By BRUCE DENNILL
Keith Hutchinson comes out to greet me in a Festival International de Jazz de Montreal 1988 T-shirt. He notices me looking at the vintage logo.
“I was there,” he shrugs.
It’s the sort of thing, once you get into it, that becomes a theme with Hutchinson, a prolific composer, world-class multi-instrumentalist, record producer, musical director and music teacher. From the Grammy nominee’s medal hanging just inside his home studio (Best World Music album as part of Savuka for Johnny Clegg and Savuka’s 1993 album Heat, Dust And Dreams) to his name in the credits at the end of films, awards shows and TV series and at the helm of the 2006 celebration of South Africa’s hosting of the 2010 Fifa World Cup, presented in Berlin and Cologne, in Germany, Hutchinson has his own Six Degrees Of Separation going on, though rubbing people’s noses in his achievements is not his style. Probably because he’s in his studio, working…
There are a few quotes on Hutchinson’s website that mention the same sort of words: working, practising and persistence. These terms play an important role in his musical philosophy.
“I’m not about money,” he begins, before scowling as he considers how that might play with prospective employers. “It sounds trite, but I’m about music. I am. I live it. I breathe it. I don’t have a choice.
“My studio is four or five metres from my bedroom. It’s closer than the kitchen! This is where I come at the beginning of the day to start working. For many people, it’s about writing more and more pieces to add to libraries, and I’m trying to do that myself – organising my bits and pieces.”
“There are a lot…”
Hutchinson keeps a tight reign on his vast catalogue.
“I haven’t signed my stuff away,” he nods. “I’m aiming to keep control of all of it, to sub-license it rather than hand over everything. Dave Kusek, a professor of music from Berklee, wrote a book called The Future Of Music, which I love. I learned a lot about what was the future when he wrote it; stuff that’s happening now in terms of getting music via phones and watches and all the rest. What was coming fascinated me and I could learn more, as Kusek puts a lot of courses online. So I’ve learned about selling yourself and about making it in various ways as a musician.
“CDBaby was actually started by two guys who worked with Kusek, providing a model where artists are looked after, with the fees charged only amounting to about 10 or 15%. Most people offering opportunities are just building their own libraries. Protect your rights! Embed your own codes; watermark your material.”
Is it difficult to get others – those who work with, those who listen to your music – on board with this vision, and the energy it requires?
“I’m inclined to focus on making sure that the music faultless,” Hutchinson reckons. “People will make up their own mind. I’m inclined to hang on to the music until it’s right. And I’m starting to feel like I’m getting it right, helped by some of the amazing plug-ins you can get now. In terms of others helping, I’m a composer and a producer, but I need input from an engineer. I need to learn, to discuss things and to figure out how to make space in the music.”
Hutchinson has made 40 albums available on for listening on Reverbnation, an online platform that allows independent artists to manage their output on a number of level. Why did he choose to do it that way?
“Reverbnation is helping me with the sorting out process I was talking about earlier,” he smiles. “There’s stuff I don’t want people to have yet, so that’s only available to listen to for now. Elsewhere, I have hours of ambient material that would be great for spas, but which needs to be packaged and pitched properly.”
It’s an imposing body of widely varied work, but there are occasional themes that become evident via the titles and album art of the individual projects. On that basis, Hutchinson seems to have a thing for Ramases (or pharaohs in general), worship, interpretations or reinvention of older work, and library samples designed to be used by other artists.
“The themes are not planned,” he says. “I write individual pieces and then find out that they might fit together – with each other or with something else. So for instance, some of the Egyptian music was written after I heard that an exhibition about Tutankhamun was coming to South Africa. Actually, I must clarify a bit: some of what look like albums should more accurately be called ‘folders’. I’m only uploading tracks to them once I’m completely happy with each piece of music. So for instance, there is a collection there called the Fazioli Contemplations, and there are 33 tracks in the Reverbnation ‘album’. But there are another 100 tracks on my hard drive that will all end up there. I’m still replaying them; perfecting them. And with each piece, there is the writing and rthe recording, but then there is also creating a score for each piece. I’m 200 pages into Fazioli so far… I want to create a book or a series of books and get them all graded and then approach the Royal Schools, Rock School, Trinity College and the rest to see if they can be used for teaching and examination tools.”
That’s a hell of workload. Is there any room for subtleties in all of that effort, to consider, for example, writing music versus teaching music versus teaching how to write music?
