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Music landscape and me [5]

14, February 2015

music, landscape and me [5]

meltdown

I’m stepping back in time a few years from music, landscape and me [4] and returning to 1985 when I moved from Teignmouth to Southampton with Jane before moving from there to Skye in 1987. I was 22.

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Totton Powerstation [oil on canvas 30 x 20 inches] as seen from over the water in Southampton, an apocolyptic vision painted in the early 1990s

1985-1987
I hated it – what a depressing place to live. We bought a nice little house but I didn’t enjoy the built-up, rundown, crowded city environment. At the end of our road was a ship-builders and a large, smelly sewage works!

I remember saying to Jane when we arrived on a bleak, damp, dark and foggy night – “I’ll give it two years!”

We were in Southampton because Jane was taking a degree course in medical sciences at Southampton University. Initially we lived in married quarters at the university [very cramped but not unpleasant]. Within a number of months we had bought a house in Swift Road and soon settled into that. After qualifying in Devon as a nurse for people with learning disabilities [1985] I managed to get a very good job working for Mencap as a residential care-worker not far from where I lived. I really enjoyed this work and continued to paint for 30 hours a week as well. But things were far from settled.

During the two years living in Southampton I underwent catastrophic change.

I was still painting landscapes – still the same sort of thing. I had a few exhibitions organised but was badly let down – betrayed even, by several galleries in the south and west and was still messing about trying to break out of the ‘trap’ of representational painting, often with little success, leaving only a legacy of frustration.

My thoughts were turning to composition with increasing frequency, too, but I found nothing but frustration there, as well. I tinkered, wrote a few bits of pieces but was instantly unhappy with the results. I completed little, eager to move on and learn the next lesson. I knew where I wanted to be, or at least the direction I wanted to head in but really had no means of getting there. The disconnect between my inner musical world and my ability to communicate it to anyone else, especially through notation, became desperate.

To add to this, my mind was disintegrating.

It began quietly; fears and anxieties that unsettled me, haunting and taunting from the dark recesses of my subconscious.  This disquieting grew over months until it manifest as relentless waking dreams and visions of such terrible intensity I began to live in constant fear of these scenarios acting out and becoming reality. For some reason I had become obsessed with everything I knew and held dear being utterly destroyed by war; especially nuclear war. The anxiety was continual; I could think of nothing else but civilisation and the world coming to an appalling end. I would see these scenarios when I slept, but also when I was awake – towns and cities flattened, burning, the sky horrific colours after the destruction – death everywhere – it was utter hell. And I was living this every day.

My mind became mangled; it began to affect my daily behaviour. I became physically ill, demoralised, depressed and reclusive. I could see no hope, no reason to continue. The visions and dreams intensified and grew in graphic detail to such a point it became difficult to draw the line between external reality and the reality in my mind. This sounds psychotic, but I was always aware that these things were happening and I was torn between two worlds. I knew something was badly wrong – psychosis, however, is generally a condition the sufferer is unaware of where they think their mental state is normal and everything else around them is wrong. Neurotic, perhaps, but psychotic, no. What was certain was that I was having some kind of mental breakdown.

I remained sane at the same time as being totally terrified. My belief in these visions [I call them that for want of something better – no ‘spiritual’ implications intended] was fuelled by a number of premonitions that preceded and were frighteningly accurate in their specifics and detail. I shared these premonitions, often of significant world events with others before they happened so they who could verify their accuracy and I could rest assured I wasn’t imagining these things or falsifying their potency. I found these premonitions very unsettling and their accuracy only served to make me take seriously the visions I was having in Southampton some months later. I had no idea what was happening, just that I wanted it to stop!

I went to the Doctor – he said stress and prescribed beta-blockers. I didn’t take them. I didn’t know whether I needed a psychiatrist or an exorcist!

Jane supported me through all this. It must have been a terrible strain on her. She used to walk me around the streets of Southampton at night and talk to me – I was so afraid of falling asleep and having the same terrifying dreams.

