Saturday, 31 December 2016

Sound, Vision, Inspiration

As 2016 draws to a close, many of us have been reflecting on the loss of so many cultural icons and artists this year, which doesn't seem to be letting up, with the untimely losses of Carrie Fisher and George Michael over the Christmas period. 

I spent most of the year trying to comprehend the loss of David Bowie, almost a year ago. As I have mentioned countless times, Bowie's work has been a huge inspiration to both my own artwork and music, as well as being a soundtrack to life. 

This led to me reflecting on my own personal journey of discovering Bowie's music and how it became such a rich source of inspiration, going way beyond just being music. 

I started to write down my various memories, from hearing his music for the first time as a child, to seeing the man in concert. Before I knew it, I had a form of memoir in the making. My wife encouraged me to self publish the work, since it was something - despite being a personal recollection - that other fans would relate to. 

Collating all these memories and experiences certainly did help me to process the loss of such an iconic and influential artist, and made me realise just what an impact Bowie's music has had on all aspects of life. 

Sound, Vision, Inspiration: How the music of David Bowie became a soundtrack to life is available now from Amazon as an ebook.

Sunday, 4 December 2016

Taking in Oxygene

I first heard Jean-Michel Jarre’s Oxygene album as a child, in the early 1980s. I was perhaps four or five years old, and I had never heard music like it before.

It was the record that my father was playing. I remember asking my dad what the music was, and his reply was: “Oxygene”. Like many, I would mis-pronounce it as “Oxy-gene” for a long time – it took many years until I realised that the title was in fact, simply the French spelling of oxygen. The realisation that this music came from another country, made it all seem even more enchanting and exotic.

But back then, I remember being utterly entranced by the sound of the album – I couldn’t hear any recognisable instruments… to me it sounded organic, more like some kind of naturally grown sound that was emitting from the stereo.

However, this wasn’t just music – it was something much more sensory. My young artistic imagination was already hard at work – Oxygene part 4 transported me into the sky among the clouds; Oxygene part 3 sent me to a vast snowy expanse with a glaring winter sun, and most significantly of all, Oxygene part 2 propelled me out into space.

At home, I was surrounded with books of space imagery and science fiction art, and from a young age, I was addicted to Doctor Who. I obviously made a connection between the electronic sound of Oxygene and the iconic Doctor Who theme music. Watching Peter Davison running around battling aliens, saving the Earth and traveling to other worlds felt like the right match for this kind of music.

However there was one particular piece of artwork, which hung on the wall at home, that for me, was the perfect fit with Oxygene, and that was a large framed print of British space artist David A. Hardy’s Stellar Radiance. This painting was my window into another world, with its rocky alien terrain and huge burning sun. The warmth and atmosphere that I felt radiating out of the painting perfectly matched the sound of Oxygene and in my young mind, the two became inseparable.

Looking back, it is no surprise that I became obsessed with science fiction, space and electronic music – and it is this which led to me creating both my own science fiction artwork and composing my own instrumental electronic music.

In the last ten years, I even became close friends with David A. Hardy, who is still creating astounding and inspiring artwork – and in our small world, both Hardy and Jarre knew Arthur C. Clarke – my favourite SF author. So I found it very rewarding that both science fiction and art led me back to Oxygene.

It was actually a long time until I rediscovered Oxygene. In the mid-1990s, as a student with no money, I picked up a second hand copy of the album on vinyl. By that point my musical tastes had defined themselves and I knew it was time to reconnect with the album. I seem to recall that this was the first time I had heard parts 5 and 6 in full, and also the first time I had seen Michel Granger’s haunting cover artwork. It was then that I realised it was not an album about space at all, but about the environment and the Earth.

Everything about the album still fascinated me, right down to the tracks not having individual names, but simply part numbers. This transcended music – it was more like an ever-evolving abstract painting that you could hear. And all those years later, it still instantly took me to another place and state of mind.

My rediscovery of Oxygene was perfectly timed, as the following year, Jarre released the sequel, Oxygene 7–13, which proved to be the catalyst for my discovery of and obsession with all of his music. I remember seeing the promotional video for the Oxygene 10 single on TV and it sounded fantastic – modern, yet still distinctly part of the same soundscape.

Oxygene 7–13 was the first thing I bought with my very first paycheque after starting my first job at a local newspaper, in September 1997. I still remember getting home and putting the CD on for the first time and being blown away. That album became the soundtrack to that point in my life, and very soon I found myself discovering the rest of Jarre’s music. Oxygene 7–13 was not any kind of remake or reimagining, but a continuation of the first album, but also it felt like returning to a special place that you haven’t been to in a long time, and seeing what has changed.