“I certainly try to communicate my passion,” notes Hutchinson. “I’m not a conventional teacher. I use Trinity and other books, but I often step outside of that. I find I often have to tell people I’m teaching to read what’s on the page, to understand what they’re doing rather than simply completing their sight reading or whatever. I do get them to do exams so they can see far they’ve come; get a certificate. But they can make their own path, too – I have one pupil who went through four grades in a year, and achieved distinctions for all of them! Where people are hungry, I give them ways to figure out how to think, and listen, and play.”
A Fire Within – title track of Keith Hutchinson’s latest album, on which he plays everything.
Imagining Hutchinson coming through that same process is difficult now, with so much behind him.
“Most of what I’ve done was done on my own,” he says. “I started when I was nine, but took four years to do my first two grades. I think at least some of that might have had to do with my first teacher and the fact that I was playing on an 80-year-old piano that used to rock back and forth on a dusty mat.
“On the other side now, it’s exciting when a pupil commits and takes off and frustrating – as it is for all teachers – when people don’t practice and expect, I don’t know, a magic wand to make everything come right? My advice would always be to give everything you have to what you want. Don’t be a bricklayer who hates what they do. Instead, build beautiful houses.”
“That’s not an easy thing to do,” he murmurs.
“It was difficult to start with, doing other work, including setting up churches, which took me abroad” Hutchinson recalls. “I was finding my way musically, but there was nobody to talk to about John McLaughlin and Chick Corea – my heroes. I came back and became a session player, learning about scores and how to write parts. I’d be given 12 scores on a Friday night, and I wouldn’t sleep until Monday night, by when I’d have written out parts for a 50-piece orchestra. But hard work was just part of it. It was touring that probably killed my second marriage. I was away all the time. You can’t go away for that sort of time – 13 months on one tour – and keep it together.”
Hutchinson’s magnum opus – for now – is a four-hour, 44-minute and 44-second epic called The Hutchinson Quadrilogy Of Theatrical Symphonic Jazz Rock Tone Poems, or Q444 for short. What inspired such a marathon idea?
“It was quite simple, really,” grins Hutchinson. “In my old studio in Northcliff, I had a TV playing Sky News 24/7, and I could see what was going on all around the world; what was breaking and and what was working. This piece, though, has been getting bigger and bigger for years. The first sketches for it were written, I don’t know, 35-40 years ago, and those set the theme for this. But watching the ice shelves fall into the ocean and Sting wander into the Amazon rainforest to raise awareness about deforestation – that got me going again.
“It was really built one step at a time. I’d get to the end of a section and realise that one needed a vocal, while another one needed a choir. So I started writing lyrics and out came the whole libretto – and I was able to extrapolate from there. The phrase “change our world” often comes out, so perhaps that’s the underlying theme.”
Typically, Hutchinson’s presentation of an already massively complex composition is made more opaque by some curious titles for sections of the piece – Extrapolations In Synchro Modular Constructions; Creations In Nuclear Industrial Modal Electronica; Variations On Seven Themes For Modern Production Systems; and Inventions In Kaleidoscopic 12 Tone Sketches In Orchestral Adventures. Just in case you weren’t already challenged enough by spending over a sixth of a day listening to the whole piece, then…
Hutchinson cackles. “That’s all just a play on words. I felt there were a number of mini-movements popping up and I wanted to differentiate them,” he says. “And sometimes it just sounds good. I like the word ‘nuclear’ – it’s powerful. Modern projection systems? That’s film! I think the music at that point just had that feel. The tone sketches come from my interest in Schoenberg, who was credited with creating some tone sketches that managed to make music sound heartless, which I thought was fascinating. And in that area, you can play with matrix boxes that control notes, dynamics and note values on different axes.”
Hutchinson turns to his computer, looking for a piece of music he wants to play me.
“I listend to John McLaughlin exploring patterns in Indian music – he had some beliefs from that culture – and I play it out loud and weep and give praise to my God. It makes me want to say, ‘Lord, thank you!”
He finds the song, on McLaughlin’s album Visions Of The Emerald Beyond. It’s a piece called Eternity’s Breath Part 1 and there’s a passage, where a choir kicks in singing the words, “Oh Lord supreme, supreme, let me fulfil thy will”, where the song just takes off. Hutchinson swivels back towards me, looking at the ceiling, and his eyes are genuinely filled with tears.
“Do what you do – give your best for Him,” he says.
To hear a selection of Keith Hutchinson’s music, go to his Reverbnation page.