Hannah McKittrick wants you to love ostinato as much as she does

 

I had no idea who Hannah McKittrick was. I had to ask around. Here is what I got: “She’s amazing! Great voice, great compositions and lovely person, full of youthful energy!” Not a bad introduction. Still, it pales in comparison with the power of her music. When I listened to her songs, Ifound myself immersed into them, engulfed by her voice and her hypnotic melodic structures, which defy and transcend genres, blending jazz and improvisation with minimalism and modern alternative songwriting. These tunes are now collected in her debut album, Slippery. Here the songwriter talks about it, describing her approach to music and sharing her thoughts on ostinato, phenomenology and the genius of Andrea Keller.

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How did Slippery come to be?

Slippery came directly from my research into the minimalist approach and application of static and repetitive ostinato patterns that emerged from 20th century Western art music and minimalism. I have always been very drawn to repetition in music. From learning violin as a child, I remember relishing the moment a theme my ear had grown accustomed to would return, and how it related to the accompaniment or the melody. I then began to form a liking for what I learnt later to be ostinato, when a fixed repetitive part accompanies, or is accompanied by, moving other parts. I began to recognise this in the guitar parts in Paul Simon’s Graceland that my mum played on repeat around our house. When I started listening to jazz, I was always drawn to composers who wrote left hand piano figures that repeated through a set of changes or solos, or one or two note rhythmic pedals anchored a tune, or the hypnotic repetitions of Steve Reich’s work for percussion. There was, and still is for me, an intrinsic beauty in the interaction between something so stoically unmoving, and something that continues to move around it. From my research, I have found that this relationship between static and moving, fixed and fluid, can become rather ambiguous as a compositional technique, or a slippery one. I’ve also been thinking about how slippery can apply to mood, and the narrative ideas explored on this album all can be linked back to a slippery mood that is unable to fit in any one identifiable thing, but moves around between all of them, often all at once.

What was the first song you wrote for this album?

The second track, ‘Wintertime (Epoch)’ , was the first one that I wrote in this collection of tunes, and actually the only one that I wrote before I began my research. This one features a long-form ostinato that outlines both the harmonic movement and rhythmic framework of the piece, and I had been listening to Radiohead’s new album, so I think the 3/4 pattern and sus2 chords have slyly leaked into this tune. I was also having lessons from the innovative Gian Slater at the time, and I think her approach to melody with large intervallic jumps and fluid articulation also inspired my writing of this tune. Thematically, I tried to encapsulate the liminal time that exists for about a week between Winter and Spring, where it’s still cold but you begin to notice the green growth returning. ‘Epoch’ refers to the suspending of validity judgements, which I hoped would add to this feeling of ambiguity. I did a Philosophy subject one time in my undergrad and ‘epoch’ is the only term I remember form Husserlian Phenomenology, but I think it’s nice. Good one, Husserl, ya kooky customer!

What inspires you to write songs? Does it come easy?

I’m inspired by a myriad of things and, as I think it is with most artists, it can be difficult to pinpoint exactly where ideas come from. Consciously, I am inspired by the expansiveness of the ocean, the liminality of time, the intimacy of gesture, the nuance in our reactions, the ambiguity of mood, the people I know and the people I don’t know. I find composing sometimes easy and it’s sometimes almost impossible. I feel most proud of my music when I feel like I’ve been able to come close to capturing a feeling, and making the sound feel near-tangible, while still bound to the beautiful intangibility of the music medium. It feels meaningful to me to be able to communicate something as vague and subjective as a feeling and have that manifest itself in someone else in ways I can’t and won’t ever understand, but can feel in their response. It’s hard for me to finish things, and often I abandon my compositional ideas when I run out of the initial momentum. This project has been great for combatting that, for the repetitive nature of this process-based minimalism-inspired music I’ve had to hang out and really internalise the same ideas for a while. Academic discourse around process-based music that come out of the minimalism canon all discuss the impact of gradually developing ideas, and how adding new elements slowly and sparsely demands a new kind of attentive listening from the listener, so it’s been interesting composing with that in mind.

What kind of preparation are you doing, before you release the album to the world?

