Ten minutes before I start, there’s the pacing around. I used to think it was the people in the room, the building, the expectant promoters, that made me do that. Instead I have my own living room, the background slightly altered to remove broken pens, piles of shit and other objects of distraction whilst remaining kind of homely. My wife Elena is in documentaries, so she knows how to do all that, to remove the clutter of typical peripheral vision. She set the frame and now I can just about remember where it goes. And still I pace.
My audience are accessed through laptop; I can see their chat in one window, my grimacing bonce looking back at me in the other. The mouth moves, jokes and anecdotes get as far as the glass of the screen. I hope people are listening. Various messages on my screen tell me they are. Twelve gigs in, I can almost feel them there. Human beings are funny like that, we tell stories to ourselves where necessary. I wonder if they are telling themselves something similar?
If doing solo gigs makes you feel naked and exposed, then doing them in your own house on a rented piano (chosen for its ease of transport through narrow doorways over sweetness of tone) adds a new level. Here is my music, here is my living room. Elena and Lorenzo are upstairs, the former watching remotely, the latter distracted by the surrealistic loops of “In The Night Garden”. I bet Horowitz never had to do this.
And yet there’s something I really like about these gigs. Apart from camera I am speaking to, the other is on my hands, and if I had to keep only one I would lose the talking face in the blink of an eye. Whilst YouTube searches serve up a series of views of the back of my head, as if looking for a good barber, now at least my best side is on view. Hands are where it happens for me: the audience sees what I see. That feels more intimate and means I don’t have to project in that operatic, classical way. (9 foot Steinways boom and resonate in big rooms, but in solo settings I like everything in close and dry). It’s almost my ideal setting…a couple of people on the sofa watching would edge it past the “almost” I think. I remind myself constantly that I’m lucky to have this instrument, to be able to play something in this stifling solitude; most instruments need company to function. Yes…I’m lucky.
It’s a kind of lonely intimacy, not quite a gig – something else. As the lockdown has eased, so too has the audience, but I’ve got some loyal followers that will sit for an hour and a half and listen. Often it feels like a radio broadcast, a journalist out in the field at home. A job I gave myself with no compunction to travel, no dealing with rejections, no competition….no other people.
The choice of music is different too. I don’t feel like a jazz pianist in this context; for me jazz is an ensemble music, you need people, at least that’s where the sweet spot is. There are curveballs and surprises, ebb and flow, the intrusion of other people’s ideas being the best thing. This is different, it’s going back. Back to the piano as social hub, replaced successively by the radio, the television, the computer and the smart phone in successive leaps. As the outside world reverts to its re-wilded self, so I feel the piano regressing, an Edwardian music box straining under the weight of music produced in the studios of the future.
I’ve slashed and burned my way through Black Sabbath, Prince, Katy Perry and The Eurhythmics, walked on the eggshells of Giles Farnaby and Robert Schumann. Stuff I would only do at home (maybe not even there) just because it’s fun to try, and because I want to offer people something they might know, and something they won’t, or mayn’t. Tying each gig to a theme, with transcribed music rushed out often unpracticed between childcare duties, has given the whole thing a kind of headlong amateur momentum, as if to say “it’s not official, not like a proper concert”. It’s like public practice, but without the endless repetition towards perfection.
It’s stripped back. The piano reduces everything, takes out the polish of production, the colours of orchestration: all that’s left are notes and how they move. There’s always a question of whether it all hangs together, some gigs go better for me than others, but I always have a beer on the go to take the edge off that feeling. It really helps, makes it a social offering rather than a demonstration of some kind of excellence.
I mean, it’s not “going to the pub” but…it’s getting there.