Aaron McCoullough sends a message of emotional connectedness

How can a landscape become music? Aaron McCoullough posed this question to himself and came up with ‘Provenience’ – an album of music covering all spectrum from urgency to serenity, which is inspired by specific localities of the Illawarra region in New South Wales. It is music as a response to the landscape and if you close your eyes, you may think that youre flying over the coastline, the hills, the ranges – if not of Illawara, then of a place of your own memories and imagination. Here’s what the drummer, composer and bandleader had to say about it.

How did ‘Provenience’ come to be?

The first compositional seeds for Provenience began to take shape in the early part of 2016. At this time, I set myself the task of writing a body of work that I felt represented me as an improvising artist. There was no thought as to the embedded themes of the tunes, or the overall arc of the album. It was simply my goal to compose music that was varied, and that resonated with me as an artist. After completing the first three to four pieces, I began to observe common themes, and an overall sound emerging across the compositions upon reflection. This inspired me to begin contemplating how these pieces may be represented within a larger group of works. I decided that using the constructs of ‘place’ and ‘time’ attached to the Illawarra region allowed me to establish personal attachments to the already penned compositions. This conceptual basis set the scene for the compositions yet to be written, since it allowed me the ability to respond to varying locations and time periods growing up in the region. Implementing this method seemed to give me a framework to develop, and situate the given works found within ‘Provenience’.

How did you choose the band for this album?

The first performance from the ensemble presented on ‘Provenience’ was in 2014 at the old Bennetts Lane Jazz Club presented by the Melbourne Jazz Cooperative. Although this was the first performance for this particular line-up, my shared history with each musician has allowed me to develop an understanding of their respective musical personalities. I first met Hugh Stuckey in Mount Gambier in 2005 when we were both Generations in Jazz finalists. Hugh relocated to Melbourne from Adelaide after completing his degree a year or so later, and we soon reacquainted by having regular sessions with bassist, Sam Zerna. I became aware of James Bowers’ playing around 2008 when we were both featured on a friends recital. Saxophonist Tom Noonan introduced me to Marty Holoubek in 2012, and we quickly found ourselves performing together regularly. The development of these musical relationships over several years has enabled the ensemble to have a high level of musical comfort. It was my aim to assemble a collective of musicians that have a shared view of music, whilst having their own unique perspectives.

How do you think that the Illawarra landscape is represented in your music?

I think varying degrees of representation happened explicitly, and implicitly in the composition phase. For example, within the melodic framework of ‘Five Islands’, there is a reoccurring five note rhythmic grouping. When listening back to the composition, I immediately associated the idea with looking out over the Illawarra coastline, and seeing five small islands. Meanwhile, ‘Mystics’ is a little more abstract with regards to representation in the sense that it reflects a personal reflection of ‘place’, and ‘time’. I have a specific memory of surfing at Mystics when I was 15-16 years old with a friend with not another person in sight one early winter morning. Needless to say, it was quite chilly, but what I felt was a sense of remoteness, due to the mist and harsh conditions on that particular morning. Using this concept of association was rather interesting for me as each composition began to stimulate particular responses.

Jazz is considered to be an ‘urban’ kind of music; how does it relate to a rural, wilder landscape, such as the one that inspired ‘Provenience’?

There seems to be numerous instances regarding associations, and perceptions given to musicians about their given location, and resulted music. When I was studying at the VCA as an undergraduate, I remember attending a workshop led by a prominent European saxophonist where the question was posed to the cohort “What is the Australian sound?”

He seemed to ask the question out of innocence, as he pointed out that he was unfamiliar with Australian improvised music, and wanted to know the general atmosphere associated with the music. After being met with a long bout of silence, he gave an example that positioned his music within what he considered a European aesthetic giving consideration to weather, and an assortment of geological features. It took another bout of silence amongst 20-30 students before the VCA lecturer leading the class gave a response to the question. Upon hearing the response, it became evident that there were many complexities to consider, but a key feature was consideration to the Australian landscape. I view ‘Provenience’ as a series of abstractions that portray my response to varying landscapes found within the Illawarra region, all the while being filtered through my musical lens.

Illawarra is under urbanisation itself; how did that affect your approach to this work?

The urbanisation of the Illawarra did not play a role within the body of work presented on ‘Provenience’. Each piece reflects moments in time for me that happen to be associated with locations within the region. For instance, when I composed ‘Mystics ‘, my reflective memory brought back what going to Mystics was like as a child. At that particular time the land surrounding Mystics was farmland, and consisted of going through a number of farm gates on a dirt track before getting down to the beach. Today, that farmland is now its own suburb, and that dirt track is covered, and has a cycle path. I have been based in Melbourne for the last 14-15 years now, so I think my attachment to this urbanisation is removed for me regarding the works found on ‘Provenience’.

If you had to write lyrics for this album, what kind of story would you like to tell?

Writing lyrics, and exploring the medium of text is something I would like to do in the future. In regards to the music featured on ‘Provenience’, I think in some instances lyrics would certainly have a place, so who knows, that may be a future assignment. As to the story that I would like to develop, I think it would be a message of emotional connectedness.

What is the role of space in your music, both in terms of content but also in form?

Space is a central construct that exists at a variety of levels for me within music. At one level, space may fit within the idea of occupancy. An example may be of how a musician occupies space within an ensemble, or how melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic elements are situated within a composition. Another level of space could be found in the measurement of distances between musical events. In the course of composition, and improvised performance I consistently aim to search for a balance within these varying levels of perception. For me, this balancing act plays an important part in whether the music resonates with me as an artist.

How would you describe your music to someone not familiar with it?

‘Contemporary Jazz’ as a short answer. What contemporary jazz represents, however, in terms of genre is another debate all together. Giving a label to music is difficult for me. I would rather give insight into the music by explaining ‘Provenience’ as a series of improvised responses based upon thematic material written within a standard song form framework.

What does jazz mean to you?

When thinking of the term ‘jazz’, I instinctively gravitate to the idea of having permission to spontaneously create, with the possibility of anything, and everything. This notion I believe is at the core of the music, and is the very element that initially caught my attention, and continues to motivate me to develop within my practice.

Which tune best describes your current state of mind?

I Have a Dream, performed by Miles Davis Quintet, written by Herbie Hancock.

Aaron McCoullough launches ‘Provenience’ on Tuesday 6 March at the Jazz Lab.