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Classically Contemporary: Luke Howard and Simon Burgin discuss their upcoming performance at Melbourne Recital Centre

09 October 2023

Award winning composer and pianist Luke Howard is remarkably diverse in his musical pursuits. His notable collaborations with renowned artists like Lana Del Rey, Jeff Mills, and Megan Washington only hint at the depth of his extensive portfolio, which spans from ballet compositions to fully realised solo projects such as his 2022 album, All Of Us. Currently, he is gearing up for a collaborative project at Elisabeth Murdoch Hall with visual artist Simon Burgin, known for creating immersive digital experiences under the name RESPONSVE

Howard’s neo-classical compositions in the minimalist tradition, combined with Burgin’s digital art, fuse the gap between classical and contemporary expressions. Here we discuss how they realise their creative visions, respective influences and intentions.

RF: I guess to kick things off, could you let me in on your day-to-day and what you're currently working on? 

LH: Yeah, I’ve been working on a ballet. It's more of a sound design project for the Stuttgart Ballet. It's been really fun! I've been mixing some stuff for another production that I wrote with the Birmingham Ballet last year. I have a few gigs with my trio and some other friend’s projects. I guess I'm just going to start preparing for the upcoming gig at Melbourne Recital Centre pretty soon. I've got a few commissions to write for some local classical ensembles, but I'm going to look at that after the gig.

RF: That sounds like a handful. How do you handle the pressure of managing all your projects? 

LF: I like a bit of pressure. I don't like the panicky pressure where I'm like, okay I can't do a good job. That's not so nice. But a bit of pressure is good. Otherwise, when I'm not doing that, I've got lots of music ideas. There’s a balance between the projects you do for yourself and the ones you do for other people. Usually, there is a deadline for the latter.

Luke Howard playing the piano. Courtesy of Melbourne Recital Centre

RF: Do you find that doing work for other people is almost more motivating than doing work for yourself? 

LH: Yeah, it can be. I mean, it can work both ways. Sometimes you're like, I'm really glad to get back to my own stuff because I'm sick of being told what to do. On the other hand, there are times when limitations and guidelines inspire you to write something that you never would have otherwise. So, either way, both are good to do.

RF: You’ve collaborated with digital artist and creative technologist Simon Burgin in the past and will again for the upcoming show at Elisabeth Murdoch Hall. How did that collaboration begin?

LH: A mutual acquaintance, Kirsten, who actually used to work at the Recital Centre, put us in touch after Simon did the visuals for the Zola Jesus show in 2015/16. We were lucky to get some funding from Creative Victoria to spend a month or two at Testing Grounds at the end of 2022 and develop our ideas.

RF: How do you find your rhythm when you are performing together?

LH: I feel like now I can tell Simon what I like and don't like. There are probably some ideas to like more than others, but there's probably some pieces in mind he likes more than others. So, it's collaborative, but I try to stay out of his way a bit too. 

The irony is that while I really love responding to the visuals when I'm playing, sometimes I've got too much going on to pay attention. I've got heaps on my mind playing piano and running Ableton. Sadly, my opportunity to respond to the visuals is not as good as it could be. If we do more gigs, I'll be able to get my head off the piano a bit.

RF: Considering the production, how do you feel the space or environment informs your performance?  

LF: It totally informs the performance. Smaller venues are obviously more intimate, but it's not always effective to perform in a small venue, particularly when we're doing a double projection. We need a big venue with decent projectors for the performance to be effective. On the other hand, with a piano and PA, I can do my own gig pretty much anywhere. I did a gig in Warsaw recently, which was a tiny little thing but beautiful, with just a little upright piano. As long as I can hear everything, I don't really care about the size of the venue.

RF: Composition can also be quite an intimate experience. Do you ever experience a sense of disconnect when you're composing? Or are you able to create a good balance? 

LH: Yeah, it's a great question. Lockdown probably turned me more towards composing rather than just playing shows. Obviously, I was already writing music, but maybe I've got a bit heavier into it. It can be pretty lonely, but I don't mind my own company. When I do get to go into a studio, go on tour with a friend's band, or even just go to Europe with Simon, it is pretty nice to have company. The opportunities to engage with other musicians can be quite personal because, these days, it’s a lot of sending files around. The process has become a bit disembodied and isolated but it's also fun to do things on my own terms and not have people breathing down my neck. 

Simon Burgin hops on the call 

RF: Hey Simon, thanks for jumping on the call. 

Simon Burgin: No worries, thanks for having me.  

RF: What can we expect for your upcoming collaboration at Elisabeth Murdoch Hall? 

LH: I'll be playing some tunes on the piano, some electronics and basic effects with pre-recorded bits. The visuals combine stuff that's pre-prepared, stuff that is triggered by the audio and stuff that Simon is performing live. We've got an exciting new setup with multiple projection screens, which we want the punter to come and discover themselves.  

SB: We're trying to go for an integrated show. It's going to be ambitious!  

RF: What do you think drives your creativity outside of your respective craft? 

LH: If it's a commision, then inspiration usually emerges out of the set parameters. I'm inspired by art, but mostly just music and trying ideas through experimentation. I don't really have a deep answer to that question. I love listening to music. I'm a big music fan. So that's what gets me going. 

SB: Yeah, I'm actually the same. I mean, I think a lot of creatives are that way. I think we consciously absorb a lot of influence and ideas, and then they become our own. I'm inspired by a lot of artists that are working on an international stage, with experimental AV or collaborating with other musicians. I want to explore those dialogues between classical music and visuals. Although we're not the only AV and classical collaborators, it’s still not very common.

RF: No, it's not. Especially because AV at times can be associated with more psychedelic experiences that tap into electronic music. 

SB: In some ways, that’s its legacy, though. If you look at early AV, it was associated with psychedelic music from the 1960s, with light art, ink block projections and things like that.

RF: Simon, as a digital artist, how do you realise your visions in the context of a live performance?

SB: I don't imagine it's very different from composing music. I mean, it's quite exploratory and playful, really.  I usually have an idea of what I want to achieve visually, but then it's a lot of experimentation to get there. I'm often just responding to the music. Luke will send me some tracks and I'll start listening to them. Because of the work, I can do some creative coding that’s more generative in real time. I can actually sculpt the visuals to the music while I'm working, if that makes sense. Nothing in our set is pre-rendered. It's all live-programmed visuals. I've got a controller here that’s all programmable, which means that the visuals are performed as well as the music. So, it's like I set up a visual ecosystem and then at night, it goes places.

You can catch the immersive audio-visual experience from Luke Howard and Simon Burgin at Melbourne Recital Centre on October 19th.

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SEE ISSUE #06 HERE. The theme for this issue, Revelations, delves into the unfiltered aspects of life. It’s an appreciation and exploration of raw beauty, where authenticity reigns supreme; the unconventional is not just accepted but celebrated. In a world of manufactured perfection, this issue chooses to validate our quirks and idiosyncrasies. After all, they are what make us inimitable.

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