Sofa Sound  Newsletter 15/October 98

Finally, this....


Past Newsletters

Current Newsletter

The next one is (almost) underway. The future already beckons. The years are clocking on.
I don't feel like I've done half enough of anything yet.
It doesn't get harder, it doesn't get easier, it continues to continue...differently.
By the time this reaches you it's likely that I'll be fifty, into extra time, white of hair but still gimlet of eye. Or so I hope.
What's more important is the continued effort to find and play something new, vital, and true.
I'm thankful that I'm still here attempting to do so.
Until later, as always...thanks for listening.

Conspiracies of Number

The difficult fortieth album in the critical fiftieth year after the thirtieth anniversary of becoming (some might say) a professional musician...well, all the numbers seem to be running along nicely, don't they?

So: number 40, "This", will be out just before I hit the half-century mark, as I'd hoped. The official release date is October 26th, but copies will be available from Sofa Sound as soon as you get this newsletter.

What kind of album, then? As ever, I know the stuff so intimately by now that, while it feels utterly natural to me, it remains strangely difficult to define. (How often have we been here before: if any new piece of work could be summed up in a few pithy words, either by myself or in a review (haha), questions would have to be asked about the very reason for its existence....) An effort at definition, though: in view of the coincidental significant numbers involved I had the idea from an early stage that I should put together a collection of songs which showed my continued intent and interest regarding music - its styles, its subjects, its possibilities, its making. The result is a broad spread across various genres, with (I hope) coherent echoes of past, present and future in unity. Such skills as I now have or have retained have been applied to make the musical journey, although varied, as seamless an experience as possible.

Lyrically (for once, I'll start with the words) the subject matter is fundamentally the passage of time (shock!), nowness and the singularity of our individual lives. If this sounds as though I'm just going over familiar ground I can only say that this IS the ground upon which everything else stands or falls and therefore continued visitation to these themes will always produce different angles, wrinkles and results. So here one will find admonition and/or exhortation (either to oneself or imagined others); the slow shocks of various recognitions in moments of clarity or darkness; more on the mysterious processes of parenthood; more on the sudden absoluteness of now. Little by way of whingeing or complaint, I hope; lots of with-eyes-wide-open.

The contributors are, in modern terms, the usual suspects: Stuart, Manny and David. At times the sound combination is that of the pH Quartet, applying all the knowledge which has been accumulated over the period of playing together. Elsewhere things are rather more broken up into near-string/wind chamber music or strangely rooted percussion.

I play a great deal myself: guitars both electric and acoustic, bass, keyboards of various ilks and, of course, the Vox.

As you'll know - even if the boundaries are not always absolutely evident - improvisation plays as important a part in the making of a record for me as the strict application of structure. There's plenty of that here, most notably in the fourteen-minute long piece which closes the CD, "The Light Continent". This grew into the tone poem which it now forms from a (very long) single pass of playing at the keyboard. Thereafter, under editing, words and vocal melodies gradually made themselves apparent. The final contributions of David and Stuart were made without their having had the benefit of hearing a note of the track played to them in advance. If anything on the recordings is NOT quite like stuff I've done before (or, indeed, stuff that anyone else does...) it's this. If you expect a PH "epic" of multiple themes and time signatures when you see 14 minutes listed on the credits, you'll be disappointed; it's an epic of a different kind, stretching and extending the sentiments of a moment.

Other areas of improvisation are less immediately evident; deliberately so. I've tried, as ever, to make the moments and sources of inspiration as imperceptible as possible, so that the results have an absolute and finite definition.

In general there are many echoes of times both distantly and recently past, since I've tried to cover several of my bases. The most significant of these is "how did we get here from there...?". There are several such moments of (unlikely) congruence. The electric guitars are nasty in an almost Nadir-ish way with the added veneer of control which those of you who've seen my live performances lately will be (?!) so aware. The acoustic guitars perhaps harp back to an era between, say, "Chameleon" and "The Future Now". The overall sound world is a smear between and across ALL of the work, Sonics included. This is not, then, such a neo-calm ride as was "Everyone you hold".

Seven songs altogether, with three short instrumental "fragments" tying them all together. The latter are "lifted" elements from the assembled pieces, although by the nature of things it may not be exactly clear where they've come from....

