on life, music etc beyond mainstream

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Archives: Aby Vulliamy


Als ich vor Wochen die bevorstehenden Alben dieser vier Frauen listete, war das mit Spannung und Vorfreude verknüpft. Jetzt, nachdem ich dieses „Quartett“ komplett gehört habe, war mir rasch klar, dass alle am Ende des Jahres in meiner Liste des Außergewöhnlichen landen werden. Es fällt gar nicht so leicht, die Alben kurz und knackig mit „One-Linern“ zu bedienen – so unterschiedlich sie in Audruck und Stilistik sind, all diese Songzyklen kehren Innerstes nach aussen, ganz gleich, welche Masken sie verwenden, welche Zeitzonen sie betreten. Es ist verblüffend, wie nah einem Cat Power (Chan Marshall) mit spartanischen Liedern voller Einflüsse kommt, aus denen ein altes verlorenes Amerika grüsst. Es ist bewegend, wie ungefiltert Marianne Faithfull In ihren Versen wohnt („it‘s open-heart surgery, darling!“) , und selbst ein vermeintlich goldener Oldie wie „It‘s All Over Now, Baby Blue“ ganz neue Dunkelheiten auslotet. Es ist faszinierend, wie souverän Aby Vulliamy mit dem erst spät entdeckten Instrument ihrer Stimme ein so verzweigtes und ohrwurmgesättigtes Stück Musik abliefert. Es ist schon staunenswert, wie radikal Julia Holter eigenen Improvisationen und Fantasien folgt – und die mäandernde Besprechung in der Novemberausgabe von „Mojo“ vertraute Namen des Eigensinnigen ins Spiel bringt, von Alice Coltrane bis Robert Wyatt. Wenn alles klappt, treffe ich Julia H. vor ihrem Konzert in Bochum, im November. Gerne im Cafe Tucholsky. Das wird ein interessantes Interview, versprochen!



Michael: What a beautiful, intricate, deceptively naive, profound, heartbreaking, elevating album. It won‘t storm the indie charts, but it touches me similarly deep like, in days long gone, Julie Tippetts‘ „Sunset Glow“.


Aby: What a very lovely bunch of words to describe it, thank you so much Michael! Luckily I’m not interested in storming the indie charts – I measure my success in teardrops shed! 




  1. Spin Cycle
  2. Forever and ever endeavour (devour)
  3. Oops Delores
  4. Inside Out
  5. Viola Interlude
  6. This Precious Time
  7. Rising Damp
  8. Rock me Tender
  9. Good Enough
  10. Fly-away-home
  11. Just a minute, not even
  12. Goodbye Song


Multi-instrumentalist, singer, composer, lover of free improvisation, and music therapist Aby Vulliamy takes a long look back to first musical revelations and „non-musical“ sounds from an old clock in the hallway to birdsong. She gives  insights in her love and learning of instruments, and how someone encouraged her to trust her voice to sing. I really  didn‘t know much about her musical life when I first contacted her. Simply being fascinated with her viola and rare vocal contributions on the last two installments of Bill Wells‘ fabulous National Jazz Trio of Scotland (Bill has a knack for special voices!), and reading about her therapeutic activities, this was enough for me: a starting point. 

The diversity of her musical activities goes way beyond the viola and vocal moments on Bill‘s albums, but sometimes a small snippet, the bending of a note, are enough for stopping you in the tracks. I would be very surprised if she didn‘t have David Darling‘s „Cello“ or the early albums of The Penguin Cafe Orchestra in her record collection. Also, I do think (after our first „conversation“), she must certainly be in love with Kate Bush’s song „Mrs. Bartolozzi“ – and, talking about ancient, worn-out instruments, she followed the link leading to  my recent interview with Steve Tibbetts –  and „Life Of“ will soon have another listener in Glasgow. 

Aby Vulliamy also thinks back  of growing up in Hull. A town that I only know from the history of lucid dreaming. Psychologist Keith Hearne made his famous discovery concerning ocular-signaling from the lucid dream state on the morning of 12th April 1975, at Hull University’s sleep-laboratory. He communicated the data, and other examples, to Professor Allan Rechtschaffen of Chicago University. Much later, Stephen LaBerge, at Stanford, produced similar work.  In following conversations  I will (and do write this with a big smile) try to raise her  interest in the subject. By the way, when these conversations will come to an end, her debut album will  have been released, in October, on Karaoke Kalk. 



  1. One record or two that put a spell on you and made you feel this music will accompany you for a long time.


I remember hearing Keith Jarrett’s Koln concert for the first time maybe in my late teens, and just being blown away by the fluency and energy of his piano improvisation. Someone made me a cassette tape of it, and I kept it for about 15 years until my tape player broke. It’s the only music I could ever listen to whilst writing essays or reports – somehow although I loved it, it didn’t distract me like all other music did, it helped give me momentum and energy and focus. I remember listening to a Charles Ives piece years later and finding some of it familiar, and realising that Jarrett references it in his Koln concert, and I’m sure there are many other references in there too.

