Sunday, 14 June 2015

Panoramic music

This week saw the release of Panorama, my fourth album of instrumental music in support of the Initiative for Interstellar Studies (I4IS). 

While open to interpretation to a degree, my basic idea when composing Panorama, was 'music for a new world'. I was starting to imagine what kind of alien vistas that may stretch out before us, as we take our first steps on a newly discovered hospitable planet. The concept of my previous album for the Initiative, Beyond the Boundary, was space flight and a journey, so to follow that up with the discovery and exploration of a new world – the destination – seemed like a logical step. 

Work on this album actually began in April 2013, not long after I'd released Traces. However, despite working up several demos, I hit a block early on, and it would take a long time - many months - before an album of any form was starting to take shape. 

The first piece of music I made was actually the opening track, Touchdown. This seemed perfect right from the start, as a transitionary track between the interstellar flight of Beyond the Boundary, and the uncharted territory of Panorama. The final mix of the track is almost all the original demo - it is slightly raw and untamed in places, but for me it just worked like that, and over working the track would have risked losing that initial feeling.

Hear Touchdown on Soundcloud.

The title Panorama came quite early on, too. This was music for landscapes and huge vistas. Widescreen images in the mind's eye. And once that title was in place, the music and ideas began to flow, clearing the creative block I'd experienced at the start of the project.

Hear Panorama on Soundcloud.

One of my early plans was to make an album with no drums or percussion at all. This is something I've dabbled with in the past, and really wanted try. But it didn't turn out that way, so maybe the drum-free album will be a future project! However, Panorama does have several sparse, minimal pieces true to my drum-free idea, one of which is Aurora - perhaps one of the most evocative and atmospheric tracks on the album. At some point I was even considering this one for the title track. Aurora was another track from the early stages of the project, which just came out perfectly in one take. 

The main challenge throughout the process was how to make music for a world that I cannot see or visit, but can only imagine?

I spent time looking at the Mars Rover's photographs of the planet surface, my favourite space and SF art, and of course, films, gleaming inspiration from things like the water world and ice planets in Interstellar and even the dream-like sequence at the end of Contact. The list goes on!

But the music also needed a sense of mystery to accompany the notion of exploration and discovery, and those ideas started to flow once I created the middle section of what became Crystal Cavern. Until then, it was just a demo track of the first couple of minutes, lacking direction. And it turned into one of my favourite tracks on the album, also reminding me of the kind of approach I took with my first album, Into the Light, in 2007. 

I'll be the first to admit that Panorama was a difficult album to get right. I even took a break from it for a few months while I made Future Worlds Redux and Sentient City! But giving it some time and distance, was just what it needed, as when I returned to it, all the pieces suddenly fitted together. Once I had made the title track, the rest of the ideas all emerged.

The final album comprises 15 tracks, plus a short bonus track when you purchase the full download. Rise was a piece of music I composed for the I4IS after their involvement in the Shackleton 2 helium balloon project, which saw a probe boasting the I4IS logo travel to 90,000 feet into the Earth's stratosphere, then take a selfie! So while not directly related to the theme of the album, it felt appropriate that Rise should feature in an album supporting the Initiative.

Saturday, 13 June 2015

BFI Voyager poster designs and a confusing competition.

Last October, Harper Voyager and the BFI teamed up to announce a competition as part of their science fiction film festival taking place in November.

The competition was an exciting idea and something which instantly appealed to me – design a film poster of a science fiction novel that has not yet been adapted to the big screen. Several of my own pieces of artwork were inspired by classic SF, so for me it was a no brainer to take some of these pieces a step further and adapt them into fictitious film posters.

The first being HG Wells' When the Sleeper Awakes, which inspired my painting, Awakening. For me, this book still rates as one of the best pieces of dystopian fiction; a remarkable work for its age (of which the same can be said for all Wells' work!).

My second entry was Brian Aldiss' Non-Stop. I've read several of Aldiss' books, but Non-Stop remains my favourite and is the sort of story that you can imagine would make the most fantastic film.

My third and final entry was a new piece of artwork I created especially for the occasion – based on my all-time favourite SF novel, Arthur C. Clarke's The City and the Stars. A tall order and a big ask! I hardly felt qualified to even attempt illustrating this one, as I felt I could never do it justice. But I did my best, and I was very happy with the results.

With all my pieces, I chose a slightly retro design – imagining how the film posters and tag lines would have been, had these been adapted to the big screen in the 1960s and 70s, back in the days when illustrated film posters were as common as photographic designs, if not more so.

The competition deadline was early November, with the winner due to be announced at a BFI event in December. Well, December came and went without word of the competition. So did January. Then February. A few people bothered chasing it up on Twitter, to be told a winner would be announced, but with no idea as to when.

So come the end of May, with the thing seemingly dead in the water, I concluded (presumably along with the other entrants) that the competition had sunk without a trace. I posted my entries online, and noted that a few other folk had done likewise, with some impressive work.

By the start of June, over six months had past since the closing date of the competition, and no announcements made or anything to keep people in the loop. Was it so difficult to send out an email or post on social media to apologise to the people who had taken their time and put their creative skills to use in entering the competition? What a shambles.

And then, a week or so into June, a solitary post crept on to Twitter, announcing the winner! An almost subdued post with little fanfare, or response. I can only imagine the winner has been as confused and left in the dark as everybody else.

Out of respect to the people who dedicated their time and effort to the competition, the very least the organisers could do is post all the entries or the shortlist. 

It is such a shame this was so unprofessionally managed, as it was a really exciting opportunity. But with that in mind, what I did get out of this, was the opportunity to develop these pieces of my work into something more. I'm still very pleased with the results, and it is certainly something I probably wouldn't have done otherwise. 

That said, I'll certainly approach any such competitions in the future with a degree of caution!