Soundscapes of Isolation

The mid-2000's were not happy times for me. I was working my way through a deep depression, my marriage was coming apart and my professional career had come completely off the rails. I was still living at the marital home but only as a temporary measure, I knew I'd have to move out when my ex-wife (who's house it now was) returned at a currently undefined point in the future. My programming job had come to an end and there didn't seem to be any more remote working available (I was living in northern Scotland, not a hub of IT work) so I was currently an Administrative assistant at the local college, part time on minimum wage. I was still functioning fairly well in my local community but a lot of this was down to following routine and maintaining a convincing facade of normalcy. The few pictures I have from this time show me peering out from behind a thick, increasingly untended beard and I was spending more & more time alone at home.

A lot of that time was spent noodling around on the guitar - playing for my own amusement with no specific aim or intention. I'd arrived at Findhorn as an occasional bass player but the scarcity of musicians in the area had encouraged me to brush up on my rusty & rudimentary guitar skills. While I was still working at my well paid computing job I was reasonably flush with cash and had treated myself to a rather nice electric guitar - a secondhand Guild Bluesbird. This was a much better instrument than my abilities warranted but I'm a great believer in buying the best 'tools' that I can afford and it was such a gorgeous object in its own right that I snapped it up straight away.

While searching for instruments I'd spent many hours wandering through the Earth-spanning virtual car boot sale that is eBay. In particular I'd found a vast selection of old, odd & (presumably) no longer fashionable effects pedals going for a song (plus postage) and soon my home office was filled with brightly coloured (if often somewhat faded) metal boxes with a vermicelli of wires weaving between them. A splendid cacophony of noise could be teased out of these diverse devices and I would often while away the time in my own little sea of discordancy.

As the sounds I was creating became wilder & stranger I began to use a delay pedal to keep them echoing and repeating, holding on to them so I could relish their subtleties and see how they blended & clashed with notes overlaid on them. At some deep, inner level I suspect I was exploring the strange alchemy of mixing these different sonic textures, there was a method to my madness but it was more personal & impulsive than methodical & scientific.

Slowly a new style started to emerge. I would use a volume pedal to fade notes in with a long, repetitive echo setting that would preserve them for many, many seconds, slowly becoming muffled and fading away. A slow 'swell' would cause the note to gently fade in and hang there while a slightly faster one would cause gentle pulses of sound that would bounce around each other. My collection of effects pedals provided a huge palette of sounds - shimmering phasers & choruses, harsh fuzzes, unearthly harmonisers, thunderous octaviders and many, many more. An extra spatial element was introduced when I added a panning unit that caused the notes to move around in the stereo field.

Musically I was becoming more inventive too. From strings of single notes I'd moved on to (more or less) harmonising pairs and then to full chords. The underlying musical elements were still very simple - with lots of notes being held it was all to easy to descend into formless noise - but the timbres and textures were rich and full. And slowly I began to organise these disparate phrases and sounds into definite structures, moving from one to another, reprising 'themes' and even exploring variations and key progressions. It wasn't Beethoven but from my 'pick it up as you go along' musical education it might as well have been.

A few visiting friends were treated to short excerpts from my developing compositions, in virtually all cases the reaction was vague bemusement. It wasn't that what I was doing was good or bad, more that it was so far outside their musical experiences that they couldn't relate to it at all. I must admit to being a little disappointed but I do have a history of 'unusual' in my tastes and I resigned myself to playing alone. Or at least part of me did - deep inside there was a feeling that this was something special and I needed to share it with people.

And then the opportunity arose. Every so often there would be a sharing in the Universal Hall, an opportunity for people to sing, recite, act, play or perform in some way for the rest of the community. Usually these would be general variety shows loosely tied in to an event or occasion - the end of a conference or someone's significant birthday - but this one had an overall theme, intended to bind the various pieces together into more of a whole. Sadly the passing of time has dulled my memory so that I'm not sure if it was The Dark or The Night but either way it seemed to suit what I was doing and I signed up for a slot.

To prepare for this public unveiling I honed down my current piece to something (relatively) short and contained. Under the stern and unyielding eye of a stopwatch I edited, trimmed, refined & rehearsed until I had something that I could reliably perform in around four minutes, long enough to have a definite structure and to gently ease the audience into my strange new music but trying not to overstay my welcome. I rationalised the pedals into just the ones I needed for this piece and arranged them on a small mat so I could quickly set up on stage and swiftly escape afterwards, then rehearsed the whole set up/play/pack up sequence until I felt confident. Curiously the playing was the easiest part, the piece seemed set in my mind to the point that part of me could 'step back' and listen while another part engaged with the musical & technical demands of performing it. Quite a strange feeling.

