On my music and beyond: The Chrome Plated Megaphone of Destiny
I was a little nervous when I dialled the number my piano teacher in the Netherlands had given me. Nobody answered. “Of course not,” I thought, “he must be a busy man.”
I had arrived in Los Angeles a few days earlier. Every corner in that city seemed familiar from the countless films I had watched. “What seems to be the problem, officer?” I would sit on my balcony in Santa Monica with my morning coffee and recite lines from those films. I bought a pair of roller skates and floated up and down the boardwalk of Santa Monica beach trying to identify celebrities amongst the people I saw – and I realized that they looked at me in just the same way. Could I be a celebrity?
“Fischer,” a man answered the telephone a few days later.
I had heard Clare Fischer’s name for the first time in Hamburg, as some musician friends of mine were discussing Prince’s new album Parade. Clare Fischer had written the wonderfully weird string arrangements for some of the songs.
Soon after that, I began studying jazz piano and improvisation in Utrecht in the Netherlands. I remember one evening when my piano teacher Bert van den Brink had invited me for dinner in his home and we listened to Clare Fischer’s piano solo album Alone Together, several times, both of us in complete awe at the mastery. “It’s frightening how immaculate this is,” Bert said.
Alone Together was recorded at the MPS studio in Villingen, a small town in the south of Germany – the same studio where I had recorded a boogie-woogie album in 1978.
Back then, at the age of 17, I was considered a young talent, a minor local ‘celebrity’ in the small town of Donaueschingen right next to Villingen. My wealthy aunt had read a newspaper article on my piano trio (two pianos and drums) and had offered to pay for a recording session. The other pianist in my trio was the really talented one. What I had going for me was a desire, a thirst – a quest if you will – for the sounds I was hearing in my dreams at night.
Growing up in Donaueschingen included laughing at the funny academic-looking people with scores in their hands who descended on our town once a year for the Musiktage Festival. What was it in that strange music that attracted people from all around the world?
I loved the Beatles and admired Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett, but it was Frank Zappa’s The Chrome Plated Megaphone Of Destiny that created the link that gave me the push to check out the Musiktage myself.
I went to concerts of the Southwest German Radio Orchestra, conducted by Ernest Bour. Later I learned that Bour had also conducted Ligeti’s Atmosphères for Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey and that Atmosphères had been commissioned by the same Radio Orchestra and performed for the first time in 1961, the year I was born.
So here I was now, in Los Angeles in 1991, talking to Clare Fischer on the phone and asking him whether he could possibly spare some time for me to meet him. “I am a very busy man, as you can imagine – but how about tonight?”
It took me an hour and a half, by freeway, to drive to the other side of town, through the Hollywood Hills into Laurel Canyon. Nobody answered the door, but in anticipation of this Clare had told me to just walk around the house and come straight into the back yard. There I saw Clare Fischer for the first time, a white-haired man plucking weeds from between the tiles of his terrace.
“I’m hungry. Are you hungry? Let’s go for a pizza,” he said.
During the previous year of my studies in Utrecht I had added theory of music and composition to my curriculum. I knew I wanted to be a performer, but the traditional jazz piano wasn’t where my heart was. I had studied Clare Fischer’s harmonic concepts, which seemed to open windows towards the contemporary classical sounds I had heard in Donaueschingen. Yet, oddly, Clare’s own music sounded rather conventional.
“You can be a big fish in a small pond or a small fish in a big pond,” Clare told me at the pizza place.
When he had first come to Los Angeles and played his first few recording sessions, Clare recalled, he had always felt uncomfortable. Somehow he failed to adjust to the groove of the other studio cats – until he realised that he himself had perfect timing and everybody else was wrong.
One of Clare’s musical heroes was Henri Dutilleux, another was Dmitri Shostakovich. Later, we sat around the piano in his home, and he explained how boring the typical jazz piano left hand voicings with their stacked fourths were: “If you play all different intervals in a chord, there is a much richer spectrum of harmonics…
“It’s all about voice leading. So-called dissonances get resolved, the line moves on, but at any given moment, new tensions arise. The music is always in movement. The fourth of a chord resolves into the major third, which in its own turn is only a suspense note towards the minor third. In the meantime, the fifth moves chromatically upwards.”
I spent my days in LA practising, composing, roller-skating and watching films at matinees (ah, the secret pleasure of coming out of a movie theatre in the middle of the day). Clare invited me to listen to a recording session with Robert Palmer, three days at Chick Corea’s Mad Hatter studio. At one point, I was invited to contribute to another acquaintance’s film scoring session, playing 20 seconds of background bar piano.
When I got back to the Netherlands, I knew what to do. I recorded my first professional album as a pianist and composer, Dunjiin’s Dance, in that same year, 1992.
Clare Fischer’s concepts, Zappa, Ligeti, Dutilleux and Shostakovich, the Beatles, Corea and Jarrett are still somewhere at the core of my creativity, and in retrospect everything seems very coherent and logical. If I went to a class reunion today, nobody would be surprised about me having turned out to be a professional musician.
Except for myself. I feel that no such deliberate decision was made by me at any point. I just followed the signs. Maybe it was the Chrome Plated Megaphone of Destiny that sucked me in.
Over the past 18 years, Sid Hille has been performing at Temppeliaukio Church in Helsinki (the ‘Rock Church’) on an almost weekly basis, improvising on the piano for visitors. In addition to his solo recitals, he has also organised a concert series titled ‘Two Moons’, to which he invites performers whom he admires to play music with him. After the coronavirus pandemic struck, Hille decided to continue his work in the empty church, streaming his ‘Empty Church’ solo improvisation recitals via social media.
Hille gives his 500th solo recital at Temppeliaukio Church on 23 September 2020.
Featured photo: Maarit Kytöharju