One illuminating byproduct of self-examination has been uncovering the sources of my attraction to sadness. It is an emotion I have felt for as long as I can remember, and I have written in the past about its origins1. Briefly, in my formative years, I experienced the absence of a parental bond, constantly in the care (or rather neglect) of others who had neither the time nor inclination to connect with me emotionally. A highly sensitive2 child—what in the “humours”3 of Greco-Roman medicine could be described as a “melancholic” temperament—I took this to mean that I was unloveable, unwanted and wrong for needing attention; and so I slowly withdrew, emotionally and physically, consoling myself with solitude, reflection, knowledge and beauty—things to which I was naturally drawn that did not require the company of others.
It was with this sense of life4—that existence is tenuous connection, consoling isolation and undeserved joy—that I indulged my desire to create; and what I created, what I admired and took pleasure in, was a manifestation of my inner life. My taste in music illustrates this perfectly: I would enjoy cheerful music but felt that I was “wrong” for doing so, guiltily listening then setting it aside, convinced I am unworthy of happiness. Only sorrowful music felt “right”. When I discovered the ambient, drone and shoegaze genres, it was as if I could hear my sense of life played on instruments: the haze of my experience concretised in reverberations and obfuscated in textures. Unsurprisingly, I embraced those musical styles wholeheartedly. Something similar happened in other art forms: the more melancholy the work, the more appropriate to my sense of life it felt, and the greater its effect on the content and aesthetic of my tastes.
You see it in my choice of project titles—the visions they conjure of separation (Forgotten Fields, Lonely Swallow5); in my music—the sense of longing (for connection) and lamentation (for not attaining it)6; in my poetry—the simple rhymes (evocative of a romanticised childhood); in my aesthetic—the minimalist abstract visuals (reflecting a child seeking warmth in ideas to escape the coldness of his reality); in my theme—nature as a source of solitude, beauty and comfort (requiring only that I exist to receive it); in my subjects—the fleeting moments of the natural world (as insignificant as I felt in childhood: a bird singing in the distance, the wind spilling over the grass, clouds dissolving in the sky). Understanding the origins of these—how my upbringing and temperament conspired to produce them—is deeply affirming.
I am delighted to share that I have joined SubscribeStar1, a platform enabling one to support a creator through a subscription. My reasons for doing so are to create an opportunity to support what I do, and to establish a space where I may experiment with ideas. Whether on matters philosophical, sacred or secular—in the form of essays, musical and poetic sketches or photography—it shall be my studio; a creative laboratory, if you will.
The artistic process is complex; the thinking of the artist obscure. On SubscribeStar, I shall clarify my process and thinking in the company of sympathetic minds with whom I hope to deliberate. I shall treat it also as a journal wherein I may share the updates, observations and discoveries hitherto contained in the monthly digests. My goal is to create a subscription section on this website, but until then, SubscribeStar will perform that function.
I reflected upon this blog
Ever since I joined social media in 2016, I have devotedly shared there distilled ideas and updates. These I then assembled and elaborated upon on the blog, particularly over the past year, in the “This Month” posts. So consistent have I been, it has become an observance. Now that I have joined SubscribeStar, I can better investigate subjects without burdening followers with the bombardment of posts that will inevitably result from my doing so.
This then is the last “This Month” post. It does not mean, however, that I shall no longer be active here. On this blog, I intend to share at the appropriate times what emerges from SubscribeStar. I shall make official announcements and present work and ideas in their developed form—that is, not the works in progress or the extemporary rumination that will be characteristic of my SubscribeStar activity. SubscribeStar will be messy; the blog will be neat.
I wrote this, my 100th post
Glancing over the development of the blog reminds me of my enthusiasm when I started this project in 2016. Armed with an iPad and no idea how to compose experimental music, my love for airships was all the encouragement I needed to learn. I was amazed that the blog attracted any interest at all and I did my best to present to readers what I considered engaging and interesting; 100 posts later, I hope I have succeeded.
