Alister Spence: Explorations in Sound

by Phil Sandford

Alister Spence is intrigued by the relation between acoustic and sampled music, something which is explored at length in his trio’s latest CD, Far Flung. This is the trio’s fifth album, and their first double CD.

Alister Spence | photo by Lisa Tolcher

Together with Lloyd Swanton on bass and Toby Hall on drums and glockenspiel, Spence has created a unique tapestry of sounds, with sampled sounds interweaving with free improvisation and composed pieces.

‘Sampling has been part of our music since the Clarion Fracture Zone days,’ Spence says ‘and I’ve decided to see how far you can explore these little fragments of sound and what they can yield in terms of composition and different facets of looking at the music.’

After the music was recorded, Spence recomposed several pieces, overdubbing layers of sound at various points. ‘It’s a bit like a multi-perspective drawing where you are looking at the music on one level and on another level at the same time,’ he says.

‘I’m  interested to see how the micro world of samples can translate to the macro world of music. Gesture and sonics play a big part in everybody’s music. That’s how we identify John Coltrane or Charlie Parker.’

Spence is full of praise for his trio partners. ‘What I like about Lloyd first of all is that he has very good technique,’ Spence says. ‘He studied classical technique and he knows how to get a good and consistent in-tune sound out of the instrument. He’s also very interested in groove in a very broad sense, from reggae to electronica, but firmly rooted in jazz. He’s not afraid to suggest an idea and that’s what you need – people who are big personalities on their instruments and are willing to put it there for you to interact with.

‘Similarly, Toby has a terrific kind of exuberant energy, which I really like. He often does things kind of in spite of himself. He’ll get carried away in the moment and I think that’s terrific. He’s a wonderful musician to interact with and he has a very fluid sound on the drums. He’s also taken on new challenges like learning the glockenspiel.’

Spence has been influenced by a wide range of music and other arts. ‘I like bands like The Necks and EST,’ he says, ‘but with some of these bands I deliberately try not to listen to them just because I know we’re on common ground. I’ve also been influenced by contemporary classical music such as György Ligeti and Morton Feldman, sections of Keith Jarrett compositions, and the way Swedish pianist Bobo Stenson uses space and can mix up quite a lot of free improvisation with his compositions.’

Video | Alister Spence Trio – Luminescence @ Vilnius Jazz 2009

Spence has also come to like some European electronic music for its spaciousness and economy: ‘That type of music will typically spend a long time dwelling one small thing.’

Spence’s focus on an economy of ideas has also come from scoring a number of films and documentaries, such as Ivan Sens’ Beneath Clouds. ‘Often you only use two or three themes that recur through the film and that’s been a real learning curve for me,’ he says.

One of his first jobs on returning to Australia from overseas in 1983 was with the Kinetic Energy Theatre Company and since then he has worked extensively in theatre and dance.

Spence’s other recent release is Stepping Between The Shadows, a duo album with Scottish saxophonist Raymond MacDonald. The seven freely improvised pieces were recorded live in concert in Glasgow in 2011.

Spence’s trio has collaborated with MacDonald in a number of projects since 2006 and was part of his International Big Band, which released Buddy in 2010. The album included written pieces, free improvisation and conducted improvisations.

Stepping Between The Shadows | Alister Spence/Raymond MacDonald

MacDonald will join Spence for a five-city Australian tour to promote Stepping Between The Shadows before they head off to England and Scotland, where they will be joined by Spence’s European tour partners, Canadian bassist Joe Williamson and Swedish drummer Chris Cantillo. Here the focus will be on material from Far Flung. After the tour, Williamson and Cantillo will record with Spence in Stockholm.

On returning from overseas Spence will perform as part of the Living Room Theatre‘s I Love Todd Sampson, written by Michelle St. Ann. Spence wrote the score for the multi-media production, ‘an intense, emotional play about obsession’.

After that, he will continue to stretch the sonic and rhythmic possibilities of the piano trio and the world of samples.


Alister Spence on the web: – includes tour dates and venues

Read a review of Far Flung on

See a video of the Sruthi Laya Ensemble playing On the Loop a composition by Alister Spence on the Music Show (ABC RN)

See more about Far Flung and other Alister Spence Trio CDs on the Rufus Records website