Abdullah Ibrahim’s Water from an Ancient Well has accompanied me for a long time too. My dad once said the trombone sounds like a bull elephant and it often makes me tearful when I hear it. Also Ibrahim’s duo as Dollar Brand with Johnny Dyani (Good News From Africa) will stay with me throughout my life, I’ve no doubt; it’s their liberated vocals and intuitive connection with each other, I love it.


  1. What was the 1st non-musical sound experience in childhood that had a deep emotional impact?


I’m not sure there is such a thing as a non-musical sound experience? Everything can be viewed through a ‘musical lense’, it’s just whether it’s received as such by the listener.  People say to me ‘I’ve not got a musical bone in my body’ but we’ve all got a pulse, we’ve got a unique tone of voice and particular pitch range, we have a natural walking pace etc. All communication is based on the elements of music; rhythm, tempo, timbre, melody, pitch contour etc. We are all musical beings.

Aidan Moffat and Bill Wells used the clicking of a car indicator as the opening sound which dictates the rhythm and pace of the first track on their brilliant 2nd album, The Most Important Place in the World. We had a beautiful old grandfather clock (since stolen) in our hallway when I was growing up, and it’s background ticking and hourly chime structured my childhood, making me feel safe. I would always be subdividing the rhythms in my head, or practicing 3 beats over 2 etc.

There must be millions of examples of ‘non-musical’ sounds being incorporated into music, or inspiring composition. Washing machines are musical; I often find myself humming harmonies or singing along to the drone of the washing machine. I can often hear different frequencies the more I listen to simple drones. Birdsong is of course music, it has plenty melody and repetitive rhythmic patterns, although birds don’t get any publishing rights. I love Messiaen’s crazy birdsong inspired organ pieces, and of course Vaughan Williams’s Lark Ascending. Melodies from birdsong feature in loads of folk music.


  1. How did your private surroundings (the town you grew up in, family, friends) inspire your love for music?


I grew up in Hull. Its a very special place, home to some beautiful people. But it gets so much bad press and has some terrible statistics in terms of life expectancy, teen pregnancy, addiction problems, poverty etc. It’s the end of the line, and I think it’s quite hard to get bands to include Hull on their tour schedule, although Paul Jackson of the very special Adelphi Club has single-handedly changed the lives of many local music-lovers and musicians by persuading a fabulous array of touring bands to make the detour to Hull.

Music was escapism for me. I grew up in a very busy household with my 3 brothers and 1 sister and many visitors. I was shy and quiet and not assertive, but when I was practicing my Khachaturian on the piano I was like a different person! I loved the Russian composers, they’re wild and intense. My piano teacher used to enter me into the competitive music festival, at the magnificent and overbearing Hull City Halls, which seems like a terrible idea (music as competition?!?) but in fact I think it helped me a great deal with performance anxiety – I mean, what’s the worst that can happen? Now, music is a social thing for me and it has been the way I’ve made new friends in each new city I’ve moved to. I need to play – after water, food, shelter, love – I’d soon go mad if I didn’t play music.

My mum and dad are music lovers but not musicians themselves. All 5 of us siblings played instruments at various points; 2 brothers played double bass, one played cello, my sister played clarinet, and we had the piano too. What a fabulous ensemble that would have been! But we never played altogether, sadly. My sister and I did some duets far too occasionally, which was always a treat to me.

My dad’s dad was a brilliant pianist and I inherited his beautiful faded black baby grand piano when he died. I feel sad I never became accomplished and confident enough to play the wild Rachmaninov duets that he wishfully shoved in front of me when I visited him.

My mum, despite having 4 other kids and a household to run and studying for a degree etc etc, would sometimes spend her precious time sitting beside me whilst I practiced the piano, coz she knew that it helped me stay focused and motivated, so she did it despite all the other demands on her attention. A gentle, quiet but incredibly powerful and generous gift.


  1. Tell me about your main instruments. Love at first sight, just classical training? And, a propos  viola, a special  record that made you fall for it? Just let your thoughts flow, I keep quiet, in listening mode:)…


Piano is really my main instrument. All of the songs on my upcoming album were written on the piano, although there are several short viola ‘interludes’ on there too. I had my first piano lessons aged 4, with a music student we referred to as ‘Julie Fingers’, who charged 50p per lesson.

