New Year, New Music

“The Early Ploughman”, circa 1860, an etching by Samuel Palmer (1805–1881). Source: Tate
“The Early Ploughman”, circa 1860, an etching by Samuel Palmer (1805–1881). Source: Tate

Story

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.

Poetry

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).

“The Weary Ploughman”, circa 1860, the companion piece to “The Early Ploughman”, an etching by Samuel Palmer (1805–1881). Source: The British Museum
“The Weary Ploughman”, circa 1860, the companion piece to “The Early Ploughman”, an etching by Samuel Palmer (1805–1881). Source: The British Museum

Artwork

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.

Music

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:

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Mooring Mast, a poem

USS Los Angeles does a spectacular nose stand whilst tied to the mooring mast at Lakehurst, New Jersey (1926). The 200-metre (660-foot) airship was upended by a turbulent wind, but slowly righted itself. There were no serious injuries to the crew of 25.
USS Los Angeles does a spectacular nose stand whilst tied to the mooring mast at Lakehurst, New Jersey (1926). The 200-metre (660-foot) airship was upended by a turbulent wind, but slowly righted itself. There were no serious injuries to the crew of 25. (Images: Navy Lakehurst Historical Society)

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.

Left: British MPs walk onto the R101 airship gangplank, in Cardington, England, in the 1920s. (Image: Library of Congress) Right: A close-up view of an airship being prepared for undocking. (Image: Unknown)
Left: British MPs walk onto the R101 airship gangplank, in Cardington, England, in the 1920s. (Image: Library of Congress) Right: A close-up view of an airship being prepared for undocking. (Image: Unknown)

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:

Mooring Mast

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.

FORGOTTEN FIELDS

Sheltering Airships, a poem

USS Akron leaving Goodyear Airdock in Akron, Ohio, United Sates
USS Akron leaving Goodyear Airdock in Akron, Ohio, United Sates

Anchoring adventure

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:

Sheltering Airships

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!

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Cardington Sheds, Bedfordshire, once the home of RAF Cardington and the Royal Airship Works.

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.

Always there,
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.

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