Anders Helmerson Interview: “20 Questions” by Brigitta Bernhard

Anders Helmerson Interview: “20 Questions” by Brigitta Bernhard, U.K. – September 2020

1/ When did you decide on acoustic piano, progressive rock and jazz as your prime influence, and when did you begin to mix all three and find your own signature, that you call “progressive fusion”?

I think …this is a pivotal question… Quite interestingly I have, in all my life, as a composer, been drawn to genre bending or let’s call it genre fusion.
The term ‘progressive fusion’ is my own expression and it might emphasize the mix of ‘jazz- rock … a style that started when I was a kid like Chick Corea etc. and ‘experimental rock music that today is called prog rock that came at the same time as the group YES. I used to love Yes, and I still do. To mix those two genres it might be like mixing milk and lemon, but for me it was natural.

I might be against the ‘stream’ but I loved the keyboard player Patrick Moraz who joined Yes and later was fired and was replaced by Rick Wakeman because he was trying to jazz’s up YES, and nobody I know could understand how I could like him but ….he was an enormous inspiration for me… I think no other musician have meant more for me, in particular his album the story of I.

Genre bending is something that people, especially in the jazz genre, is regarding as an infringement and a very immoral thing to do… you can never imagine what insults I have heard, not at least from critics.

Well… later on I added the word acoustic. So the term, or genre, acoustic prog fusion is a quite good description of what I am doing. I think. The ‘acousticization’ is a reaction against technology that made me feel confined and locked in, particular when playing live.

2/ When your debut album, “End of Illusion”, released in 1981 was eventually discovered, by progressive rock aficionados in France and Japan in the 90s, did that come as a surprise to you? 

Yes, actually, I think I was… I had decided to leave the music business behind to study medicine and suddenly I started to receive lots of fan’ mail and telephone calls from around the world.
Later I got a label calling me offering to make a re-release of the album. I then forgot about it …however then album sold well and when I decided to start producing again ….I got royalty funds to enable me to record my second album …’ Fields of Inertia’, and that was just in the time when analog recording had been replaced by digital and the world in the music business had a completely different map

3/ Did your work on “End of Illusion” start as progressive rock album or did you, at that time already try another way, like the progressive fusion of “Quantum House Project”?

When I worked with End of illusion, I had no intension of become a live artist. I wanted to be a recording artist only. I wanted to invite guest musicians and produce progressive fusion with the means available at that time. I remember being very influenced by Alan Parsons, in particular his album Robot I. Alan Parsons was Beatles’ and Pink Floyd’s studio engineer and later became an independent producer. Funny enough I met him at Abbey Road Studios a few years ago and I think I then realized how much he meant as an inspirational source when I did End of Illusion.
At that time, I also realized how much my encounters with the digital recording made me change views on the concept of music production. Now…for me… recording albums is of less importance….and…. performing live -in the present- is what music is all about. …
So Patrick Moraz …” Story of I” and Alan Parsons” Robot I “makes me think that my next album will also be something with “I”.

4/ When and how did you start to get interested in Quantum Physics? And how did this scientific theory or influence your last studio album, “Quantum House Project”? 

I have always been interested in popular science. I read a lot about science and am fascinated about it…the term “Quantum House” is actually the name of an association that I was a member of … where we were analyzing dreams. We met every week to talk about dreams. Everybody in that party was interested in Quantum physics and I got interested too. When the association vanished, I decided to bring the name with me,
I think though that the way I am writing music is scientific. I believe that music is organization of numbers in a way that proves that there is an underlying order in the universe. I am thinking a lot of numbers and combinations of numbers when I write. For instance the Fibonacci number sequence that is going back everywhere in nature, appears in biological settings, such as branching in trees, the arrangement of leaves on a stem. Also, on a piano you can see that there are 2 groups of black keys 2 and 3. Together that is 5 and the white in an octave has 8 keys and together that is 13. So, in an octave you have numbers 2,3,5,8 &13 which is a Fibonacci sequence and then it repeats in a new octave. I don’t mean that that has any importance I just confirm that that is the way nature is shaped and I copy that many times when I am writing. It is all very mysterious but for me also very exciting and inspirational

5/ In “Quantum House Project” you changed from electronic keyboards to a Grand Piano. Was the repertoire written for a Grand piano from the start?

