Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Any old port in a storm.



It’s actually quite difficult to compose music in a storm. There are many strands of uncertainty to contend with, not to mention the ambient noise of wind and rain battering the structure in which you’re working. It’s certainly exhilarating, I’ll say that.

I spent the last couple of weeks or so of December 2016 making music in one of the remotest corners of the Isle Of Skye. An experience unlike any other, island life is truly inspiring when it comes to art, especially if you remain open to the subtleties of the culture and landscape; the geography and weather, the wildlife and farming. Each element inspires and enriches; an emotional nourishment that could only really happen on a remote island.

The trip from the cityscape of Glasgow to the Isle is astonishing; the sheer scale of the mountain terrain as you get closer becomes quite overwhelming - there’s a sense of vulnerability in the presence of the volcanic landscape. The seasonal weather adds a brutal, yet familiar edge - a reminder of how we are supposed to experience nature at this time of year.

Storm Barbara was just being announced and forecasted when I travelled over the Skye Bridge. Sometimes in adverse conditions, the bridge is closed, by the decision of BEAR Scotland. I had visions of an actual bear making these decisions, but as I found out, it’s merely an acronym. In the relative calm before the storm, however, it was eerily serene. Only when making the approach to the remote hamlet where I was staying, did the squally showers begin to make themselves known.

One of the first things I noticed about the island is how well the infrastructure is implemented. Snowploughs, snow gates, very sturdy-looking pylons and even buildings all seem oblivious to the elements, as if they’ve all stood there for centuries, braving storm after snowfall for pretty much eternity. It seems that Skye’s default weather position in Winter could be billed as ‘wild’.

Before I had even set up my instruments and recording gear, it had become apparent that central to the community on the island was its one (fairly) large supermarket, based over half an hour’s drive away from where I was staying. From my first visit, I became fascinated by the interaction of shoppers with the staff, the things they discussed, the questions they asked, their concerns (home deliveries on the island had been cancelled for the week, which had thrown some people completely; understandably so). I’m under no illusion that part of this feeling was ascribed to the situation by myself, but the sense of community was unmistakable. I began to wonder who these people were - what their stories were, where they had come from. The woman on the checkout, who told anyone who would listen, about her history of wearing enviably eccentric Christmas hats each year, since she moved to Skye - each years’ choice more outlandish than the last. The toothless chap behind me in the queue, who, after noticing both my wine carrier and the fact that I had neglectfully left behind the accompanying Ibuprofen near the till, handed them to me with a look of knowing. The mischievous-looking blonde woman in the car park, peering over her glasses at her partner, who was struggling to bring several bottles of wine back from the shop. Who were they all?

What’s your story?
Faces, expressions,
Words fall where they stand.
Fragments and images.
Memory, anticipation,
Lives without a biography.

I wrote seven pieces of music while I was on Skye, with the first being written just as Storm Barbara was approaching. After being warned that I may lose power at any time, I had to make compositional decisions relatively quickly. This feeling, combined with the visual cues of the constantly changing skies through the huge window from where I worked, formed a powerful creative environment.
Barbara put on quite a show. The massive window physically caved and contorted with the gusts of wind, as they reached over 100mph. I recorded the sound of the storm as it battered against the glass and walls. The storms continued long after ‘Barbara’ had moved on, with storm Connor arriving two days or so later - even more fierce than before, as I continued to work at the window, looking out into nature. Luckily, I didn’t lose power, or get struck by lightning, but the risk of frying the instruments, recording gear, or myself, was ever-present.

Listening back to my recordings now, there is a naturally occurring underlying tension in the work; very apparent in some places and more subtle in others, but it’s there - a product of the inspiration I felt on the island, its’ weather systems and culture. Those pieces couldn’t have been composed anywhere else, in quite the same way. They need some arrangement and mix work, which I’ll attend to later in the year, but overall I’m really happy with the way they’ve turned out. They’ll make a good album at some point.