All posts by Stuart

Experimental V – music with or without an audience

I have mentioned before on this blog that I am a huge fan of the work of David Sylvian and Richard Skelton. An initial google might lead you to think that these two have very little in common. Sylvian began his career in the last 70s and early 80s with Japan, a band that trod the New Romantic route even if that isn’t what they wanted to be called. He broke the band up just as they were becoming popular – and then set off on an eclectic solo career working with an incredibly wide range of musicians from the worlds of jazz, ambient, classical, avant-garde and modern music. His recent albums have been either entirely instrumental musical pieces for art installations or spoken word pieces with found sound backgrounds. All very obscure and truly beautiful (if you like that kind of thing, of course!)

Richard Skelton – Limnology

Meanwhile, Richard Skelton’s music uses drones and found sounds – hence, the connection with the work of Sylvian. In contrast, Skelton’s work has a singular vision – it is incredibly distinctive. His early work was in very limited editions, often with leaves of pieces of bark included to make the work unique. Skelton is a writer as well as a musician. His writing is also very focused – often drawing on the landscape around him – often poetic. His work is impressive for its purity of vision.

Another similarity between these two artists is the way in which they create music – or art – with a singular vision. One has the clear sense that they are creating what they want to because they are driven by a purpose from within. They are not playing to an audience at all. This driving sense of the need to create is at the heart of the experimental. It’s what often makes the product of experimenters hard to understand at first. Their outputs require effort, patience and a willingness on the part of the audience to suspend judgement whilst trying to understand what is going on.

And sometimes the work of the experimenter goes beyond rational understanding. Thus, Sylvian’s albums “When Loud Weather Buffeted Naoshima” which seems to be set in a stark and bleak landscape with strange falsetto voices (Arve Henriksen) and weather creaking and howling – is at times harrowing and at others beautiful. A more recent album, “there’s a light that enters houses with no other house in sight” takes the poetry of Franz Wright read by the poet, and drops it into a bleak soundscape that jars and resonates with the words.

It’s all powerful stuff – both musicians have created their own experimental worlds and developed them outwards to create their own musical vocabulary.

There is so much to inspire in what they do. At once I am inspired by their drive to experiment, and by the stripping away of anything familiar in a quest for the new and surprising. As often happens for me, this creates ideas in my head that jump out of music and into other media. And that is when experimental music is at its richest, its deepest and its most profound. Ah, wonderful!

Neil Young – the journey to wonder

For the past few months I have been writing the first draft of my next book. It’s called “The Journey to Wonder”. It’s about the people who have been a huge influence on my life, on how I think, how I work and what I produce. Here is the chapter about Neil Young:

The wild and curmudgeonly man that is Neil Young. This is the man who produces at least one album a year as he heads into his 70s. His music never rests – one minute he is championing high fidelity sound with a new streaming service, the next he is releasing an album recorded in an antique sound booth from the 1950s. Every turn is an exploration, everything he produces is another aspect of the creative flow of this unique talent.

Neil Young – I first heard him in the 1970s when a school friend brought in the double album gatefold sleeve compilation album “Decades”. I took it home and listened. At first I wasn’t sure about the voice, barely reaching the note and so fragile. It took me a while to see the uncompromising nature of his work. Songs of protest and songs of love. But when I did fathom it out, I became a massive fan. Over the years he has travelled the musical sound world. You always know it’s Neil Young because of that voice, but no two albums are the same. He also assembles and dissolves bands as he goes. It’s as though he gets a huge stimulation from working with others, but needs to keep control so he will switch from group to group, looking for something different in each space. Crazy Horse is one of the most famous bands he has put together, and yet still none of these groups transcend what Young brings himself. Going way back, his work with Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young (CSNY) was a step beyond the band with just the other three members. It was as though Young’s input brought a disruption to the harmony and created a tension that made for remarkable work. Neil Young really does understand, perhaps intuitively, the role of tension or disruption in creating great work. The challenge is always to maintain the tension so that it doesn’t destroy what is being created. That wasn’t always achieved with CSNY.

As well as releasing 37 studio albums at the last count, he has also released vast amounts of archive material and also produced a number of films, using the pseudonym Bernard Shakey. He has an obsessive interest in model trains and in cars. There is a childlike quality to Young that is both endearing and also perhaps the reason he is able to be so creative and restless in all that he does.

I also really love the way that he releases material. There are always really high standards in his work, but this is someone who has figured out how to keep the inner critic at bay. He gets on with it and produces material at a fearsome rate. And he has the ability to still write songs that sound like they should have been written long ago – they are so natural that I can’t believe that they didn’t exist before now. Perfect tunes and wonderful guitar work. It all fits together into someone who isn’t perfect, someone who is still so inspiring and thoroughly entertaining.

