Search The Line of Best Fit
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Flute forward

15 April 2024, 09:30
Words by Alan Pedder

Shabaka photographed by Atiba Jefferson
Laura Misch photographed by Seungwon Jung

To mark the release of his flute-forward new album, Perceive its Beauty, Acknowledge its Grace, Shabaka Hutchings dials in from Barbados for an in-depth conversation with saxophonist and organic electronic artist Laura Misch.

Shabaka Hutchings is in a phase of new beginnings, having put away his saxophone, shelved his best-known band projects indefinitely, and given up his London base in favour of a peripatetic existence.

Travelling with his partner, Moroccan writer and community activist Marwa Belghazi, and a suitcase of around 60 flutes, Hutchings is enjoying the process of reconsidering the idea of home. Having spent some weeks in Brazil, where, among other things, the couple have been working with composer Priscilla Ermel, their next destination was Barbados, where Hutchings’ mother lives. There he’s been immersing himself in psychologically and physically demanding practice sessions, for up to 14 hours at a time, going ever deeper into his fascination with the flute. “Man, I really live in a dream right now,” he says, dialling into a video call with fellow Londoner Laura Misch, ahead of the release of his acclaimed new album Perceive its Beauty, Acknowledge its Grace – incredibly, his first solo full-length.

Early on in his pivot to flute, in the summer of 2021, Hutchings joined Misch out at sea, roughly 25km off the coast of Brighton, where they improvised together in the shadow of a wind farm. They had never met before, and Hutchings’ involvement was more spontaneous than planned. “We’d been messaging back and forth on Instagram a bit and were meant to meet for the first time the day before,” explains Misch in a separate call. “That meeting ended up being moved so I just said, ‘Hey, I’m going out to play saxophone at sea tomorrow, do you want to come?’”

Misch’s collaborator, filmmaker Greg Barnes, had found a skipper willing to take them out to the turbines (“He usually takes people out to scatter ashes,” she says), so they met down at the dock in Brighton, very early in the morning. “It was a perfectly calm day,” says Misch. “My first impression of Shabaka, honestly, was that he is so tall. But more than that, I really felt that he’s someone who is so intensely attuned to their surroundings. When we were playing together, we were really exploring how the sound was bouncing back from the turbines, and how the gentle rocking of the boat was almost like a metronome. I remember feeling like there’s such a depth of thought that goes into the way he plays his instrument, and the way he interacts with the world.”

“His way of improvising with the environment and heartfelt,” she adds, recalling how they spent the rest of the day together in Brighton, visiting a flute maker friend, record stores, and sitting in cafés where Hutchings would take out his flute and play along to songs on the radio. The two had planned to do more together, but their schedules never quite aligned – until now.

LM press shot portrait 03 credit Seungwon Jung
LAURA MISCH: Hi Shabaka. I’ve seen you a few times at gigs but I think the last time we properly hung out was in Brighton. How are you doing?

SHABAKA HUTCHINGS: Really good. I’m on a kind of practice retreat. Just practising as much as possible, trying to build up to 14 hours a day. That’s the goal I set myself when I was going into this, but having seen what has actually happened, in terms of what you have to go through trying to build up to that amount of practice, you can’t just jump in. It’s quite tough, psychologically, to be able to be focused for that long.

I’ve just been building up the stamina, in terms of knowing what I want to practice on each instrument, and then spending a long time on that. Getting back to fundamentals and stuff. I’m out here for 3 weeks, and it’s probably been 8 days so far. Actually I just did a forced 14-hour practice. It’s been great. It’s really good to get to practise by the sea.

I can imagine! So, what are you doing with the time when you’re not practising? I guess you wouldn’t want to do anything that might counteract your process.

Yeah, that’s the thing. I’m reading a bit, but really I’m just trying to practise as much as possible and make some music using an OP-1 and a Roland SP-404. I’ll take some of the stuff that I’ve been practising and put it into whatever I’m making. For example, if I’ve been practising particular skills I might make some beats in Abelton based on those skills, just so I’ve got something drone-like to practice on. I’ve just been making lots of… stuff.

