After almost two years of writing, throwing away ideas and then starting again, the five compositions that form my debut album Islandia are being recorded this week at Abbey Road Studios. The pieces are being performed by a group of phenomenal musicians and it has been a joy to hear my compositions transition from abstraction into fully-formed musical entities.
The point at which a composition manifests as a performance can be a strange experience. To quote my favourite parental guidance warning, I find there is a feeling of mild terror, which is accompanied by a sense of excitement and expectation; there is also a feeling of loss at the prospect of no longer being able to tweak your work in the wee hours, only to find yourself erasing your “inspiration” the following day while staring blankly into middle distance. But, whatever passing discomfort is experienced when letting a work “fly”, I find there is an incredible moment when I can hear the music become its own being, present its own set of challenges to be overcome, and suggest its own methods of interpretation and phrasing that are beyond the process of composition.
While I believe that the best recordings retain the natural character of each of instrument, recordings are fundamentally different from live performances and should be treated as such. Both albums and performances can transport us to other places, but there is something about the immediacy and the intimacy of an album that makes the experience very different; a sensation that what you’re hearing has been created and curated just for you. Also, the sum of separate pieces or music, or tracks, can be its own musical entity: I remember aged 17 coming home from college and listening to Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon for the first time; it was autumn and in my bedroom I listened to the whole album through a pair of headphones and I remember how vivid the imagery of that journey was — it was so unlike any other listening experience I’d had and to be recording Islandia in the same room where Dark Side of the Moon was recorded really brings everything home for me.
The theory of an album as a work unto itself is rarely practiced in the classical world, though there is movement within the current generation of composers and independents to promulgate it, such as the work of New Amsterdam Records. In practical terms, the creation of an album such as this requires a composer to think beyond the composition and to address the recorded aesthetic. In the ensuing weeks and months, I’m going to share how the album was created and there will be a host of videos and images to go along with it; I’m also hoping engineer Toby Hulbert (pictured above) will be willing to share a couple of the ideas he employed to capture the sound of Islandia, so come back soon.