Members: Magda Mayas (piano, clavinet, fender rhodes, organ), Tony Buck: (drums, percussion, guitar, waterphone, monochord)
Nationality: German (Magda), Australian (Tony)
Occupation: Composers, improvisers, instrumentalists
Current release: SPILL's mycelium is out via Corvo.
If you enjoyed this interview with SPILL and would like to know more about the duo, visit the respective homepages of Magda Mayas or Tony Buck for more information about the band.
We also recommend our earlier Madga Mayas interview and our Tony Buck interview.
Over the course of their respective careers, Magda and Tony have played with a wide range of artists, including Christine Abdelnour, Anthea Caddy, Tina Douglas, Mazen Kerbaj, Andy Moor, and Toshimaru Nakamura.
[Read our Christine Abdelnour interview]
[Read our Anthea Caddy interview]
[Read our Tina Douglas interview]
[Read our Mazen Kerbaj interview]
[Read our Andy Moor interview]
[Read our Toshimaru Nakamura interview]
When did you first start getting interested in musical improvisation?
M: I became interested in improvisation around the age of 14 or 15. I grew up in a household with classical music, both my parents being classical string players and I wanted to be able to play without a score, to develop and improvise my own music. I became interested in Jazz around that time.
T: I guess for me, pretty soon after having started learning the instrument, I felt playing as an expression of how you feel at the moment was a big part of music making. The led to an interest in Jazz, probably from a philosophical perspective rather than being overly attracted to the sounds, which in turn led to an interest in more and more aspect of ‘free’ playing.
Which artists, approaches, albums or performances involving prominent use of improvisation captured your imagination in the beginning?
M: The first records which I bought for myself, quite randomly, when I became interested in Jazz were Lennie Tristano, Alexander von Schlippenbach and Aki Takase. When I was 16 I heard Cecil Taylor live in concert in Prague, which left a deep impression on me, it changed my idea of what music could be.
T: Listening to what was ‘adventurous jazz’ during my teenage years captured my imagination. When I was studying music in the early 80’s in Sydney, two performances I saw, within the same week, set me off on a trajectory that I feel I am still following to some extent. These were a performance of the Schlippenbach Trio and a solo performance of David Moss.
Focusing on improvisation can be an incisive transition. Aside from musical considerations, there can also be personal motivations for looking for alternatives. Was this the case for you, and if so, in which way?
M: Initially, I wanted to be able to make my own music and I chose improvisation as a method to do so quite organically – I was playing the piano already and wanted to perform live with it and with other people.
T: I always wanted to follow what my imagination might come up despite what musical convention or idiom might dictate.
M: I am definitely influenced by Jazz and Free jazz as well as western classical music from my upbringing. I also feel that the improvised music tradition in Europe from the 60s 70s onwards is something that has had a big impact on my sense of aesthetics.
I think initially a lot of my ideas around improvisation developed through my instrumental approach, through and with the piano and other keyboard instruments. In the last 5-10 years, I feel that ideas around improvisation are equally influenced by other artistic experiences in general.
T: I do feel there is a tradition, or at least a strong lineage of musicians who explore improvisation and forge new areas of “investigation” (for want of a better term) into real time playing and composing. I guess I am part of this line of curious, explorative artist. I don’t give it too much thought but I am aware of predecessors and movements and trends in this music.
The key ideas to me are finding new contexts for sounds and approaches and letting my imagination and sensitivity guide my choices.
I think in the last few years a key approach is finding ways to deal with a multidirectional and multilayered sense of timbre, density and rhythm - a kind of conversation between transparency / density and independence in ‘bandwidth’ and ‘flow’.
What was your own learning curve / creative development like when it comes to improvisation - what were challenges and breakthroughs?
M: Expanding my vocabulary and learning to use it creatively, in the moment, balancing intuition with analytical compositional thinking, remains a challenge, but becomes a little easier with experience.
Tell me about your instrument and/or tools, please. How would you describe the relationship with it? What are its most important qualities and how do they influence the musical results and your own performance?
M: I think as a performer, playing the piano or clavinet / keyboards with different objects and preparations, my imagination and artistic language is afforded and limited by these instruments and tools. Of course I get inspired by other music, sounds and experiences and this doesn’t mean I cant expand the way I express myself. But I think the tools dictate your means of expression.