That work rate shows someone who does see the whole creative process as a discipline, something that requires us to settle to the work and get on with it. Each day, being productive – and pushing the work forwards. It’s now such an overstated thing, but still worth repeating: the muse doesn’t visit us so that we can sit down and write. It’s the other way round. We sit down to write regularly and the muse finds us because we are ready and in the process.

The passion in Neil Young comes from truly believing in the things he writes about. Whether it’s a love song, or a song of loss for the band member who died of heroin, there is a part of him in each song. When he chooses politics he may not sit on the correct side of the political fence all of the time as far as the fans are concerned, but he cares deeply about what he writes songs on. From an early song like “Ohio” about the Kent State Massacre, through to the deeply political later albums like “Living with War” and “The Monsanto Years” – Young makes it patently clear what he thinks. This passion shines through in his work.

On top of all this, the man has struggled throughout his life with epilepsy – and has three children, two sons with cerebral palsy and a daughter with epilepsy herself. He helped to found the Bridge School project for children with severe physical and verbal difficulties and supports an annual concert to raise funds for it.

It’s not difficult to see why Neil Young would be a source of inspiration. He has strongly held beliefs, works from a place of passion to create an ever evolving and expanding body of work.

Read anything you can get your hands on

Liverpool Central Libraries – The Atrium on Light Night 2017

Reading books, magazines, articles and blog posts across a truly diverse range of topics is a huge help to stimulate novel ideas. This is, I think, the heart of a creative approach.

To be stimulated to generate new ideas, we need to draw from a wide range of influences. To achieve this, we should always read in fields or disciplines that are not familiar to us. I often read books that stretch my thinking, with a limited understanding of the topic.

Does it matter that I don’t understand? I don’t think so. I remember, for example, reading “Small is Beautiful” by E F Schumacher and only having the slightest grasp of the economic theories he was describing. I pushed on through and finished the book because it opened up the world of new ecology thinking and a whole way of thinking that I knew very little about when I read it in the 1990s. It set me off in many new directions, reading Fritjof Capra, for example – who I wouldn’t otherwise have come across.

Stretching our understanding, being open to ideas and letting them in so that we can absorb them to grasp them at a later date – like mental gymnastics. It doesn’t just happen when we read. A few years ago I asked an old school friend of mine, now a university lecturer in Mathematics, to explain String Theory to me. His description was beautifully clear and concise. I think I understood the concepts there and then – for about an hour or so, then it faded. But the clarity at the time was stunning.

There is a thought with Buddhist teachings, that as we receive the transmission from a great teacher, even if we don’t understand what we are hearing at a conscious and logical level, there will still be a shift at a deeper lever. This is a great way of describing this phenomenon. It’s always worth keeping our minds open to ideas, no matter how far removed from our current thinking they are. An open mind is a rigorous mind!

Advice to my three sons – read anything you can get your hands on. Oh, but do bear in mind that we have limited time in our lives, so don’t waste it reading things that don’t stretch us and show us something new. See reading as a sense of constant wonder. And enjoy.

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Whilst you are here: have you seen my two books released this year?

Values Count is available from Amazon or directly from my website. It’s a book about values based approaches to work. Essential for anyone who wants to work with a strong sense of purpose.

Blue: Experiments in Sound is my latest collection of poetry with illustrations, the latest stories about Blue, the misanthropic 21st century man in search of a meaning. It is available in a limited edition from my website.

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Experimental IV – photos

In the last post I mentioned that I worked as a Community Artist in the 1980s. This involved teachings skills in photography as well as creative writing. It must be said that my photographic skills were pretty basic. This was in the days of rolls of film, black and white moody photos and dark rooms with chemicals for developing each photo.

The world of photography has changed so much. These days millions of photos are taken from our smart phones and shared online every day. The technology that supports are photo taking has improved so much that many of the technical skills of the photographer are now done by the phone rather than the operator. But there is still so much that is in the hands of the person who points and shoots.

How we frame the photo and what we take as the subject is key. Then the editing of the photos that we take can lift the images to a whole new level.

Recently I took a batch of photos whilst walking with friends in the Wirral. One of the photos was an unremarkable photo of birds in the sky. I took the photo, cropped it and then added various filters.

Here is the original photograph before it was cropped:

Nothing remarkable in this photo. But once a crop is applied to focus on the four photos on the left of the image – and then some filters and effects are added…

The result is four images that could be a series of paintings. Experimenting with an image, a glass of wine (it helps apparently) and a simple app (snapseed) produces something which I really like.

