An Interview with Hannah Marshall

"Improvised music accepts extreme and absurd parts of all of us"

The sixth interview in Julie Kjær's series: Female Musicians on the London Improv Scene

A series of interviews curated by Saxophonist, flautist, clarinettist, composer and improviser Julie Kjær.

Chapters: Beginnings, On Improvisation, Life and career, The Work, Inspiration and other thoughts

Sixth in the series: Cellist – HANNAH MARSHALL


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As a girl I dreamt of being part of a community of artists who, though all different, had a common purpose to push boundaries, and encourage each other to do so with no limit. I read about Paris at the turn of the 20th century, about dada and surrealism, where musicians, visual artists, performers and philosophers got together and collaborated. I wondered if it would be possible to go back in time…


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Improvisation = Play. It is an exploration of the moment through the relationship between an artist, the medium they use and the others she/he is playing with. Defining features: serious playfulness!


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Photo: Hannah Marshall & Lol Coxhill at The Red Rose Club ca. 2007 Photo by mattxb

In the late 70’s and 80’s I caught the tail end of free music provision for schools through the Inner London Education Authority, affectionately called ILEA. So myself and a few other souls got grants to study at a ‘Conservatoire’. I also went to junior Guildhall, which was a preparation I believe for the main college. I had been playing the cello since the age of 5 and my path at that point was heading firmly in the direction of classical music, which I loved. However an interest in improvisation came through listening to Jazz at around the age of 10, and my approach at that point was to listen chronologically, which I did, I think, unconsciously. Jelly Roll, Fats Waller, Louis Armstrong, Ella, Art Tatum, Errol Garner, Charlie Parker and on into the big wide river that was be-bop and beyond - so deep, I am still holding my breath and diving in to see if I can touch the bottom! I also loved 20th century modern classical music; Bartok, Stravinsky Ravel, Debussy, Shostakovich, and later Varese - on head phones under the covers when I was supposed to be asleep, keeping half an ear out for footsteps up the stairs. No one was wise to a secret listener! Life changers were Bartok string quartets, Rite of spring, Sketches of Spain. So my interest from 10-18yrs old was mainly big ensembles and big sounds, conceived and executed, composed and delivered with a designed intention. The intensity and fragility of small group interaction was something that came later. However, Bartok’s spiritual depth changed the meaning of music for me, because it seemed to transcend itself completely, and stopped really being music. It seemed to speak of a longing for a loss of a whole society or culture in Europe, that string instruments were part of. Alongside this, my teenage listening included lots of dub and reggae, including Linton Kwesi Johnson, fun boy 3, Bob Marley and much dance and electronica.

Whilst going to Kingsway college for my French A level, I would pass Mole Jazz (a now no longer existing record shop in Kings cross) and flick through the records there. I noticed a prolific artist who was new to me called Evan Parker. I listened to him, and others that I had found, like Air which included Henry Threadgill. After my dad took me and my brother to HMV for Christmas and said “just go and get whatever you want”, there in the dark corner of the jazz section, I saw a record of a young black man with a neatly cropped afro and a dinner jacket playing the violin - the cover was pink and black; Billy Bang! I snapped it up, and after listening for no more than 20 seconds at home, I turned the record player off…..this was way off the chart, and I wasn’t sure if I was ready..!

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Photo: Hannah Marshall, Jon Rose and Veryan Weston, 'Tuning Out' tour 2014 Photo by Veryan Weston

Before going to music college, I had used pianos in practice rooms at school to play freely, and felt much more comfortable improvising on the piano than I did on the cello - where my focus was more purely on classical music. I improvised on the piano alongside writing compositions and songs.

Whilst at college, I had been listening to the music of Anthony Braxton and soon after, I got together with two friends who were also interested in ‘playing’, experimenting and using our spontaneous collective energy to make something special and unique. We played folk tunes, took them apart and improvised on fragments. We used search and reflect, toys, recorded ourselves and played things back through portable tape players improvising along, which was the most immediate and fun way of recording and manipulating sound. We did a few gigs, including for an Oxford ball - where we were quietly asked to leave!