T: I attempt to be very aware of the physicality of both the instruments and objects I play and how I interact with them in a tactile sense. I like experiencing the weight and density of the the objects and the interaction - finding ways to extract resonance and explore the timbral qualities and the similarities and differences between the them. Playing tends to be quite a haptic experience for me.
Can you talk about a work, event or performance in your career that's particularly dear to you? 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?
T: It’s always very special to find connection with others in group settings - a kind of “chemistry” together. It happens rarely and when it does occur I feel it should be treasured. Finding the ‘voice’ of my group The Necks is a case in point, as well as my relationship with various individuals.
The first time I played with Magda was one such situation, feeling an instant connection and understanding of each others musical ‘syntax’ and approach. Nurturing these relationships is the work that feels dear to me.
How do you feel your sense of identity influences your collaborations? Do you feel as though you are able to express yourself more fully in solo mode or, conversely, through the interaction with other musicians? Are you “gaining” or “sacrificing” something in a collaboration?
T: There are so many ways to play music, and I am interested in a lot of approaches that might even be considered mutually exclusive. I like the idea that projects exist to explore some specific ways of playing, not just a bit of everything all the time - there are many selves to express.
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?
T: For many practical reasons, I like to collect instruments and objects that can be manipulated in many ways and produce a multitude of results. When one is travelling it’s good to have a small but versatile collection of things along with you.
This, in turn, means that these instruments, and your options to extract material from them, is, by definition, flexible, transformable and very stimulating.
When you're improvising, does it actually feel like you're inventing something on the spot – or are you inventively re-arranging patterns from preparations, practise or previous performances?
T: We musicians develop, over many years, a vocabulary from which we draw. Developing muscle memory, technique and musical devices and strategies for responding to circumstances, is the stuff of our practise and practice. Often we draw on responses gained by previous experience.
We do however often find ourselves in new situations that call for novel responses. Sometimes we do things we’ve never quite done in the same way. This is always a nice experience and contributes to our arsenal of material to be used in the future. It’s a never ending process of experience and research.
To you, are there rules in improvisation? If so, what kind of rules are these?
T: I think there are devices and approaches that work well that we all draw upon. The most interesting stuff though seems to be deviations and contrasts to these methods and procedures.
A lot of people have a strong sense of what is “musical”. It’s nice to challenge what that means exactly. Surprise can stimulate real engagement and focus in the listener I think.
In a live situation, decisions between creatives often work without words. How does this process work – and how does it change your performance compared to a solo performance?
M: In Spill we hardly ever talk or make agreements before a performance. It's different when it comes to recordings and working in the studio. And sometimes we talk after performances.
T: In most of the music making situations I find myself in, (which for a long time now are mostly improvised music making situations), there is very little to no discussion before hand. I find I don’t talk to myself much before solo performances either.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? In which way is it different between your solo work and collaborations?
M: Before a concert, I try to be open minded, trusting, mindful, take my time to listen, to the room, my posture and body, touch the instrument, a bit like holding hands. Sometimes I prefer the opposite – jump into it without wasting time, surprising myself of what comes out.
T: I like to feel I am sensitive to my state of mind and the environment I find myself in, and feel my relationship with music making is as constant as breathing or having my heart pumping. I feel that If there has to be special circumstance present in which to create it feels like the creation is some kind of artifice and a lie.
I never take a moment to ‘focus’ before playing as it feels disingenuous to me. Perhaps I should!!
How do you see the relationship between sound, space and performance and what are some of your strategies and approaches of working with them?
T: To me the relationship between sound, space and what I bring to that space, and how I interact, is the very stuff of all of my ‘work’. The strategies and devices I use to navigate through these relationships is the vocabulary, the strategies and approaches I have developed and keep adding to throughout my creative life.
If a collaborator contributes something that I find unclear, for example, I hope to have devices I might use to open up that space and move it forward.. If I am presented with ideas that are strong and clear I attempt to respond with contributions I feel support the idea or offer up an alternative direction, if that seems the most appropriate thing to do at the time. Maintaining flow and clarity is important to me, or indeed, if I feel appropriate, disruption and divergence.
I try to be as ‘in the moment’ and responsive to the space, the sound and the circumstances as much as I can. All this stuff is the essence of this music to me.
M: Nothing stays the same, everything changes continuously.
T: I think it can reveal to artists and audience alike, that it is always positive to be sensitive to things unfolding before you but that there are really no guarantees. (and what she said !)