10 Apr 2024< Back

Q+A with pianist and composer Hermione Johnson

In anticipation of Hermione Johnson's event 'Mark making to music: Squiggla with Hermione Johnson' at Te Uru Waitākere Contemporary Gallery, Squiggla team member Clare Brunner spent time getting to know pianist and composer Hermione Johnson during this Q + A:

CB: What are your early musical memories?

HJ: Early musical memories – My early musical memories - I remember having much better hearing as a kid, and finding unending joy in music. I remember listening to Mozart when I wasn’t tall enough to see above the record player and feeling extremely excited and heightened by hearing his Eine kleine Nachtmusik, the world going all golden and giggly. I remember singing with the birds like a Disney princess (Disney is tapping into something deep with that Cinderella of theirs)…from what I remember, music was a completely enthralling connection to the world. It made me very happy. Fairies were everywhere, everything was alive, and music was alive. I would imagine little animals or characters doing things as I played piano or listened to music. I would see them in my mind's eye, they would be the music. Music had ‘being’.

CB: What led you to improvisational and experimental music?

HJ: I was looking for something to do for a long time when I was young. I wasn’t an artist, I wasn’t a lawyer. I always played the piano a bit, but I was never going to be a concert pianist. I earned a classical performance piano degree here in Tāmaki Makaurau after finishing school in 94, and a composition degree after that in Wellington in the 2000s. Wellington was amazing; I met lots of really inspiring musicians and composers there, both at the New Zealand School of Music where I was studying on top of the hill, and down in the city at the bars. We studied Contemporary Western Art Music at the University, which is quite ‘experimental’. Composers like Salvatore Sciarrino, and Iannis Xenakis, Ligeti - music that was less about melody and harmony and more about the experience of sound as an object - using pitch as a type of parameter rather than having it subjected to this monolithic set of 19th Century laws. I don’t structure music in terms of harmony very well, so I was happy with that..

And then, when I wasn’t at University, I was often at the pub - in particular at a bar called Happy. I went to an experimental music festival there in 2004 called Bomb the Space. Changed my life. The music was incredible. I saw the Pateras Baxter Brown trio play. Anthony Pateras was the pianist and he was like a thunderstorm, just a big wall of sound (improvised music). That was a big influence on the way I ended up playing. The music was wild, and even more relevant and accessible for me than what I was trying to do at university. The classical world of music is very difficult and buttoned down - strongly hierarchical and competitive, you can’t make mistakes. As a performer and a composer, it’s really important to get everything super duper right. Improvised music, on the other hand, is not prescribed at all. You’re not expected to play like anyone else. No one has played what you play and no one will repeat it. You don’t need an education. It’s community-led, it’s underground. There’s a political aspect that really appeals to me. It’s egalitarian. When you improvise with other musicians your voices have equal value and power in making the music. I fell in love with free jazz: Albert Ayler, Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor.

CB: What role does improvisation have for you in creating new ideas?

HJ: It’s a chicken and egg thing a bit… when I’m looking for new ideas and have something in my head I’m trying to get to, I’ll improvise until I find it, or something like it, sometimes I find something else instead. It's hard to separate improvising from new ideas. They’re kind of synonymous.

CB: The creative process involves risk and chance - how do you bring these into your performances?

HJ: I try not to… I practice so there’s as little risk as possible. But there’s always a bit of risk with performance. I’ve had bad performances. It can be very hard, but I’m much more interested in making music than avoiding bad experiences, and I accept that failure is a big part of figuring things out. I wouldn’t have gotten anywhere without making a fool of myself along the way. Sometimes I am very proud of my achievements! And it’s well worth the risk of embarrassment to make music that I like.

CB: The Squiggla programme is a gymnasium for creative visual thinking using free flow, playful mark making to exercise the creative mind. What connection do you see between your approach to making music and Squiggla?

HJ: The connection between my approach to music-making and Squiggla’s mark-making is that they’re both creative. My medium is heard, and Squiggla’s is seen.

CB: What do you see in your mind's eye when you play?

HJ: When I play I’m listening very hard, so I don’t really know what I see. I’m conscious in another way.. Sometimes, when I was young I would ‘see things’ like I was hallucinating a bit - heightened senses. But I’m not like that anymore, much more down-to-earth these days, getting closer to the spirit world in another way (i.e. getting old), or perhaps my mind is just a bit more musical than it was when I was small. Whatever the case, when I play my best I am thinking much much stronger in a hearing way than a seeing one. There’s nothing else going on but the sound.

Visit Te Uru Waitākere Contemporary Gallery + Squiggla Making Space for the event 'Mark making to music: Squiggla with Hermione Johnson' and listen to live music by pianist and composer Hermione Johnson and be inspired to experiment with marks dots, lines and shapes, Saturday 13 April 11am - 12pm.

Te Uru Waitākere Contemporary Gallery + Squiggla Making Space is on until 12 May 2024.