Bird in Sky I
Birds in Sky II
Birds in Sky III
Birds in Sky IV

 

 

Experimental III – adventures in publishing

I want to write about experiments in poetry and poetic form. This isn’t going to be a comprehensive history of experimentation in poetic form. That would be a very long blog post, maybe a book – and not one that I want to write (just yet anyway!)

Instead, this is a personal story about being inspired by the experimental in poetry. I have written before about City Lights Books – and my experience of reading Frank O’Hara’s “Lunch Poems” (yes he did write them on his lunch breaks from working at the Museum of Modern Art in New York) whilst studying my degree. I found his style of writing hugely inspiring. Each poem looked effortless, conversational – and yet, clearly there was more art and craft behind his work than at first appeared. My favourite poem from this collection is called “The Day Lady Died” and is about the death of Billie Holiday. The poem begins with this:

It is 12:20 in New York a Friday
three days after Bastille day, yes
it is 1959 and I go get a shoeshine.

And ends breathtakingly with this:

she whispered a song along the keyboard
…and everyone and I stopped breathing.

Other work by more experimental poets that I found inspiring would include ee cummings, a poet whose work was a huge influence on my early writings. His voice probably echoes in mine as I played with his particular approach to word play and experimentation with type-written words. I also loved the work of John Cage, known more as a composer for works like those I mentioned in the earlier blog post in this series. His writings are fascinating too.

My own experiments in publishing poetry began in the mid 1980s when I was working as a Community Artist. At the time, I was working with groups of adults. This was pre-computer days. Having spent about 10 years trying to find my own voice through experimenting with the styles of poets who I admired, I wrote the first sequence that felt like my own voice was coming through. It was a turning point – 1984 and “sharp blue / breath” appeared. Over the years that followed, I threw away most of the poetry I had written up to that point. It felt immature, practise for what was to come. Once this collection was written I set about turning it into a booklet. The cover was a lino-print with letraset words (remember those sticky letters!)  and the inside was hand written. It was bound with cotton. There was only one copy made – you can see from the photo that I still have it.

Much later, in the late 90s I started buying poetry books and booklets from Peter Riley who was selling new and secondhand books from Cambridge via a mailing list. I came across some wonderful books which were published by Randolph Healey from Wicklow in Ireland. Wild Honey Press is on hold at the moment. The website is still there – Randolph has produced a beautiful collection of booklets. I bought a handful which contained some terrific experimental verse presented in hand-printed booklets which were bound with wool. Wonderful things to own!

My own experiments continued in 2003 when I launched the first iteration of BlueWater Books with two collections of poetry called “zen words” and “Umbrian Images”. These collections were hand-printed booklets produced on an old Canon printer with plain paper inserts and textured paper covers. I spent many happy hours trawling through paper and stationery supply shops looking for papers to use for these booklets. And that was followed by many frustrating hours battling with the printer to get the layout right, avoid paper being chewed up and find seemingly endless supplies of patience to produce 50 copies of each booklet. Was it successful? Depends what you call success – I still have copies left (looking for a good home, if you are interested!) Those that did find readers were well received.

Fast forward more than a decade to 2016 and I decided to re-activate BlueWater Books, this time with the help of the Editor whose name was given to the press, Alice Bluewater. The first book to launch was “It Begins Like This” and the second one came out last month – “Blue: experiments in sound”.

In some ways it is so much easier to publish books these days. Thanks to print on demand and online design anything is possible at minimal cost. The days of authors looking at the ceiling nervously, aware that there are a thousand copies of their book in boxes in the attic – are long gone! But there are still challenges – finding readers, working out how to format and set a book so that the published copy looks the way you want it to. All of this is do-able! A set of new skills to learn or tasks to find someone else to do. The end result is an experiment that has been well worth the patience. Enjoyable? Definitely!

 

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Whilst you are here: have you seen my two books released this year?

Values Count is available from Amazon or directly from my website. It’s a book about values based approaches to work. Essential for anyone who wants to work with a strong sense of purpose.

Blue: Experiments in Sound is my latest collection of poetry with illustrations, the latest stories about Blue, the misanthropic 21st century man in search of a meaning. It is available in a limited edition from my website.