I soon started playing in pop and rock bands in pubs and clubs around London, and met new people around the city. Gradually I realised that the music that I was heading towards was not in the library at college or shops that I visited, but was taking place live, in the city I lived in.

I started getting involved in the London Free Improvisation scene in the mid to late 90’s, as an audience member, a listener, and an observer. This was at places like The Red Rose Club in Finsbury Park, The Vortex – then in Stoke Newington, The Klinker, LMC & The Bonnington club. These concerts included musicians such as Roger Turner, Tristan Honsinger, Steve Noble, Sarah Gail Brand, Maggie Nichols, Phil Minton, Lol Coxhill, John Russell, Pat Thomas, Caroline Kraabel, Viv Corringham, Adam Bohman & John Edwards amongst many others. The concerts had a very strong impact on me - at first confusion, bemusement, and intrigue - and later captivation and a sense of a shared understanding and belonging.

In the late 90’s I met violinist Alison Blunt and played regularly with her in a duo and with others and formed groups that put on evenings involving music/composition, including some improvisation, text readings and visuals such as drawing and film. We put on shows in various venues around London including The Red Rose Club, Battersea Arts Centre and Southwark playhouse, with other musicians/composers and friends.

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Photo: Hannah Marshall Cafe Oto Flyer 2016

Around this time I started getting involved in devised and experimental theatre. Creating music for theatre opened lots of doorways to my improvisation - much more than in contemporary music, as I was drawn to and confronted by different methods of physical performance. And the sounds and approach to playing for theatre were very broad. My uncle had a bookstall in Camden market, so whenever I went there I would go in to ‘Off stage’ in Chalk Farm - a bookshop entirely devoted to theatre arts. Here I found stories and practice of people working rigorously with their body, not to achieve physical technical perfection, but instead to transmit something eternal through human stories. I wanted to find ways of doing that through music as well. The spirit and ethos behind experimental theatre and improvisation came delightfully together when I started working with The People Show Theatre Company in 2000. I later discovered that The People Band was also born from there. The People Band included Terry Day, who was one of my first contacts with performing improvised music to audiences in the London Improv scene, along with Kay Grant, Steve Beresford, and Veryan Weston.

Through devised and experimental theatre, the political aspect of what is being made is more consciously on show. Although music in this context is one of a few art-forms being brought together for the piece of theatre, it gave me the opportunity to focus on the political implications of playing and of being a musician. It allowed me a chance to focus on my role both within a group of performers, and in the wider context of the theatre and audience. The politics of performance has always been something that has interested me, perhaps coming through and from classical music, where for one reason or another I was not able to find a musical home. There has never been a sense of regret about this, because the musician as an agent of change and a transmitter of expressive material, is not, I believe, given full rights to develop and experiment in that environment.

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Photo: Hannah Marshall, Alison Blunt and Ivor Kallin, 'Barrel' at Sonic Imperfections 2014, London Photo by Beibei Wang

When I first started to play, and still now more than ever, improvised music was as much about asking something unknown of myself, to challenge myself and to find a way with the other musicians, as it was to accept and work with the present moment. Improvised music accepts extreme and absurd parts of all of us. These aspects of ourselves are loved in this scene, or should be - and mostly, daring to be truly yourself and risking failure, is rewarded with attention and respect; we all want to see the extraordinary happening before our eyes. I joined Maggie Nichols ‘Gathering’ at The Betsy Trotwood Pub in Farringdon, after studying at Community Music. John Stevens’ manual for rhythm and improvisation: Search and Reflect, was a daily practice at Community Music, and through both these ways of playing in groups, I found a rigor and openness in group playing that was very beneficial to me personally. Intense listening became both an escape and the opposite of escape: awareness, and an enabling to go beyond, both personally and collectively.

So, with the 2006 Terry Day Duo record (which marked a return for him to playing after a period of Ill health),  playing in the LIO, I made some kind of a commitment through taking as many opportunities as I could to play - building the reflex and muscle I hoped it would take to deserve the right to be there! I venture still forward now, into more playing and more encounters.


