On the 6th of May, 1937, airship LZ 129 Hindenburg caught fire and exploded during its landing procedure at Naval Air Station Lakehurst, New Jersey. The airship was completely destroyed in the explosion, killing 36. Destination is based on a 1937 newsreel covering the disaster. At the 3:17 mark, you can hear the dramatic recording of radio journalist Herbert Morrison reporting as he witnesses the crash. It is a heartbreaking narration by a man shaken by what he sees.
The end of an era
The explosion of LZ 129 Hindenburg had a devastating effect on public confidence in lighter-than-air travel. As a direct result of the incident, LZ 127 Graf Zeppelin was decommissioned and retired; and although LZ 130 Graf Zeppelin II was completed and operated until 1939, the golden age of airships had passed. Destination, named after the final track on Airship, commemorates the end of an airship and the end of an era.
Music has always been my recourse whenever I need to reflect on life and process my experiences. I make experimental music in the ambient electronic genre because it is inherently meditative and I want my music to have that quality in some form. In pursuit of this, I build my music around loops, using repeating melodies like mantras. Each repetition distills some things and crystallises others, whether they are thoughts, ideas or emotions. This cathartic cycle directly informed my approach to the music on Airship. I methodically assembled layers of musical phrases around a central refrain, which either plays throughout the track or emerges at a key moment.
I first came across airships in Hayao Miyazaki’s Laputa: Castle in the Sky and Kiki’s Delivery Service. In “Laputa”, an airship is a mythical machine dominating the sky, and in “Kiki”, a majestic but fragile giant. However, it was the song “Airships” by VNV Nation that planted the seeds for what eventually became Airship. Its lyrics describe an airship as a symbol of humanity’s hopes and dreams, a theme that resonated with me, very powerfully. I wanted to create something similar in experimental music and this concept album was the result.
An unconventional soundtrack
Airship is an unconventional soundtrack to lighter-than-air flight. Each track describes an aspect of airship travel: the preparations before departure (“Hangar”, “A Good Day for Flying”); the impressive scale of the aircraft (“Giant in the Sky”); its stateliness in flight (“Airship”); the romance of its journey (“Silently You Sail”); and its arrival (“Destination”). I wanted to inspire nostalgia and to convey wonderment and awe, but I also wanted to communicate the risks involved: bad weather and mechanical failure were ever-present threats that could spell disaster, and I express this reality in the sombreness of the music.
Just one track
If you only had time to listen to one track on the album, I would recommend the title track, “Airship”. It describes an airship as it appears on the horizon, sweeps overhead, and sails into the distance. The music is slow and dignified—almost cinematic. It is my best attempt at capturing my fascination with airships in music. It was also an opportunity to use a French horn, one of my favourite instruments. I hope it resonates with you as it does with me and that it inspires you to hang on to your own sense of wonder.
It is seven days till the launch of my first album, Airship. I am excited because I am eager to officially share my music. It felt as if 12 December would never come—and now it is just days away! I am also nervous because I find myself questioning every creative decision I have made. Putting your work out there is a litmus test of how good you are. When something as personal as your music comes under fire, it can be devastating. But, I have not been without encouragement. There have been pre-orders, positive comments, upvotes and likes; and a few days ago, the band whose song began my airship obsession tweeted: “Love what I heard.”
@forgotnfields just saw the trailer. Love what i heard. The mood reminded me of touches of the Tumbled Sea’s first CD.
Lately, I have been active on Twitter and Minds, and have also been posting on Google+. In the build-up to the launch of Airship, I find myself ever more obsessed with the history of lighter-than-air flight. This has resulted in daily posts on the subject with documentary photographs. I welcome you to join me on Twitter (@forgotnfields), Minds (@forgottenfields) and Google+, if you are on these platforms. I look forward to seeing you there and I hope you will share in my excitement for the upcoming release!
When I look back at the music that inspired me to compose in the ambient genre, three tracks stand out, each representing an aesthetic or concept that informs my music:
“Dlp 1.1” by William Basinski
“Dlp 1.1” is an hour-long track from The Disintegration Loops, a series of four albums released between 2002 and 2003 by avant-garde composer William Basinski. For one hour, you hear a cassette tape looping a short fragment of ambient music. With each cycle under the player’s head, the magnetic tape deteriorates. As the quality decreases, the anomalies and distortions increase, until only the ghosts of the original recording remain. The result is a poignant, immersive, void-gazing drone. It is simultaneously outrageous and mesmerising. To me, this approach to musicmaking was a revelation. Basinski opened my eyes to what music could be. Through “Dlp 1.1”, he introduced me to experimental music and specifically, the power of repetition, distortion and texture.
“Container Ships” by Loscil
“Container Ships” is the fourth track on Sketches From New Brighton (2012) by Loscil (Scott Morgan). The album is a series of ambient electronic “sketches” inspired by scenery surrounding a Vancouver shipping port. Throughout the track, a pulsing bass theme surges and recedes like an enormous engine. This is joined by an optimistic tune in a higher register, animating the piece. There are distinct, contrasting layers that seamlessly blend together—methodically assembled, yet unfolding naturally. This is what makes Loscil so impressive: the ability to make the calculated feel organic. His minimal soundscapes are pristine but personal, and their warmth draws you in. “Container Ships” pushed me into making ambient music, and for that I owe its composer a debt of gratitude.