Probably one of the first things that I’ll do after this retreat is to start to actually do some file management with all my recorded material. I’ve been recording my practice as well, so it’s a case of just trying to find my way through this sea of creative ideas. Around the practice, I’m basically just trying to keep my life in check. Any time I’ve got left is genuinely spent just trying to catch up on emails and all that stuff.

With that much output and creativity, I guess things can become quite chaotic quite quickly if you don’t have a system for organising and archiving everything. I always find it interesting to hear from people who able to capture things in that way, and be like, ‘Hey, hang on a minute, let’s keep working on this,’ because the way I make music can be quite generative. But then I don’t know where the process should stop. Well, I’ve listened to your new album all week and I found it so incredibly moving and alive. It felt like there was so much care woven into it.

Thank you. Yeah, it was a long labour of love. It was about two years in the making, just slowly going through all the recorded material that I had and seeing what was what.

How I kind of structured the recording process was to do six days at Van Gelder and another day at a different studio, just to gather the source material. Each day was a different set of musicians, and I think I could really have put out an album just based on any one of those days because we got so much material in every session.

After that, it was just a case of sifting through all the material and figuring out what the foundational material should be, that could then be composed on top of. For instance, all the string arrangements came afterwards. There were a couple of days where I recorded a lot of melodies with a metal flute over the top of what we already had, like in the song “Breathing” and all the wind parts that structure the piece with Lianne La Havas, “Kiss Me Before I Forget”. The piano line we’d done live, but the clarinet arrangements that frame it were added as a composition.

That's fascinating, because to me all of it really has that quality of liveness, of no headphones in the room. Not that it’s always easy to tell what’s an overdub in music.

Yeah, for sure, the original recordings were done with no separation and no headphones. I really wanted to have that live in the room feeling when I was just getting everything together. I was kind of putting myself in the shoes of someone like Flying Lotus, where your job as a producer is to get good bits of material from musicians and then order that material into this big arc that’s commemorative of the recordings. So my first focus was just to be the person gathering all the source material by combining different musicians to play.

Yeah, I see what you mean. It’s kind of like collaging in a way. I wanted to talk about the arc of it, actually. I listened to the album again last night before I went to bed, and then again first thing this morning, because I’d been talking with a hypnotherapist who told me that those are the two times when your subconscious is most receptive. Listening like that, it really did feel like an incredible arc. It wasn’t until track six (“Body to Inhabit”) that I really started to want to move. Until then I was really quite deeply still. I’m curious, because I feel like there’s so much ritual around your practice, whether you have any suggestion to your listeners as to how you’d like them to receive the record?

I think the best way to hear albums in general is while out walking, and it doesn’t have to be in any particular kind of environment. I really like walking through the city listening to music, if I don’t need to figure out where I’m going and I can just walk. Obviously, walking in nature is amazing as well, but really it’s more about walking anywhere. So long as you’re not focused on where you’re going and can just drift away and don’t have to dodge things in your path. For me, that’s a good way to listen to any record.

I totally agree. I use music therapeutically to get me from A to B, because often I find it so sonically overwhelming in the city. If I put headphones on, it can put me into a headspace that allows the movement. But I do find that sometimes parts of the spectrum get sacrificed. High frequencies and low rumbles, or really anything delicate, can get sort of annihilated.

Yeah, this is the problem. I’ve spent most of my life in London, and I think wearing headphones has really just become a part of my personality at this point. They’re always on. I know all the different brands of headphones intimately, up to certain, regular price level.

What's your go-to pair for travelling, or for listening to your own music?

Well, it’s a tough one, because I think Bowers & Wilkins headphones are my favourite in terms of the classiness of the sound, and how I like to hear my sound back. I have a pair that I use in the studio that I really like, which are open-back ones. But the problem with Bowers & Wilkins is that I recently had a pair that just kind of came apart. I wear my headphones all the time, so the ability to hold up over a long period of time is a bit part of the equation for me. At the moment, the ones I’ve got for travelling are by Bose and I really like them.

