Finding beauty in a crack in time

When the pandemic obliterated his work and obliged him to home-school his two children, Stu Hunter could have simply put his musical career on hold. Instead he established a daily regimen of rising at 5:30, and spending three uninterrupted hours in his studio before the demands of his day began.

Stu Hunter. Photos: Sally Flegg.

“What became apparent to me very quickly was that it was not a question of stopping doing what I do, but of how I make the space to do it,” he says of COVID-19’s early days. The pianist and composer (whose array of collaborators includes Portishead, Russell Crowe, Marcia Hines, Delta Goodrem, Silverchair and Katie Noonan) refused to let 2020’s incessant bad news draw him into a pessimistic mindset, choosing rather to concentrate on what he found beautiful.

“There was a time when we had everything, and art seemed to reflect all the darker things,” he observes. “Now I feel we’re facing darker, negative things all the time, and there’s a real place for art to remind us about beauty… We need to dream about what we want to be as a people, as a society, as individuals and as a world. Because if we don’t have an end-point of how we’d like to look, all we’re going to do is get lost in a quicksand of symptomatic responses.”

Hunter, who has penned three acclaimed suites for jazz ensembles, initially didn’t know that he was working towards another suite, this time for solo piano, although the composing process was the same: “Being in a very silent place, and allowing ideas to come and develop rather than to go chasing them,” is how he puts it. He improvised at the piano, and when he hit upon an idea worth preserving he recorded it just on his phone, rather than entangling his mind’s technical side with all the facilities available in his studio.

These dawn sessions happened like clockwork five days a week, with Hunter going straight from sleep to playing without looking at any devices. Sometimes he explored the simplest motif for the entire time, and sometimes he practiced the skills required to play a given idea, usually a matter of further developing independence between his hands. “It’s a process I’ve been working on for years,” he says, “and one of the silver linings of COVID was to be able to hone in on that.”

After four months of exploration he was offered a gig at Venue 505, but initially didn’t want the pressure of a deadline, until he realised it was time resolve his ideas into something coherent. By then he’d filed some 300 recordings according to a rigorous system that allowed him to find what he wanted with ease, and had been sifting and editing as he went. “I was already in that process of starting to see what interwove, and what spoke to another piece, so that a certain aesthetic was starting to grow around what I realised this piece was going to be about.”

That subject was encapsulated in the ensuing album’s title: The Beautiful Things. He’d always wanted to make a solo album, and the pandemic gave him the time and space to make it happen. He calls the result “a window into my life at the time”. As for the dawn piano sessions, he found them so liberating that he’s maintained the habit – even after life began to return to normal.