I started on the violin when I was 7, and was given free lessons at school, on a borrowed instrument. I soon switched to the viola. It suits me so much better; it’s deeper, more mellow and rich to my ears. The violin and viola sit so close to the player’s ear, and can sound so jarringly tinny and reedy there; too many high frequencies for my sensitive ears. The viola suits my personality much better than the violin. In orchestral music it’s often hard to discern the viola, you only notice us when we screw up. But we have a really important role to play, supportive and containing; the fabulous Swiss band I play with, Orchestre Tout Puissant Marcel Duchamp XXL recently played a gig without me, and the band leader said it felt out of tune without the viola! Its often the glue that holds parts together, quietly but enrichingly.



My parents bought me my viola when I was about 10, and my mum kept apologising, fearful that I would experience it as a pressure and expectation. I love that viola so much! I still use the same one, and though I’m often surrounded by musicians who’s instruments cost 10’s of £1000’s more than mine, I feel safe and solid with my trusty old viola. It’s like an extension of my body- it’s getting a bit old and battered but it’s strong and resilient and full of instinctive memories.

I think at first I just went along with the music lessons I was offered, but didn’t initially feel very moved by the music, strangely. People were encouraging, and I knew I was lucky to get free lessons at school, so I kept going with it. I’m gutted that nearly all music services in British schools have to be paid for now, so that learning an instrument is only for children with families who have spare money. I believe that the opportunity to learn an instrument as a child is one of the most powerful and influential experiences available; it could be key to solving some of the major societal problems we face; intergenerational poverty, unemployment, demoralisation, depression and addiction. The Big Noise project which is now well-established in some of the most deprived communities of Scotland (based on the Venezualan El Systema model) has far-reaching goals and some amazing statistics and research showing how the discipline, team-work, mutual responsibility, co-operation, shared purpose of music-making have a huge influence on positive development in terms of self-worth, self-awareness and social conscience. At the same time, making music is a form of self-expression and communication that can process feelings that are otherwise too strong and disturbing, and can provide an intimacy that it is hard for some people to access using just words. Learning music enhances so many crucial skills; academic (particularly maths) and life skills such as self-esteem and communication skills, it’s crazy to deny children this. For the tricky teenagers, that I work with as a Music Therapist, music can be a form of expression far more powerful than words – a place where they can feel heard and understood and accepted and valued for who they are.

I started with classical music on both piano and viola. Although I know how lucky I am for the opportunity to learn classically, I sometimes regretted the limitations of a purely classical training, when, aged 17 or so, I began to make music with my friends who had taught themselves to play guitar, bass, drums, and I lacked their confident spontaneity, intuition and creativity. It took time to gain confidence to stop relying on the safety net of music notation and theory, and to just listen and trust my instincts in response. Now I’m very grateful to have both, the theory, reasonable technical knowledge, and instinct/sponteneity.

I think I was 13 when I joined the City of Hull Youth Symphony Orchestra. I remember sitting at the back of the viola section, going through the motions and not feeling very connected to the parts I was playing, when suddenly the 100-piece choir began to sing behind me. My hair stood on end, I felt the force of their voices, my whole body vibrating, the feeling of being part of something immensely powerful. I think this was the first time I was wholly physically and emotionally moved (blown away) by music. I wish I could remember which piece we were playing – I’ve got a terrible memory! I know Verdi’s Requiem has given me the same overwhelming feeling since.

My dad got into jazz when I was a young teen, so having provided the obvious musical foundations of a 70’s child (Bob Dylan, the Incredible String Band, Bonzo Dog Dooda Band, Van Morrison, Pink Floyd, Dire Straits (almost exclusively male line-ups I now realise) he then began playing Abdullah Ibraham and Keith Jarrett as previously mentioned, Brotherhood of Breath, Dudu Pakwana, John Surman, Annie Whitehead, District Six, Jessica Williams, Colloseum (Tanglewood 64 – I played that when I was in labour with my first daughter. I love men singing, and in this case they’re using their voices as instruments, just ‘bah’ing the melody – it’s ace) etc etc. Brilliant stuff.



I also loved Funk/Northern Soul in my later teens. I joined my first band at 18, playing folky-style viola over guitar-based songs sung and played by my friend Shelley’s dad and his pal. Also a funk ensemble with me and my teenage friends as the rhythm section (I played ‘the Beast’ a ridiculously heavy old electric organ) and my friend’s Social Worker parents as the horn front line. We initially called ourselves ‚The Funkateers’, but decided to add an extra prefix every time we played a gig; we got as far as ‘the Almighty Allstar Funkateers coz gigs were hard to find in Hull and it was time for the younger generation to buzz off to university. And now I’ve come full circle, playing in another (much better) band making tongue-in-cheek claims of superpowers since the ‘Tout Puissant’ of Orchestre Tout Puissant Marcel Duchamp translates as Almighty (All Powerful). It is a very powerful band, the music moves people psychologically and physically, but the power to connect and move is in it’s collectivism and shared emotion, not a reference to a higher being.

