Rae Howell: “The experience of listening to instrumental music is your own journey”

Photo by Anne Skilbeck

“Μusician, composer, pianist and vibraphonist extraordinaire” (as Luna Kafe puts it), Rae Howell is one of those daring artists that seem to always be absorbed by their art, inhabiting a world of their own, but, at the same time, she is generous enough to let you get a glimpse of her world. A glimpse, of course, is more than enough to get you completely immersed in this universe of sounds and textures, images and emotions. As if her various ventures – and notably her work with the Sunrae ensemble that redefines the concept of chamber music – weren’t enough, she just launched a double cd solo album, “Invisible Wilderness”. It is a project of extreme intimacy; just her, a piano (or a Fender Rhodes) and a series of emotions that she is keen to share with the listener. Currently touring around Australia, she answered some questions, further providing glimpses of her world.  

AustralianJazz.net: How did you decide to do a solo album?

Rae Howell: I decided on a solo album because I have a huge range of solo piano material spanning 15 years, that have never been documented before. It was time to record a selection of them and complete the sheet music notations so that other people may be able to listen and learn to play them (the 12 tracks on Volume I have been published as a sheet music book and as digital downloads). The challenges came in many forms: deciding which works to record/keep/discard; when to sign off on a completed work; finding the time to edit and refine the sheet music notations; financing the process from start to end; the list goes on! The most rewarding aspect now, is knowing the recording and publication are finished, I’m still alive (!) and that I accomplished it independently.

AJN: Did you miss working with a band?

RH: Absolutely. I love working, writing and playing with others, however I knew that this had to be done on my own. I missed having a second opinion, people to bounce ideas off, or help with the decision making, but again, it’s rewarding to have finished two solo recordings and a publication.

AJN: Is there a difference in the way you approach music, when you work with others, compared to when it’s just you and the piano?

RH: There’s definitely a difference in the way I approach music on my own, and that difference also depends on the process and intention. There’s a lot of freedom working alone, and although the same can be said for working with others, the amount of freedom hinges on whether it’s improvised alone or with a group, or if the goal is for it to be through-composed or not, and if that composition is written by myself or collaboratively. Most of the Sunwrae Ensemble work I’ve composed alone, then shared with the group, at which point we can make changes, improvise solos, move sections around to see what work best in a live or recorded context. I quite like creating music any which way possible, as each approach can bring fresh ideas that may not have been clear before.

AJN: What is it about the Fender Rhodes that appeals to you? 

RH: I am drawn to the Fender Rhodes for its sound. It’s lush, warm and has a character that a clean hammer action piano just cannot create! I wanted Volume II to have more sound variety, textures, timbres etc., so I included the Rhodes to step away from the acoustic sounding pianos. It also gave me more freedom to improvise, so it wasn’t just a matter of playing the piano works on the Rhodes. There’s a couple of unreleased recordings that’ll surface down the track sometime with the Rhodes too.

AJN: What is your idea of “invisible wilderness”? 

RH: The title refers to one’s own experience of life in a way: the wilderness being your individual journey, and invisible meaning not something you can explain or see exactly, because it’s your own. Similarly, I think the experience of listening to instrumental music is your own journey and different people take away different things, have their own experience, imagine their own thoughts.

AJN: What part of your personality do you think is mostly shown through this album?

RH: There’s probably a bit of everything. Perhaps a little of my calm nature, elements of surprise, playfulness, seriousness.. the sublime to the ridiculous.

AJN: How would you describe your music to someone who is not familiar with it?

RH: I generally say it’s a contemporary mix of a few styles, with hypnotic cross rhythms, minimalistic themes, cinematic textures, interspersed with melodic lines and improvisations.

AJN: Who are your influences? 

RH: In no particular order, Laurie Anderson, Steve Reich, Debussy, Ravel, Penguin Cafe Orchestra, Cinematic Orchestra, to name a few…

AJN: What is the single most important thing anyone has ever said to you?

Photo by Anne Skilbeck

RH: “Keep doing what you’re doing.”

AJN: Your music has been described as having a “cinematic” quality.  What does that mean to you? 

RH: It evokes images; you can create a story, or it’s something that might accompany a film.

AJN: If “Invisible wilderness” was indeed the soundtrack for a film, what kind of film would that be?

RH: My first thought is something to do with nature; but I could be just craving trees.

AJN: What should the audience expect from your upcoming concerts?

RH: In Melbourne, I’m playing piano and Rhodes, along with the Sunwrae String Quartet. Sydney, Wauchope Arts and Brisbane are solo piano shows, with support from London-based Australian pianist-improvisor Meg Morley.

AJN: What is your biggest aspiration?

RH: Still working that one out.

AJN: If you could be anywhere in the world at the moment, where would that be?

RH: In a forest somewhere, listening to the wind through the trees, the chorus of the birds, with a spectacular view of nature.

AJN: What song best describes your current state of mind? 

RH: Right at the moment, Duelling Elephants by Barry Black, from Tragic Animal Stories.