The performance itself went surprisingly smoothly. I was (as usually happens when I'm in front of an audience) filled with anxious adrenaline at the start but my set up routine gave me something to concentrate on - arrange the pedals, check the settings (again!), give a nod to the sound desk - and I let myself relax as I waited for quiet before beginning. Then I hit the first note, swelled it in until it rung around the hall, and I was away.

This type of music presented all sorts of performance challenges. Anything I played would keep echoing around for a long time but if I didn't play anything that silence would also remain, thinning out the overall effect. I had a pretty good idea how the various pedals & combinations would change the sound but until I faded them in I didn't know what the exact outcome would be - a faintly singing extra string could have a dramatic effect on the final tone. At times it felt like a Red Queen's Race, desperately running onwards to try and stay in the same place. I entered a state of furious mental activity as I juggled the immediate, effective and overall timeframes but this seemed to be (mostly) handled by my subconscious - another part of me bathed in the abstract waves of sound swirling around the hall.

There was mild applause at the end and a wide range of reactions afterwards. Most people expressed the sort of polite puzzlement that I'd heard when giving short excerpts to friends, it was 'nice' and often 'interesting' but rarely more than that. A few were quite negative about it, saying it was boring, dreary or (from a fellow musician) 'pointless', which gave me something to think about. But there were a few who seemed genuinely moved by the experience and for a few days afterwards a steady stream of friends & strangers would approach me in the street to say how much they'd enjoyed it. Although 'enjoyed' might not be the right word, the way they spoke about the piece was more like recollections of a shared experience than any sort of critical or complimentary assessment.

This feedback was far more fulfilling to me than fulsome praise (especially as I was usually getting some praise mixed in with it). I'd created something that seemed to come from somewhere deep and fundamental to my being, shared it with the world and had found an empathic connection with fellow beings. True, it was a very small subset of the whole audience but in some ways that made it even more precious - unsweetened with conventional niceties or established patterns but still effective. And I'd long been accustomed to my tastes being on the fringes of society. I'd revealed something special about myself and had not only survived but had been celebrated - just what my fragile sense of self was desperate for. I'd leapt into the abyss and found I could fly.

Not long after my first performance another opportunity presented itself. A member of the community had died suddenly and a sharing was organised in his memory, he wasn't a particularly close friend but the emotional connection made me to want to contribute something. The drifting, introspective nature of my new form seemed well suited to a funereal event and I started working on something that would express my feelings about Andrew's death.

As I started to play around with ideas a new structure started to emerge almost immediately. Starting with single notes in a minor key it went through various permutations before ending up with ethereal chords in the relative major, giving a sense of lonely isolation resolving into harmony (at least to my ears). This transition was particularly fascinating to me as a minor key and its relative major contain exactly the same notes, it's the way they are approached (or presented) that invoke the different perceptions & responses.

This idea emerged in parallel with the music and I wasn't able to tell if I was 'translating' from concept to sounds or vice-versa, which was the chicken and which the egg? As with the earlier piece it seemed to arrive in my mind from some other place as if I was discovering it rather than creating it. It didn't present itself as a finished work, there was a good deal of rearranging & refining before I was happy with the final product but the 'raw material' came quickly, easily and bounteously. I thought of the process as a collaboration with myself, conscious & subconscious each working to their respective strengths.

My piece had been scheduled towards the start of the sharing, I suspect because the organisers didn't know quite what to make of it. I'd planned to say a few words at the start but the nervous anxiety overcame me and once again I merely waited for quiet before immersing myself in the familiar security of my craft. As the first notes shimmered in the air I launched myself into riding this strange creative process through to the end.

The performance ended in a silence that stretched on and on before the compere gracefully stepped in to introduce the next item. I was delighted by this, it was impossible to tell whether people were entranced, bored or bewildered but my feeling was that the atmosphere I'd evoked had lingered on after the playing had stopped. Once again the next few days saw a small progression of people thanking me for the piece and trying to put their experience into words, very satisfying & surprisingly fulfilling.

Almost immediately I started on another piece. Without the constraints of a specific event or occasion to work into it grew in leaps and bounds, more and more sections with a wider selection of sounds, textures and moods. My setup swelled to include nine different effects pedals with increasingly intricate wiring and switching between them. As the length & complexity increased I found I couldn't keep it all in my head anymore and scribbled descriptions were slowly condensed into my version of a score - a list of one-word titles for the various parts with effects switching reminders alongside them. For the first time I was able to work on a single part in isolation although once I started I was still caught up in the relentless mechanistic demands of the form.

While working on it the name Lifeline came to me, the first time I'd thought of naming one of these creations. I liked the dual meanings in the name - the track of your life's path from palmistry, a last-gasp survival aid in the vernacular.

