Journey Home: an espresso with Andrea Keller

Image Credits: Andrea Keller © Andrea Keller

March 16, 2021

Andrea Keller is a talented Australian composer and pianist who has recently released a multimedia work (Journey Home) and an album with an atypical line up (Life is Brut[if]al). We interviewed her.

> Eugenio Mirti

Journey Home is a multimedia work (music and film) that you have made with Hayley Miro Browne. A fascinating project, a tribute to your families and fathers. How did you conceive and develop the idea?
Hayley’s father, Allan Browne, was a drummer and a key figure in Australian jazz for over 5 decades. He was my mentor, and I was very fortunate to play with him over many years. His death, in 2015, left a gaping hole in the Australian jazz scene, but it was through his passing that Hayley and I connected. Hayley is a wonderful photographer and film maker, and I approached her to collaborate with me on a work for solo piano & film. At first, we began playing with the idea of ‘Home’ and a lovely saying Al had that ‘many of the greatest stories ever written are about the journey home’, but we weren’t yet certain where the visual material would come from. Then my brother called me to say he’d found around 3,000 photographic slides that our father, who’d passed away 20 years ago, had taken, and would I like them. When the boxes of slides arrived at my home, I took a photo and sent it to Hayley, her response was ‘there’s our material!’. I then set about viewing the slides and making long lists, then short lists, and assigning my selections to categories. My father was a keen camper, bushwalker and skier, so the categories were things like ‘snowy mountains’, ‘wood’, ‘water’, etc. I shared these with Hayley and then we both set about independently creating ‘pieces’ to each of the categories. Occasionally we sent each other small ideas, but essentially, we put it all together for the first time in the week of the première in December 2019.
I read that in writing the music you were influenced by famous composer Arvo Pärt. Can you further explain his influence on your music?
I’ve been fascinated by Arvo Pärt’s music for over a decade. From the beginning I was drawn to the laconic nature of his music and the mystery of its’ organic beauty, borne of stringency. In recent years my study of Pärt’s music has intensified as a result of my PhD research, which uses his systems and approaches as the stimulus for the creation of my own music. In Journey Home the main influences are Pärt’s compositional diagrams and schemes that can be found in his sketch books, which I used to inspire my own compositional and improvisational templates.
Life is Brut[if]al is the follow up to Five Below Live. Which are the main differences between the two records?
Five Below Live was recorded live in 2017 at the Jazzlab (a jazz club in Melbourne where I hold the Monday night residency), and features a quintet of two basses, guitar, piano & drums – a big rhythm section! The pieces were all older tunes that I re-worked and adapted to the new line up. Life is Brut[if]al is a studio recording from 2019 that features two long works (Meditations on Light and Love in Solitude), and five smaller tunes composed in 2019 and written especially for the band. The line up on the most recent album features the original quintet plus two saxophonists and my eldest son, Jim Keller, narrating text by Rainer Maria Rilke.
How did you choose the musicians of the group? And the guests of the recording?
The original conception of the band ‘Five Below’ was that of a big rhythm section with the guitar/basses using pedals & effects. I chose all the members because I love their playing (we had all played together separately in other projects), and I knew they would all bring strong individual qualities, while being able to meet within the same musical language. Over the years, there were occasions where a member was unavailable for a gig, but rather than subbing out their chair to a musician of the same instrument, I chose two saxophonists, Julien Wilson and Scott McConnachie, both brilliant improvisers with unique and contrasting voices. This brought a whole new element to the music that I thought worked incredibly well, so it seemed only natural to include them both on the studio recording.
I wrote in my review that “paradoxically, the only predictable element is the unpredictability of Andrea Keller’s musical design”: do you agree? How do you compose music?
I like music that is interesting, with elements of unpredictability, where I don’t always understand what is going on, or how it’s being created. Music that has a sense of mystery, that stirs curiosity in me. I like to be challenged, but I also believe in the need for balance. I don’t shy away from beauty, but my music is also infused with my deepest sadness, longing, anger and fears, while at other times its’ purpose is to provide solace and respite from all the deep feeling emotions, I hope that it can be the consolation.
Sometimes I just sit down and improvise/play/write a tune with only a feeling and the seed of a musical idea and things flow. Most of the time however, I have a concept that takes time to uncover and distill, and I explore the myriad of possibilities within the concept until I settle on a system or approach that will realise the concept in the most effective musical way. I’m on a constant search for meaning and purpose in my compositional process and the music that results. Sometimes things come easily and at other times it is akin to a difficult labour!
What is Jazz today in your opinion?
I take the term ‘jazz’ to encompass music that centres on personal expression and improvisation. As I’ve heard it expressed, ‘jazz’ can be seen as a adverb, a way of doing things. I don’t see it as a noun which describes a music from a particular time and place. It’s a continually evolving music that provides commentary on the NOW and the individual circumstances of the people making the music.
Do you think that music is cosmopolitan or that being from Australia somehow makes you sound different from a European or an American musician?
I find this question very difficult to answer! Certainly, time, place, surroundings, other musicians, opportunities, landscape, lifestyle, etc. will have an effect on the music that is made, and perhaps these nuances are audibly perceptible on some level. Sometimes I can pick where music comes from, but other times, not. The answer is not clear to me…
Pandemic has hit the world badly, and artists are having hard times everywhere. What are your next projects?
I am fortunate: here in Australia we are currently not in lockdown and have virtually no community spread, so the small gigs have been back running since last November (with only a few blips), and I have been able to compose and start some new bands, with plans to do both live and studio recordings later this year (if everything stays well…). There are a few recordings that were made pre-March 2020 that are yet to be released but are scheduled to come out this year. Unfortunately, no travel plans are being made, with the exception of a few small ones within Australia. I had some exciting international projects and plans lined up before the pandemic hit, but they will have to wait for now. I’m hoping the day isn’t too far away when we can resume that sort of activity. I am enjoying the relative quiet though, it’s been valuable to rest and recuperate and dream of new music and collaborations and spend time with my family. That has been the positive for me.
I’m wishing everyone peace and good health, and I look forward to the time when we can be together again, but in the meantime, I’m very grateful for the internet!

Journey Home: an espresso with Andrea Keller copyright Jazzespresso 2021.
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