It was on one of those midnight walks that Jane said something about my [tragically dysfunctional] relationship with my father. I can’t remember the very words just now, but I do remember that what she said made me cry. I am not someone who cries easily – even when I want to, but as I cried I sensed a release – small at first but deeply felt. It was like the first crack developing in a vast sheet of ice.

From that point on, slowly but surely, the balance in my mind between the world outside and the world inside began to stabilise. This was not a fast process; it took 6-8 months with many setbacks along the way, but the general momentum was toward normalisation.

What became apparent, for whatever reasons, was that the very damaging relationship I had had with my father and the psychological and emotional brutality I lived with had scarred me in ways I hadn’t realised. I always thought I got through the bullying, fear and insecurity unscathed. People who knew my background would remark how ‘well adjusted’ I was considering the circumstances of my childhood. It seemed that somehow, a great deal of this damage had associated itself with my fear of everything I had subsequently built [secure relationships, love of music, painting, the landscape] being destroyed – taken away from me. The legacy of insecurity my father had left me had manifest into the horrors of nuclear war . . . . perhaps, and Jane’s comment about my relationship with my father had triggered a release or realisation?

You may wonder why my mother is not mentioned here. She was wonderful but unfortunately died of cancer when she was 44 and I was 15. She could not act as a buffer between my father and me any more. My father made her life a misery for long enough, too.

It also became clear that I had to get out of Southampton to begin a new life elsewhere. I wasn’t out of the woods yet but I knew the right direction of travel in and it was a long way from Southampton!

Around this time and just before leaving Devon I was an avid Radio 3 listener [in the days when they played contemporary music regularly and you didn’t feel the need to submerge yourself in a ‘relaxing’ bath to enjoy it]. What a great resource this was. Armed with my trusty tape recorder and a copy of the Radio Times I would hunt for anything that I thought sounded interesting. I was hugely ignorant of contemporary classical music and those who were working around me; Radio 3 was my contact with the rest of the musical world.

It was through Radio 3 listening that I first discovered the music of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies [and Mahler at the same time] and not the tuneful Max – I first heard Black Pentecost and though it dark and shockingly marvellous and extreme. Not so long after that I heard his 3rd. Symphony of 1984. It still remains my favorite piece of Max’s – its amazingly taunt structure, intense soundworld and desolate, uncompromising beauty haunts me to this day.

This was the first contemporary music I had really heard and it spoke to me. And what a contrast from the English pastoralism I had surrounded myself with before. Here [certainly in the symphonies] was a new language that to my ear at least, still concerned itself with landscape, but this time, through a continually evolving, Sibelian like transformative process, on the surface of its sound, at least. I was so interested to know how it was made, how it was written down. Shortly after this I also encountered Harrison Birtwistle’s music and was equally enamoured and struck by his obsessions with landscape and ritual using an entirely new language that owed more to Starinsky than Sibelius but nevertheless held a monolithic, timeless beauty.

This music somehow resonated with my bleak state of mind at the time and I loved it.

I wasn’t interested in pretty tunes and neat harmonies written by living composers – that had already been done and oh so well by the many ‘dead composers’ who have left the legacy I love. This newfound relationship with Maxwell Davies and Birtwistle helped to move me further towards my goal of being a composer – it inspired me to try and find out how to write down the sounds l heard. I truly had no idea; I also had no access to scores or other musicians to help. 

What I didn’t know I simply made up. This approach has stood me in good stead ever since!

 

New doors – new locations – new techniques for painting and composing were about to open. The catastrophic experience of Southampton was to unleash an enormous change in my painting and open the compositional floodgates!

 

 

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music, landscape and me [4]

music, landscape and me

trouble in paradise
May 7 2012

Everything was perfect. I could produce paintings that people admired and understood. People thought I was very clever indeed, very talented or gifted or even more enthusiastically, they used the ‘G’ word (in hushed tones) ‘genius’ to describe me and my paintings . . .

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wast water, Cumbria circa 1989: oil on canvas 30 x 20″

This was all well and good.