Whenever there is change, one is reminded of what one values in life. This February, I appreciated anew your faith in my work. I may give form to a theme in music and poetry, but what joy is there in beholding the outcome alone? For proof of my work’s merit, I rely on you. Your judgements—your comprehension, appreciation and criticism—help me evaluate my own; and I assure you, I would be all the poorer without them.
“Experimental music” is a somewhat nebulous term, but I think of it as a descriptor for musical exploration in whatever genre, or combination of genres, one happens to do so. To me, it is the liberty to invent new ways of expressing a theme in a composition. Whether I use elements from classical music, drone or vocals, my primary goal is to put them at the service of a concept. Of course, every composition in any genre is an experiment of some sort, but there are times when the outcome is not readily classifiable.
My journey into the genre
Some of my earliest musical ideas were rudimentary experiments, before I knew what “experimental music” was. I would write minimal pieces for the piano and combine them with poetry and field recording—in essence, the raw beginnings of what I am doing now. Before the advent of the Internet, it never occurred to me that others may be doing the same. It was decades before I would return to this approach—having long explored acoustic music—this time, aided by the digital democratisation of music production.
My interest in experimental music was revived with the discovery of post-rock and the genres with which it was often confused—like shoegaze, dream pop, ambient and electronic music. By the time I heard “Container Ships” by Loscil from Sketches from New Brighton four years after its release, I was ready to compose experimental music again. That album was the catalyst for my first release, Airship, a work that laid the foundation for what Forgotten Fields ultimately became: the consolidation of my artistic ideas.
Living in the Overberg, surrounded by gentle farmland, serene mountain ranges and restoring silences, my work is a response to it all. In my music and poetry, I seek to express what in sacred moments among the hills wells up within me: awe, wonder and joy! My work is an inevitability—an act of adoration.
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).
Like all art, music relies on its context to be fully appreciated, whether it is the position of a track on an album or how a listener hears it. This is a challenge for musicians because it is all but impossible for them to control, on any grand scale, how an audience encounters or consumes their work. For many artists in the ambient genre, this is problematic. Ambient music is designed to blend into the acoustic environment1. It is often used in situations where the focus is not the music, but the absorbing, distracting or tedious activity it is meant to facilitate. There is a great number of ambient artists who do not intend their music to be experienced in this way, but in defining themselves as “ambient” (perhaps out of necessity or for want of a better alternative), they necessarily (though inadvertently) endorse a perception of their work in direct conflict with their artistic intentions.
When surveying playlists that include ambient music, descriptions like “Clear your head with these soothing soundscapes”2 are common—innocuous introductions to collections of typically soporific, repetitive and undemanding pieces conducive to a listener’s occupation. The definition of the genre by Brian Eno makes the inclusion of ambient music in such playlists perfectly logical. For Eno, “Ambient Music must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting.”3 Wikipedia states duly that ambient music is intended to relax through its atmospheric, visual and unobtrusive quality1. Whilst these definitions fit the early experiments of Eno, they are woefully inadequate when applied to the work of many among his artistic progeny whose music falls into the genre technically, but not essentially.
The artist’s intent
Classification matters because it is linked to definition. We cannot think meaningfully about what we cannot or do not define (in this instance, musicians about their music). In the realm of the experimental, this is challenging because the unorthodox nature of experimentation makes the categorisation of a musical work difficult. This leaves artists at a loss as to how to describe their work—“xperimental electronic / dark-ambient / dronez / soundscapez / weird low freq humming” (sic) is one such attempt by Krzyzis, an experimental musician from Canada4. Some delve no deeper than “ambient”5, others avoid doing so altogether6. They are blameless in my view. Artists like Krzyzis, Alaskan Tapes, Astoria Sound, Last Days, 36 and a multitude of others create experimental music7. “Calm”, “relaxing”, “peaceful”, “serene”, et cetera are often appropriate terms with which to describe their predominantly slow-moving work. However, their compositions do not take these forms for the purpose of background accompaniment; they employ these qualities for different reasons entirely.