“Repose In Blue” by Eluvium
“Repose In Blue” is the finale of Eluvium’s 2007 Copia album. Matthew Cooper, the man behind the moniker, is known for his cinematic ambient compositions, and this nine-and-a-half-minute track does not disappoint, expertly employing the element of surprise. For the first five-and-a-half minutes, an unassuming, string-laden stream of synths passes unhurriedly along—later joined by the laziest horn imaginable—when all of a sudden, a series of deep, unsynchronised drums begin to randomly explode beneath the surface, like subterranean pyrotechnics! This interruption is nothing short of sublime, given the placid expanse he so carefully constructs, up to that point. If I could convey a fraction of such drama and emotional content in my music, I would be delighted!
I find myself in an odd position. In the period between the completion of Airship and its release, I have been itching to start work on a new album. The thing is, I imagined Airship would “run its course” (to quote a fellow musician), before I moved on to new material. But, I could not help myself, I had to start composing again. In fact, I have two albums’ worth of ideas waiting to be developed into finished pieces.
A new direction
As far as style is concerned, I am interested in adding distortion and including more variation. I am a great lover of the drone genre, in which repeating phrases play a major role. Airship is heavily influenced by this idea. Repetition is at the front and centre of every track, everything is built around a looping melody. But the more I think about new music, the more I want to de-homogenise the listening experience.
A fresh perspective
One exciting development is the possibility of collaborating with dark ambient artist Krzyzis. His Sustainability (2016) made a big impression on me. He has developed a way of working with distorted sound, which allows him to create incredible textures in his music, giving it an immersive depth and mass. He has expressed interest in giving his input on new material, so I am really looking forward to the months to come.
I discovered a Universal City Studios newsreel in the public domain, covering the Hindenburg disaster of 1937. For the Airship album trailer, I used video from the first half of the newsreel, showing the airship in flight, as the newscaster sets the scene for the accident. In the second half, the Hindenburg’s final moments are described in dramatic language, with footage to match. It is a moving film, telling the story of the world’s most famous airship disaster.
Accompanying the imagery is an excerpt from the album title track, a seven-minute instrumental piece describing an airship appearing on the horizon, sweeping overhead, and sailing into the distance. The music is slow and dignified, making for a somewhat dramatic trailer. But, I think it is appropriate. To me, airships are the most breathtaking things ever to grace the skies; the album is my attempt at conveying the awe they inspire. I hope I have succeeded.
This time, I have focused on the mooring mast. A mooring mast is a docking point for an airship. It is, essentially, an enormous tower fitted with a mechanism at its top to which the airship bow is fixed by a mooring line. I recently saw footage of this process and it reminded me of a kiss: shall we say, a finely judged procedure.
Airships and their battles
Winds and rain can cause an airship to lose altitude, especially in freezing conditions where ice forms on the hull. The airship is weighed down, making manoeuvering difficult or impossible, resulting in disaster. The poem describes the mooring mast as the lover of such an ill-fated airship. Like Silently You Sail and Sheltering Airships, it is short and sweet, but I hope it captures this fanciful romance:
The lonely tower waits in vain
In an icy field,
Unaware of what befell
The airship in the wind.
Earlier that fateful day,
Softly in the mist,
One last time the zeppelin
He had gently kissed.
When I submitted Airship to online music distributors, I had to choose a genre for the album. From the official options, it came down to either “Electronic” or “Rock”. I selected “Electronic”, the closest generic match, but my music actually falls somewhere in between. It falls under Post-rock, a genre that is somewhat difficult to define.
The problem with “post-rock”
Its exclusion from the available options is, perhaps, not all that surprising because as a descriptor of a creative category, it tells you almost nothing about an artist’s sound. It includes so vast a range of musical styles that it is rendered just about meaningless. For purposes of classification, this is a nightmare, but for all others—particularly the creation and discovery of music—it is positively heaven sent. I could, for example, describe my work as “experimental post-minimalist ambient electronic progressive rock” (or something equally absurd and pretentious), but how practical is that melange of identifiers to me, or a listener who hopes to discover it? “Post-rock” is a neat, necessary and welcome contraction. Whilst in its “strictest” sense it is essentially non-traditional rock music made with rock instruments, that definition only considers bands such as Mogwai, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Explosions in the Sky and This Will Destroy You, whose music epitomises post-rock in its “purest” form. But over time, through a kind of osmosis, the term has come to encapsulate a host of sub-genres, making up a particular body of experimental music. Today, it includes ambient bands like Hammock, experimental projects like Jónsi & Alex, shoegaze bands like Jeniferever and even dream pop groups like Kyte.
In praise of post-rock
Post-rock is therefore almost a necessarily nebulous term. In his Treblezine article “10 Essential Post-Rock Albums“, Jeff Terich describes post-rock as follows: “It’s a genre in which texture, tone and atmosphere has a more prominent role than hooks or verses and choruses. Its song structure can vary widely, or in some cases be nonexistent. There is both more improvisation and more complex editing techniques. Sometimes it’s all instrumental, and in other cases it’s built on samples or spoken word passages. The rules are pretty pliable, as long as it’s not really a straightforward rock song.” You can tell by his description that there are hardly any rules; and post-rock artists break whatever rules there are in every conceivable direction, rewriting them in their own image. This creates a treasure trove of musical experimentation, a genre that introduces music lover and maker alike to a plethora of ingenuity. It delivers everything from the clean, natural compositions of Balmorhea, to the texture-laden, synth-driven depths of Belong; it embraces the vast, rock-instrumented symphonies of Mono and the sublime, cinematic soundscapes of Eluvium; but it also celebrates the melancholy strings of Stars of the Lid, to say nothing of the aching lamentations of Sigur Ròs. It is a universe of the new, the interesting and the strange.
A post-rock novice
A newcomer to the field, I tentatively describe my music as “ambient electronic post-rock” because those are key themes I can identify. Within these parameters I can explore and develop rules of my own. The process is challenging, even intimidating, but that is the nature of exploration—and I would like to think that I am here to explore.