Interview with Helen Anahita Wilson: In music, as in life, I try to balance the mind and the soul and the body: Video

Jazz interview with jazz pianist, composer, multi-instrumentalist and musical explorer Helen Anahita Wilson. An interview by email in writing. 

JazzBluesNews.Space: – First let’s start with where you grew up, and what got you interested in music?

Helen Anahita Wilson: – Nothing about my life has ever been ordinary and my childhood is certainly no exception. I grew up in an apartment within an Elizabethan stately home in Worcestershire, UK, surrounded by eccentric characters and very bizarre goings on. There was a very long drive up to the house and so I was somewhat isolated from normal life. I’m not from a musical family but I grew up with music all around me – mostly Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, and whatever was popular on the radio at the time.

JBN.S: – What got you interested in picking up the piano? What teacher or teachers helped you progress to the level of playing you have today? What made you choose the piano?

HAW: – I began playing when I was three years old. My father brought a little tiny keyboard and music book home one day after work and within hours I had learned all the songs. I’m a very tactile person and I loved the feel of this little musical toy in my hands and instinctively I seemed to have a grasp of musical shapes, patterns and numbers. From those early days I was able to play by ear, just picking out melodies from the radio, and I began having formal classical lessons just before my 4th birthday. As well as training classically I also played a lot of jazz: I had three different jazz organs and was recording my own arrangements of jazz standards by the time I was 10. I’ve always been interested in different types of music and have refused to be pinned down to one style, one ethos, one culture, etc. As a teenager I studied piano at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire and then at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London. I’ve had many teachers (some good, some bad) and the ones to whom I am most grateful are Caroline McWalter, Darla Crispin, Alexander Kelly and Peter Feuchtwanger. I’m also hugely thankful to my parents for their support and for giving me every opportunity they could for me to pursue a musical career.

JBN.S: – How did your sound evolve over time? What did you do to find and develop your sound?

HAW: – There has never been a conscious or deliberate evolution to my sound; I’m happy to let things take their natural course. I have a very traditional grounding in Classical and jazz music but in recent years I have been studying and performing South Asian classical music as a Masters and PhD student at SOAS, University of London.

JBN.S: – What practice routine or exercise have you developed to maintain and improve your current musical ability especially pertaining to rhythm?

HAW: – I owe a lot to my late teacher, Peter Feuchtwanger, who was somewhat of a maverick. His beautiful technical exercises have helped me form a very ergonomic, natural and relaxed way of playing and I still use them today. In terms of rhythm, I tend to practise away from the keyboard as well as at it. At the moment I’m enjoying learning South Indian konnakol, which is a form of vocal percussion. I have the kind of brain that gets excited by odd numbers and rhythmic subdivisions that aren’t common to Western ears.

JBN.S: – Which harmonies and harmonic patterns do you prefer now? You’re playing is very sensitive, deft, it’s smooth, and I’d say you drift more toward harmony than dissonance. There is some dissonance there, but you use it judiciously. Is that a conscious decision or again, is it just an output of what goes in?

HAW: – I find myself working less and less with harmony at the moment. Instead I’m  choosing to maintain a constant tonal centre, just as in South Asian classical music, and that allows me to focus much more on texture, resonance, rhythm, melody and ornamentation. I am synaesthetic so whatever sounds, looks and feels good is what I go for.

JBN.S: – How to prevent disparate influences from coloring what you’re doing?

HAW: – I welcome disparate influences colouring the music that I make. I’m really not interested in absolute authenticity in any particular style and I’m also not in anyway interested in pastiche. I try to research various musics to a high level of understanding and I allow for this to organically influence my creative output.

JBN.S: – What’s the balance in music between intellect and soul?

HAW: – Not dissimilar to other areas of my life, I guess. In music, as in life, I try to balance the mind and the soul and the body; having practised a lot of kundalini yoga and having been a lifelong meditator I am able to find, sometimes, an exquisite peace where all parts of my being are in union, the literal meaning of the word ‘yoga’, in Sanskrit.

JBN.S: – There’s a two-way relationship between audience and artist; you’re okay with giving the people what they want?

HAW: – If a musician concentrates too much on what they think their audience might want they stand a good chance of risking their integrity. All I do is aim to maintain an artistic truth, and do what I can to bring an audience in communion with sound in that precise time and space.

JBN.S: – Please any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

HAW: – So many ..! Some highlights have included having the privilege of being musician in residence at St Paul’s Cathedral in London, touring internationally, and presenting beautiful concerts in Italian caves and castles. I’ve also had some memorably terrible performances too, playing on dreadful pianos in weird venues!

JBN.S: – How can we get young people interested in jazz when most of the standard tunes are half a century old?

HAW: – Good music is timeless and it doesn’t matter how old it is; endless reinterpretations of pieces of music are possible. There’s a track on my album BHOOMA which was written 300 years ago which just goes to prove that good music endures.

JBN.S: – John Coltrane said that music was his spirit. How do you understand the spirit and the meaning of life?

HAW: – I could write a book on this! But in brief, my spirit, or soul, is independent of music; I often find that music can be a vehicle to an expansive state of consciousness and a means of connecting spirit or soul within oneself or, ideally, with others. Music can be misused by those who engage with it for purely commercial purposes. I regard music, in some ways, as sacred, and I feel its power should be respected.

JBN.S: – If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

HAW: – The state of musical education in the UK these days concerns me. Funding for music in school and young people’s initiatives is persistently being cut and the government doesn’t value the arts in education. I would like music education to be for all, not just the privileged few.

JBN.S: – Who do you find yourself listening to these days?

HAW: – At the moment I’m listening to a lot of wonderful Carnatic music from South India. I’m also playing a lot of Johnny Dyani recordings, Baroque keyboard music, and then there are musicians like Bill Evans, Abdullah Ibrahim, and Tom Waits who are never far from my record deck.

JBN.S: – Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go?

HAW: – So many different times and places I’d like to visit but I think I would choose to travel back nearly 200 years to Thiruvananthapuram in Kerala, India. The reason for this is that I’m currently researching the music of Swathi Thirunal, the Maharaja of Travancore, and I would love to visit the palace in Thiruvananthapuram where he and other musicians were composing.

JBN.S: – So putting that all together, how are you able to harness that now?

HAW: – I’m looking forward to 2019 with performances and research trips to South Asia. I’m also very excited about getting out on the road with Shahbaz Hussain to share our new musical collaboration.

Interview by Simon Sargsyan

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