Name: Thomas Enhco
Occupation: Pianist, violinist, composer, improviser
Current release: Thomas Enhco's new album Bach Mirror, a collaboration with percussionist and marimba virtuoso Vassilena Serafimova, is out now on Sony Classical.
Recommendations: ‘The Letters to a Young Poet’ by Rainer Maria Rilke, and Chick Corea's record ‘Now he Sings, Now he Sobs’.
If you enjoyed this interview with Thomas Enhco, visit his homepage for further information. We also have a Vassilena Serafimova interview, to complement Thomas's views in this feature.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I started writing music at the age of six.
From a young age, my dad, an amateur classical pianist, would tell me stories whilst playing Beethoven or Mozart pieces and my mum, a professional singer, would sing me opera arias as lullabies. When I discovered jazz and improvisation at the age of 6, that's when I truly felt drawn towards composing and expressing myself through music.
For most artists, originality is preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you: How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
I never really looked for "my own voice.” I listened to and got immersed with many jazz musicians in my teens, but never transcribed or emulated very much; I remember how teachers and mentors wanted me to sound a certain way, and I would mostly take other paths, in a very instinctive way. So, I guess finding your own originality is simply being faithful to what you like, not to what others want you to sound like.
How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?
If what you mean by "identity" is where you come from and how you grow up, well … I'm French, I grew up in the countryside before the internet and social media era, and I feel the influence of that every day in the way I live and the way I make music. I feel close to all things poetic: to nature, to animals and trees, to paper and pencil, and quite far from technology and industry. I think that has had a big impact on how I practice, compose and find inspiration.
What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
In the beginning I was mostly trying to write jazz tunes for piano trios, and create my own improvisational language on the piano, which evolved through a lot of exercises (rhythm, harmony, hands independence).
Over time, I aimed further in both directions: I'm into orchestration (for symphony orchestras) and also song writing (I’ve been trying to find the essence in a very small format). As for piano playing, I'm really focusing on sound production of the instrument, and on inner time feel.
As creative goals and technical abilities change, so does the need for different tools of expression, be it instruments, software tools or recording equipment. Can you describe this path for you, starting from your first instrument? What motivated some of the choices you made over the years?
My first instrument was the violin. I still play it a little bit, but I was never a very good violinist. The piano is really the instrument that I was attracted to, and that never changed since I was 6.
As for technical software and equipment, I'm keeping it very simple: I've been using the same musical notation software for scoring (Sibelius), but I always start with pencil and paper. When I need to record something on my own, or make a demo for a film music, I use Logic and a few mics I have at home - but I'm not very good at it. So when I’m required to use more advanced technology, I tend to work with people who are great at that.
Derek Bailey defined improvising as the search for material which is endlessly transformable. Regardless of whether or not you agree with his perspective, what kind of materials have turned to be particularly transformable and stimulating for you? Have there been technologies or instruments which have profoundly changed or even questioned the way you make music?
Jazz standards and good pop/folk songs are always inspiring and endlessly transformable. I guess it's because they have a "perfect" shape, like a jewel, and their essence is a beautiful and simple melody, a few beautiful chords, framed into a miniature world, like a snowball. That's why jazz musicians (like Keith Jarrett among many others) have been reinventing these songs so much for a century. I feel the same with some classical themes, like in the music of Bach, Schumann, Brahms, or in early music.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?
It really depends on the cultural nature of people.
For instance I recently took part in a project with Latin-American musicians, where I found that playing and talking with them opened up a new world of rhythms and musical traditions for me. The same happened recently while jamming with an Indian bansuri-player and even more recently I collaborated with a French singer-songwriter. During which, I improvised at the piano while he was reading a text he had written, and it's now going to be the music used for this song. Each of these ways of collaborating was very different and challenged me beyond my comfort zone, which is always a great way to stay creative, as long as you remain curious and open-minded.
Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please. Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
I really don't have a fixed schedule. I'll typically sit at the piano and warm up playing some short classical pieces I already know (Bach, Chopin, Brahms, Scriabine, Ravel …), focusing on my body, scanning and releasing any tension, focusing on breathing (a sort of piano-meditation), or learning a new piece for fun. Then, depending on what I have to do, I'll spend the next hours doing it. I’ll debate whether to learn a classical concerto or prepare for upcoming concerts? I'll do that all day. Or compose music for a commission? I'll do that all day. Or nothing special? I'll work on my jazz piano playing, focusing on rhythm, harmony and phrasing. I may also teach or listen to new music that was recommended to me.
