Salute the Piano Player: An Interview with Mark Springer

Mark Springer's Piano is an album to remind listeners of the possibilities on offer when one is open to chance and emotion.

Possibly the only punker during the UK’s post-punk revolution in the early ’80s to have a serious understanding and appreciation of Chopin and Stravinsky, Mark Springer was always an outsider amongst the outsiders. As a member of Rip, Rig and Panic, a post-punk band that melded the incendiary attitude of punk with the free-flowing good vibes of funk and jazz, Springer added to the proceedings the unlikely element of classical music. His unusual contributions made him at once an appreciated and welcome colour in the dreary landscape of post-punk, as well as an alienated affiliate.

With Rip, Rig and Panic, Springer often grounded the band’s sound with classical piano structures that tethered the feral, uncontrollable elements of punk-rock to a familiar foundation of pop music. But he could also create chaos, breaking up a fluid melody with wild, shattering abandon. After three albums with the group, Springer would come to the understanding that his range and scope as a musician was limited within the democracy of a band. Piano was his first foray into exploring the musical landscape entirely on his own. His debut album was rooted in both classical music and jazz but it still retained the sense of freedom, thirst and curiosity of punk, often toying with structure, shape and form the way a painter does. (Coincidentally, Springer is himself a painter.)

On Piano, Springer plays his instrument from a point of indecision, pushing notes together tightly with compact and calculated precision before breaking them up and stretching them apart in an attempt to reshape musical space and conjecture. Often on Piano, notes are upended and held in a precarious balance like a series of question marks. The brief, dizzying and terrifying thrill of “Live Embers Disperse” spins like a kaleidoscopic wheel of destruction, careening passion and joy towards certain death. Springer’s command over the piano articulates a certain horror of magic and nuance; his execution is beautiful and deadly all at once. On the gentle dips and dives of “Honey Be”, the musician affects far more sober control over his instrument, allowing a steady flow of notes to wash over with sweetly inflected cadence. Originally released in 1984, Piano has been reissued and remastered on Springer’s own Exit label. It is an album and work to remind listeners of the possibilities on offer when one is open to chance and emotion.

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PopMatters: Piano was your first true solo project following Rip, Rig and Panic. While much of your work carries over from your work with that band, there is also the feeling or sense of relief in being able to have a dialogue with your instrument without the complications of other band members. Going into the project of Piano, did you have a particular theme/idea in mind of what this album was to be all about as a solo artist?

Mark Springer: One of the reasons that I never formed another group in the same way as I did Rip, Rig and Panic was that my aims as a pianist and a composer could not really be realized fully in a context where there were other musicians with to some degree diverging interests from my own. I think Rip, Rig and Panic was about as close as I could get at the time to experimenting and trying out the music in my head and the group gave me the space and a public forum for those ideas. I always looked forward to my solo pieces at our concerts as there I could have total freedom.

Piano was my first solo recording and I felt that it was important for me as it gave me unencumbered freedom to develop further the piano techniques that I had been using in Rip, Rig and Panic. Such as the contrast between a lyrically structured piece going into a more freely structured one, I always liked that juxtaposition when I could attain it within the group. But I feel it was more successful in the solo piano recording as I had a longer time to explore both my compositions and freer playing. Also the piano playing techniques that I developed while playing with Don Cherry are more fully laid out in the solo piano recording and they seem to me to be unlike anything I have heard in any piano music since.

I had travelled to Bolivia and Brazil just before recording Piano. I went into a remote part of the Amazon rain forest to meet and listen to music from some tribes in the jungle and that also inspired the music on Piano. So it was a movement on from Rip, Rig and Panic and also inspired by the otherness of my experience in South America.

The main classical influences I hear on this album are Stravinsky and Szymanowski; there’s also a lot of Blue Note jazz going on. Can you discuss briefly your training as a pianist growing up? What of your influences?

I studied piano from a very early age. As a youngster, I focused on the classical repertoire, playing a big mix of music with an emphasis towards Mozart and Beethoven. As I grew older, I listened also to some jazz records and I became fascinated by the idea of expressing oneself through the instrument. Particular inspirations came from the classic John Coltrane quartet initially and then I explored more so-called free jazz such as Cecil Taylor and British players, some of who have become personal friends, like pianist Keith Tippet. I also played with the great percussionist Louis Moholo on a tour with Rip Rig and Panic, so there is perhaps an influence from South Africa too. Alongside these influences are also strong classical ones. I am recording the Schubert impromptus and have also premiered my piano concerto this August in Italy. I am interested in the composing process and in developing several movements in a piece much as was done by Beethoven et al. I think there is an area where jazz has stopped moving forwards and being experimental. Contemporary classical music can sound too cold and cerebral and needs, I think, the beauty of jazz voicings and a more flowing spontaneous line.

Because the music is rooted in both classical and jazz, there is a timeless quality to Piano. It was made roughly 30 years back but it could have easily been recorded today. Considering how music audiences, markets, distribution and genres have shifted and changed over these last 30 years (with digital media), who do you think might connect with your work?

The remastering of the new Piano CD has in some senses allowed for the full intensity and spatiality of the music to come to the fore therefore in many ways it sounds like a new release. I think it is interesting to listen to now after quite some time! As I agree that it sounds as fresh as the day it was originally recorded. I think that it expresses my individual musical interests in that it continues to challenge the listener with its mix of composition and spontaneity which I think is of primary interest to me and hopefully to others. As a new release with additional contemporary bonus material, I think it should appeal to firstly the Rip Rig and Panic audience and then to anybody who loves dynamic solo piano music and virtuoso playing.