My Music (1961-2010)
My mother was a Grade-8 pianist, although I never once heard her play. Her father was music librarian for the Blaina Town Band in Monmouthshire. My father’s father played the banjo and washboard, so I was told.
1961-64 I listened to the 78-rpm and 45-rpm records from my parents’ and an uncle’s collections, including (most memorably) Nelly the Elephant (1956), Teddy Bears’ Picnic (1932), Spike Jones and his City Slickers (1940s), and Dragnet (1950s). One Christmas my parents bought me a mono-record player (a Dansette ‘Bermuda’), along with a mirrored carousel which fitted on the spindle and animate — in a manner of Muybridge’s phenakistoscope — the designs printed on ‘Red Raven’ children’s record labels. (Music, I discovered, could be a visual as well as an aural pleasure.)
1961 At the age of two, I was photographed ‘playing’ my mother’s piano in the front room of her parents’ home in Blaina. Some years later, it was moved across the road to the St John’s Ambulance Hall. There, I would massage the keys of this woefully yet wonderfully out-of-tune instrument. I recall the way that its sound, along with the noise of the traffic outside and the hooter from the colliery nearby, reverberated within the hall’s cold, capacious, and sparsely-furnished interior.
1963 At four years of age, I bought my first record – the Beatles Twist and Shout (1962) EP – from the Electrolux Showroom in my hometown of Abertillery, Monmouthshire. The radio, courtesy of Rediffusion (a nationwide wired network of interference-free broadcasting), was always on in my parents’ house. While I played in front of the fireplace, I listened to music on the Light Programme and absorbed, by osmosis, a broad range of musical styles and genres. The staggered syncopation of Andy Williams’s Can’t Get Used to Losing you (1963) always made me stop what I was doing. I was struck too by the electronic theme music (composed by Ron Grainer and interpreted by Delia Derbyshire) to the original Dr Who series, which began in that year. The sound seemed to me to be the perfect aural articulation of the program’s science-fiction theme and the rippling, ectoplasmic title sequence.
1964-5 On my fifth birthday I was given a plastic ‘Beatles’ guitar with untuneable nylon strings, and a small reel-to-reel tape recorder. I used the tape recorder to capture sounds around the home and my father’s voice (including his sound effects) as he read bedtime stories. Downtown (1965) sung by Petula Clark was the first piece of music to affect me emotionally (with a sense of wistfulness), and to embody (permanently, as though the song was, itself, a kind of magnetic tape) a strong visual memory of feelings and sights associated with a walk that I took with my parents into town one late afternoon close to Christmas that year.
At night, in bed, the distant drawl of motorbikes travelling northwards towards Blaina evoked a vivid spatial and visual sensation of winding streets and roads, the starless night, and the sulphur street lamps. (Sound summoned vision.) I saw, for the first time, the science-fiction classic the Forbidden Planet (1956), and heard Bebe and Louis Barron’s at times terrifying electronic soundtrack, one that consisted exclusively of noises made by transient cybernetic circuitry, multiple synchronized tape recorders, and tape-delay processes.
1966-70 I was taken by my mother’s father to brass band concerts held in local market and town halls. The euphonic melancholy of the instruments’ tonalities and harmonies made a greater impression on me than did the melodies. I was drawn to the low-level, low-frequency hum of small electricity substations. The sound was produced by the magnetic flux passing through the transformer core and acting upon the laminations, causing them to vibrate.
1973 I was given Robert Fripp’s and Brian Eno’s ambient music album (No Pussyfooting) (1973) by someone who hated it and would, a year later, play guitar in my first band. I listened to the recording on a mono cassette-recorder obsessively after lunch everyday for a fortnight while on holiday that year. On hearing the album, I first fell in love with the sound of a Gibson Les Paul Custom guitar. During this year, my music culture (as distinct to that borrowed from my parents and grandparents) mushroomed as I discovered jazz-rock fusion and progressive rock groups (the avant garde of popular music).
Undaunted by the limitations of my musical training and ability, I began writing songs. In 1973, I formed the first of my short-lived bands, called Hunter, in which I played (in a rather cack-handed manner) a Bontempi Hit organ and a modified Stylophone. I began circuit-bending, that is, creatively re-routing low-voltage electronic devices – such as old radios, cassette-tape recorders, and a fuzz-wah pedal – to create bespoke but barely controllable synthetic-sound generators. Hunter’s more persuasive outputs were not its songs but, rather, the group’s improvisations, which combined standard, home-made, and electronic instrumentation with a modicum of practical ability and a good deal of intelligent listening.
1974 This experience of spontaneous composition primed (but did not fully prepare) me for my first encounter with Miles Davis’s jazz-rock amalgam Live at Fillmore (1970) and Bitches Brew (1970). Around this time, I also heard a 78-rpm recording of the guitarist Les Paul and singer Mary Ford performing How High the Moon (1951). I was fascinated by his innovative double-tracking and double-speed recording techniques. Paul’s guitar playing sounded very contemporary to my ears. Having started and abandoned lessons on the trombone and e-flat horn, I learned to play (inadequately but enthusiastically) percussion for my school and county orchestras.
1975-6 I bought Brian Eno’s Another Green World (1975). The brevity and concision of his compositions was unprecedented in rock music. His self-designation as a ‘non-musician’ liberated me from the insecurity of not being able to play any instrument, even passably, or to read music (period). At 16 years of age, I taught myself to play a 6- and a 12-string acoustic guitar, a classical guitar, and a clapped-out, third-hand, bright red Columbia hollow-body electric guitar (which I borrowed from a friend’s brother) to a tolerable level of proficiency. I convened, and composed the music for, my second band, called Orange, and contributed guitar work, one-handed keyboards, and percussion.