Several years later, I would find myself in the suburbs of Paris, regularly visiting the woman who would become my wife. On many occasions in France, I found myself tracing Jarre’s footsteps, visiting the neighbouring towns of Croissy-sur-Seine and Bougival as well as the Eiffel Tower and the futuristic-looking complex of La Défense – two locations where Jarre had held record-breaking concerts. My time in Paris only cemented my admiration of Jarre’s music, and also brought me closer to it.

I started creating my own music in 2006 – and the influence of Oxygene is never far behind. As an artist, I find making music no different to painting; one uses sounds, the other uses colours. So it didn’t matter than I had never had a music lesson in my life – this was more about sculpting a soundscape that could transport the listener to another place or be completely open to interpretation.

One special event for me was the chance to see Jean-Michel Jarre in concert, when he performed the entire Oxygene album live for it’s 30th anniversary in 2008. Jarre’s show at the Royal Albert Hall was one of the most memorable and personally moving shows I have experienced – to hear the album performed in full alongside tracks from Oxygene 7–13 was very special indeed.

Fast forward to 2016, and the welcome surprise of Oxygene 3 – the final part of the trilogy. After a year of so many sad and depressing things from the loss of cultural icons to harrowing terrorist attacks, it is the small pleasures in life that we appreciate more. Music heals, it brings people together, it lifts moods and it makes you think. And in the case of Jarre’s music, it is a constant source of inspiration.

I was left incredibly moved by the first listen of the new album, but after just a couple of days, it’s much too soon for me to delve deeper into it – there is so much to explore. But even after only a few listens, there is no denying this new masterwork, and an album more than worthy of sitting alongside its predecessors.

All three Oxygene albums have a timeless quality to them, and a highly engrossing, organic sound. When you consider every sound on these albums came from cold, hard machines, one can only applaud Jarre’s intricate genius of producing such emotive music. Oxygene has always been a sensory experience, transporting you through a whole spectrum of moods and emotions, through hot and cold, dark and light.

This is the kind of music that makes you feel grateful to be alive and to be able to enjoy our planet with its stunning skies and wonderful landscapes. In many ways, Oxygene somehow manages to bring you closer to that sense of appreciation, from the wonders of nature to the simple ability to take in a breath of fresh air. And yet with it, we are also taken right back to the original album’s environmental warning, reinforced by the slow, burning scream that we hear on Oxygene part 20 – at the very end of the series.

So what does Oxygene mean to me? All of the above, and much more. It feels very personal; it is music I have grown up with, and that has shaped my own creative decisions – it is music I cannot be without. Sometimes Oxygene will take me right back to childhood; other times it feels forward thinking and music to intensely enjoy at 38, just as much as I did when I first heard it. Granted, this style of music takes a certain taste or frame of mind to fully appreciate. And nor are these throwaway “pop” albums; you cannot be content with just the one track in your collection (such as how Oxygene part 4 turns up on endless “chillout” compilation albums). These are not albums to be played passively. No, this music has to be listened to with dedication and experienced as a whole – an epic, flowing soundscape to explore and become utterly absorbed in.

To each and every fan, the album (and indeed the whole Oxygene series) means something different – yet we all share the same admiration for it. I’m grateful to have been able to enjoy it and share in its journey.

Merci, Jean-Michel.


Monday, 15 August 2016

An itch that must be scratched...

This month, it is four years since I completed work on my album Inferno. And more significantly, four years since I signed up to the Bandcamp platform to test the water and have a go at selling my music online.

Four years and fifteen more albums later, I'm still there! I'm aware that having released fifteen albums in such a short space of time is quite an undertaking – but to me, making music is like painting - and when the ideas flow, you just have to go with it. However being an unsigned, independent artist leaves me free to self-publish my albums as soon as I feel they're ready. Granted, they don't go through a professional mixing and mastering process – as much as I'd love to do that, as a cottage industry if you like, I simply put out the best mixed/produced piece of work I can at the time – and for me, that is one of the advantages and appealing things about working so independently.

I have been making music under the name of The Light Dreams since 2006, but while I made several demo albums in those early years, it was all a very steep learning curve – and demo albums was what they were; rough and raw.

I found my direction with Into the Light in 2007 and eventually worked my way to the darker, more industrial-driven Mechanical Drive in 2009, but by the time I'd finished that project, I was burned out musically, and this was also around the same time I was rediscovering my love of art, and beginning to produce my own digital artwork, which eventually took priority.

But as any creative person will tell you, creativity in whatever form is like an itch that just MUST be scratched! Three years passed, during which time I was more than happy to work on my art and build my portfolio. But in the Spring of 2012, that musical urge was edging its way back.

