Composer Paul Hanmer

Composer Paul Hanmer

Paul Hanmer is a jazz musician with strong classical roots who works in both these genres. His most recently compositions ‘Nachtroep’, a triple concerto for trumpet/flugelhorn, violin and piano with string orchestra and ‘Nightjar Breaks’, a short fantasia for solo flute and string orchestra will be performed at the Johannesburg International Mozart Festival this year.

Tell us about your formative years as musician (pre-university). Where you grew up, who influenced you, what instruments did you play…etc?

PH: I grew up in Crawford (now ‘up-graded’ to Rondebosch East) in Cape Town. My aunts on my father’s side were both music teachers and organists in the church we attended. An uncle on my mother’s side was also a pianist who loved the boogie-woogie style of playing, but he had stopped playing by the time I became interested in music. Through the piano lessons and practising of my 3 older sisters and through listening to my parents’ record collection which included J. S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concerti, Beethoven Symphonies, Sibelius tone poems and his Violin Concerto, Schubert song cycles, Frank Sinatra singing with big band or orchestra, to arrangements done by the great Nelson Riddle and others, a meeting of Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong together with a trio led by (I think) pianist Teddy Wilson, etc.

I also admired harpsichordists Wanda Landowska, Igor Kipnis, and much later Trevor Pinnock - and in fact wanted to take harpsichord as a 2nd instrument at university. But I was not permitted to do this, since I already had a keyboard instrument (piano) as my principal instrument and so I thought about the cello, but landed up choosing tenor trombone as my 2nd instrument!

Was your first contact with music with jazz or classical music?

PH: As you can see I was exposed to both genres from an early age by doing a lot of listening.

You decided to study classical music at university. Was this because you felt you needed a solid musical background or because it was your passion at that stage?

PH: It was my passion a that stage, besides, it was the route I had seen and heard my sisters take in learning to play, so I just assumed this was the way to learn too.

You started your studies in classical piano at the University of Cape Town, but left after two years to work with guitarist Paul Petersen. What swayed you to do this?

PH: I had reached the point where I had to make an important decision ahead of going into 3rd year of my B. Mus degree. My father was not in support of my wish to study for a degree in music composition, and so he persuaded me to apply for a degree in music education. His reasoning was that he wanted me to gain a qualification which would enable me to get a steady job, which would be dependable and upon which I could rely to help me build a steady and a stable life - without the uncertainties he felt certain lay in waiting for me were I to decide otherwise.

And so it proved difficult for me to remain motivated at UCT. Besides, I had met some really funky people (Wayne Siebritz, Anton Pietersen, Mervyn Africa, Marc Duby, Kevin Davidson, Spiro Paxinos, Simon Sternberg) who were doing different things and living a life that was full of vigour and adventure and seemed far away from the ‘dryness’ of some of my fellow students.

I had by that stage met Paul Petersen and seen Robbie Jansen perform, also Russell Herman’s band at the time - ‘Estudio’ - which included in its line-up Peter Sklair on bass, Hilton Schilder on percussion, Russell as main composer and leader on guitar, Jack Momple on drums, Tony Cedras at the piano and Louis Wald on violin. I had also met up with Tina Schouw, who was by then an already well-known performer of her own original songs, accompanying herself on guitar.

So this whole other side to a possible musical life (that did not involve teaching necessarily, chamber recitals and performing material of long-deceased composers from Europe) seemed to become apparent to me, and I really got attracted to it.

Your career was then taken up with jazz music for many years. How and when did you become involved with classical music again?

PH: Well, for a long time I was under the misconception that classical music, and a classical training in music, was an entirely terrible thing for a musician trying to find out what was or was not important to him, while searching for a way forward in Johannesburg, South Africa in the late 80’s.

It wasn’t until I heard Keith Jarrett on record in about 1989 that I realised what a blessing it really was to have been afforded the opportunity to study the piano and music theory for all those years back in Cape Town.

Instruments like the flute, all of the violin family, the piano, all the brass instruments, many percussion instruments, the harp, etc. are all best learnt through the musical tradition that these wonderful instruments were invented or specially developed to play, namely Western Art Music.

So I had studied through the tradition of my chosen instrument, and there were not too many active musicians working at that time who could have claimed the same thing. So my guess is that was time for me to re-embrace classical music.

What do you think are the differences and similarities between jazz and classical music?

PH: I have to think about this one. Not being American, and thus unable to talk with any great authority on the subject of jazz, I would venture to say that the higher the level of musicianship, the actual presence of the performers in the moment of performance, the greater level of involvement from every possible point of view - spontaneity, physical input, intelligence, listening to each other, bringing all their training and musical expertise to bear on the moment, etc…..if all these of factors are present in either a jazz or classical performance, there tends to be less difference between the two genres.

Both genres will then seem ‘made-in-that-very-moment’, both will be full of wonder, invention and surprise, and both will be equally thrilling to listen to.

In Boswil (Switzerland) I was very fortunate to attend a performance in May of 2009 of a Haydn trio for violin, violoncello and piano given by these young performers between the ages of 20 and 30 named The Tecchler Trio… it was electrifying !

