Caro Meets Music Interview

Adrian Lever: Confluence

By | Published on Thursday 14 April 2016


I’m fascinated by the sound of ‘Confluence’, musician Adrian Lever’s multi-genred performance blending improvised piano with multi media art forms, all inspired by common themes.
He’s a very busy man, by the sound of things, but luckily for me, managed to find time for a chat. I put some questions to Adrian, to learn about the show, his career, and the nature of improvised music.

CM: Can you start by telling us what to expect from ‘Confluence’? How would you describe this show, in terms of genre?
AL: ‘Confluence’ straddles a few different fields, but in the broadest sense ‘contemporary classical’ covers most of the bases. I tend to find those terms a bit clumsy with most of the projects that I do! In a way it could be described as a visual arts piece with music instead of the other way round – the structure of the show comes from the visuals (paintings, animation, electronic visuals) which are in the same order on each gig at the moment. The electronic visuals are accompanied by live sonic electronics and I have a kind of piano language that has developed in response to each type of visual, but other than that there’s nothing set in terms of ‘riffs’ or themes musically, so its all down to how it goes on the night.

CM: What themes does the piece explore?
AL: The title ‘Confluence’ comes from the idea of the visuals and sounds coming together and all the artists involved working together… but its more traditional meaning in terms of the point at which one river joins another also resonates with the project because it draws a lot of inspiration from waterways, from the sea and also from impressionism – I sometimes describe what I’m doing on the piano as post-impressionist. The piano as a medium for expressing the forms and myths related to water is one of the main things that inspired me to keep playing when teenage rock guitar nearly took over! Its also a personal journey about East Anglia, where i grew up. The broads, rivers, marshlands and coastlines that feature heavily in Sarah Cannell’s paintings.

CM: What made you want to do this kind of a show? What inspired it?
AL: Improvisation at the piano is something that just happened as a natural part of learning the instrument for me, and it was always there as a big part of my private musical life, but one that I always intended to share in one way or another. Bringing this project to life was really a process of working out exactly how I would present it, how it could work in a live context, and in what environment could I best sit for 45 minutes and play completely from the top of my head without being too self conscious!

I’d always thought that it would need another element, be it dance or visual arts or electronics, to help structure and guide the performance, and in this case I’ve gone with the visuals, although it could develop in different directions in the future. But essentially its about taking a really personal reflective inner space into a public environment and sharing that – which is quite scary, but I hope that people can connect with it and get something from it.

CM: How do you ready yourself for the improvised elements? What is it about improvising that you find interesting?
AL: Whenever I sit at the piano, whether my intention is to learn a piece or practice some technique, it invariably ends up with me improvising without actually having necessarily intended to… not always a good thing, except in this case! So in preparing for ‘Confluence’ it was weird, in a way, to actually sit with the intention of improvising – but it has opened things up a lot. In workshopping playing to the different visuals I found that I developed certain ideas and approaches that hadn’t occurred to me before, which was a really exciting development – I also had some lessons with the brilliant pianist/improviser Alexander Hawkins, and we talked lots about the whole subject in a really wide way, which was massively helpful.

Improvising has a great strength in the fact that it’s so immediate, it’s there in that moment alone, and its expression is focused in that particular point in time, so it think it has the potential to be really powerful from an audience point of view too, because the audience is a really active part in it, and there’s an awareness in the room that this will never happen in the same way again.

CM: One doesn’t naturally associate classical music with improvisation, yet historically, it did happen, didn’t it? Why do you think it has fallen out of favour? Would you like to see lots of other musicians and composers doing this?
AL: I think that there have been more and more elements of improvisation within composition for a few decades now – many contemporary pieces call for active creative participation in the score by the performer. But there’s still quite a divide, I think, between improvisers and the more mainstream classical world. There seems to be endless debate, for instance, about whether it’s appropriate to improvise ornamentation and embellish phrases in Mozart sonatas when you are repeating previous material. But there does seem to be evidence that that was what was expected… then, as we go forward from there, composers really started to want to control totally every last detail of the realisation of the music, despite invariably being great improvisers themselves – piano concerts in the late classical and romantic era very often having improvisations based on themes chosen by the audience. But the culture that grew out of those strict compositional demands seems to have shunned improvising more and more, and there began a kind of disconnect from it.

CM: Did you always want to work in music? How did your interest in it start?
AL: Apart from the early days of obsession with being a rally car driver! Yes, I always wanted to go down a musical route, though I wasn’t sure exactly what/how. My early inspirations were my dad playing hymns and pop songs at home on the piano, and having a primary school that was really into singing, and a middle school that had a fantastic music teacher. I think from an early age playing started to give me a voice that I didn’t have in any other situations, so that was quite important.

CM: How did you begin your music career? What elements of it have been the most satisfying?
AL: I guess my career started in early gigs with my high school rock band playing electric guitar. And the buzz we got from playing end of term concerts at school was fairly mind-blowing! I think that kind of got me hooked… but music has opened so many doors for me it’s hard to say what has been most satisfying, and it continues to give new experiences and new satisfactions. But in a sense, what’s most important is that having to get up on stage and talk to people and conquer nerves has really helped me to come out of my shell over the years as a person. It’s also given me many really important friendships, and of course those moments when people communicate that what you’ve played has moved them, made them happy, made them cry etc… are fundamentally what it’s all about.

CM: What hopes do you have for ‘Confluence’ in the long term? Is it something you hope to keep going?
AL: Yes, I’d really like to see ‘Confluence’ develop into being a regular part of my musical work. I’d like it to keep exploring, keep developing and hopefully I can find some more funding to help with that too. I’d like to experiment more with the instrument itself – I’ve had an idea for a while that it should be more than one piano, exploring microtonal tuning, different timbres etc, and potentially pieces of scrap piano that could be bowed or played in other ways. I also want to spend lots more time with my collaborator Bill Vine on the electronics side of things so that we can develop how that works and make it as flexible as possible. I really hope to take it to some festivals next year.

CM: Do you have any other plans or new projects, short term or long term?
AL: I’m currently working on a new album with electro-folk duo ArHai in which I play Bulgarian tambura and English dulcimer, and I’m just finishing off a debut album for the Alma label with folk fiddlers John Dipper and Emily Askew and me on guitar. I’m also working with a great step-dancer called Toby bennett in a band called Stepling, with London-based Irish band Three Dollar Shoe, and a new project with Macedonian singer Tanja Tzarovska. It’s a bit of a juggle at times, but it keeps me on my toes and keeps me inspired and excited about what I’m doing.

‘Confluence’ is on at The Cello Factory from 16-17 Apr. See this page here for details and booking info.