Monday, 28 March 2016

Music for the stars

I have associated a certain type of music with visions of space and other planets since I was a child. This is what led to me creating my own instrumental electronic music, despite having little in the way of formal training.

An artist at heart, when I first started experimenting with music a decade ago, I soon realised that for me, it was the same as painting – only using sounds instead of colours. But as a synesthete, for me, the sounds I use do have colours and textures. Of course, a degree of technical knowledge is required, as well as a basic musical understanding, but to me, making music feels very much like the same creative process, only with a different medium and result.

In 2012 when I was invited to become first Honorary Musician for the Initiative for Interstellar Studies (i4is), I jumped to the opportunity to be a part of an exciting new organisation with such a passionate and ambitious vision. To be able to promote such a forward thinking vision through my music was the ideal project brief.

To date, I have released four albums in support of i4is:

An album based around different visions of the future, from utopias to dystopias, deep space travel and a climate-changed Earth. This was very much an album inspired by classic SF writing such as Arthur C. Clarke, etc. I revisited the album creating the Redux version that was entirely symphonic.

This album was designed to tie-in with the Initiative’s book of the same name (to which I also contributed a chapter). I have always wanted to make a space travel concept album, and this is it; starting with the mission launch and culminating in a journey into the unknown.

If Beyond the Boundary was the journey, then this is the destination. Panorama is music for cinematic vistas and the exploration of alien landscapes. The subtle concept at the core of the album was the discovery of an Earth-like planet.

But how do you make “space music”?

The kind of music that evokes visions of space for me, may not do so for everyone. If you’re not keen on electronic music, then my stuff maybe isn’t for you. But if you’re keen to put styles and genres aside, then the music – being instrumental – should be totally open to interpretation. Granted, I present the albums with an initial concept, but once it is out there, the listener can take it as they wish. 

I’ve always been inspired by space art – hence becoming an artist myself. The work of artists such as David A. Hardy, John Berkey, John Harris, Chris Moore, Chris Foss and Tim White are some of my favourites. Their work takes you to places… the kind of pieces that make you want to step inside the frame and explore. This particular generation of artists have produced incredibly prophetic and visionary pieces, which still resonate and inspire today, and I always look to this work for inspiration – musically and artistically.

And I’m sure my version of synaesthesia helps me decide what sounds to choose; what colours they evoke in my mind, as I’m building up my soundscapes. And in the case of the albums I have produced for i4is, then I’ll look to their own mission statement.

I try to imagine the sights you might see on such a mission and the range of emotions experienced at gazing upon something you’ve never seen or even been able to conceive seeing before. This kind of feeling was particularly well presented in Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar – that moment when we first lay eyes on the black hole Gargantua.

Another inspiration is how we’ve recently been able to see the surfaces of Mars and Pluto in vivid detail like never before. This sort of thing leads to me exploring various sounds and atmospheres, and seeing what seems to match whatever I’m looking at. It feels very much like creating a soundtrack in that respect.

But it also needs to play like an album of music to be enjoyed, concept aside. So the real challenge is trying to make something that is heavily atmospheric and thought provoking, at the same time as having some sort of musical integrity. And in the case of the above albums, they need to be worthy of their particular audience’s attention.

So with each album comes a new challenge, and also during each project, new things are learned and discovered. With every album I’ve produced, there’s always a sense of progression, whether musically or technically. So with that thought in mind, I very much look forward to starting work on the next album of interstellar music for i4is

All of the albums mentioned in this blog (and many more) can be streamed and purchased (in digital format) from my Bandcamp site.

Tuesday, 15 March 2016

Behind the Façade...

Earlier this month my cover artwork for Alice Sabo's upcoming novel Façade, was revealed.
And here it is.

But how did it get here?

Alice has described Façade as a space fantasy, so while SF to a degree, she was keen that the cover art had a more distinct fantasy look to it, courtesy of one of the castle buildings that feature in the story.

So we had agreed the scene would be a castle type structure with a small craft coming in to land, overhead. My first visuals were based on traditional/historical style castles, but these weren't right for the description in the story. While a cover should be flexible and not too descriptive, I do feel is is important to have a pretty faithful depiction of what you'll find in the book.

I was also keen on only showing just a portion of the castle – more of a suggestion of looking at part of a much larger, complex structure, than trying to squeeze an entire castle on to the front cover. That would also leave it more open to interpretation. So various angles and viewpoints were explored - this included one version seen from one of the castle balconies:

The building structure needed to be more grand and impressive, with cathedral-like arches, towers and spires, and I felt the best way to show this was to view the scene from a low angle. So the next – and what became final – version of the cover focused on a more gothic style structure, seen through a clearing in the surrounding forestry:

I added a figure on one of the balconies, looking up at the craft, in anticipation of its arrival. In the final painting, this actually became two figures, loosely based on two of the story's characters: 

It became clear while I was working on the final artwork that the castle needed to be taller still, so I applied a greater perspective and added more towers and levels, allowing the structure to soar into the stormy clouds above.