What reasons are determined by the artist, but the underlying intent is the creation of music for active and sustained listening, for immersion and contemplation; the compositions are conceived to engage the mind in a subject and theme, not to make more pleasant or bearable some other task—be it working, socialising, studying or sleeping. Yet this is how the music is frequently used, added to playlists dedicated to these scenarios8 by curators who do not for a moment consider the artist’s objectives. (The classical genre suffers a similar fate when a Bruch adagio ends up in a Classical Chill playlist9.) This is, of course, inevitable—perhaps even excusable. Much of what the music of these artists expresses is suited to such use. But this is not their primary motivation in composing such music. In the words of Dennis Huddleston (36): “People see a lot of ambient music as something to help them sleep, but I’m trying my hardest to keep them awake!”10 Brian Eno may have intended to produce “sonic wallpaper”1 but these artists have a higher goal, namely art11.
Concept, context and clarity
Where does this leave artists who welcome an appreciation of their intent—especially those who have ventured into the unknown in search of the New, only to find their phenomenal efforts relegated to office backgrounds? (There is, of course, the view that artists need not concern themselves with categorisation, but I hold that some form of classification is necessary, 1.) to explain the nature of the work, 2.) to orient the audience and 3.) to help them interpret what they hear.) In a reality where musicians do not, cannot (and perhaps should not) control how their music is experienced, must they resign themselves to the unavoidable and be consoled that at the very least, the undiscerning playlist creator will introduce their music to people who would otherwise never have heard it (however unsatisfactorily)? Is this not, after all, an opportunity to grow a following?
Not considering the quality of such a following, the trade-off is that the music will not be appreciated as intended. When presented to a listener in this way, the compositions lose their context—and every artist understands that context is a vital component of a work because it preserves its conceptual substance. Concept and context are inextricably linked—a fact brilliantly demonstrated by Carl Andre’s Equivalent VIII construction12. Unlike Andre’s neatly arranged firebricks, however, the best examples of experimental music have intrinsic value by virtue of the artistic labour they embody. This makes the music worthy of a listener’s full attention, something beyond the artist’s control. Though little can be done to guarantee a proper regard for art, especially in a form as ubiquitous as music, the least artists can do is themselves be explicit about their intent.
It is this I wish to do briefly here. I have previously described my work as “ambient idylls”, by which I meant to convey a Romantic perspective13. The word “idyll”14 was ideal because it embraced my theme (the admiration of Nature), my subject (scenes of rural beauty) and my means of expression (compositions in music and poetry). Having long wrestled with the “ambient” descriptor, I have at last decided to distance myself from the genre proper. I compose music to consciously engage the listener. If my work encourages contemplation, I intend this to be on the images and emotions I endeavour to evoke. Although some of my compositions have an “ambient” aesthetic15, I no longer consider my music Ambient; and so I adopt a new caption to summarise my vision, which is to create: Idylls in music and poetry.
Briefly, the sole purpose of art is to make an abstraction concrete. In the case of music, this involves expressing the emotions evoked by a theme (the abstraction) into a musical composition (the concrete): musical artists embody in a melodious composition (in its instrumentation and ultimately its performance and recording) a fundamental emotion or group of emotions (e.g. “anger”, “excitement”, “joy”, “awe”, “serenity”, “surprise”, “distress” or “fear”) inspired by a theme (e.g. “injustice”, “celebration”, “love”, “nature”, “introspection”, “conflict”, “loss” or “dystopia”) consistent with their worldview. I elaborate upon my definition of art in “On the Nature and Purpose of Art”.