In 1980 in Cape Town at the Space Theatre, I think. I was fortunate to hear Sakhile in performance. That was just ridiculous! I thought Sipho Gumede was about 7 ft tall! To me he was just the most amazingly dignified, grand, anchor-prophet of the whole band, so when after the concert this slightly-built man, somewhat shorter than me, drew ever closer to where I was standing, I firstly couldn’t believe that it was the same person, and secondly I realised the transformation wrought in me and in him, by the power of the spirit of absolute involvement and immersion in whatever it is one does.

How and when did you start composing?

PH: After 2 lessons in piano, down the road in our neighbourhood, at the home of my first ever teacher Anthony Blake (who was in high school with my eldest sister Lyn) I apparently returned home to announce (my mother told me this) that I wanted to play the piano and compose music… and so I did!

My first ever piece was in the key of C major and used all the 88 notes of the piano! Needless to say it has not been performed that often! Thereafter, I got these huge (double elephant size actually) sheets of strong white paper which my cousin Sidney, who was trained as an architect, used as backing sheets to support his technical drawings and plans. On these massive pages, which could then be very ‘artistically’ rolled up into scrolls, I would then draw my own sets of staves, with a special five-nabbed dipping pen, which my father had brought home for me from a trip to Italy. On these staves I would write my first attempts at string quartets!

I would then walk to where my youngest sister Arlene’s piano teacher resided and go and unfurl them and hear his comments and recommendations. I wish I could find these things again one day!

How would you describe your classical compositions?

PH: I am very, very conventional. I love a beautiful melody and lush harmony and so I view myself as a very conservative composer. I have listened to so much really great music that is very firmly rooted in the world of tonality and the 12 semi-tones of the octave - pop songs, dance music, folk music, jazz, classical, baroque, romantic, early 20th century sounds, our own traditional music and derivatives of those stylistic traditions, etc.

To get a proper opinion of my music, I think you’d be better off asking one or two other people…!

Most of your classical music compositions are for instruments. Any specific reason why you have not composed for voice?

PH: Good question! Most of the singers that I know and have worked with are really incredible and most of them don’t read music - most of them are fantastic composers as well! So it not surprising then, to note that I haven’t really written much for singers.

I have made a few exceptions though: I have written for Gloria Bosman, who is a ridiculously gifted musician, composer, lyricist and improviser who just happens to be a singer. Also for Cecil Mitchell, who has a voice that is just a beautiful blessing. He and I have written a lot of songs together as well, which have not seen the light of day, much to my shame and regret. I also wrote an orchestral song-setting for our friend Eva Rune from Gothenburg, who is also a fabulous singer, endowed with a deep knowledge of the folk idioms of her native Sweden, as well as a big knowledge and respect for other Nordic folk music and South Africa music, which I have performed with her over several years together with Khanya Ceza. Khanya is another very gifted singer, composer, poet, arranger and improviser who is deeply rooted in the tradition he was born into, hailing as he does from the rural Eastern Cape.

Writing for singers is a bit like writing for drummers: most of the players of I have been so fortunate to work with would really be hampered by anything I could set onto paper for them, so it just wouldn’t be of any use at all !

You are currently composer-in residence for the Johannesburg International Mozart Festival (JIMF). What is expected of you in this position?

PH: Well…firstly to write some new pieces, especially for the festival and also to lead a workshop or two with younger pianists. Additionally, to write programme notes for some of the concerts and programming for some of the chamber music, drawing pieces from my existing ‘portfolio’ so-to-speak.

I will also be leading the process of providing live improvised sound-tracks for the screenings of two cinematic masterpieces with my long-term colleague and band mate McCoy Mrubata on one night, and trumpeter/flugelhorn-player Feya Faku on the other.

Also, I guess, to be some kind of constant presence through the festival, listening, helping where I can, ready to answer questions about things, etc. A sort of representative of the compositional wealth that lies mostly untapped here at home? Anyway, I am finding out what is required of me as time goes by…

If you had carte blanche, what would you still like to compose?

PH: I do have various degrees of freedom, or ‘carte blanche’, as you’ve put it…. What I really need is money to sustain me while I enjoy this so-called carte blanche effect… because really, the carte is no longer blanche! I have a family and a home to support and that is fairly difficult to do as a freelancing musician, dancer, actor, dry cleaner, taxi owner, engineering works director, etc.

So actual ‘carte blanche’ is really a pipe-dream probably, because I also have to try by all means to have a practical view of what I am trying to do. To prepare for this festival has taken a lot out of me, and my health has also been compromised by the stress of the deadline, the pressure to come up with ideas, the constant need to be ‘lying-in-wait’ for those ideas, being clearheaded enough to set them down on paper clearly, logically and legibly and to be able to talk business and make good decisions about stuff… and stay keep focussed on raising my daughters and trying to be present as a husband to my wife while paying the bills. Not so easy!

What are your plans for the rest of the year?

PH: Firstly, to take a break from composing-to-deadline. Secondly, to try (note, I said ‘try’) and take a break somewhere with my family.
Then I would like to devote some time to getting new shelving for my work room, because I’m really tired by how disorganised it gets in there.! After that, maybe I’d like to look at releasing some of the ‘live’
recordings that I have been privileged to be a part of.

Published: 13.01.2012
Interview by Christien Coetzee Klingler

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