Yes, I wrote all the music like a piano piece and added bass as a third voice. I also wrote drum score but, as usual, drummers tend to make their own interpretations.
I wrote the piano part without attention to how difficult it was and when I started to rehearse the music, I freaked out a bit. It was really difficult, and it took a long time to learn. I engaged with a classical pianist who is Russian and teacher at Royal College of Music called Ilya Kondratiev. He helped me out with the fingering and supported me in the learning process. Without him I don’t think I would have been able to play it at all, the way I am doing, but in those years, it was a very steep learning curve for me.

6/ How did you compose for your previous albums? On a piano or on keyboards?

In my previous albums I guess I wrote the music in a different way. I wrote it with my synthesizers and Triple Ripple album which was made in purpose to play live and was written for the rig with 4 tone generators. Writing for four synthesizers means you have to spend a lot of time sound chasing – which means tweaking the sounds in relation to each other, like mixing at same time as you are writing. To create music with synthesizers is also an example on how mathematical music really is as you can see the tone and the timbre in mathematical plots while you ?????are tweaking. f.ex by a knob to change the sustain, filters etc, Then by using extra controllers like keyboards and foot pedals, yes even a laser harp, made it possible to play 4 voices at the same time. But of course, the music on my previous albums like Fields of Inertia and End of illusion were not written to play live, they were plain studio products.

7/ The silence, the break between sounds, can be more explored through an acoustic piano. Did the use of this instrument have an influence on your compositions?

Yes starting to compose for piano exposed me for different problems, mainly in terms of dynamics. I think I am still searching for my own sound and I have not yet got my own timbre identity. I have listened to other artists with the same timbre i.e .grand piano, drums and electric bass, like Hiromi, Aziza Mustafa Sadhe, Tigran Hamasyan etc ,and I find it real difficult to understand how they can make it sound that good.

8/ Why did you decide to record your second album, “Fields of Inertia”, in Rio de Janeiro (Brazil)?

Oh, that is a strange story! I was working on a cruise ship… And disembarked there. I decided to stay and got some friends in the music business and at studio called BH studios in Barra. It felt that everything was set for a new album, I just had to come up with some ideas. That is how it all started……

9/ Did working in a studio in Rio, with Brazilian musicians influence your work? And did that experience surprise you?

I am not sure as those sessions were my first contact with the music business since I had pulled out before. So that was in a way “the new normal” for me …..I was so baffled by the digital recording that it felt like I was on another planet. When I think back on it, I realize recording in Brazil was cool…. a true experience not at least in terms of the great people I met and how we struggled to get the recordings finished.

10/ Amongst the Brazilian instrumentalists that recorded “Fields of Inertia” was Robertinho Silva, one of the best percussionists/drummers in the world, known for his work with Milton Nascimento, Egberto Gismonti, João Donato, Gilberto Gil and Wayne Shorter. What was it like, to record with Robertinho?

Robertinho Silva is a great musician! He actually did not play the drums on the recording, that was done by another guy. He only played percussion. I remember he came to the studio with a whole van filled by percussions.! He unloaded in the studio, did a sound check and. Then started to play on all those instruments. It sounded very primitive like sounds from the jungle, lt triggered a feeling of something very exiting with berimbau, pandeiro and quica , and we filled in and started a jam. That became a song on the album called Ground Zero. Robertinho percussion came back many times during the album…. At some places he played a whole samba orchestra himself on multi track.

A little story about that: “After the recording I went to New York to mix it. At some places there was not less than 80 tracks…This was when digital recording was I it’s cradle…. the sound card collapsed, and this caused a lot of confusion and the sound engineer panicked…. In the end we managed to get Robertinho’s percussion tracks sorted. But the fun thing was that this event caused a lot of rumors among sound engineers in New York city and eventually there was a music technology magazine called …i guess…” sound on sound “published an article with the headline: ‘’sound engineer haunted by inertia. …” That was all due to instruments in Robertinho’s van.