“The essential difference between any sculpture from the past and Carl Andre’s Equivalent VIII [a rectangular arrangement of 120 firebricks] . . . is that Andre’s work depends entirely on the museum. A Rodin in a parking lot is still a misplaced Rodin; Equivalent VIII in the same lot is just bricks.” – Robert Hughes, The Shock of the New: Art and the century of change, McGraw-Hill Education, 1990, p. 369. See also Equivalent VIII at the Tate
“The nature of Romanticism may be approached from the primary importance of the free expression of the feelings of the artist. The importance the Romantics placed on emotion is summed up in the remark of the German painter Caspar David Friedrich, ‘the artist’s feeling is his law’. To William Wordsworth, poetry should begin as ‘the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings’, which the poet then ‘recollect[s] in tranquility (sic)’, evoking a new but corresponding emotion the poet can then mould into art.” – “Romanticism”, Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia
“An extremely happy, peaceful, or picturesque period or situation… A short description in verse or prose of a picturesque scene or incident, especially in rustic life… [From] Greek eidullion [“little picture”]…” – Idyll, Oxford University Press: English: Oxford Living Dictionaries
To express my theme, I must compose in a genre that lends itself to the expression of the ideas contained within that theme. The genres best suited for this are Classical and Electronic Music. I chose the latter for reasons of pragmatism and the genre’s near limitless capacity for expression. That some of my music will be “ambient” is unavoidable.
I prepared for the Lonely Swallow label’s first release.
May was dedicated to the final preparations for the first release on Lonely Swallow, my experimental label: Origins by Affan. The event is particularly special because it is also his debut. Affan is a young self-taught pianist from London. When I first heard his compositions, I was captured by their illusive simplicity. He weaves together melodies and tempos in improvised pieces that move from theme to theme with elegance and ease. When the label was ready to induct its first artist, Affan was a natural choice. His work embodies the ethos of the label: a minimalist celebration of melody, emotion and atmospheric beauty.
Red Plate Press impressed yet again.
Letterpress artist David Armes of Red Plate Press created the cover art for the album (Origins) and single (“Origin I”). Part of his task was to establish an aesthetic for the label’s releases. Minimalism was an important consideration when commissioning the artwork, and David’s solution is excellently so. It combines a simple visual concept with an elegant model for future releases. For this album and single, he used the Roman numerals from the track titles (“Origin I”, “Origin II”, “Origin III”, et cetera) and scattered them in the format to suggest the spontaneousness of improvisation. They are rendered in textured low-ink prints to represent the low-fidelity recordings, one “I” on the single cover, six on the album.
I felt grateful.
A novice in the music business, I am guided by my devotion to Beauty and Virtue, and rely on the knowledge and skill of others for everything else. I was fortunate in the creation of Lonely Swallow to work with artists and experts who are committed to excellence. It has made the process of establishing the label and coordinating its first release a rewarding experience. Thanks to everyone at Wolfe-Coote Incorporated for guiding me through the process of incorporating my first company. Thank you Affan for entrusting me with your first album, Taylor Deupree for mastering the label’s first release, Garreth Broke for transcribing “Origin I”, David Armes for capturing the music in visuals, and you dear reader for your faith and interest in my endeavours, your generosity is my inspiration.
Following the discovery of my Cape robin-chat Cape batis confusion, I have at last finished “The Robin-chat” (previously, “The Batis III”). The image below shows how the composition developed: “The Batis III” version is nearly complete just before the image of the bird (evidenced by the neatness of the verses); then, a new wave of exploration, prompted by the discovery of my error, as the poem becomes “The Robin-chat”. I am delighted to report that I have since also completed “The Leaves” (previously, “Poplars”) and have tentatively started revising a sketch titled “The Pines”.
I spoke to David Armes about the artwork for the first Lonely Swallow label release.
Last month, I mentioned that I had briefly spoken to letterpress artist David Armes about the cover art for the Origins album by Affan. This month, we had a detailed conversation about the nature of the visuals, how they are to create the aesthetic of the label, and how this will apply to visuals for artists and their releases. Our objective is to present in the artwork the concept of the music and the minimalist philosophy of the label. This will be the challenge in the coming month.
I spoke to Garreth Broke about transcribing Origins.