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As time has gone on, I hope I have become more aware of how my mind can filter my ears. In other words, how the judgements of the mind, that discern and carve meaning from sounds, can also dismiss them, and in doing so may cause us to miss an extraordinary moment. I never want to miss anything! As far as influences go, I find things work more like I am stirring a pot - that music, musicians and influences get folded in and come round again, and again - and I am often trying to bring many seemingly disparate elements together. Influences at the moment include Henry Threadgill’s Zooid, J-dilla, Hamid drake, Abdul Wadud, Beethoven, Messaien, and the devotional music of Azerbaijan.

I have recently being going back to something I used to do in my early 20’s - which is make beats/tracks in my room, with the aim of simply making me want to dance. So I guess that says that refined and unrefined rhythm is important to me, and my practice will often focus on rhythm more than specific pitches. I go through various battles with my left hand, and have been working around ornamentation for a while. I have been choosing no more than 3/4 notes or quartertones, and simply finding ornamental patterns between them, playing as fast and as slow as possible.

Like many classically trained musicians, my teacher had a massive influence on me. Fortunately he was a big enough person to teach me, and not ‘the instrument’, and I believe he did spend a while being puzzled as to what to do with me. I was very diligent, and had made the necessary choice; playing the cello was where I was at, and I was prepared to put in the time and effort. ‘Stop thinking about the instrument’ he would shout at me day after day.

In that kernel, is a world of truth that would later help me so much to play improvised music for people. In that intense relationship between myself, and the instrument I was trying to master, I have to focus on what I am doing! Where is my mind? Where is my attention? What is my body doing? This is ultimately about taking responsibility for my own musicality and treating it with respect - however much of a struggle it may be at any one time. I hope this has enabled me to treat the cello as what it is: an old box with strings strung on it, and simply to move myself and my limbs accordingly to create different sounds.

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Photo: Hannah Marshall musical/graphical notation

In terms of pitch relationships, other single line tenor instruments will often have a person playing them who will be able to teach me something amazing! The tenor saxophone is a mighty force. Coltrane and Albert Ayler, John Butcher, Rachel Musson, Ingrid Laubrock, Trevor Watts, Evan Parker: these players and this reed instrument make demands on my chamber string instrument that bend it to braking point! However, one of the joys of playing strings is their malleability to bend, de-tune, flick, poke and detach entirely from the body of the instrument. In their simple construct is an ancient quality that can call up something lost.

In terms of the relationship between practice and performance, I find that it doesn’t work for me to have any specific goal in mind for a performance - that would feel contrived, and frankly it’s unlikely to work out. Instead, I treat practice and performance as two distinct areas (unless I am learning a composition, which does happen sometimes!); I practice what I want to practice and get better at it for myself. And when I play, I forget all about that - chuck it away, and just play. That way, the playing and the practice can feed each other e.g. I may notice some new thing I’m doing at a gig, and think ‘wow I’ve never done that before’, and then take it to another level at home, or decide to leave it in the past.

Improvised music is about saying that there is so much more that is present in music than what you have practiced - so much more than what you have developed through your will power alone. In fact I would say that for me personally, the act of surrendering, not to others, but to what is happening, or to what I am doing – surrendering to it, is what I am interested in doing. Maybe it’s because I get bored with myself quite easily, so the idea of hearing myself playing things that I have practiced again and again is a little uninteresting - and even unpleasant. Although of course it does happen! So I guess in surrendering, what we are surrendering to is the moment, and to the music itself, which comes from that. That may mean having the courage to say nothing and just being there, until something grabs you to give voice.

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Photo: Barrel and Pat Thomas flyer

I now live in Bristol and as a result have found myself playing more in other parts of the country, as well as London. Doing so has made me understand that the London improv scene works as a hub for musicians across the country to come and play, and then return to their various and lively scenes elsewhere. This has been made more apparent as more and more musicians are getting pushed out of the capital due to its changed status from a centre of culture, to a centre of banking. There are rich activities taking place in many cities and areas of the country that reflect the legacy not just of the music that takes place in London, but also in the rest of Europe and the World.

