The lockdown diaries – chapter seven

All this extra time on my hands is giving me some space to step back and reflect on music-making over the past few years. An occasional series …

I am currently reading Recollections of a Tour Made in Scotland, A. D. 1803. This is a travel memoir by Dorothy Wordsworth about a six-week, 663-mile journey through the Scottish Highlands from August–September 1803 with her brother William Wordsworth and mutual friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge.  It is a compelling read and I recommend it highly. Here is a particularly interesting paragraph:

The sun had been set for some time, when, being within a quarter of a mile of the ferryman’s hut, our path having led us close to the shore of the calm lake, we met two neatly dressed women, without hats, who had probably been taking their Sunday evening’s walk.  One of them said to us in a friendly, soft tone of voice, “What! you are stepping westward?”  I cannot describe how affecting this simple expression was in that remote place, with the western sky in front, yet glowing with the departed sun. 

Brother William was not averse to reading through D’s journals, on the lookout for ideas for poems. The passage above provides a foundation for one of his best works, “Stepping Westward”.  Here is an extract:

 The dewy ground was dark and cold;

Behind, all gloomy to behold;

And stepping westward seemed to be

A kind of heavenly destiny:

I liked the greeting; ’twas a sound

Of something without place or bound …

[From Stepping Westward by William Wordsworth]

I have my own stepping westward story. In the 1950s, when I was very young, I was taken to the cinema for the first time – to see a cowboys and indians film. Of course, I knew about the Wild West from books and comics (this was the pre-televison era), but nothing could have prepared me for the visual and aural impact of seeing film for the first time. A huge screen projecting in glorious technicolour, supported by a thunderously loud soundtrack. This confirmed my suspicion that cowboys and indians were not just fictional images; they really did exist – in a land far away.

This idea of lands beyond the horizon was a revelation. Like most of my peers, I had assumed that the world ended just beyond the top of the nearest hill. I now realised it went on  a bit further and, as Wordsworth was suggesting, stepping westward seemed to be/ A kind of heavenly destiny. I’ve only become aware of the Wordsworth poem very recently, but that has not prevented me from metaphorically stepping out in a westerly fashion – since walking out of the cinema all those decades ago …

My reflections on this story forms the basis for Stepping Westward – a track on my forthcoming album Spots of Time

The lockdown diaries – chapter six

All this extra time on my hands is giving me some space to step back and reflect on music-making over the past few years. An occasional series …

Years ago, as a young boy, I sometimes went camping on a remote farm at the head of the Buttermere Valley in West Cumberland.  The memories of those weekends, which are as vivid today, are of the evenings. There was something about the quality of light in those open spaces which I hadn’t experienced before. I recall going off on my own to a stream at the head of the lake and leaning over the rail of a wooden bridge which crossed the stream. Never have I seen water so clear –  such  clarity of detail of the various objects on the bed of the stream. And I remember being aware of the movement. The stream flowing gently under the bridge – into the lake and then onwards to the sea. And the stillness of everything in the stream as the water passes over and through the valley. This combination of movement and stasis was mesmerising.

I can now see metaphors emerging from this experience, but, at the time, I was just content to sit and watch. Today, I explore these memories and ideas through music. Look out for ‘The shadow from the substance’ on my forthcoming album ‘Spots of Time’ – available this summer.

The lockdown diaries – chapter five

All this extra time on my hands is giving me some space to step back and reflect on music-making over the past few years. An occasional series …

I don’t have many memories from early childhood, but here is one which remains very clear. It was a day in early Spring and we were stuck indoors, watching it rain steadily outside. During the afternoon the clouds suddenly cleared and I went running outside in my wellingtons. At the edge of the pavement, there was a puddle which, obviously, I decided to stand in. I was about five years old. While I was standing there, something amazing happened. The sun appeared from behind a small cloud and this erstwhile dull puddle sprang into life. The reflections of myself, the trees and buildings became interfused with these gorgeous rainbow colours. As I stirred the water with my foot, the patterns and colours would reconfigure. It was like being at an early Pink Floyd gig which as a solo five year old, I would have possibly been denied entry.  Fortunately  Pink Floyd had not been invented at that time, so I wasn’t missing anything. 

These puddles at the edges of suburban pavements are almost impossible to find these days as cars and motorbikes drip far less oil these days. With every gain comes a loss.
I’m writing a musical response The Surface of Past Time which aims to capture the myriad layers of sensations and feelings resulting from this experience. This will be the opening track on “Spots of Time’ – available this summer.

The lockdown diaries – chapter four

All this extra time on my hands is giving me some space to step back and reflect on music-making over the past few years. An occasional series …

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I was fortunate, when growing up, to have a bedroom with a west facing view. It was a small room with a small window but it did look out over an unbroken view of a large sky. That large sky was over the western coast of Cumbria and there were some truly amazing sunsets.