Can you talk about a breakthrough work, event or performance in your career? Why does it feel special to you? When, why and how did you start working on it, what were some of the motivations and ideas behind it?
The one that stands out in my memory in my first Piano Concerto. I wrote it in 2016, it was the first time I wrote for a symphony orchestra. It was also the first time I wrote a long-form piece (comprising 3 movements, 35 minutes), and when it was premiered in early 2017 it was the first time I had performed on stage with an orchestra. That night, I played 3 concertos: one by Mozart, one by Gershwin, and my own. Talk about first times!
In this piece I put every idea, feeling and energy I had while being extensively on tour; I wrote bits of it from many different places in the world. I’m also delighted at having played it in concert many times with different orchestras and conductors, and recorded it in my 2019 album Thirty, on Sony Classical. It really bridges my two musical worlds, jazz and classical, written music and improvisation (there are many passages in this concerto in which I improvise the piano part) and it just feels so great to improvise on top of a full orchestra!
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
To be creative, I need a combination of calm and motion.
If I'm hiking, for example, or surfing of mountain-biking, I'm in a calm environment (nature) and in motion (riding the bike, the board or walking), and I often find myself having ideas, singing melodies or rhythms or thinking about musical concepts, in those kinds of situations. I'd say it's a state of hyper-concentration (you need to be focused to stay balanced on you bike or on the wave) and maintain complete relaxation and acceptance of what is (you have no control on what the weather is like, or the swell or the wind). I can feel that way riding my bicycle in the city, too, but it's more dangerous!
When sitting at the piano, ideas come while I play, not while I'm silent. And when they come, it's like riding a wave: you're trying to make the most of it but if you try to force it, you fall and can only wait for the next. One of my current strategies is, whenever I'm being productive, I stop before the idea or drive is lost. As in, I’ll stop when it's still frustrating to stop and will revisit it later. That way, ideas remain fresh.
Distractions are mainly the phone and other people asking for your attention. It's not easy to deal with that and to give yourself quality time and space. It's a modern-day challenge!
Music and sounds can heal, but they can also hurt. Do you personally have experiences with either or both of these? Where do you personally see the biggest need and potential for music as a tool for healing?
Well, in my experience music often heals and hurts at the same time! Just like love does. Usually when music can hurt you, it means it's powerful and hence good; having the capacity to both elevate and heal.
There is a fine line between cultural exchange and appropriation. What are your thoughts on the limits of copying, using cultural signs and symbols and the cultural/social/gender specificity of art?
It's very important to know where your art has its roots. It's a duty to study the traditions of your art form, to know as much as possible about its history, to know where you come from artistically. As long as you're genuinely aware of these things and respectful of them, I think there are no limits to what you can or can't do in art.
Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work?
Synaesthesia is a fascinating thing. I realized a few years ago, after seeing a play by Peter Brook about it, that I had experienced synaesthesia without knowing that it had a name. Basically, I've always seen colours when hearing sounds. For example, the note C is always blue, D is green, E is red/burgundy, F is purple, etc. and depending on how high or low the note is, the colour will be lighter of darker in my mind.
Then with harmony, a chord will share its main colour with the root-note and the hue will vary depending on the harmonic nuances. For example, a chord of D minor with a B flat intertwined will make a lake-green painting with hints of gold in it (the note B is yellow for me, B flat is gold-yellow). I know this will vary differently for other people. I also experience the same with textures (musical sounds can be paired with wood, metals, liquids, or even wool textures).
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
I never felt I was an engaged artist, I just make music because I need it, in a very natural, perhaps naïve or even selfish way. The only thing I can say about this, is that when I play concerts I can really feel that a bond being created between people from a variety of different: cultures, ages, backgrounds, ethnicities and religions. And that is a big source of joy.
I often receive messages on social networks from people who say that my music helped them through hardships like illness, loss of a parent or breakup. Therefore, I think that feeling is something that comforts me in wanting to make music for the people, in a very simple and humble way. No big ideas, no big fights, just honest music that people can enjoy and relate to.
What can music express about life and death which words alone may not?
It's only poets who can manipulate words in order to speak about life and death in a complete and subtle way. I can't do that with words (I wish I could!), but music, especially instrumental music, can express all the nuances, shades and tones. It can express a smile and a tear at the same time, and that's something I'm very passionate about, the plurality of feelings and layers within the same phrase that music can convey.