you’ve had a tiny bit of success that you’ll continue making a certain kind of art, so I’m always trying to police that. I make the music I want to make. From the start I’ve been making music that has been fairly consistent and its progression has been fairly linear over the years. It’s taken quite a few years to shake out the jazz attitude that it’s not good to be simple and also to feel comfortable within my technique - a feeling that also relates to classical art music, I think. What is in fashion in academia, with some exceptions, is often not necessarily in vogue for the rest of the world, and it’s important to remember that, particularly if you’re interested in creating something that’s not in line with what you’re being taught. I mean, you just have to ask yourself why very few composers are writing symphonies. If you write something longer, it’s not necessarily going to get performed! I’m curious to see where the world of contemporary classical music goes though. Is it the equivalent of Kenny G to the jazz world or is it more than that? It will be an interesting progression. I try and listen to a lot of different music, which is something I think everyone should do. Listen to music that challenges you, and music that you don’t necessarily like very much. Listening widely is good for you.

Does the fact that you have studied improvisation change your attitude towards composition do you think? Has the focus on improvisation influenced your ability to let go of ideas that aren’t working? 

I do try not to get attached to things too much, because I know how easily that can happen. At the beginning of the process I throw out things if I feel like they’re not strong, or if I’ve unconsciously created an idea I’ve already had before, which happens when you’re doing a lot of writing. When it comes to developing compositional ideas, I think one development is hard enough! I work on something for a while, then leave it, then go back to it with a fresh mind - that has become my process for writing and arranging. I think the only way I know I’m done is when I start changing things back to how they were originally - that’s a sign that I’ve started changing things just for the sake of it. When you’re starting out on a new work, I think it’s good to get something down, regardless of how good it is, because once you’ve got something you can work on it. Better something than nothing!