Shabaka 2255 credit atibaphoto
I’m a Bose person too. Well, because I haven’t seen you in so long, I’ve been doing some reading to just try and immerse myself in your world and what people have been writing about you. Obviously, there’s been so much written about you putting down your saxophone, which is kind of funny to me because I have always seen you as a multi-instrumentalist. I think of you as a kind of master of breath, and of that being the thread between a lot of what you do.

It’s funny, this idea of going from this big instrument that’s heavy and physically extremely demanding to a flute, which you can just whip out in a café and play along to the radio like you did when we were walking around in Brighton. It’s a much more accessible breath instrument, and I was thinking about the evolution of that in the sense of losing the flute altogether. I’m curious, what’s your relationship like with your voice?

I don’t think I am a singer, but I do sing a little bit on everything. I sang a little bit on Afrikan Culture, way back, and then I sing a bit on “Breathing” on this record.

I think that there’s a deeper thing behind not seeing myself as a singer, in terms of there being some reservation in pushing forward my actual voice as opposed to making something out of sounds that I stay behind. For now, my voice is just another sound that I can put in the mix. But I’m kind of working on it. I just need a period where I’m free to actually do my method. I’ve got this method that I use for learning stuff in general, and I think if I did that then I could be a singer. Right now, I’ve got to spend all my time learning the flute, so I don’t have time for it.

Listening to the last song on the record (“Song of the Motherland”, featuring Shabaka’s father Anum Iyapo), the way you combined the texture of the flutes and the voice was so moving to me.

Layering up a lot of flutes was an idea that I was chatting about to Betamax [aka drummer Max Hallett] when we were touring with The Comet Is Coming, and he suggested that it would be really cool if I started to do flute choirs. So I started to record ten or so flutes on one melody line and then just stacked them way back in the mix so that it sounds like one phased flute. There’s a lot of that in “Song of the Motherland”, and honestly on “Breathing” as well. If you were to look at the ProTools session you’d see maybe hundreds of flutes, but they are stacked in such a way that it doesn’t necessarily sound like there are loads of flutes – in terms of the frequency of what you’re hearing.

Wow, I need to listen to it again on a good system and really pay attention to all that microtonal nuance. So, I’m curious about the recording sessions themselves. With all the musicians coming to the studio, how directed were the sessions? Was it more a case of you just holding space for everyone and seeing where things went?

Well, there were certain limitations, in that there was no separation between us and that we weren’t using headphones. Also, that flutes are really quiet instruments. That’s a pretty big parameter that determined how people played, because they had to be really sensitive. I’m better at the flute now, but two years ago I didn’t have as much dynamic control. I was good, but my playing in general was on the quieter side. It wasn’t like I was pushing it to be loud, necessarily.

When the other musicians came in, I told them that I wanted to hold that liminal space that you get at the start or the end of records. If you think about energy that’s in a really good intro, before the tune starts, or an outro that’s sort of simmering to an end. I wanted to hold that type of space, that type of vibe, and not progress. That was the hardest thing to communicate to people, that we actually didn’t want things to progress.

Of course, things always do, but that’s the great thing about giving people an instruction like that. We know that things will progress when the music goes in that direction, but just having that instruction encourages people to hold things back – as long as people aren’t too literal with it all. That comes with different personalities and may be why I might choose to play with one person over another. I prefer to work with people who can see when they should break a rule, even when it’s a rule that I’ve given them. I don’t want to work with people who are too stiff with all that.

That’s the paradox, I guess, of being a musician. You’ve got to follow the rules, but then if you don’t break them you’re not being creative. You’ve got to at least be questioning the validity of why you’re doing something, and then just try and do some ulterior thing.

Totally. With a record like this, there’s such a wealth of experience and technique and mastery, but there’s also a sort of journey of unlearning too within each combination of people that you brought together. It’s kind of a bioregional record, in a way. In the sense of it being a recording of humans in a particular space that you chose, which is also a kind of instrument in itself. I don’t imagine that you are intending to tour it as it was recorded, so I’m curious about the shows you’ve got coming up and about the evolution of the music.

Yeah, that’s the thing that’s on my brain at the moment, because what I’m trying to not do is to have a band. Which is, I guess, to the frustration of my management team, because it would be much easier if I had a set band and toured like that. But the problem is, it’s just not going to work like that. So instead there’s going to be different groups of musicians doing certain cycles of the tour with me.