11/ Normally, you write all your compositions in musical score, but you also accept suggestions from your band members, during recording sessions. What kind of changes did their contributions add to your compositions? And, what role does improvisation play in your music?

I think, by the tradition, it is only the drummer who makes his /her own ideas on the music. The bass parts, and also piano pars are written and arranged and if you would start improvising on that it will be a ‘mess’. But of course, I do have ad lib parts
Talking. About improvisation – to make a good improvisation you need to be very well prepared, only as good as when reading from a score. So, it is hard to say what role it has …but of course, when writing … you always start with improvisation….
I remember our first gig at Vortex in London. My piano tutor who had been helping me with these pieces for almost a year came to see the show and afterwards he told me“there was one piece that you have never played for me before …..called “ Recital Z”…. why have you not played it for me before”
I told him this piece was just an “improvisation “- there was no score so there was no reason to play it for him. The following weeks he was going through this piece with me many times and showed me how to build up the dynamics and so on… And now, despite any score, this piece has become elaborated and sounds the same every time I play …just like a written piece. So, there is an arbitrary border between improvisation and composed but when you are writing your ideas, every little semiquaver got its right place.

12/ Is there even more space for improvisation in your live shows?

Yes, when we play live the ad lib parts gets extended and longer when playing live to try to build up a live atmosphere. Christian Grassart is a French drummer I play with, and he use to take on a drum solo for 10 minutes on every show and that is cool and the audience used to love it.
I am myself a bit insecure to do long improvisations as I am not trained to play jazz. I do ad lib parts though but after a while they becomes molded into something less random

13/ Your third album, “Triple Ripple”, was recorded as a trio, together with drummer Marco Minnemann and bass player Bryan Beller. But on your tour, you performed solo. How difficult or challenging was this switch; from working as a trio – to going solo?

Yes, I was quite frustrated as I could not get any other musicians to join me at this occasion as the music was too complicated and complex. It would be a nightmare for any musician to memories all that. I honestly think Marco is the only one who could do it. When I asked him to join he said …” yes but not until after 3 years” as he was fully booked until then.
I decided then to do the show with Marcos and Bryans recordings and I just played along. I have to agree it felt wrong but I was so keen to play it live so I did this show myself and I was touring for a year but then I came to the conclusion that my keyboard rig was too heavy and complicated and it was too remote for most people as they could not see any drummer and they thought I was playing playback myself and so on. So I decided to scrap he Triple Ripple project.

14/ On your website, you share a video of your new composition, “Ritual iDance” that you recorded live, with the drummer Senri Kawaguchi, and bass player Lukasz Chyla. Does this music reflect the concept for your next album?

Yes. The‘ Ritual iDance’ is a piece I have been working on for many years and it has its obvious place on next album. I love to play it as it feels very friendly to play and comfortable on the fingers. I asked Senri Kawaguchi to record the drums and we recorded a lockdown video together all three. I think Senri did a absolutely brilliant performance and I will keep this video as a memory of our lockdown collaboration. One fan wrote about her playing -” smart snare poke the chakra”. .
That was very poetic. Chakra are points of energy used in a variety of meditation practices in Hindu religion and I think she really poked the right chakras in this video recording. It was quite a forceful recording but at the same time very sensitive and poetic….

15/. When will the new album be released? Do you already have the entire repertoire for it? Have you already recorded it?

Yes, a new album is coming up and we have started recordings already. I think that on my new album I will have found a new approach to dynamics and I am curious to see if it works. …Maybe I will add a tune from Quantum House album too. …I am not sure when it will be ready. I have a scheduled operation my left wrist to do and after that I will be incapacitated for a while so I hope to be ready before I go to the theatre. I am collaborating with Juan Filipe Meya on drums – who I picked from Berklee College and with Lucas Chyla on bass. I hope we can go for a tour after this corona pandemic. I am really looking forward to that.