I am really excited about the launch of Slippery on Friday. The gig is going to be almost identical to the album, except with the addition of another tenor saxophone player for a couple of tunes – because as good as Max Slorach is, I didn’t feel like I could ask him to play two horns at once for his harmony parts that we overdubbed in the studio.

It’s been such a pleasure to hear this music that has been hanging out in my head for so long materialise aurally before my ears by this exceptional group of musicians who are all so good at what they do and such good eggs. I hope that it’s slipperiness can be reassuring to people, and that my audience can find some solace and gentleness exhibited in my work.

How did you choose the musicians in your sextet?

I put a huge amount of thought into who I play my music with. I’ve learnt over time what I like and need in musicians around me, and although I take no credit for the magic they individually create, I reckon I’ve outdone myself with the selection of this gang. I am so grateful for this dazzling group of five individuals who said yes to be part of this project. I chose pianist Nat Bartsch for her gentle touch of the instrument; guitarist Theo Carbo for his beautiful resonant tone and unique simultaneous gentleness and boldness; saxophonist Max Slorach for his velvet sound and confidence in his execution of ideas; bassist Noah Hutchinson for his amazing feel and ability to inclusively lay down a groove; and drummer Ollie Cox for his unparalleled attention to texture and narrative. This group has encapsulated the essence of my compositions with their own care and artistry, and whether they’re playing their parts I’ve composed for them or improvising, they inject it with such thoughtfulness and sincerity. Playing with them feels like watching a fire just after it’s reached its peak sparky climax – warm, fascinating, durable and captivatingly different every second you behold it. I like us.

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How would you describe your sound?

I feel like my sound is pretty slippery too – haha – but I guess you can hear the influence of the folk music my family played around our house when I was growing up, the jazz I’ve studied, and the ambient minimalism and alternative rock I’ve loved along the way. I’m very influenced by the songwriting of Bon Iver and Sufjan Stevens, as well as Vijay Iyer, Laura Mvula and Paul Simon. Hopefully, all these things melt together to create something that feels like just one thing. I have so much love and respect for jazz. I love its interaction, its dynamics, its focus on collectivism rather than individualism and spontaneity and how it wills both players and audience to be present in each moment as the music unfolds before us. It is such a beautiful thing to play music when you feel like you’re serving the integrity of the piece, something bigger than just you, and jazz often feels like that for me. It’s also an opportunity to explore a mood through any means that you have access to, in a way that is interactive, expressive and surprising.

How did you find your voice as an artist?

I have a very clear memory of being affected by music when I was younger. I’ve always been someone who gets goosebumps and shivers easily when things affect me, and I can remember vocal harmonies affecting me in this physical way from very early on. From there, it has always been part of my life, and I am comforted to think that whatever happens, it will stay there for me. I just really like music; I like what it does, I like being part of it and I like being around it. Its nice isnt it? What a good time.

Who are your heroes?

Andrea Keller is definitely one of my heroes. A nice thing is that if you drop her name to anyone in the our jazz community, you are met with great fondness for her character, bewilderment for her work ethic, and a general wistful disbelief at her brilliance. I so admire her drive to create, and her curiosity to find new ways of thinking about music. Andrea is such a special person in that she is both a brilliant musician and educator. Each time after leaving her sunny office at VCA, I clasp my notebook tightly, full of her thoughts she shares with me that continue to expand the way I approached composing and thinking about music. She is truly exceptional, and I am continually inspired by her.

Where do you see yourself in ten years from now?

I’d like to be living back by the coast, maybe in Tasmania, writing music everyday for myself and other people, swimming in the ocean, patting lots of dogs and being with people I love.

Which tune best describes your current state of mind?

The fourth track on the album, ‘The Hour’, is quite applicable to me right now. I wrote it about the slither of time you have to yourself between going to bed and falling asleep, and how delicious that solitude can feel particularly when your day has been full of pace and people. I am sitting on a train across from a man who is asleep against the window as I write this, and although I am so tired and can relate to his slouched public slumber, I am grateful for this time to myself before I head home to bed.

Hannah McKittrick launches Slippery on Friday 26 October at the Jazz Lab, as part of the All In Melbourne sessions

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