For instance, for the UK and European shows, there’s going to be quite a big ensemble, with Marysia Osu and Alina Bzhezhinska on harp, Elliot Galvin on piano, Hinako Omori on synth, and me on flute. But when I play the States, it’s going to be with different combinations and musicians. We’ve got some gigs where we’ll break things down to just flute, harp and percussion, and other gigs where we’ll expand to include other people, like Ganavya Doraiswamy on vocals or Ambrose Akinmusire on trumpet.

For me, it’s really about experimenting with the lineup and how it feels to play the music in these different combinations. I want to see how that expands things, in terms of my personal arc and how I can push things musically. I see it literally as a journey in how I relate to the flute being played with other people on stage, because it’s not obvious what to do. We need to make the gigs as free as possible but still have some parameters to work within, in terms of composition. The only thing to do is to try and see, in different situations, what’s the least amount of information I can give to guide people to end up with a set that’s as free but also as structured as possible.

LM press shot portrait 02 credit Seungwon Jung
I resonate with all of that. I’ve found with my own music that translating it into different environments – like going from a purely electronic set to a completely acoustic one, or something even more minimalist where I’m going to sing all the saxophone parts – really gives such a depth of insight into the work, and how it can evolve or be reinvented. I’m curious, because if you’re changing so much in your live shows, how do you hold on to the essence of your ‘sonic poems’? And how do you go about directing that? I just want to be a fly on the wall, basically.

It's all a part of the practice that I do, which is a very specific practice even though it changes. It’s specific in that it’s based on improvisation and a specific mode of thinking about harmony. It’s kind of complicated to explain quickly, but it all wells into melodic shapes and how they’re structured with different access points, and stuff like that. It’s a way of thinking that means that I can basically reel off melodic information in accordance with certain harmonic systems that I’m dealing with. It could be a system as simple as improvising using the pentatonic scale, or it could be a combination of scales put together.

My practice is basically improvising a lot of melodic stuff, which is what you see in the music I’ve made with The Comet Is Coming. All the albums we’ve made were, at their roots, just improvised performances we came up with in the studio and produced on top of. And that’s because I am used to improvising melodies in a coherent way, melodies that stand up even in isolation.

There’s sometimes this idea that to improvise and jam with other musicians is to just leave it completely up to fate as to whether there’s going to be any melodic coherence. But, actually, if I’m going into a session I often know where I want to be, melodically, at that moment. I won’t restrict myself, in that I won’t be open to seeing what comes out in the moment. It’s more that I will go in with a very strong sense of the form of what I want a certain melodic area to take, and I’ll try to improvise in such a way that brings from the other person something that can accompany that form.

I guess that’s what being a bandleader is, to be the person that the energy of what’s exchanged musically goes towards. In situations where I’m not the bandleader, if I’m just one of two musicians meeting, the energy can sway in either direction. But if I’m leading a session – and when I say leading, I mean if it’s a session for my own album – what I’ll try to do is to kind of melodically create structure out of an atmosphere that’s been formed around the band.

"You’ve got to at least be questioning the validity of why you’re doing something, and then just try and do some ulterior thing."

That makes total sense. This new album of yours does feel very atmospheric. There’s such a journey that it goes on, and every song feels like its own microcosm of this atmospheric world that you’ve built. I’m particularly curious about the electronic side of it as well, because I love the track with the synth progression that has this thing on the high end that feels a bit like alien noise.

Yeah, that’s “I’ll Do Whatever You Want”, which was co-written and partly produced with Floating Points. André 3000 is also on that track. We did a session with André at The Church studios in London, which is the one session that we did outside of the Van Gelder session, and we did that with Dave Okumu on guitar and Tom Herbert on bass.

Amazing. You’ve been so woven into the bands that you’ve been playing with for many, many years now. I guess this is the first time in a long time that you’ve been able to fully focus on your solo practice, which is, ironically, extremely collaborative. But maybe you’re not being pulled in so many directions. How is it for you?