But my one vivid memory from this time is not of the sunsets – it’s of clouds.  Coleridge writes of clouds in his sonnet Fancy in Nubibus which begins with these lines:

O, it is pleasant, with a heart at ease,

Just after sunset, or by moonlight skies,

To make the shifting clouds be what you please

…and this is exactly what was happening as I stared out of the window one evening. The most amazingly detail and lifelike shapes would appear before dissolving and morphing into yet more realistic images. And there would be other times when the cloud would fall to the side and a beautifully pure twilight sky would appear. I wouldn’t have been able to put it into words at the time, but it was as though a clarity of thought was emerging through the muddled ambiguity of overlapping clouds. I’m probably reaching for an overworked metaphor here, so I’ll stop and continue with my musical exploration of this experience, which tells the story with far more clarity than my fuzzy paragraphs can.

Look out for Shifting Clouds on my next album release …

The lockdown diaries – chapter three

All this extra time on my hands is giving me some space to step back and reflect on music-making over the past few years. An occasional series …

For a few days every year Appleby, a sleepy market town in Cumbria, undergoes a radical transformation.  It becomes a vibrant and edgy place with a clashing and coming together of disparate cultures when 1000s of Gypsies and Travellers  for their annual gathering. 

Until recently, I lived just outside of Appleby and always enjoyed popping over for a coffee or a pint or even to pick up a pint of milk or a battery for the smoke alarm from the local Coop.  Also  a great place for hopping on a train for an ultra scenic trip to Leeds.

The Fair traditionally takes place during the first weekend of June. Of course, the event will not be taking place this year – only the second time in 250 years it has been cancelled.  A few years ago, I wrote a piece of music which attempts to capture the pulsing energy and extravagance of this unique event. If you are at a loose end during that first week in June, have a listen:

Squares with two circles

I have to admit, my initial interest in visual art didn’t stretch much beyond paintings. Impressionists, some earlier watercolour landscapes, and a few more modern works all captured my attention, but sculpture – no. Sculptures of famous or forgotten dignitaries outside town halls, or more recently abstract assemblages of blocks of concrete or bronze left me stone cold. I would register their presence – and walk on by. 

My change of attitude was as a result of a more prolonged encounter with a single work  of sculpture in an outdoor setting. 

Squares with two Circles

It is the sort of thing I would initially have dismissed as two lumps of concrete with holes in the middle. This work was set on an open stretch of grass in the grounds of Bretton Hall and close to this sculpture was a bench. At the time of this encounter, I was taking part in a residential music summer school and at lunchtimes (as a break from the somewhat rarefied social atmosphere!) I would often take my sandwiches and sit on this bench. So for thirty minutes or so I would sit alone – looking out over this sculpture by Barbara Hepworth. 

Two things were important – having the space and the time to slowly develop an appreciation for this work.  

The first elements of this sculpture I started to consider were the shapes and the geometry. I noticed that the two rectangles were of different sizes and in fact there was a third smaller rectangle supporting both of them. Also, the rectangles were not actually rectangular. The sides were of differing lengths. And the holes were not centred  – they were offset – yet seemed to balance one another. And these circular piercings were not regular; they were tapered in subtle ways. Getting up close to the sculpture, I realised that they were not concrete blocks after all. They were cast in bronze and as I moved closer towards the sculpture, I noticed all the carvings and surface markings made by the sculptor’s tools and the subtle patina or surface colourations.  

“…you can’t appreciate sculpture if you are going to stand as stiff as a ramrod and stare at it. You need to walk around it , get close to it stand back from it  …”  Barbara Hepworth 

Over a period of ten days on this residential course, I was able to appreciate the appearance of the sculpture changing at different times of day and in different weather conditions. I was able to move up close and walk further away. I was able to walk around it and observe it from different angles. So being outdoors can help sculpture come dynamically alive, giving us a range of subtle variations. The fact that this sculpture was sited on its own in a relatively quiet open space provided a freedom from distractions which afforded me the opportunities for deeper appreciation and contemplation.   

Appreciating sculpture takes time. A lot of thought and time has gone into the making of it – so the observer needs to make a similar commitment. The more  I thought about this fascinating work of art, the more  I realised that there were strong parallels with music making. Balance, proportion, structure,  motif, variation, texture and so on are concepts common to both art forms. I started to sketch out some possibilities for composition which, unfortunately, I never followed through. However, many years later, I embarked on a much more ambitious project – taking its inspiration from one of the great 20th century sculptures; Barbara Hepworth’s  Family of Man is sited on a hillside in the grounds of Yorkshire Sculpture Park at Bretton Hall near Wakefield. The series comprises a set of nine pieces, each representing figures across generations moving from a young girl through to ancestors and ending in an ‘ultimate form’.   My exploration of this sculpture through music has been written and recorded and is available via the links below. I’m now working on preparing a multimedia presentation comprising video projections, spoken commentary and a specially composed music soundtrack.

Where words leave off music begins…

Streaming/download available from Amazon, iTunes, Spotify etc.

The lockdown diaries – chapter two

 

All this extra time on my hands is giving me some space to step back and reflect on music-making over the past few years. An occasional series …

During the summer months in the early 1960s, our family would pile into the car and take the short journey to the beach at Allonby in West Cumberland. My younger sisters loved this but, as a young teenager, I was becoming more ambivalent. A ‘bucket and spade’  day at the seaside had lost its appeal for me so I would head off into the sand dunes with my tinny little transistor radio [made in Russia!] 

