Like all the residents of Melbourne, Luke Howard lived through the longest Covid-related lockdown in the world. Turning adversity into an artistic triumph, he forged a new album, his second solo record for the UK label Mercury KX and a new benchmark for the contemporary classical composer, pianist and Australian Music Prize nominee.
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All Of Us is not only an exquisite portrait of isolation, loss, resistance and reconciliation in both stark and rich shades of piano, orchestra and electronics, but the theme of quarantine provides a framework for the record. Locked out of even his own studio and unable to play shows, Howard’s ever-restless creative flow since his 2013 debut Sun, Cloud – not just solo albums but collaborative recordings, the more jazz-minded Luke Howard Trio and scores for film, theatre and ballet – was challenged like never before. In this strange, unsettling and unexpected world, he found himself turning to French novelist Albert Camus’ classic absurdist novel The Plague, written in 1947, in which the prescient saga of a plague sweeping the French Algerian city of Oran was an existential allegory for humanity’s vulnerability and inability to control its own destiny.
If All Of Us qualifies as a concept record, it’s strictly non-narrative and non-verbal; more ‘inspired by’ than ‘based on’, though the album and track titles are taken from Camus’ book.
“All Of Us comes from the passage ‘The plague become the affair of us all – and one of the most remarkable consequences was a sudden separation of people who were not prepared for it’,” Howard explains. “If you look at Camus’ book through a prism of humanity, you can find the best in terrible situations, and All Of Us reflects some spirit of community and hopefully coming out of all this.”
Throughout, Howard shifts between subtle permutations of shifting sound, etched with his trademark intimacy and restraint, and applied with a palate both minimalist and expansive; to his own piano, celeste and synthesiser, the Budapest Art Orchestra (conducted by Peter Pejtsik) plays strings, guests added flugelhorn, viola, contrabass and modular synth whilst fellow post-classicist Ben Lukas Boysen provides additional programming, production and mixing on ‘Critical Spirit’ and ‘The Opening Of The Gates’.
Howard wrote the majority of All Of Us at his parents’ dining table, “on a tiny keyboard and a computer, after I decamped there during the first lockdown,” he recalls. “I had the idea I might write something better the next time but it stuck.” Between lockdowns, in the Australian winter of 2021, Howard was able to quickly record his solo piano pieces at a friend’s house whilst the orchestral scores were sent to Budapest and digital files to friends to add their contributions remotely.
It was a dislocating way to create a record, he admits, but you’d never know it, such is Howard’s sublime command of mood and emotional impact. But then he is used to forging soundscapes from different impulses. Following his 2018 album Open Heart Story, he released the soundtrack to the Australian short The Sand That Ate The Sea, then an album of improvised piano (All That Is Not Solid) and Dark Angels, an EP of unusually dark ambient hues (inspired by the choral sections of the aforementioned soundtrack) in collaboration with fellow Australian composer Tilman Robinson. All these endeavours feed into All Of Us, which stands apart from Howard’s previous records: “It has a more consolidated approach in terms of the electronic elements,” he feels.
For a change as well, Howard’s piano compositions, for example ‘The Compass Of A Telegraph, and ‘A Faint Qualm For The Future’, are more interludes this time around. “It wasn’t intentional,” he says. “With piano, it’s easier to leave things unfinished before recording, unlike the orchestral pieces, which must be written down in advance. I then found that the piano pieces didn’t become longer. It felt a bit dissociating, living in a liminal state when you don’t know when it’s going to end, which made it hard to draw a bow around these pieces, like, ‘This is where the music begins and ends’.”
More quantifiable is an uncannily pervading mood of unease in the musical notes and tones, even in the case of the lush strings and delicate celeste of ‘A Different Idea Of Love’.
“Short interludes that don’t reach their natural conclusion rather than create a natural arc – that’s a textbook manifestation of uneasiness,” Howard says. “But the feeling of uneasiness was unconscious. The uneasiness is in the ingredients rather than the execution.”
This uncanny alliance between beauty of the music and its uneasy tension is exemplified by the first single to be lifted from All Of Us, ‘The Opening Of The Gates’: a quiet flurry of low-tone pulses and synth loops beneath Howard’s piano imagining the feeling of anticipation and nervousness as quarantine is finally lifted in Oran.
The track is based on one motif in the orchestral ‘The Closing Of The Gates’, which will be the third single following the release of ‘A Collective Destiny’. As Howard recalls, after recording his piano pieces, he returned to his friend’s home studio, “for one last hurrah, to see if I had one more tune in me, which was ‘A Collective Destiny’. It was written between lockdowns, and people were getting vaccinated, so things were looking up – though that’s not how it turned out! – so it doesn’t have that same sense of unease for me.”
Respite is also the theme of the orchestrated ‘An Hour Off For Friendship’, which in Howard’s mind relates to the scene in The Plague where the narrator goes swimming, “trying to find a rare moment of joy outside of the weightiness of the times,” says the composer. Contrast this with the ominous synth swell of ‘The Moment Only’ whilst unease and hope co-exist in ‘A Faint Qualm for the Future’: “After a pensive start,” says Howard, “it gathers momentum, like a train that hadn’t spun its wheels for a while. There’s qualm, and there’s the future.”
If one piece unites the worlds of strings, horns and synths, it’s ‘The Vast Indifference Of The Sky’., which bears the influence of Eberhard Weber’s Colours of Chloe and Jon Hassell’s Last Night The Moon Came Dropping Its Clothes In The Street, both albums released on the esteemed jazz label ECM – home too of another of Howard’s heroes, pianist Keith Jarrett, though the influence of Talk Talk, The Blue Nile and Peter Gabriel on the teenage Howard can still be discerned in the aching, rarefied folds of his music.
Howard is currently remixing All Of Us for spatial audio (‘surround sound’ in layman’s terms) and preparing for when he can play live again. His jazz trio are first to announce new shows, and he is working on a ballet commission. As lockdown finally lifts again in Melbourne, as it once did in Oran, a sense of normality, or the New Normal, might return. But All Of Us will remain a beautifully moving document of a unique time in history.