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Experimental II

I didn’t get what was meant to be happening with John Cage’s 4:33 when I first heard about it. This was a piece of “music” that lasted for 4 minutes and 33 seconds. Except it wasn’t a piece of music because the musician would sit at the piano (or any other instrument) and not play anything for that amount of time. It seemed like Cage was laughing at us – playing the ultimate con trick. Except, when you sit in the space and there is no music, you are forced into a zen-like experience of hearing everything else that is going on around you. There isn’t complete silence at all. You become aware of the sounds that the audience are making, noises coming from outside, the sound of your own breath. Perhaps, even the sound of your own thoughts distracting you. A truly powerful idea!

Simple, abstract and minimalist are all ideas in music and word that have intrigued me over the years. I bought the Gavin Bryars album “Sinking of the Titanic / Jesus’ Blood” when it was first released on vinyl in 1975. Not because I had heard of Gavin Bryars, but because it was on Brian Eno’s experimental label, and I trusted his judgement. I was only 14 at the time – it was an easy thing to do. This album was comprised of two pieces of music each spanning the full side. The first piece was inspired by the idea that the concert band on the Titanic continued to play as the ship sank. This idea is combined  with the idea that sound gradually decays and would be still present after the ship has gone down. Using recorded footage of interviews with survivors and treating the music as though it is echoing and distorting – the result is a beautiful piece of music. But it was the second side which really gripped me. Called “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet” this piece begins with the recording of an unknown homeless man who Bryars had recorded for another project. The recording is looped and plays over and over for the 25 minutes of the piece. Instruments gradually join the singer, build and then fade away to just the singer’s voice. It’s a fragile and deeply moving recording.

Sometimes the deepest experiments begin with very little material – silence in one case, a short loop of a recorded voice. This gives the boundaries within which the experiment can take life.

How can you place simple boundaries to enable you to experiment?


Have you seen my two books released this year?

Values Count is available from Amazon or directly from my website. It’s a book about values based approaches to work. Essential for anyone who wants to work with a strong sense of purpose.

Blue: Experiments in Sound is my latest collection of poetry with illustrations, the latest stories about Blue, the misanthropic 21st century man in search of a meaning. It is available in a limited edition from my website.

 

The Journey to Wonder

During the Writing Marathon back in March I spent most of the time writing new material for the latest book. The title has mutated slightly, so that now it is called “The Journey to Wonder”. 

In the blog posts I wrote a lot about the process of writing, with plenty of statistics about the word count and how much I was (or wasn’t) achieving during the marathon. 

I didn’t post any of the words that I produced. So, I thought today I would share an extract from the introduction:


I stole the idea for this book from a wonderful free book that Seth Godin shared a few years ago. He called the book “Insubordinate” and it contained short descriptions of the people who had been significant in his journey. Some of them were well-known names, others less so. It was a short book, which I really enjoyed reading and one which inspired me to think about doing something similar.

Over the years, I have always been attracted to the thinking of people who are eclectic, diverse in their backgrounds, and have always been interested in people who are prolific too. Sometimes people around me have wanted to know what drives my thinking on particular issues, and I have attempted an explanation. Also, one of the massive influences in my life is music – and a diverse range of musical influences too. When I released my last book, an old friend dropped me a message saying that he hoped I would write about music soon. That was a great excuse to press on with the idea behind this book.

This book isn’t just about music though, it’s also about poets, authors, and people who I have worked with. There is a thread running through them all – each one has inspired wonder in me. Each of them has set me off on a journey of excitement to find out more about what they do.

Of the many books I read across a wide range of topics, I am particularly interested in biographies, the lives of people. Often though, the story is about what goes on outside in the world, who they encounter and how that shapes them. It’s really interesting stuff, but for this book (which isn’t a biography as such) I wanted to capture the ideas and influences that have affected me over the years, and use that as a reason to talk about the specific episodes that led to that interest. My hope is that you will find the stories interesting and that it will prompt you to pursue some of the writers, musicians and thinkers that are featured in this book. They are all precious to me in different ways.

The observant reader will notice that men outnumber women in the sections that follow. I did consider this and give some thought to whether to balance it up, but I decided that this wouldn’t have been true to the influences that I have had. There have been many women – musicians, writers, bosses, colleagues – who have had a huge influence on my life. Many of them are included in this book. But I didn’t want to create a balance that wasn’t realistic. The characters who populate these pages visited my life – in reality or in ideas – as the years passed. They represent the key people who have contributed to making me who I am today. There are many other names I could have chosen. Perhaps that creates an opportunity for a sequel.


… and then the book flows on into chapters about David Bowie, John Peel, Kate Bush, Jan Garbarek, Carl Jung, Seamus Heaney, Dorothy Rowe, Margaret Wheatley, Brené Brown and His Holiness the Dalai Lama. A diverse mix of people who have shaped my thinking. Interested? I’m aiming (perhaps optimistically) to have the writing finished by the end of this year. 