16/ How would you describe your public profile, at present? Did it change over time, since your initial album?

Yes, of course, swapping to grand piano had an impact on my profile as my music become more understandable and accessible. Myself I don’t think my music itself has changed very much since before as I always have been writing music for keyboard trio. But since those times my timbre has changed and now it could sound like a jazz trio and I can get access to jazz clubs. That would have been impossible before.
When I quit to electronica a lot of people got disappointed but at the end of the day, I think I have got more listeners now.

17/ The encounter of jazz and modern classical, inspired the great pioneering artists Bill Evans and The Modern Jazz Quartet, as well as arrangers Gil Evans and Gunter Schuller, to name a few. Schuller called this style, the “Third Stream”. Since the 1970’s, European contribution to jazz has grown a lot, especially through ECM Records. How do you see your work within this scenario?  Could we call your “progressive fusion” the “Fourth Stream”?!

Third stream is a synthesis of Jazz and Classical music and of course I am classically trained and write neoclassical music, but I also think that the music scene as such has been through such a meltdown after the digital revolution and music genres have become fragmented and I believe that progressive fusion will remain a niche music and I am happy with that.
But I like the synthesis of jazz and classical music as it has similarities in timbre and I think that Hiromi is a pioneer to play jazz music with a classical touch and classical fingering is very interesting. Older jazz pianists as Errol Garner for example used the piano almost like a percussion instrument but to play with classical fingering really change the perception. Imagine mixing Oscar Peterson with Franz List… that sounds very exciting to me. Maybe that concept could end up in a “fourth stream” …

18/. You were born and raised in Sweden and moved to England as an adult. Is there any Swedish identity present in your music? Or is this Swedish identity more prominent in your personality?

No, I don’t think there is any Swedish identity as such in my music, but maybe in my personality. I have always been searching abroad in my taste but of course there are many great Swedish musicians I adore, in particular Esbjorn Svensson, and I am still mourning his death. Abba I like but that is maybe a bit out of my sphere, or out of my chakra. I started my music career in Sweden, and I hope that I would be recognized there again and maybe go back there for some gigs in clubs like Fashing and Nefertiti. That would be like a dream come through.

19/ How do you analyze the impact of the Coronavirus-pandemic on the music market? 

I cannot analyze it differently than how it has affected our world in large. It is especially tragic, though, for the Events’ industry of course. It is a disaster. I had a gig in London at Kew Gardens on the 16 of March 2020 and I was aware that the corona virus was getting more threatening. I told the audience that what was going on was frightening mainly because we don’t know how it is going to develop. I made a joke and said that in a few months all kind of gatherings would be forbidden. People laughed but two days later the UK was in a lockdown. No more gigs. And for the moment we are in the same situation – we just don’t know what the future looks like, we don’t have a crystal ball and that is something we have to get used to. There are always people who try to take advantage of this lockdown but this is an apocalypse – it affects us all and there is nothing we can do apart for being patient … wait until it is over but when that will be nobody knows .

20/ Live music on the Internet has been a relief for many people, during these eternal times of lockdown and quarantine. As a musician and also as a doctor, how do you see the role music plays in our lives, from now on?

The subject of music and internet is just as apocalyptic as the corona virus ….it just happened 20 years earlier. Now we found our self in a situation when we cannot travel and not gather with other people, but we still have got the internet which make it possible to communicate with people at the other side of the planet for free. The world is changing. There is nothing called music industry anymore. Music is a craft that uses the web as a medium.
…..if the world is going virtual so should the music business and that’s ok ….I think but in the heart of my heart I am longing back to a time when you could pop in to a music venue, like Ronnie Scots, have a glass of wine and listen to some very good live music. What is going to happen in the future is hard to say without a Crystal ball but I think most people would appreciate to listen to music in vivo, and maybe in the future after a long time of abstinence from gatherings and going to venues, wake up from this Cinderella sleep and start to learn how to appreciate live music again and ,the live music would flourish just as in the 80 ties. History repeats itself they say. You don’t need a crystal ball to see that…