Anthony Phillips talks about his tenth album
in the Private Parts & Pieces Series: Soirée
Interview conducted by Alan Hewitt and Jonathan Dann at Anthony's home on Sunday 1st August 1999
We're here obviously to talk about your new album Private
Parts & Pieces X. What can you tell us all about it?
The whole thing came about I suppose because a number of people had said to me "please will you do another album of piano pieces?" I wasn't sure because you know already my reservations about single instrument CDs possibly being a little unchanging in timbre and therefore possibly not giving people the variation. I certainly had reservations about it but there was a small but vociferous group of fans such as Gordon Miller and Yoshiko Fujioki who used to be one of the prime movers in the Japanese fan club asking for another CD of piano music. So, given that the volume of TV and library music seems to have accelerated and increased over the last few years, I felt it was time to do another new album but I couldn't really do a large scale one. It was just too risky at this juncture to drop out of the commercial scene if you like for quite an extended period because normally these things take six months-ish and as you get older and slower and fussier and hopefully quality more than quantity you take longer. So if anything if I'd elected to do a Slow Dance or something it could have been even longer.
Also obviously given that I tend to do most of it by myself, it seemed a sensible option. The previous three albums had been full instrumentation. Private Parts VIII was from scratch, nine, sure was a mix and match but it was full with all the variations so I think it was probably justified in taking the chance of doing a solo one. I always felt that with Ivory Moon a lot of it was old music although it came out in the mid-Eighties, a lot of the music on it was from the mid Seventies. There wasn't actually much new stuff written then it was already in a sense archival and just filling in gaps a bit like the original PP & P so it was nice this time to mainly write new music. There is one particular thing from 1968 which was around the same time as Let Us Now Make Love and various other sort of plodding piano pieces where the technique was all sort of back to front with the left hand was crossing over and playing the octaves. This was one which we called Creation which was a bit of an over the top title but it was always known as that and so I decided not to change it. It would almost have been more pretentious to have changed it than to stick with it and it was a sort of naive title at the time and I just thought don't mess with it, really.
Is that a track that you actually wrote with the band?
No, I didn't write it with them. I played it to them but the band never adopted it and I remember Tony Banks not being terribly impressed by my cross-hand technique and he was probably quite right. They liked some of the pieces but that one was probably a bit beyond the pale. I've re-arranged it so it doesn't sound so cumbersome. Although funnily enough switching things round oddly enough was slightly difficult on some of the sections, it seems crazy to say it but that was one of the few pieces that I had to keep re-recording. I recorded most of them in May/June (1998) and there were three or four that eluded me and I had to come back to them during the course of the year in gaps when I was doing TV stuff. You wouldn't believe which ones they were because they aren't the ones that sound the most complicated and I could not get Creation right. It was partly because I'd swapped hands and re-figured it but there was one passage in particular, I'm not going to tell you which obviously, which I couldn't get right. There's another one called Fivers which is the slightly Bachian one which again, I couldn't get right. It was almost as if, if you left it and came back to it, it was easier. I can't really describe it; you get into a sort of one track with a piece if you practice it too much sometimes. You're focusing, you're coming up to a difficult bit and you know you're going to go like the high jumper who knows he's going to go at three metres two centimetres, you know you aren't going to make it, so you break the cycle and then you can do it.
There's another one that I called Passepied, which was difficult, and I had to leave doing that one. In effect it was just the one old piece from 1968 which regularly used to be done on "pin" piano with drawing pins under the hammers to give it that harpsichord effect, but I don't have an upright piano which you can put the pins in anymore. My friends Andy and Abby Hall now own the original piano and it has never really recovered from all the cider which was thrown over it and the teas and the coffees! (laughter) and that's on its last legs, so I thought of possibly doing an outward bound recording but it wasn't really practical. In retrospect it was probably right because it would have stuck out like a sore thumb with one piece that had the harpsichord timbre amongst the rest of it.
There is one backwards piece of course, and there is one other little link where the sound is definitely slightly different to the rest of it but it stays roughly homogenous. Somebody suggested overdubbing in fact to get the harpsichord effect on Creation. I tried that and it worked very nicely and suddenly the track sounded quite full and everything else sounded quite empty and so I eschewed that as they say. So we've ended up with twenty tracks although it was going to be twenty one but there was one which sounded a bit like somebody playing in a cocktail bar and that one got ejected summarily. It comes in at just under sixty minutes and the majority of it then being written in the first few months of 1998. Obviously there were bits, germs of ideas so most if it was done from last year through February/March, I wrote it fairly quickly some of it on my mother's piano but mainly just going through lots of cassettes and finding lots of embryonic ideas which had never been developed. Some of them went the way of my orchestral album for Atmosphere that is only available to TV libraries and the like but not to the public.