The violinists / violists that influenced me are perhaps obvious; my dad subtly introduced me to Stefan Grapelli and although I loved listening to him, it never occurred to me that if I practiced hard enough I should eventually be able to play over changes fluently (Grapelli-style was unachievable but I could definitely improve my fluency). I wish I’d started practicing that earlier, because I’m still not fluent and confident over changes, and there’s no excuse really. My dad also pointed me towards Billy Bang, the ganster-turned-jazz violinist, who’s self-taught style of jazz improvisation was absolutely liberating and unique. I don’t understand why it’s still so unusual to include improvising strings in jazz front lines, they can add such different textures and sounds to the same old wall of saxophones that so many band leaders opt for. Saxophones are beautiful, but why not add something a bit different?!

John Cale (and Velvet Underground) and Laurie Anderson were a revelation and stopped me from wishing I’d learnt a funkier instrument than the viola – their music was immediately accessible for me, and although massively inspired and unique, didn’t feel technically out of my reach. More recently the free-improvising violist Mark Feldman is an obvious person to pick out, and my good friend and improvising mentor, Seth Bennett’s double bass playing is a massive source of inspiration.

I love free improvisation. I know some people find it too disturbing and un-nerving, and I was the same at first (I thought of it as musical masturbation – a self-indulgent exposure in front of an audience), but now it’s free improvisation that makes me feel most alive, to listen to and to perform. The spontaneity, fluidity, the emotional roller-coaster of intensity and dynamics (volume, speed, texture) makes for breath-taking unpredictability, moving through tension and resolution (or non-resolution!), tenderness and aggression, beauty and ‘ugliness’- it’s absolutely liberating. Stephen Nachmaninov writes really beautifully about free improvisation in his book Free Play. Good free improvisation is the ultimate music for me, though I love a lot of differet genres and I fully understand that it takes time to learn how to access and enjoy free improvisation.

In relation to some of the free improvisation I love, the piano-based songs on my upcoming album are very conventional!

When I moved to Glasgow, Scotland, in 2004 it was amazing how quickly people began inviting me to play. I knew only my partner George Murray (trombonist) when I moved up there, but Daniel Padden and Peter Nicholson (The One Ensemble), Chris Hladowski (Scatter, Nalle, The Family Elan), Hanna Tuulikki (Nalle), Bill Wells (NJTOS) and Stevie Jones (Sound of Yell) welcomed me with huge generosity and facilitated many brilliant learning opportunities for me. It’s such fertile and open-minded creativity that thrives up there – people inspire and nurture each others’ musicality with such generosity. There is such potent possibility to jump between genres (and therefore to stretch yourself and learn more). I wonder if it was partly because as a viola player I inherently offer something slightly different to the proliferation of traditional/folk violinists in Scotland. I played in indie, pop, jazz, folk, free-improvisation ensembles, and I did music for theatre/dance, performance art etc and I learnt tonnes.



In Glasgow I also began singing, having always been far too self-conscious to open my mouth- I was too shy and easily embarrassed. It was Hanna Tuulikki who cajoled me into singing with her trio Nalle with Chris Hladowski in 2005/6. I was terrified at first but she insisted and I’m so glad she did. She’d kneel on the floor with me, our thighs touching, sometimes using walkie-talkies to distort the sound, often letting her voice slide fractionally below or above my pitch to create oscillations between us that disorientated and connected us at the same time. It was precarious and exciting.

Not long after that, with his National Jazz Trio of Scotland, Bill Wells began rearranging traditional jazz and folk songs and writing original songs, often leaving the voice brutally exposed, and often at the very bottom of my vocal range, where it’s hard to get a sound out at all, let alone to control the sound of my voice. These were utterly terrifying gigs where my knees shook as much as my voice wobbled. Often the lyrics were devastating and I feared it (and I, as a nervous wreck) would be just too much for the audience to cope with; too raw and fragile and exposed. I’ve learnt that some material is supposed to feel precarious, it wouldn’t work if I could sing it confidently, and audiences generally cope!

I’m well aware of how extremely lucky I am, to have had opportunities to learn several instruments (including lessons on piano, viola and flute), and to have met so many beautiful generous talented musicians who’ve shared musical space and skills and opportunities with me, stretching me and inspiring me to learn more, take more risks, experiment more. For a long time I thought I couldn’t self-generate music; that I was dependent on other musicians to initiate and give me something to respond to and that my main skill was my ability absorb whatever was thrown at me, and come up with creative ideas in response. It took me by surprise when my piano-based songs emerged, and although I’m really proud of finally producing my own material I’m also keen to convey that my new album is not the whole of me, and there is lots more very different stuff to come in the not-too-distant future.

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