The traditional poet is often tempted to use a word solely for its rhyming ability and must, therefore, be ever wary of the possibility that his choice serves no other function than the purely pragmatic, adding nothing conceptual to the work.
I faced just such a trap in a variation for “Skaapwagtertjie”’s1 first stanza, where the word windjie’s2 sole purpose was to rhyme with kindjie3, contributing nothing beyond those lowest of functions: superfluous detail and mere rhyme.
The Delightfully Literary
Another temptation concerns my anachronistic compositional style—a Romantic use of language to complement my theme. I prefer, for example, “upon” and “whilst” over “on” and “while”; a line with a literary phrasing over a prosaic one.
In the Afrikaans counterpart of “Shepherd Girl”, I must presently decide whether the archaic newels4 or familiar mis5 (both mean “mist(s)”) best suits the poem. In cases such as these, it is fortunate that my artistic approach indulges!
After several drafts, I completed “On the Nature and Purpose of Art”. The essay explains what I understand art to be and proposes a working definition: Art is the stylisation of essential elements from reality in Literature, Music, Painting and Sculpture to create an eloquent representational or abstract work that is not merely a reproduction, recording, documentation, illustration or decoration of reality but a transformation of it, imbued with meaning.
I intend to demystify the subject of art in a series of informal essays. Next, I want to investigate what informs an artist’s work. I want to answer, for example, what draws an artist to a certain theme and subject, and to a certain medium and technique. Why does the musician choose one genre over another? Why does the painter paint in this style and not that? I want, in fine, to discover “Why Artists Create What They Create” (my working title).
I completed “Zephyros”
Finding the perfect words with which to clearly and concisely express an idea in rhyming iambic verse is no easy task. The four verses of “The Robin-chat” took a considerable amount of time to complete for that very reason, as did the two verses of “Zephyros”. Its original title was “The Pines”, a lyrical ballad about trees moving in the wind; but the more I worked on the poem, the more its focus shifted from the trees to the wind itself.
Eventually, it was clear that the wind must be the subject, and so I drew inspiration from an earlier work: the couplet I composed for The Zephyr and the Swallow. The zephyr is, of course, the literary description of a gentle breeze. It comes from the Greek Ζεφυρος (transliterated as “Zephyros”), the personification of the west wind (and also of spring), which prompted a new approach to the subject (and from which I took the new title).
Unsurprisingly, this significantly altered the nature of the poem. Most challenging was the task of matching the second verse to the first (with which I was pleased early on) to satisfactorily conclude the composition. I came, at last, to two versions of the second verse. The first had an expansive quality (first line: “His ballad blows across the land…”), whereas the second felt more intimate (first line: “A sonnet sounding sweetly…”).
My chief difficulty was that both of these worked. I would eventually choose the latter, only to change my mind shortly thereafter. At the time I tweeted “[T]he verse I have rejected is, in fact, the one I must choose!” (27 July 2018). I am now confident in my decision, and the poem has become one of my favourites—but then, so are they all. I am now revising the first of three poems dedicated to swallows, a subject of which I shall never tire.
I revised my artist statement
The goal of my work is to extol the beauty of nature—the fleeting and near insignificant moments that seem to affect me most. The familiarly beautiful in my rural surroundings evoke within me a sense of awe that I must endeavour to capture in poetry and music. This is the essence of my artistic vision, a subject I consider in the “Context Matters” blog post. In its closing paragraph, I restate my artistic vision and adopt a new caption.
Previously “Ambient idylls”, I now describe my work as “Idylls in music and poetry”. I elaborate upon my meaning in a social media post dedicated to the matter thus: “It is my view that Man should not be silent when moved by the grandeur of Nature, that he should burst out in adoration, if his disposition allows it, and extol what he observes in art! This is what Forgotten Fields has become—an act of adoration!” (26 July 2018).
This is part two of a three-part series about the new self-titled album. Read “A New Album, Part One: The Poem”, here.
“Verse One”, the first track from the self-titled album.
Six Verses, Six Tracks
I started work on the music as soon as the theme of the poem became clear. Already in December 2016, I had put together a collection of sketches, early experiments with melodies and instrumentation based on the direction the poetry was taking. When at last I had the final draft of the poem, I turned my attention to the sketches. I began by deciding which of them to develop into complete tracks, focusing on the ideas that were most in line with the poetry; and since there were six verses, I conceived of an album with six tracks: a series of movements to correspond with the verses of the poem.