The difficult thing was trying to find enough variation in styles to keep people interested and then juggling with the running order. It's almost like you could choose any running order or you could spend the rest of your life trying different things and it's almost better in the end to literally draw them out of a hat. Obviously you don't have three long pieces together, you try and avoid ones that are in a similar style or key but beyond that it was really difficult. I'm sure there are people who could come up with a better running order but I think it works and it I tried not to agonise over the order as the more you try the more difficult it becomes. Titling is difficult with this sort of thing because I find that if you don't get the title straight away you tend to thrash around a bit. Most of them weren't inspired by any very definite visual image they were just bits that I liked. I think Creation was the only title I had. I had one called Fallen Flower - that's not as in bread and dough rising! (laughter) That one came to me pretty quickly. In fact, I won't say it was directly inspired by it but I wrote it quite soon after the death of Diana, Princess of Wales and I'm still slightly undecided if I'm going to put that on the CD. Apart from that all the other titles it has been a case of coming back to the pieces and trying to think well, what does this really conjure? You don't want to do anything really too flowery and you don't want to do anything too mundane such as "Nuts & Bolts One", "Nuts & Bolts Seven" etc. that doesn't really work either.
I've used a couple of titles that people might think are a bit pseudy but rather than coming up with something flowery as there are one or two pieces that go through quite a few descriptive phases, such as light and dark and quite airy and heavy. Rather than trying to find one piece that covers all of that, I just thought that because it isn't based round one particular visual image like say Debussy's The Sunken Cathedral which is a very fixed image, I would try and use a one word, almost like the old dance titles. I actually went through the Percy Scholes the dictionary of music looking up old dance names. There's actually a piece by Debussy called Passepied, its an old dance from the fifteenth or sixteenth century and literally it means "pass foot" and originally it was in triple measure and his piece is actually in four and its quite fast. It was obviously quite a sort of rustic dance you would imagine, not one of the more formal ones I would suppose. So I thought; "hang on, I can use that because my piece is fast and it's in 3/4. Rather than trying to spend six months trying to find a title that conjures up all the visual images, I chose this one sort of sprightly sort of dance so I've done that.
I've called another Passacaglia, which is going to be a bit of a mouthful, but it's a piece that's slightly hymn-like. I was initially thinking of calling it hymn for this, or hymn for that and then I thought "no, that's a bit OTT". Again it's a slow piece in 3/4 which conforms to the old Passacaglia which was slow and stately so I'm definitely leaving myself open to being called a Pseud on those but they are relatively kosher titles in terms of their literal application. As far as the actual over all title was concerned I've always loved that image of the late Nineteenth early Twentieth Century period in Paris with all the Ravels and Debussys and the image of those sort of Parisian salons where people used to give their evening soirees. It would be some of the more celebrated composers and something about the style in which they did it which was so evocative of that period with the Impressionist painters and in England as well it was the Golden Age if you were rich (laughter). There was something magical about that era really and so I thought it was quite nice and also it just gives it that slight feeling of performance. It suggest not only the intimacy but also a performance not just some bloke hacking away at the back of his room or somebody sitting in a cold recording studio so it conjures up the warmth as well as the intimacy.
Who has designed the cover this time round?
An artist friend of Rob Ayling's at Voiceprint who is quite a well-known painter designed the cover and she has come up with quite an attractive design an impression of a salon. There aren't many credits on it really; the piano sound I was helped with by "Il Professore" Trevor Vallis and Roger Patterson came over and helped me a little bit with the mixing. It was Chris Thorpe that really made it sparkle at the end with the mastering and he improved the piano sound. I don't think there's anything else to mention - there are no collaborations on the album and there are no overdubs either.
What piano was it played on?
It was played on my Challen, which was the one that was at my parents' house in Send and moved here with me in 1981 and has been used for all the piano recordings that have been based at Send or here. Obviously things like the Tarka demos would have been on this as well. The pedal is a bit creaky that's the only thing! (laughter) and we worked quite hard on that, John Armer the piano tuner practically lived here for about three or four weeks and it would be a case of; "John, I'm ready to go come now" and then after about two or three days I would realise I couldn't play these pieces so then I would practice for another two weeks and the piano would be out of tune and so back he comes again so I spent a fortune on piano tuning!
When is the album to be released?
In November, which is perfect timing really because I think that although its not all deeply melancholic, it's not surfing music and its probably more appropriate as the nights draw in. I've always got the impression that people like to listen to the Private Parts & Pieces albums in the winter with the firelight intimacy just as you drift off to sleep on track two! (laughter).
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