As the piece grew longer & more intricate I started to wonder how I going to perform it? The technical aspects were (mostly) under control but at half an hour (and counting) it was now far too long to add to a sharing. Besides which I'd established that my drifting soundscapes were definitely a minority appeal - an unsuspecting audience might sit politely through five minutes but beyond that would be a bit much to ask. As I tried to think of a way to stage Lifeline I started to question the piece itself - it felt like a marvellous creation to me but might I have taken it too far to be accessible? After bouncing the questions around in my head for a while I realised I had no objectivity about it and would need to get outside opinions, so I put a small notice in the community newsletter (paraphrased from memory):

Dear friends, I have written a musical piece but I can't tell if it's a work of genius or a hopeless piece of self-indulgence. Would anybody be willing to come to a home performance to give me their feedback? The piece lasts about 40 minutes.

On the evening specified two people turned up - one an old friend, the other a relative newcomer to the community who'd I'd met just a couple of times before. I explained the general form of the piece, let them settle down, then picked up the guitar, tapped to set up the effects selection for the first part, and started.

As the notes started to wash around my living room my small audience closed their eyes and sunk into the chairs while I entered the altered mental state required to play the piece. I was a little more conscious of it this time around, listening to the ever-changing wash of sound as I added each note or chord and aware of where I wanted it to go but still keeping the immediate mechanics of playing at an instinctive level. For most of the parts I knew how they would begin, what phrases or sounds they would contain and how they would end or transition out but within that skeletal framework the playing was predominantly improvised, following my fancy and reacting to the resulting sounds.

After the last notes faded away to nothingness my two listeners slowly opened their eyes and sat up, making their own gradual transition back into normal time. Their reactions were positive if a little unfocused, a bit like coming out of a performance art event where you know you've had a new experience but haven't quite worked out whether you 'liked' it or not. Which, to be honest, was what I was hoping for.

It seemed like the piece was ready for a full public performance and I began to plan how and when this should happen. The Universal Hall was the ideal venue with its five-sided shape and odd acoustics adding to the swirling sounds and as a long-standing community member who'd done lots of work in and for the Hall I was well placed to find a little corner of the calendar to squeeze into. I continued refining my set up with more acquisitions from eBay, mostly to control the switching so there was less of a fuss going between different sounds. This would be a polished & professional event.

But as I was preparing for all this I became aware that the inner impetus to play it was dwindling away. When I ran through it at home it was still 'nice' but it was as if I was repeating it from memory rather than being right in there in the maelstrom of immediacy & creativity. It wasn't that I was fearful of presenting it - something I've suffered from in the past - but it had become a thing to show off rather than a process that I could invite people to share in. As I thought back I realised that the first two pieces had vanished from my memory and I could recall virtually nothing about them, a few keys & chords but not nearly enough to think of trying to play them again. It was as if each piece could be played just once 'for real' and would then self-erase from my memory.

Looking back it's as if these performances were part of my subconscious mind's attempt to get me out of the hopeless situation I seemed to have led myself into. So much of my life seemed to involve presenting a facade to the world and doing what was expected of me that I felt I'd boxed myself into a tiny space that was suffocating & crushing the essential 'me'. (I hasten to add that this was predominantly self-inflicted, the tyrannical judge was on the inside not the outside). Playing the soundscapes gave me practice in listening to what was going on, taking action on a more instinctive level and seeing how these actions created my future setting - all of which had very obvious parallels in how I could change the way I was living my life. As I moved from one piece to the next my conscious became more involved and these new skills became part of me rather than strange behaviour that I couldn't explain. And, perhaps, once this learning process was complete its work was done and it could be discarded. I still set up a few pedals and lose myself in waves of sound once in a while but it's become an occasional indulgence rather than a defining part of my creativity.

None of the performances were recorded, which seems appropriate to their transient nature. Or so I thought, until I unearthed an old home-cut CD while preparing to move house. While I was working on Lifeline and wondering how I could present it I talked with a dancer about collaborating on a performance - this wouldn't be a choreography as such (there were too many variables in the playing), she would 'interpret' the sounds with a similar level of improvisation to my own. To give her an idea of what she'd be working with I plugged my set up into a recorder and played it through, burning the resulting one-take track onto a CD for her to listen to. The collaboration never came about and the disk stayed in the back of a drawer until it came to light many, many years later.

Listening to it again brings back lots of memories. The flaws are immediately apparent - the recording quality is pretty poor, the levels are inconsistent and I'd continued to refine the piece after this run through so some parts are too long, some incomplete, and some just not quite right. But despite all this it still has a fragile beauty and as I listen I get glimpses into how I was feeling and what I was going through back then. The music is filled with loneliness & isolation but there's a sense of wonder throughout and, as it progresses, a feeling of acceptance & peace.

At least to my ears. If you'd like to listen for yourself I've uploaded it to my recordings page.