The poem played a central role in the writing of the music and the naming the tracks. As with The Zephyr and the Swallow, where the poetry inspired the music and the tracks took their titles directly from the lines, I looked to the verses to inform my creative decisions. I therefore followed in the compositions where the poem led. I named each track after the number of the verse it described, which resulted in the sequential “Verse One”, “Verse Two”, “Verse Three”, and so on. This helped reinforce the track-verse connection and emphasised the importance of the poetry.
Composing the Music
Like the verses, each track went through scores of rewrites as I wrestled with track form, instrumentation and melodies. I would spend days on an idea only to discard it and then reintroduce it later. Two of the tracks changed structure in addition to receiving brand new parts as late as the final mixing phase! Often, things I thought were cast in stone, had to be altered or abandoned for the sake of a better solution. There were countless interpretations of melodies and renditions of musical phrases, each experimenting with different instrumentation and degrees of embellishment or simplification.
All the while, I had to be vigilant not to overcomplicate the music because I wanted to retain an ambient quality. For this reason, it was important to tread the fine line between “soundscape” and “soundtrack”—how much compositional drama could I use before the music stopped being “ambient”?—the goal was to stay faithful to the poetry without being overly descriptive or orchestral. I tried to achieve this by using only a handful of instruments, relying on minimal compositions to bring the melodies to life. The music, therefore, does its best to sweep one along with the simplest instrumentation.
Producing the Album
Building the music around the poem brought a natural cohesion to the album. As the tracks progressed, the scenes, thoughts and emotions conveyed in the lines slowly emerged in the music. Gradually, the compositions began to reflect the substance of the poetic verses, the sketches becoming with every revision the lyrical pieces I had envisioned, months before. The main themes I set to woodwinds, keyboards and guitars, and accompanied them with synthesisers and strings. The result is a vivid expression of the lines of the poem, the music wistful and musing with moments of joy and regret.
Once the compositions were complete, recording went smoothly. The album is a combination of digital and real instruments. For the latter, I worked with session musicians, artists with an intuitive understanding of what I was trying to achieve and consequently, how their parts needed to be played. I decided to use real instruments, especially for the flutes and English Horn because there are nuances in woodwinds that are difficult to reproduce digitally. Working with session musicians brought home to me the beauty of the real instrument and I am convinced that the recordings are better for it.
Over the past few months, dark ambient musician Krzyzis (rhymes with Pisces) and I have been working on a collaboration. We first spoke about the project at the end of 2016 when I began outlining an idea for new music which I knew would benefit from his atmospheric approach. I presented my vision to him at the beginning of this year and was delighted when he announced that he was on board. Once production started, we found that having a clear vision was extremely helpful, especially in making key creative decisions. Not only did it keep the project on course but it also kept us in check: it encouraged Krzyzis (who can be surprisingly feral) to practice a little restraint and me (restrained to a fault) to be a little more adventurous.
Collaboration added an interesting dimension to composing music, especially in the initial stages, because it meant creating an incomplete work. There had to be room for Krzyzis to occupy. Conceiving of music in this way was an intriguing experience. As a solo musician, I compose every aspect of the music but as a collaborator, I had to imagine what my collaborative partner would add to the composition and forecast what arrangement would best compliment that addition. I had to be flexible but clear, true to my ideas but mindful of his. Ultimately, the challenge was to combine the themes that define our individual styles into a cohesive whole and we learnt a lot about ourselves as musicians in pursuit of that goal.
We look forward to announcing our collaborative EP in the weeks to come and in the meantime, I invite you to listen to Krzyzis’ haunting body of work at krzyzis.bandcamp.com
One autumn evening, I drove from the city to the countryside to visit my parents. I stopped beside the familiar road, got out the car and stood in the darkness—listening… It was quiet all about except for the gentle bleating of sheep in the distance. I could see every star in the Milky Way and the air was cool and clear. A wave of longing swept over me. I had been weary of living in the city and I knew the time had come to move back home.
Nearly a decade later, I have not once regretted that decision. The countryside is my home, the rural landscape an extension of my being. It is the setting in which I write my poetry and compose my music and it profoundly influences what I want to create, namely a combination of poetic and musical works that reflect my love for the bucolic. I am a Romanticist, compelled to extol the beauty of the pastoral and (by extension of that movement) the virtues of emotion and imagination.