For his first album, Affan has composed a collection of six contemporary classical impromptus that effortlessly move from theme to theme with elegance and ease. Not only do I think of these pieces as beautiful and engaging to the ear, but also to the eye and hand; and so I have asked one of my favourite pianists in the genre, Garreth Broke, to transcribe them.
I have been working on the last of a set of three poems titled “The Batis” for the greater part of March. The Cape batis is a small bird with one of my favourite calls—three simple notes which it measures out in the sweetest whistles: foo-foo-foo, foo-foo-foo. I have been enamoured with the creature ever since I first heard its call and was compelled to adore it in verse! The subject of the third “The Batis” poem was not, however, this particular three-whistle call, but another: cherooo-weet-weet-weeeet. I had attributed this call to the batis because I had seen the bird sing this song last year, and in the “The Batis III” verses, describe both bird and call (and the joy it brings on autumn mornings) based on that incident.
A few mornings ago, hearing again the cherooo-weet-weet-weeeet, I ventured out to see if I could spot the bird. To my surprise, I discovered it was not a batis singing but a robin-chat! Puzzled, I set out to learn how I came to misidentify the songster and learned that robin-chats sometimes imitate the calls of other birds. I realised how I may have been tricked. When I identified the batis, last year, two things must have happened: the robin-chat sang the batis foo-foo-foo at one point and its own cherooo-weet-weet-weeeet at another, and I mistakenly attributed the latter to the batis, thinking it another of its calls; and since the birds look somewhat similar at first glance, subsequent sightings evidently compounded my error.
This meant I had written an ode to the wrong bird and it had to be changed! Upon evaluating the poem, I found that only the title and two lines needed replacing. “The Batis III” became “The Robin-Chat” and I exchanged two descriptive lines in the second verse—“A little bird of black and white / Brushed with reddish-brown”—for new ones more suitable, given what had transpired. Thus far, “The Robin-Chat” (heretofore “The Batis III”) has taken the longest to write and is still being revised in light of the new edits. Its four verses, though short, have, thanks to the subject matter, proven a fount of poetic possibility. Whether it becomes part of the final publication or not, it has been an adventure to compose!
I discovered an early poem.
This month, a year ago, I wrote “Rains and Roads”, the first poem drafted specifically for my poetry publication when it was still a distant idea. I came across the poem whilst organising my notes. It was dated 16 March 2017, a rough sketch borrowing somewhat from an earlier 2012 poem, “Autumn”. “Autumn” was the first poem I had ever written on a pastoral theme; in retrospect, my first essay at the format I would ultimately embrace: the Romantic lyrical ballad. “Rains and Roads” continues the theme of “Autumn” but applies it to winter. It consists of two verses and describes a wet day in the countryside: the sun breaks through the clouds after a shower of rain and rivulets trickle beside the gravel roads.
I spoke to David Armes about the poetry publication.
David Armes of Red Plate Press created and produced the handmade letterpress sleeves for the eponymous Forgotten Fields album. I spoke to him earlier this month about publishing the poetry as a handmade booklet—a paperback edition that draws on the minimalist theme of the aforementioned album. In my experience, looking into production early on has a positive effect on a project, and it has certainly been the case here. It has helped me define the concept of the work and thereby the nature and form of the publication. I function best when I have a clear framework for my creative pursuits—it liberates me from the tyranny of carte blanche—and so, articulating my thoughts to David was a boon.
I received the Origins masters and commissioned its artwork.
Taylor Deupree of 12k Mastering has done wonderful work with the recordings for Origins, the first release of contemporary classical pianist Affan and the inaugural release of the Lonely Swallow label. Origins is a collection of six impromptus recorded in low-fidelity. It has all the makings of an intimate, melodic and atmospheric listening experience which Taylor has expertly brought to life in the masters. During the aforementioned conversation with David Armes, we also touched on the visuals for Origins. He will start producing ideas on the press in April, bringing us another step closer to announcing a release date.