I have a near-final draft of “To a Swallow”! I can scarce believe it; it seemed to me this day would never come!
It is amusing to see how a poem begins, the messy and awkward struggle to express a thought in verse. These are the embarrassing beginnings of “The Sunbird”, a poem I wrote whilst watching a sunbird in the garden, last year.
It began as a rough draft in a notebook:
This recording was made after I wrote the first draft—if you listen closely, you can hear the sunbird chirping in the background:
I then started developing it further:
I shall eventually develop this into a complete poem.
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.
Image by Silvestri Matteo
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:
Airships and their lovers
A hopeless romantic—at least, when it comes to lighter-than-air flight—I have written my third airship poem. The first was Silently You Sail, on an airship in flight (the words became lyrics to the track by the same name on the Airship album), and the second, Sheltering Airships, on airships in their hangars.
Airships and their masts
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.
I’ve written about hangars before, the large industrial structures built to house airships. To me, these sheds are just as impressive as the crafts they protect. I tried to convey their incredible size and reverberating interiors in “Hangar”, the opening track of the upcoming album, Airship. In addition, I have written a little experimental poem on the theme. (Who knows, perhaps I’ll publish a little booklet of dirigible poetry!) I wanted to describe the airships as reluctant occupants of the colossal buildings, their soaring spirit of freedom as earthbound and restless within:
Steadfast sheds of metal,
Structures proud and bold
Sheltering the zeppelins,
Splendid to behold!
Silently they loom
Safe within the walls
Spirits of the boundless blue
Sheltered in their halls!
Inspiration from Cardington
The genesis of Sheltering Airships was the poetry of airship enthusiast, Trevor Monk. A resident of Bedfordshire, England, home to the ex-RAF Cardington sheds, Monk has written a number of informal poems about lighter-than-air flight. Favourites amongst these include a comical limerick about a scatterbrained blimp named Billy, and The Cathedrals of Cardington, a dignified ode to the local landmark hangars. I particularly enjoy the latter for its imagery—the scale of the doors, the vastness of the interiors, the vision of the buildings as industrial cathedrals:
The Cathedrals of Cardington
By Trevor Monk
They stand looming from the fields of Bedfordshire,
Proud structures of a time long passed—
Their mighty doors on tracks move steadily.
A beacon of home when travelling—
The sound reverberating from their cavernous halls,
Airship engines roar under test.
Their vast bulk impressive from afar,
Unbelievable whilst close;
Girders of steel like pillars
Supporting the roof of unbelievable height.
These are truly ‘Cathedrals of Cardington’,
Standing almost Gothic in industrial form.
More than just a box,
More than a collection of girders and sheets,
Elegant giants of old.
Long may those cathedrals of Cardington echo
To the choir of airship engines!
In response, I wrote Airship Hangars, borrowing heavily from Monk, the first draft of what eventually became Sheltering Airships:
Airship Hangars (working title)
They stand looming in the fields,
Structures proud and bold.
Their mighty doors on tracks of metal,
Sentinels of old.
Within, the airship engines roar,
Echoing off the walls,
Chanting an industrial tune
In the stately halls.
Poet and aviator
Since the theme of Airship is aviation, I thought I’d share High Flight, the sonnet that made poet and aviator John Gillespie Magee, Jr. famous. I first came across it in “January 28, 1986”, a short track by Owl City from All Things Bright and Beautiful (2011). The track samples Ronald Reagan’s Challenger disaster speech, in which he borrows from the first and last line of the sonnet. When I looked the sample up, I discovered High Flight. I loved it, instantly. Magee’s words are like aeroplane wings, cutting through the aether—brilliant, proud, joyous and free:
Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth,
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds—and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of—Wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air…
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark or even eagle flew—
And, while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.
Magee wrote the sonnet just months before his death in a mid-air collision. It was 1941—he was nineteen years old.
Airwaves to airships
With the pre-order of Airship available, I am happy to share “Silently You Sail”, the fifth track on the album. “Silently You Sail” began as a sketch piece about radio airwaves. I imagined them traveling through the air, delivering sounds from tower to tower. But when I started working on the album, it seemed to work just as well as a description of an airship in flight.
The track has three melodies. The first is a bass synth humming throughout. It is accompanied by “drops” of sound, gently counting out the pace. The second melody is the main theme, joined in time by an accompanying third melody. They weave unhurriedly along, with an occasional rush of synths, until the conclusion of the track.
Lyrics and a title change (or two)
The track started out as “Recording I”, then became “The View From Above” when I adapted it for Airship, and finally changed to “Silently You Sail” when I introduced lyrics. The lyrics are to be sung by the listener at the 1:20 mark, where the second melody starts. It is a little unusual to expect the listener to do the singing, but I like the idea. The lyrics come from a poem I wrote that fortuitously fit the melody:
Silently you sail
As the daylight yields,
Wondrous flying ship
To forgotten fields.
Even though the upcoming album is instrumental, I wrote lyrics for one of the tracks… by accident. A few weeks ago, I wrote a short poem on the theme of an airship in flight:
Silently you sail
As the daylight yields
Wondrous flying ship
To forgotten fields!
Fortuitously, the metre fit the melody of the fifth track on the album: “The View From Above”. I had no choice but to put the two together!
However, I did not want to record vocals because it felt wrong for the album. So, I decided to include the poem as lyrics to the track, inviting the listener to sing. When Airship goes on pre-order, “The View From Above” will be streamable, and I hope listeners will quietly sing along, like a wistful passenger. (Listen for the melody from the 1:20 mark.)
P.S. A small gift: use the discount code THEVIEWFROMABOVE to get 50% off on the album. The code will be valid for one week after the album goes on pre-order (date to be announced).