My recent works for Forgotten Fields express this fascination and weave into it the melancholy and nostalgia that inevitably emerge in my compositions. They describe simple moments of rural beauty I wish to preserve, translating them into a poem or a piece of music in order to extend and sustain them. I am attempting to create a container for the heart and mind in which poetic metaphors and ambient soundscapes capture emotion, memory and time.
The collaboration with Krzyzis will be the first release dedicated to this subject, conceived as an ode to a windy summer’s day. It will be followed by a track inspired by the winter rain, composed for the upcoming Astoria Sound collaborative project. I am also working on the new Forgotten Fields album, which will be the fullest expression of these ideas in poetry and music.
Whilst it is possible to enjoy ambient music without any context, an album concept can transform the way one experiences the music. Depending on the objectives of the musician, the concept will lie somewhere between elegantly explained and deliberately obscured. My approach is nearer to the former. I enjoy telling stories and music allows me to do so in words, pictures and sound. This year, I want to give context to my music using words in the form of poetry and pictures in the form of unique album artwork.
To me, words are inextricable from music, whether they are the lyrics to a song or the title of an instrumental track. On my first album, I experimented with this word-music relationship, adding lyrics (to be sung by the listener) to “Silently You Sail”, and I want to further explore this idea by using poetry as an integral part of new music. There are currently two projects in pre-production which will be built around poetry. They draw inspiration from many poems but two stand out as being most influential in developing the concepts behind the music: the untitled verses for the rabbit Silverweed by Richard Adams in Watership Down chapter 16 and “Winternag” (Afrikaans, “winter’s night”) by Eugène Marais. Richard Adams captures the wistfulness and Eugène Marais the melancholy I want to express in my own poetry and music.
This is the first stanza of the Richard Adams poem containing my favourite opening line in poetry:
The wind is blowing, blowing over the grass.
It shakes the willow catkins; the leaves shine silver.
Where are you going, wind? Far, far away
Over the hills, over the edge of the world.
Take me with you, wind, high over the sky.
I will go with you, I will be rabbit-of-the-wind,
Into the sky, the feathery sky and the rabbit.
And this is the first stanza of the Eugène Marais poem describing a landscape scorched by fire:
O koud is die windjie (O cold is the slight wind)
en skraal (and spare).
En blink in die dof-lig (And bright in the dim light)
en kaal (and bare),
so wyd as die Heer se genade (as vast as the grace of the Lord),
lê die velde in sterlig en skade (lie the fields in starlight and ruin).
En hoog in die rande (And high in the ridges),
versprei in die brande (scattered in the fires),
is die grassaad aan roere (are the grasses astir)
soos winkende hande (like beckoning hands).
It may seem premature to think of artwork this early in pre-production but it is a defining feature of an album and one of the chief ways in which an ambient musician can communicate the main theme of his music. I want to use artwork to augment the overall concepts of my new projects, so I think it makes sense to develop the artwork in tandem with the music. This is how I approached the artwork for my first album. By making it part of the process from the outset, the result feels like a natural outcome of the process rather than an arbitrary afterthought.
I have approached a number of artists about developing artwork for upcoming projects. I am particularly interested in the idea of presenting machine-made music in a handmade medium. It introduces an element of contrast in the production process, which I like for its complementary quality. This is why I am investigating traditional methods of creating artwork. Etching is one possibility—the highly atmospheric prints of Samuel Palmer are great examples of what it can produce—but whatever the final method, this will be its underlying philosophy.
The music will build on the idea of repeating musical phrases but will incorporate new elements. My tracks typically start out as piano sketches which I then reinterpret digitally, adding elements that suit the theme of the music. On my first album, this included a combination of digital keyboards and synthesised classical instruments, such as the French horn in “Airship” and the bassoon in “Giant in the Sky”. This really appeals to me and hence all the tracks currently in pre-production will make use of this combination in some form.