The musicians and collaborations that are important to me, are possibly too numerous to mention in full, but I will try. Constant groups and re-groups offer great rituals of connection, that although meaningful, don’t always demand continued playing, or forming into official groups. Veryan Weston has been a very significant co-musician for me. I have played in many groups with him and hope to continue to. I am delighted to be a member of Alex Ward’s quintet with truly astounding music and players. A trio that continues playfully skipping over time from one year to the next is with Tim Hodgkinson and Paul May (previously Roger Turner). A trio with Julie Kjær and Rachel Musson has brought an amazing unity and common purpose of playing to my life. I continue to play with violinist Alison Blunt in Barrel, and with poet and fellow string player Ivor kallin. This is a trio that has complete trust and elasticity at its heart - we bring a lot of reflections and opposing energies to this group and it never stays still; it’s always alive. I play in a French/Italian/Irish/British band called ABHRA, with vocalist Lauren Kinsella and saxophonist/composer Julian Pontvienne. ABHRA uses the words of Henry Thoreau, which is a quietly ecstatic sound world to be in. I also have an ongoing duo With Dominic Lash, 2 groups with southwest saxophonist Tim Hill, new collaborations with Otto Willburg - Bassist,  a sound map collaboration with Evan parker and Matt Wright, Joe Wright has been a pleasure to explore music with this last year, a trio with Terry Day and Satoko Fukuda, a trio with Lauren Kinsella and Nick Malcolm - Trumpeter, a raw and lovely duo with Viv Corringham – vocalist, a new group with Tina Hitchins - flautist, a trio with Veryan Weston – tracker action organist & Jon Rose – violinist,  new playing opportunities with Guillaume Viltard - bassits, and a new trio Julie Kjaer and Mathilda Rolfsson - percussionist. Phew!

Having said all that, when it comes to making my own stuff, I am somewhat of an artistic hermit, and have always enjoyed doing things on my own. I am currently working on another solo record, which I suppose by its nature will be very personal. If I tried to describe what I am interested in conveying, it would be something to do with simplicity, surprise, story, and place - I feel sure that text will be in there somewhere too. I enjoy treating recording as something at the other end of the spectrum to performing, as it’s the creation of an object that can be replayed. I do have a lot of time for recordings of improvisation as a document, and as examples of peoples work. However, the best way of understanding any kind of improvisation, is live - because it represents something that means something to you at that time, a moment in your life, after a day when something happened, what happened? How do you feel? What does it mean to be here? Live music is responding to those questions, and bringing you together with others too.


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Photo: Hannah Marshall, Rachel Musson & Julie Kjær Stavanger 2016 Photo by Kevin Norton

Inspiration, although through people’s music, comes most often in the daily world of chance happenings. It comes through trying to capture dreams, or from how life changes in lurches and fits, from grabbing something and writing it, recording it, or just feeling it.

I am inspired by poetry: Mary Oliver & Rumi, by sounds, the Fridge, a passing train, colour, a red cabbage. I have been struck dumb by discoveries around sound and the power of vibrations in forming matter. An explicit example of this is Cymatics, and the work of Michael Tellinger – who founded cymatic patterns in the stone formations that cover lots of southern Africa. I suppose what comes from this, is that sound has a force to move and change, and that our perception of sound, like so much else, is coloured with the particular bias of being human; what we can’t hear or see doesn’t’t exist – this isn’t so!

Over the last 10 years or so I have had the great fortune to travel fairly widely in main land Europe, and also to Brazil and Russia, to play improvised music. I have found that it is often abroad that I can get a stronger sense of the improvised music scene in London. In Italy particularly, British improvisation is treated with a great devotion and respect. In fact abroad, the light shines on the approaches and energy of UK improvisation, and brings out details that are easy to miss when amidst gigs and formations here. Improvisation in the UK has humour, eclecticism, a certain dynamic of interaction, and due to a general lack of consistent funding, an approach that could be described as committed and appreciative, within a community of people who have free music at the centre of their lives.