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When the phone rings it’s no fun anymore

I used to love getting phone calls. It was a regular occurrence and one filled with expectation. Whoever was calling me would have something interesting to discuss with me, after all.

Then the world changed. Like many people around me, I haven’t had a landline for nearly a decade now. There’s just the mobile phone number to contact me on.

Offices went quiet a while back. People use email to communicate because it’s less intrusive and can be dealt with at a time to suit the receiver. Now that’s fine, unless you want something and you don’t want to have to wait. That’s when a text followed up with a phone call comes in useful. But too often we hit send on the email and then forget to track back and chase things. The phone call can be really helpful at these times.

But for a while now, most of the calls I get are from people I don’t know about something I don’t want and didn’t ask them for. The blight of call centres cold calling means that I have stopped answering phone numbers that I don’t recognise. If they really want to speak to me they will leave a message. And of course, if they want to speak to me about Payment Protection or some industrial / car accident I didn’t realise that I had been involved in but where I could claim compensation – well then they don’t leave a message do they!

It used to be such fun answering the phone – but now it’s just annoying when it rings and I see that I have a call from Manchester, Nottingham, Newcastle, Leeds or even Gambia, Canada and the USA. It’s never as exciting as I think it might be. And the conversation always ends with a “sorry, but I’m not interested. Yes, I know that doesn’t make sense to you, but I really am not interested.”

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Slow Music

Richmond Castle, North Yorkshire

Why do I love abstract and weird? Well… to be honest, why not? Sometimes it’s so important for the music we listen to or the things that we read to challenge us. If all we listen to is the sweet and obvious sounds then we miss a whole sound palette. Being open to adventures in sound can bring us new ideas, new thoughts and concepts.

I’ve been working on writing projects today and whilst in the zone I was listening to the Slow Music project. This was a really fascinating project developed by Bill Rieflin with the help of Robert Fripp, Peter Buck and others. The concert I was listening to also included the late great (please excuse the cliché) Hector Zazou. At times it was ambient, at times it was abstract, improvisational and always spacious.

I hadn’t heard it for a long time. It’s even more beautiful than I remember. The concert took place 11 years ago in Los Angeles.

Sometimes we can find beauty in the gentle and slowly evolving. It’s a fast paced world. We need time in the 7 minute morning mediation, or in the moments of pause whilst sitting on the train, or the hour spent listening to music like this. We are brought back to the present and reminded that there is no other time but now.

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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!

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

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Another Bad News Day

The team had some bad news yesterday. We weren’t successful bidding competitively for a piece of work which we have been developing for three years. When I was told the news I went through the whole Kubler-Ross cycle in a matter of minutes: denial; anger; bargaining; depression and then grudging acceptance.

It was the second bid we failed to get in a week. Tough times! I know we need to pull together as a team at times like this. And I also know that we need to dig deep into our Core Values and connect with Optimism.

Two things struck me as I go through the process of accepting this news.

First, it’s really important to be clear that the end of the telescope that we look through is not the same as everyone else. To us, the news feels catastrophic. It’s a big deal! It’s so easy to generalise this and think that everyone else sees it the same way. Of course, they don’t. Outside of the team this is a tiny decision and doesn’t have the significance it has for us. We need to be clear about perspective.

Second, again this is all about perspective. As I walked to the railway station this morning I walked past a pickup truck with two newly crafted runs of stairs. They were unpainted and they were beautiful. I thought about all the times I walk on handcrafted staircases and so many other things that are made by people with immense talent. It must be amazing to craft something that is then used by countless people even long after we die.

And in that thought came the realisation that the work we are doing isn’t about a single bid or any particular moment. It’s the longer term impact we are having. It’s the stories we hear from people who tell us how our work has had a long term impact. It’s the transformations that we create.

That is why we “Do the Work”.

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Escapism

cheers-photo2I have ten minutes until I need to run for my train to head for home.

This morning I caught the train to work as usual. Standing on the train, waiting to get off, I used the Starbucks App on my phone to order a latte ahead so that it would be waiting for me when I walked into the cafe. I love doing this. I walked into the cafe and the barista plus one of the customers looked at me and said “Stuart?” I said yes and was given my drink which was waiting for me. It made me think “I like to go where everybody knows my name”. And that set me to thinking about American TV comedy series. Why? Because that’s the mis-quote of a line from the theme tune to “Cheers”. Every episode when the character Norm walked into the bar, everyone shouted out his name.

And as my thoughts drifted whilst walking to the office, I remembered how I used to love watching “Cheers” on a Friday night on Channel Four at the end of a busy week. It was beautiful escapism. I loved singing along to the theme tune (out of tune, of course). Even before that, I used to love “Rhoda” and “Taxi”. When “Cheers” finally came to an end after launching many great acting careers, it was a  relief to find out that “Frasier” would have his own series. I loved that too. Then came “Friends”. All ten series of it!

Escapism at the end of the week. A marvellous way to drop into a chair with a glass of wine and laugh away the troubles of the week.

I can’t help thinking that Channel 4 made a big mistake for my viewing habits when they stopped showing these kinds of programmes on Fridays and switched them to a Thursday night. “How I Met your Mother” and “Big Bang Theory” are wonderful, but Thursday night just doesn’t do it for me!

But then maybe I am just being too linear watching TV when it is actually broadcast. How very 20th Century of me!

(This is the last of the November Challenge. I set out to write a blog post every day in November, scheduling them ahead to avoid overwhelming my readers. I managed 20 in 31 days – not quite one a day, but then it’s helpful to have weekends off!)

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Purification

fullsizeoutput_11d0That moment when we realise something is not as it seemed for every living second of our lives before then. And in that shift comes a completely different way to view reality.

Up to that moment, everything made sense because of this founding principle by which we lived. Then, when the light shines through, we realise that we have had a completely false view of reality. Things are not as they seemed.

Yes, that moment. The beginning of the rest of our lives. That is the moment when we move from regret, to right attitude, and then on to  resolution. Finally we shift to a remedy and see things with right view.

(November Challenge 18/31)