In addition to the solo material, I will also work on two separate collaborations with Krzyzis and Astoria Sound. (There may be one other collaboration with Ghost Signs but nothing has been decided.) I am planning a two-track EP with Krzyzis as a kind of preview of what is to come but in collaborative form; and my work with Astoria Sound will be for a dedicated collaborative album of theirs. I am excited to see how these projects influence my solo music and I am truly grateful for this opportunity to work with these very talented musicians:
I was reminded of Breughel’s Massacre of the Innocents, today. My reason for thinking about that painting was curiosity of a personal nature. When I first laid eyes on it, I had to fight back the tears, so powerful was my emotional response to it (and I didn’t even like Breughel’s work, up until that moment!). This wasn’t an isolated incident. I sometimes find myself talking about something I consider to be an example of brilliance and I’ll become inexplicably emotional. It’s never made sense to me why this happens. Why, when faced with instances of great beauty, creativity, genius or some other mastery, I seem to disintegrate. There’s nothing more or less special about me than any of my peers, and yet they don’t fall apart when they hear Dvorak’s 8th!
Unsurprisingly, the origin lies in my childhood. I was an “accident”, the result of bad planning—I used to think of it as “a moment of passion”. After not being aborted, I was raised by a mother who didn’t really need me around. I was left in my grandmother’s care, whilst she pursued her career. But, as any adult child of a dysfunctional family will tell you, children can tell when they are not wanted, when they are not celebrated, when they are an inconvenient burden; and the effects of these circumstances are devastating. This was certainly my experience. Growing up, I had a sense of not being all that important to the big people, least of all my mother. I craved her love, care and affection. But, she was incapable of loving me. (There were reasons for this inability, which I now understand intellectually, but, of course, to my younger self, none of that mattered.)
The “good boy” game
As a result, I had to find ways of attracting the love I needed. I became a “good boy”: I never expressed feelings or needs and I always did what I was told. When I was well-behaved, I was praised and approved of, and when (on the rare occasion) I was ill-behaved, I was punished and disapproved of. My emotional security and my value became wholly dependent on my performance, not on anything inherently lovable within me. It left me feeling emotionally abandoned and unwanted. The “good boy” game was working, but a roller coaster of insecurity was the inevitable outcome. What I needed was unconditional love, love independent of what I did or didn’t do. And since I couldn’t make my parents love me, I needed a new plan. The game was up. I needed a love substitute.
I found this in beauty. At first, it was the superficial beauty admired by a child: decorative items in the house, flowers in the garden, toys, favourite stories, songs, thoughts—tangible and intangible things I could collect. But, as I grew older, I began to see the beauty of creative genius in the arts, design, engineering, philosophy, science, and so forth. My reverence for what I collectively call Beauty became absolute. I began to see it as a constant: it wasn’t reactive, it didn’t become less beautiful, it was consistent and reliable, a kind of refuge from the loveless reality I experienced as a youngster.
An imaginary friend
The people in my world were insensitive, dismissive and unappreciative. They made me feel insignificant and worthless. All I could do to survive was to find ways to protect myself. But, in the presence of beauty, I could lower my defenses. I could drop the “good boy” act and just be. Admiring beautiful things was a way of vicariously giving myself the love, approval and worth I so desperately sought. It was twisted, but it became a genuine replacement for the conditional love and approval I was generating in my parents. Beauty became my imaginary friend, a source of joy with every new creative or intellectual discovery. It didn’t disapprove, ridicule or disappoint. It was only its wonderful self, admired by all who loved its form.
I cry because I’m vulnerable
And so, when I come face to face with something Beautiful—something excellent, pure and masterful—that unloved, wounded part of my soul is exposed. It’s no wonder I become a defenseless little boy who just wants to break down in tears. Beauty has protected, soothed and healed me, all my life. Without it, I don’t see how I could have survived—I owe it my life and sanity. I become emotional because for that brief moment, in the presence of something great, all my defenses are down. When I was a boy, my first exposure to true creativity was through music. The works of Beethoven and Tchaikovsky exposed me to genius I couldn’t even begin to understand, but it inspired me to make music, to try to create something beautiful, myself. Today, the very process of making music restores me and delivers me. May the music I make also bring beauty into the lives of others.
We don’t make movies to make money, we make money to make more movies.
It was natural, for me, to substitute “movies” with “music”. I am a graphic designer by profession. I like to think of it as making shapes by day and sounds by night. In many ways, graphic design is like music, but instead of manipulating sound to communicate a message, you manipulate visuals to do so. I find both disciplines satisfying because they allow me to make things that add beauty to the lives of others. To create beauty, one must often begin with the not so beautiful. I was never one for getting dirty, but creativity is very messy, at least, in its early stages. There are scribbled notes and cutouts, rough sketches and experiments, a host of silly solutions and obvious ideas easily exposed for their unoriginality. But, as the process develops, workable solutions emerge, a good idea crystalises, and order slowly imposes itself on the chaos.