I thought I'd made the best album I could with Mechanical Drive in 2009, so back then I drew a line under that, even removing all those rough demos and album ideas that I had posted online. Perhaps the novelty had worn off, and I'll be the first to admit that I simply had little confidence in my abilities. I concluded music would just remain an occasional private hobby. However, in those intervening years, something had changed, and suddenly I felt that I had something to say again musically – and with new software and a new keyboard, I started work on some new demo ideas.

But rather than feeling rusty and devoid of ideas, all the inspiration I had soaked up in my three-year gap was ripe and just bursting to come back out, and before long, Inferno was in the making. Making music was just as exciting as painting – I often compare the two because for me, it is a very similar process. However I seemed to have improved somehow, despite never having had any musical training.

I was so fired up with what I was producing that I thought to myself, "If I like it, then maybe other people will do too..." so I set about looking for a platform where I could self-publish my music without upload fees and other things that emptied your pockets before you'd even earned a penny.

This was going to simply be a success or failure experiment, and I was ready for either outcome, with nothing to lose. Bandcamp was the right platform for me, so in August 2012, Inferno, my first official release went online – and to my utmost amazement, people bought it. People who I didn't know, either!

As an unknown, unsigned artist, one cannot expect vast amounts of sales, but they slowly tricked through – and that is all it took to give me the motivation to keep making music. In fact, Inferno actually remains my best second best-selling album on Bandcamp after 2014's Traces.

However, still riding on my newfound wave of musical momentum, almost immediately after completing Inferno, I revisited both Mechanical Drive and Into the Light, remixing both albums and improving the production, and making both albums ready to add to Bandcamp. I actually did more than just remix Into the Light – I added new parts or re-played sections that didn't sound very good on the original, finally allowing that particular album (which is very close to me) to reach its full potential.

2012 was also the year when I was invited to join the Initiative for Interstellar Studies as an honorary musician and artist. It was more than just encouraging to be invited to join such an exciting organisation – for them to have faith in my amateur musical endeavours it was inspiration itself, and that gave me the drive to make the best possible music I could make and with each release, strive to progress my abilities and expand the musical landscape that I've been gradually creating.

It has been a fun journey so far - but I couldn't have done it without an audience, no matter how big or small. Anybody who has even bought just one album download has contributed to that motivation and encouragement.

I guess the lesson here is, not to be afraid to share your work, even if you don't feel completely confident in it. What's the point in making something if others don't get to see or hear it?

Friday, 29 July 2016

We Have Lost The President

When author Paul Mathews approached me about illustrating the cover for his futuristic comedy, We Have Lost the President, I knew this would be a project that would not only pose new challenges but also be something very different to what I’ve done before.

The starting point was “Auto-Tech” robot, Brian, who despite only playing a minor role on the story, would be very present on the website and in the promotion of the ebook, so a design was needed for Brian, who was Paul described as being “like a dustbin”.

Having produced a few concept sketches for Brian, we agreed on a design, which I then took forward, knowing Brian would feature on the cover itself.

I produced various cover concepts, which included a headless president’s suit and various scenes of Buckingham Palace, which plays an important part of the story. 

However, we eventually settled on a view of an empty President’s office, being frantically searched.

For the final version, the character in the foreground was changed to a woman, but otherwise the composition of the piece remained close to my concept sketch, with added elements of stacks of paper, and the objects on the desk, which included a slightly comedic cactus, to inject a little humour into the already chaotic scene.

With the cover art complete, the next step was to bring it all to life with an animated trailer for the book. This was also an opportunity to emphasise the humour and originality of the story.

We Have Lost The President by Paul Mathews is available now as an ebook, from Amazon.

Tuesday, 26 July 2016

Music in colour

I’ve been intending to make a more ambient album for some time. While working on another music project recently, I started thinking about how nature evolves, preserves, protects and destroys, and what kind of music could work with that concept. And right there, I had the starting point for a new album project.

Firstly, I set myself some specific restrictions in which to work – no drums or percussion, no crazy bass lines and distinctive lead riffs. I wanted to make something expansive and flowing, with an organic feel to it. Something more exposed, raw and spontaneous.

Our emotions often feel at one and in-tune with the natural world around us, so I wanted to make something that might feel right to listen to when out walking through woodlands or countryside, just as much as it may be something more personal and reflective – and reflection is something we do more easily when we have that natural open space just to ourselves; those moments where we can experience a calm sense of time passing and be at one with our thoughts and memories.

I felt it was imperative to find specific sounds that added different textures to the music, such as you would find in nature – warm, cold, wet, dry, smooth or coarse.