1977-81 After Orange broke-up, I formed an acoustic duo to record and perform a set of ‘sacred’ songs, which I’d written. At the same time, and more significantly, I returned to improvisation, modifying electronic equipment, and experimenting with electric guitars, reel-to-reel and cassette-tape recorders, loops, and time-delay procedures. During my Foundation year at art school, at the Faculty of Art, Gwent College of Higher Education, Newport, I converted my interest in electronics into paintings and drawings based upon circuit diagrams and circuit boards. For the first and only time in my art education, sound- and image-making intersected.
In a lecture on modern music, I was introduced to the American Minimalist composer Steve Reich’s It’s Gonna Rain (1965) and Come Out (1966). His music allied the transparency, self-determination, and rigour of systems- and process-based art to an emotional intensity and spiritual content. For me, these pieces exemplified an ideal condition of art (one that would take me another eighteen years to achieve, visually, on my own terms).
I put down the guitar in 1977, and withdrew from the practice of sound art for the next thirty-two years in order to concentrate on an education and career in fine art and art history. After a year’s abstinence, I’d lost the desire and, perhaps, any reasonable hope that I would be able to compose and play music again. (Deny yourself something for long enough and you’ll lose the appetite for it.) At the same time, paradoxically, the Faculty appointed Roy Ascott as Head of School. He had taught Brian Eno and Pete Townsend of The Who, when they were at art school.
1982-7 Punk rock’s DIY-recording techniques, cheap instrumentation, and pared- down and limited musical competence had much in common with my own groups’ modus operandi. However, it was the finesse, forms, invention, technology, and gravitas of the best of progressive rock and jazz-rock (who’s suns had now set) that I found more satisfying, both intellectually and emotionally. I followed the work of those artists who had survived the period of cultural transition by either extending and reducing their means of expression stylistically and technologically or developing new musical hybrids. During my MA Visual Art studies and first years of lecturing my interest in minimalist music (in particular the work of Reich, Terry Riley, Philip Glass, and John Adams, and Gavin Bryars) deepened as I sought out consoling substitutes for the values and qualities that I had admired most in progressive music.
1985 My interest in sound (as such) resurfaced in the form of an ‘aural diary’. Sounds (as I discovered when I was very young) can call to mind visual memories. I used a tape recorder as an ‘audiographic’ camera with which to document the spoken word (just as I’d used my small reel-to-reel tape recorder at the age of five), family conversations, the chatter of restaurant diners, noisy machines, preaching and prayers, the ambience of rooms and open spaces, street music, bells and bleepers, automated announcements, bus and train journeys, and the voices of the dying. (It’s a practice that I’ve maintained, intermittently, to the present day.)
1988 ‘Audiography’ developed into a more self-conscious, formalized process and product. I used it to create a travelogue in sound of my first trips to the East. Along with the noise of religious and domestic rituals, wedding festivities, take-offs and landings, I recorded a set of Satie-inspired improvisations of pseudo-Chinese music, coaxed out of my in-laws’ ailing piano in Singapore. It was an impromptu and momentary return both to the roots of my musicality (in the St John’s Ambulance Hall, Blaina) and to music composition.
2008 I digitally re-mastered the Hunter, Orange, duet, and solo recordings from the period 1973-8. The solo work (played on electric guitar, a rudimentary synthesizer, and modified tape-recorders) struck me as still having some validity and potential, as well as a prescient pertinence. For example, one piece entitled Ion on Iron (1977) consisted of the conversation of a multitude of electrical signals, pulses, and messages passed between aircraft and ships across land and sea, which are made audible on a short-wave length radio. The ‘composition’ was produced by spanning the band wavelength from 3 to 30MHz, while feeding the signal into a modified reel-to-reel tape recorder, which effectively doubled, delayed, and placed the sound source out of phase by several milliseconds.
I realized that an analogy could be drawn between this piece and the works comprising The Pictorial Bible series of fine art projects, with which I was engaged. In the series, biblical texts form the basis of abstract visual propositions. The images are created by codifying letters or words. The code (which determines the proportion, size, division, of the whole and the distribution of its parts) is derived from a semantic meaning in the text. It was Ion on Iron that first introduced the concept of developing an artefact directly from a found source, and of doing so using a systematic process. Thus, at 49 years of age, I began to deliberately reassemble my past-musical life.
2009 My musical restoration was now in full swing. I bought my dream guitar – a Gibson Les Paul Custom (‘Black Beauty’) 1957 VOS (among others) – and began to collect a range of electronic devices that would enable me to process a guitar’s output. On the January 29, I commenced a boot-camp regime of waking at 5.00 am, six days a week, to put in two-hour’s guitar practise before breakfast. At the end of the day, for a further two hours, I practised and studied music theory and technology.
The aim of this endeavour was to (speedily) develop a level of competence that would enable me to transform the scriptures (as the written or printed word and spoken and heard word) into sound-based artefacts. These were conceived as a ‘non-images’: that is to say, as a response to the biblical text in which the visual or representational presence is abstracted entirely. This would be the fullest realisation of my endeavour to create a Protestant, anti-iconic artform.
On the September 18, I gave my first live performance of a sound-based artefact called The Second Commandment, which was scored for recorded voice, electric guitar, and devices, at the University of Calgary, Canada.
2010 I made a pact with myself, to:
- be ambitious, but begin modestly;
- proceed cautiously, but set challenging goals;
- be sufficiently satisfied with my efforts to persevere;
- be sufficiently dissatisfied with my efforts to persevere;
- be constant and consistent in practise and practice;
- integrate playing and painting at a conceptual level;
- remember that anything is hard work if you work hard at it;
- control myself as I would my instrument;
- understand the theory and technology of my practice;
- collaborate when either imperative or desirable.