Like most creative folk, I tend to think my first idea is my best idea. (This is especially true if you’ve been around for a while). I have to learn, again and again, that this is rarely the case. Almost every first idea can be improved upon. In art school, I learned to love this process of development and improvement, of looking at an idea from different perspectives and getting feedback from others. (For the best feedback, Paul Arden (I think) brilliantly suggests that we don’t ask people if they like our idea, but that we ask them what they would change about our idea—I can report that this works, every time.) Sometimes, an idea must be totally abandoned in favour of a better one, or it must be abandoned temporarily and returned to later with fresh eyes and ears. This is how one goes beyond the obvious and arrives at something new and even unique. But, ideas are only part of creating beauty. Finding the right medium in which to develop those ideas can be a challenge.
Finding a medium
When I began specialising in graphic design at art school, I needed a medium with which to hash out ideas. Something that was inspiring to work with, but still suited to the precision necessary for the discipline. During my first year, I had developed a way of working with watercolours that met these requirements, perfectly. Watercolours became my trademark medium for preliminary designs and I think my work was better as a result of having found the right medium to explore in. A lot of my early final pieces of design were not rendered on the computer and printed. Instead, I painstakingly produced them in watercolours. Working with watercolours gave me an opportunity to master something that seemed to defy mastery. It gave me a sense of power and control, something I have always felt I lacked inwardly. A similar quest for a suitable medium of exploration took place for me in music. (Of course, the struggle to master that medium is ongoing.)
My early training in music was classical. I composed precise little pieces for the piano, but they were so structured I couldn’t stand them. I loosened up a little when I learned to play the guitar. I wrote lots of folk songs, but they were forced and embarrassingly pretentious. For a long time after that, I experimented with different genres, looking for a music style that felt natural and honest. Stories High was my most recent attempt in this quest. But, I found working with lyrics to be restrictive. I wanted to be liberated from them—besides, I felt ambivalent about singing. What I needed was the musical equivalent of watercolours. When I couldn’t find it, I stopped making music, for a while.
Finding a Muse
Then, a few months ago, I heard Sketches From New Brighton by Loscil. The album described Scott Morgan’s fascination with an oceanside park in Vancouver. I was captivated by both the concept and the execution of this idea. Scott Morgan was doing what I had subconsciously wanted to do, all this time. It’s baffling, but even though I’d listened to ambient electronic music for years, I’d never seriously considered composing in that genre. Somehow, having so clear an example in Scott Morgan was just the catalyst I needed. Here was a musician telling a story in abstract soundscapes. He did this by building layers of musical loops, creating a kind of sonic chaos. From this, he extracted musical phrases. At least, this was how I interpreted his work. To me, it was a revelation. I had found my watercolours of sound! Suddenly, I had a medium from which to draw my own melodies and meaning. It was only a matter of time before Forgotten Fields was born. There’s another quote involving Disney:
Disney movies touch the heart, but Studio Ghibli films touch the soul.
Scott Morgan’s Sketches From New Brighton had the Studio Ghibli effect on me. One day, I’ll write him a letter of thanks. Even if no one ever reads this blog or listens to a single track, I have him to thank for giving me a new medium and a new love for musicmaking. And here I am, putting together my first album, composing my first story in music. There is an incredible amount about making instrumental music I am in the process of learning, but what better way to do so than by making instrumental music? I feel a tremendous sense of relief finally being able to make the music I want to listen to.
Finding a message
As for the subject and theme, the very childhood demons I have been wrestling with in recent times have provided them. I never understood what people meant when they said that a curse can become a blessing (or something to that effect), but I think I know what they mean. All my life, I have struggled with abandonment issues. It would not be an exaggeration on my part to call it a curse. But in music, I can work through these issues, expressing the grief, loss and loneliness, but also the beauty, wonder and adventure of childhood as experienced by adult children of dysfunctional families. Perhaps in my music I can give myself and others a place of refuge and release. That would be my curse turned into a blessing. It is an exciting time for me. I am eager to see what happens next.