While small, the ship was a crucial detail. Because of the name of the craft (you'll have to read the book to find that out!), Alice was keen that it could be almost bird-like in its design:

So there's plenty to explore in the scene overall, and I was very pleased with that. I wanted to create an image that made you want to explore it; to wander up a staircase or peep in through a window. It certainly came with its challenges, but that's what it's all about, right?

Friday, 11 March 2016

Leaving a Legacy

My first album of new material for this year is called Legacy. It is a project that came about very quickly – one of those instances when the ideas and creativity flowed almost effortlessly, and just kept on coming.

In fact, I had no plans to make anything new just yet, but as any artist, musician or writer (etc) will tell you, creativity is like an itch that just needs to be scratched – and I’ve been doing some serious scratching!

As I discussed in my two previous blog entries, the untimely loss of David Bowie has had quite a profound effect on me. Not only did I love every aspect of his music to the core, but I also learned so much from him as an artist. The day after that news broke, I found myself sat late at night with my thoughts, and I simply felt an urge to make music. No matter what the result, it was something I needed to do. So I fired up my Mac and plugged in the midi keyboard – and that was the starting point for when became Legacy.

And David has left an enormous legacy, one that will live on and inspire future generations. His music has never sounded more alive than it does right now, and my recent re-exploration of his work got me thinking about how his work has influenced my own music and my ways of thinking and working. Bowie always struck me as a very spontaneous artist, renowned for often nailing his vocals in the first take – and that spontaneity shows in the energy of his music. One of the many things I’ve always admired in his songs is the unique view of the world they instantly allow you to see – and that is what excites me about making (and listening to) instrumental music; there are no guiding lyrics, just the music for you to interpret as you wish. 

Some of David’s most emotive pieces include the haunting instrumentals from the Low and “Heroes” albums of his famed “Berlin” period of the late 70s. What fascinates me about those tracks is how textural and how organic they sound, despite being heavily electronic. That same organic feel can also be found on his largely under-valued albums of the mid-90s, The Buddha of Suburbia and 1.Outside – two of my personal favourites, and albums that sit perfectly alongside those Berlin albums. Sometimes the music is very simple, other times it is densely layered and complex, and I often find myself wanting to get inside those layers and really hear what its all made up from. I constantly strove to find a more textural and organic sound. To me, making instrumental music feels like building up a sonic landscape to explore – parts of it are carefully and intricately planned out, others are purely spontaneous. Sometimes the destination is clear, other times you find yourself in unexpected territory. David Bowie's music has not only been a soundtrack to my own life, but had it not been for his outlook and artistry, I may have never have felt the drive to try and make my own music.

Legacy is dedicated to David. In a way, it is my personal tribute and certainly the creative process was my own way of dealing with this loss. I found myself grappling with the same issues we all do when somebody we admire has left us – those supressed questions and thoughts bubble back up to the surface, and you find yourself looking backwards; longing for what’s been and gone. But this was just the starting point for the project – I certainly didn’t anticipate making an album’s worth of material.

But every project needs an origin, and once you have that starting point, you can explore all the places it leads you, as it takes shape and finds direction.

Much of the above may sound a little downbeat, and it has resulted in some reflective and nostalgic music. But I would prefer think of the music of Legacy to be more thought-provoking rather than gloomy in any way. Granted, it is very dark in places, but in contrast, it has its equal share of light and optimism. I also wanted to work very spontaneously, keeping most first takes and leaving that slightly raw feel. It can be so easy to lose that spontaneity and immediate mood or emotion through too much refining and polishing.

Most of all, what I wanted to achieve with this set of songs was a sense of journey and transformation – whether that is a journey into the future or a rummage back through the past, is up to the listener.

While I found myself revisiting some familiar motifs in the music, most of the sound palette on the album is fresh. Only on a couple of tracks did I allow myself the use some of my comfortable, trademark sounds – simply because they were the only ones that really worked. But one of the ‘rules’ I gave myself for Legacy was to work with a new soundscape where possible. Even something like a string sound – rather than going straight to ones I’d used previously, I’d look through new ones, or try something unexpected.

I can’t remember how the title came about. It may have been one of those moments when a particular word suddenly stands out from the page of a book or something, but “legacy” popped up and seemed absolutely perfect for the project.

Assigned with the regular duty of writing sleevenotes, my good friend Richard Hayes came up with some marvellous wording that not only encapsulates the underlying mood of the album, but that compliments the music and helps throw it open to interpretation:

Life is full of experiences.  From the everyday and mundane to the exceptional and life-changing, they mould and develop us to be what we are today.

Legacy is available now, via Bandcamp.
The full album download comes with a PDF booklet containing Richard Hayes' specially-penned sleeve notes.