On a Sunday afternoon, the BBC Light Programme would  present “Pick of the Pops’ – a countdown of the current chart hits. In the summer of 1964 the classic hits were coming thick and fast,  but the one that really stands out was the utterly extraordinary “House of the Rising Sun” by The Animals. The guitar intro and the organ solo were superb, underpinning a standout vocal delivery from Eric Burdon who was blessed with a rich and powerful voice combining a USA twang with more than a hint of Tyneside. 

Sitting in the sand dunes on the Solway coast I was transported into another world – and the memory of that day stays fresh and vibrant. It was probably a life changing few minutes of listening….

The beach at Allonby is quiet and windswept – a place of solitude ideally suited to contemplation and reflection. Some might consider it bleak, but the the views over the Solway towards Scotland can be breathtaking  in the late afternoon/evening sun.

Lots of images,thoughts and reflections here to explore through music – listen out for “Allonby” on my next CD “Spots of Time”.

The Lockdown Diaries – chapter one

All this extra time on my hands is giving me some space to step back and reflect on music-making over the past few years. An occasional series …

Recently, I find myself being drawn more towards artists studies and preliminary sketches rather than the finished works. Artists such as Constable, Turner and Ruskin. Why?  I think it’s because in these first drafts you can see what was really important to the artists – which features they thought were specifically of interest and worth exploring through painting and drawing. 

In turn, these help us to see landscapes and other scenes with a fresh outlook. Sights which could seem ordinary and non-descript take on a new meaning. As a child living in Cumbria, a stormy day for me meant staying indoors and curling up with a good book. But artists can see the beauty on days like these and celebrate them through words and pictures. For example, there is a sketch in the Wordsworth Museum in Grasmere which Constable makes of a stormy day during a visit to this region:

“cross hatches soaking, shading, 

Scribbling, thickening, darkened

With charcoal, weight of wet earth …”

This gives me all I need to explore these scenes through music making – an example of how lived experience and an understanding through art can provide a rich stimulus. I recorded this track titled “A Sketch” on my album “Days of Sun and Days of Rain” – available on Spotify, iTunes, Amazon if you are interested! 

One more cup of coffee …

I know what TS Eliot means when he says he has measured out his life in coffee spoons. In my case it has always been about the mug rather than the spoon.

Thirty years ago, I bought a bone china coffee mug from a stall in Newgate Market in York and have used it, on more or less a daily basis, since then for my routine morning coffee fix. It has become an essential precursor to any important piece of writing or thinking that needs to be done. Obviously it is really the caffeine that works its magic, but the mug is an important part of the ritual.  It is simple, graceful and elegant. A faithful companion, it always helps to set the right mood. At least, it did until now. The handle has been creaking ominously for weeks and eventually the inevitable happened – handle became detached from mug . So I was not even aware that the previous day had been my final day of drinking coffee from this treasured receptacle. I was denied that final farewell. 

Yes, I’ve glued the handle back on and I could continue to use it, but there would always be a tension. If it were to become unstuck when full of coffee the consequences could be dire …

So if any of you come across a “Jason” coffee mug with (pictures of harebells on the outside), when we can eventually get back to browsing in markets, please spare me a thought. 

Postscript for Dave Gregory

Like many of you at the moment, I have more time on my hands than I might have anticipated. Obviously, I’m using much of the time for music making, and  I am fortunate to have a small studio space and a small amount of reasonably good quality equipment which allows me to write, record and distribute much of my music. 

But the current lockdown is also giving me ample time to pause and reflect on all manner of things. I remember reading somewhere that people who are really creative and imaginative do not necessarily require huge amounts of state of the art equipment and glamorous working environments. Great work can be produced with basic equipment in humble surroundings. Dave Gregory’s guitar making is a prime example of this principle. From a small terraced house in York, he made so many beautiful musical instruments, including a couple which I have the privilege of owning.  

His notebooks show that he had the skills to make ornate and elaborate instruments to commission, but he could also make guitars where simplicity and elegance are hallmarks of design.

The electric guitar shown here is a case in point. I use this on nearly all of my recordings. The range and quality of sounds are staggeringly good – it is always a joy to play. 

Dave unfortunately died way too early in 2016 – but his legacy lives on through his instruments. The Gregory guitars we brought together for his memorial service made for one of the most breathtaking displays of craftsmanship I am ever likely to witness.  

But it is when we play his instruments and release these wonderful sounds that his real legacy lives on. He put his heart and soul into making each and every one of his instruments and I believe his spirit lives on through the sounds we make. 

By way of appreciation, I wrote and recorded Postscript for Dave Gregory – a duet  played with bass player Dave Scarth, who also plays a Gregory guitar. This has proved to be one of the most popular tracks from my “Confirmation” album.  You can hear it on Soundcloud below. If you would like a complimentary  mp3 of this song for your collection, simply message me using the “Contact Me” from the drop down menu at the top of this page and enter the code ‘PS for DG’ in the comments box.