Have you seen my two books released this year?

Values Count is available from Amazon or directly from my website. It’s a book about values based approaches to work. Essential for anyone who wants to work with a strong sense of purpose.

Blue: Experiments in Sound is my latest collection of poetry with illustrations, the latest stories about Blue, the misanthropic 21st century man in search of a meaning. It is available in a limited edition from my website.

 

Experimental I

This is the first of a series of posts on the experimental. This will be a set of blog posts, which feature ideas and experiments. Different approaches.

What is “Experimental”?

There are two distinct definitions for the word. When aimed at science, (of a new invention or product), based on untested ideas or techniques and not yet established or finalised e.g. “an experimental drug”.

When focused on the arts (of art or an artistic technique), involving a radically new and innovative style, e.g. “experimental music”.

Experimental – to take something and test it, try something new, be innovative. Put the two approaches together…

Are these two so different? What is the common ground between them? Why do we always want to separate out arts and science – and then further stratify with humanities and social sciences? Does division diminish?

In the background I can hear “4D Music” by Brian Eno. This is a simple drone, with a pulsing that creates a simple rhythm. A whispered voice repeats and layers the words “Behold the child, in front of me”. The piece – hypnotic and mesmerising, but also unsettling. Shifting slowly, imperceptibly.

Rain persists in the sky. Falling on silent wishes.

Disruption caused by change, new routines, new patterns – all to create different thoughts.

A blog post by Doug Shaw about Patterning – experimenting. Working out Loud – finding a space to share his journey of learning, self teaching…

John Kannenberg, curator of a wonderful web-based record label called Stasisfield which ran from 2002 to 2015. Avant garden, minimalist, micro-tonal. Thought-provoking and stimulating. I loved the music that appeared on this label – all of it free.  A labour of love. Something happened last week, prompted me to go searching – found that Stasisfield has stopped but John continues to experiment with a beautifully crafted site and a blog called Phonomnesis about silent memories of sound, art, time, museums, philosophy, and culture. Experiments.

Graham Shaw showing us all, that contrary to the Art Teacher at secondary school who told us otherwise, we can actually draw.

… and the journey of a year’s worth of Skype calls in 2013 with Andrew Dubber where his role was to persuade me that I could shift from someone who wrote a bit, to a published author. Technical ability making up 20% and confidence and battling the inner critic making the remaining 80%. He did more than I suspect he realised to push me forwards.

Poetry – the experimental. Taking an image and crashing it into something else. Loving the work of Frank O’Hara (writing about him in the new book, “The Journey to Wonder”) and obsessing over the writings of Lawrence Ferlinghetti. How to write with elegance and effortlessness.

Reading the latest issue of “The Wire” experimental music magazine – adventures in sound. Marvelling at the number of experimental magazines that exist at the margins these days. Sampling, trying – pushing the imagination to explore.

Street Wisdom – wandering streets with a loosely structured process to interrogate the surroundings, see it anew and find solutions to linear questions with non-linear approaches. Months later and still absorbing the learning.

And returning to Brian Eno: his oblique strategies cards were created with artist Peter Schmidt as a way to disrupt thinking. Two random examples:

“Be extravagant”

“You can only make one dot at a time”

… the journey to wonder continues.

 

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Have you seen my two books released this year?

Values Count is available from Amazon or directly from my website. It’s a book about values based approaches to work. Essential for anyone who wants to work with a strong sense of purpose.

Blue: Experiments in Sound is my latest collection of poetry with illustrations, the latest stories about Blue, the misanthropic 21st century man in search of a meaning. It is available in a limited edition from my website.

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Saying Thank You

When did you last say thank you and really mean it? When did you last send a note or an email to someone just to say thank you?

It’s interesting how we can so often feel unappreciated in life, and yet we take so little time to show our appreciation of others.

Perhaps we could make sure that the next person who serves us our coffee or our lunch, gets a real thank you with eye contact that has meaning to it.

Perhaps we could say a real thank you with eye contact to the person who puts our food through the checkout at the supermarket.

Perhaps we could say thank you at the end of the working day to those with whom we have spent the day, and really mean that we are grateful for the time they have spent with us.

Perhaps we could send a note to someone to thank them for something they have done for us that has had an impact on our life – it could be a small thing, something that just helped to move us forwards, or it could be something that seemed small at the time, but had an enormous impact on the direction our life took as a result.

Gratitude helps us to find happiness. It is at the heart of one of the many contradictions of life. We find happiness through our contribution to and appreciation of others.