I had been discussing the project with my friend Richard Hayes, who was again tasked with writing an introduction for the album. And during our exchange of emails, the phrase that became the album’s title happened to appear – Remnants From A Lost Time.

However, one of the main influences behind this project was synaesthesia. My synaesthesia has become a crucial part of my creative process, whether I'm creating art or music, although it is perhaps more profound when working on music.

When I'm composing something – which is usually improvised – I think in colours and textures. I might want a "blue" sound or a "yellow" tone, or something that sounds – or feels – like gravel os cool marble. This whole menagerie of colours, forms and textures plays out in my mind, and while it is unlikely to be evident to most of my listeners, for me, that association between sound and colour is a vital part of the process.

I wanted to work with green sounds and earthy textures, to match the natural environment which underpinned the album concept that was also inspiring the music.

With that in mind, for the album artwork, I set about painting some abstract art whilst listening to my own work-in-progress, which resulted in a series of pieces, which ultimately became the cover art.

Remnants From A Lost Time is available now via Bandcamp.

Monday, 28 March 2016

Music for the stars

I have associated a certain type of music with visions of space and other planets since I was a child. This is what led to me creating my own instrumental electronic music, despite having little in the way of formal training.

An artist at heart, when I first started experimenting with music a decade ago, I soon realised that for me, it was the same as painting – only using sounds instead of colours. But as a synesthete, for me, the sounds I use do have colours and textures. Of course, a degree of technical knowledge is required, as well as a basic musical understanding, but to me, making music feels very much like the same creative process, only with a different medium and result.

In 2012 when I was invited to become first Honorary Musician for the Initiative for Interstellar Studies (i4is), I jumped to the opportunity to be a part of an exciting new organisation with such a passionate and ambitious vision. To be able to promote such a forward thinking vision through my music was the ideal project brief.

To date, I have released four albums in support of i4is:

An album based around different visions of the future, from utopias to dystopias, deep space travel and a climate-changed Earth. This was very much an album inspired by classic SF writing such as Arthur C. Clarke, etc. I revisited the album creating the Redux version that was entirely symphonic.

This album was designed to tie-in with the Initiative’s book of the same name (to which I also contributed a chapter). I have always wanted to make a space travel concept album, and this is it; starting with the mission launch and culminating in a journey into the unknown.

If Beyond the Boundary was the journey, then this is the destination. Panorama is music for cinematic vistas and the exploration of alien landscapes. The subtle concept at the core of the album was the discovery of an Earth-like planet.

But how do you make “space music”?

The kind of music that evokes visions of space for me, may not do so for everyone. If you’re not keen on electronic music, then my stuff maybe isn’t for you. But if you’re keen to put styles and genres aside, then the music – being instrumental – should be totally open to interpretation. Granted, I present the albums with an initial concept, but once it is out there, the listener can take it as they wish. 

I’ve always been inspired by space art – hence becoming an artist myself. The work of artists such as David A. Hardy, John Berkey, John Harris, Chris Moore, Chris Foss and Tim White are some of my favourites. Their work takes you to places… the kind of pieces that make you want to step inside the frame and explore. This particular generation of artists have produced incredibly prophetic and visionary pieces, which still resonate and inspire today, and I always look to this work for inspiration – musically and artistically.

And I’m sure my version of synaesthesia helps me decide what sounds to choose; what colours they evoke in my mind, as I’m building up my soundscapes. And in the case of the albums I have produced for i4is, then I’ll look to their own mission statement.

I try to imagine the sights you might see on such a mission and the range of emotions experienced at gazing upon something you’ve never seen or even been able to conceive seeing before. This kind of feeling was particularly well presented in Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar – that moment when we first lay eyes on the black hole Gargantua.

Another inspiration is how we’ve recently been able to see the surfaces of Mars and Pluto in vivid detail like never before. This sort of thing leads to me exploring various sounds and atmospheres, and seeing what seems to match whatever I’m looking at. It feels very much like creating a soundtrack in that respect.

But it also needs to play like an album of music to be enjoyed, concept aside. So the real challenge is trying to make something that is heavily atmospheric and thought provoking, at the same time as having some sort of musical integrity. And in the case of the above albums, they need to be worthy of their particular audience’s attention.

So with each album comes a new challenge, and also during each project, new things are learned and discovered. With every album I’ve produced, there’s always a sense of progression, whether musically or technically. So with that thought in mind, I very much look forward to starting work on the next album of interstellar music for i4is

All of the albums mentioned in this blog (and many more) can be streamed and purchased (in digital format) from my Bandcamp site.