Yeah, man, it's a real strange one in that I’ve always had so many things that I'm doing, and those will lead to something else that I’m doing on stage. What I’m doing now feels like I’ll actually be able to combine what I’m working on and what’s coming out on stage as one thing.

I don’t think I’m there just yet, though, and I think that’s why I’m practising so much and why I’m making all this music here in Barbados. I think that there’s some potential in how I play that’s yet to be uncovered, and the only way to do that is to just keep practising until I figure it out.

There’s a pop artist that I really love called Caroline Polachek, and one of her phrases is “Potential is the drug,” which I think captures that sense of chasing after this uncovering of something that you feel but doesn’t quite exist just yet.

Yeah, and it can be an uncovering of a smoothness too. Because sometimes the problem is that there’s a blockage to the flow of getting out ideas and just being in the music, whether it’s an instrumental or a technological blockage. All the learning and the practice can be just to kind of smooth over those blockages so you can basically just tap into the flow.

Shabaka 2148 credit atibaphoto
Yeah, to get to a place where it all feels seamless. What’s the recording aspect of that?

Working with the OP-1 and SP-404 is just a part of my life now, but it has definitely been a journey to figure out what setup works for me. I didn’t really use any production technology before the pandemic, but then I watched a lot of YouTube videos and started that journey.

For me, the OP-1 is just handy. There are other things I could probably use that would do the same job, but in terms of my specific life and what I need, it’s really handy to use as a sampler and as a synth. Whereas, you know, the SP-404 is such a big instrument. There’s so much you can do with it, and it’s a really useful tool. What I’ve found is that the more I have these instruments in my life, and the more I’m just making stuff with them, the creative element just comes in naturally.

To be a musician in this day and age, I do think it really is useful to be able to produce yourself on a basic level. I can say that from the perspective of someone who didn’t have any training in it, has learnt about it by themselves, and can now produce an album from a bunch of stems – something which I absolutely couldn’t have done before the pandemic. For me, the appeal is really about having some control over how my music can even be imagined outside of the specific performance. If you can understand these technologies, you can visualise and imagine your music in completely different ways.

That’s fascinating to hear because my own journey has been in the opposite direction. I come from a production background, where for years I was making everything on my own, and only more recently have I been playing with other musicians. I’ve been doing less recording and more practice, and we’ve all been learning from each other in so many ways.

I’ve also been working with a choreographer and movement artist called Chantel Foo, who has been telling me about this idea of putting words into our body in performance. So, I wanted to talk about the title of the album, because to me it almost feels like a prayer. When I think of ‘perceive its beauty’ I picture an open arm, and when I think of ‘acknowledge its grace’ I think of that arm in an embrace. That’s just my interpretation, but I would love to hear from you about your relationship to the words and titles you’ve used on the album. Do they come before, after or during the music?

Definitely after. I’m a strong supporter of having the words come after the music. For me, if you have the words first, you’re trying to do something to make those words fit. For me, the way I make music is not about trying to do anything, but about trying to not do as much as possible and just letting the music come out in ways that might surprise me. If I have any words attached to things beforehand, it focuses me in a way that I don’t want to be focused.

After the music has been created and I’m nearing the end of an album, in general I like to go on a long walk with it, really listen to it, and then be like, ‘Yeah, so this is what it’s about.’ I find that the words tend to be a really deep reflection on what the music actually means to me, and what I’ve been thinking about for the last however many months or years. I think that often when you’re making a record, you’re seeing everything in terms of individual endeavours. But, actually, when you step back and look at the whole thing as one body of work, you start to see the poetic qualities of it. It's interesting, because there might be song titles that don’t seem to fit when looking at individual songs but fit completely when you look at the whole body of work. It's complicated to describe, but the titles of the songs tell a story.

Well, we’ve gone way over time and I should probably let you get back to work. Thank you so much for this, it’s been a real pleasure.

Thank you. Yeah, honestly, I could keep talking until the cows come home, but I do need to get back to practice.

Shabaka's new album Perceive its Beauty, Acknowledge its Grace is out now via Impulse! Records. Laura Misch releases Sample the Earth, an acoustic companion piece to 2023's Sample the Sky, on 7 June via One Little Independent Records.

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