Song 1 is "Unrehearsed": get on with this life, this action, however unprepared you may feel yourself to be - it's the only chance you'll get. "Stupid", which follows, acknowledges the fact that we accumulate that which we call a life as much by our mistakes as by our best-made plans. "Since the kids" is both post- and because of children. The word-play, one hopes, leads to some kind of self-realisation: you can't, you don't hand on the world, only such apprehension of it as you've managed over your own time. But, in hope, life goes on....

Both "Nightman" and "Fallen (the City of Night)", which follow, are snapshots of passing moments of clarity. In the former, there is a waking into full and bright mid-night-time consciousness in which all is clear, including, of course, the knowledge that things will be occluded by tomorrow. In the latter, the ghosts of cities and lives past brush past the cheeks with unmistakable portent for future as well as past.

"Always is Next" is, after the subjectivity of all that's passed before, an objective story - and quite dark. In the midst of life and all that. The last conventional song here.

Finally comes the aforementioned "The Light Continent". An Antarctic of the soul? Or the feather-light touch of toe and heel on the impermeable ice? A lifetime, or one second in the life? I remain happy to admit that only gestures and questions, not answers, fall into my hands....

Enough of my (current, as of today) takes on the songs. Naturally, there's more complexity to them than these thumb-nail sketches allow...or they wouldn't exist. Certainly, though, there's some element of journey involved as one trails along with them.

For myself the "how" of things remains an intrinsic, essential and informative part of the process. The nature of production goes beyond the mere recording and arrangement of sound and is inextricably bound up in it.

The whole thing was, naturally, recorded at Terra Incognita, with location work being restricted to the piano on "Since the Kids" - my Gors & Kallmann still going strong. The recording is entirely digital; since I actually master the CDs at Terra this means, for instance, that any word I sing remains pristine, clear and unsullied by translation - unless I screw up Big Time - from its reception by the microphone (Neumann U87, by the way) until its transmission through your speakers.

ADATs remain the main tape system, Cubase the sequencer. (As I've said so often before, the use of a sequencer does not mean slavish devotion to the whims of a computer - it CAN be just another form of recording!) In the course of these sessions I've moved more and more into the realms of hard-disc recording, using Cubase as the platform. This is a really suitable system for me: modestly hi-tech, but still metaphorically held together with string and sealing-wax. The opportunities for experimentation and discovery are as limitless or as limited as you want to make them. It was possible to make quite radical moves regarding arrangement and song structure even at late stages of proceedings. The recording and mixing were, therefore, somewhat liberating experiences, bearing some similarity to the old 4- and 8-track analogue days. Recording, like live playing, remains Serious Fun! So....

By now I wear so many hats - writer, composer, musician, arranger, engineer, producer, A&R man (?) - that it's vital that the (changing) head under each of them retains interest and excitement. In the end there has to be one unifying person under all the millinery...the "Peter Hammill" who finally puts his name to the stuff. Readers, you will find "Him" present in these recordings!

That's it; I've rambled away enough. What it is "This"? Until you actually hear it, I've told you all I can. Ultimately all I can say is that I'm still trying to do the best work of which I'm capable and still loving the effort. I guess it's self-evident that all the hats remain important to me....

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The Miscellany

There WILL be live shows later in '98. Boring, I know, but I still don't know where or when as I write. The hope is that there'll be at least some in Germany (including the North!) and the UK. Longer term plans include (among other spots) France and North America next Spring. The likelihood is that these will be solo or duo shows, by the way. I'll be there, wherever, when I'm there!

It's still no use searching the Web for a "Sofa" or "Fie!" page, I'm afraid - another Soon Come.

The Greek lyric book remains on the launch pad. I suspect that it will emerge early in '99. I have not forgotten that there are regular queries about a follow-up to/replacement for "Killers, Angels..." & "Mirrors, Dreams...". I can assure you that the idea remains active at the back of my mind for a future date.

In the meantime there's much music to address. I have a couple of projects under way which, frankly, I'd rather not talk about until their completion: expect news early in '99. I will also (imminently) be pressing on with the next "normal" recordings, for which I already have some material prepared.

An oddity: if you come across a CD by David Ferguson called "The View from Now" (a compilation of his music for film and TV) you'll find a solo soprano vox by Holly H (daughter no, 1) on "The Woman in White". Stuart and Manny - among a cast of thousands - also make contributions and the whole thing was recorded at Terra by David Lord. The label is Chandos, by the way.

That's it. I'm back into The Work. Until the next time, hopefully from a stage near you and hopefully soon....