I was aware that by the end of the 1980s I had developed a formidable technique for capturing the illusion of reality onto a two dimensional surface. My realistic painting had reached a level of soft photorealism that inclined many onlookers to be a little confused, for a time at least, as to the nature of the work they saw before them – fact or fiction – photo or painting.

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Andrea and Polly, coral beaches, north west Skye cira 1989: oil on canvas 30 x 20″

But I was unsettled. I felt I had come to the end of a road.

Yes, I could paint and sell for really good prices and I was still a young man; surly this is a measure of success? I had already realised most artist’s ambition – to sell. But I was bored. I’d done it; I’d tamed reality sufficiently to paint illusions of such quality people would see me (or my talent, at least) as something special.

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wells-next-the-sea, norfolk circa 1989: oil on canvas 30 x 20″

There were two problems.

I needed to express feelings that went beyond the bounds of realistic painting and knew that to portray these feelings and subjects I would have to break the rules. The illusion of reality is a fragile thing – in painting as in life. Change the rules; the technique, colours, forms, expression, you change the reality. The painting becomes something else.

And secondly, once I’ve achieved something, like mastering a technique, the rest becomes repetition. Yes, the subject changes but the technique doesn’t, it becomes an exercise in repeating the same challenge, except it no longer remains a challenge. I don’t like to repeat myself.

It was time to change. It was time to break what I had built and replace it with something else.

‘Trouble’, was not just restricted to painting. At this time I had the most powerful stirrings to release my compositional ambitions on the world – but how?

As already described, I loved classical music ever since I was a teenage boy. I knew I had to write music – I believed that I could write music but was frustrated by my total lack of knowledge about how music worked, what instruments could do and how one wrote music down. Yet, I would hear this strange stuff – my own music – bubbling away in my head whilst feeling utterly frustrated about not being able to capture it or do anything with it in any way. For several years I despaired, not knowing what to do to bring this torment to an end (and I use the word ‘torment’ in all seriousness – it drove me to distraction and made me feel a total failure. The fact I could paint and received so much positive attention around that was no compensation for not being able to write music).

When I was 16 I began the long journey of teaching myself how to read and write music. It took many years. As soon as I understood something, my imagination quickly moved on, demanding new techniques to be mastered. My musical imagination was constantly running ahead of my ability to keep up with it. Again, this was totally frustrating. Eventually, when I was 34, I had a number of breakthroughs in writing my music down that resulted in my sending some of my rather illiterate scores off to various people. One of these was Sir Peter Maxwell Davies and the Hoy Summer School that he ran on Orkney back then. Max saw my potential, took me under his wing and created some wonderful opportunities for me. I learnt much. I also realised that coming from a background where I had no musical or instrumental training, whilst not the best career start, turned out in many ways to inform a large part of the process that developed my musical voice and imagination into what it is today. As Max always used to tell me, “you are your own man”.

But that’s jumping ahead somewhat.

At the end of this period I was unsatisfied with my painting and needed to find a new way of expressing my inspiration and relationship to the land. I needed to do this through music too but had no idea where to start and felt thoroughly miserable.

By this time (1987) I had moved to the Isle off Skye off the West Coast of Scotland. I remained on Skye with my then wife, Jane and my two sons for 23 years. The island, its climate, landscape and way of life was to have a profound effect on my work and life.

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carnach, north west Skye circa 1989: oil on canvas 30 x 20″

An explosion was brewing!

To close this chapter I have selected a number of pieces – the darker side of English music, that were my light and guide through this transition. I would soon be discovering other music and would leave my pastoral days behind – not unloved or forgotten, but taking their rightful place as an essential part of my development as an artist.

Gustav Holst, Hammersmith

William Walton, first movement of Symphony No. 1

Lento (extract unfortunately) from the amazing Symphony in G minor by Moeran

Arnold Bax Symphony no.1

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music, landscape and me [3]

music, landscape and me

. . . on the third day
May 4 2012

There was more Vaughan Williams.

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Gedney Drove End, Lincolnshire: pencil on paper (imperial size) circa.1989

In fact, the music of Vaughan Williams has played a central part in my own musical life. Apart from the rather glib, ‘I like it’, there are aspects of his music that work on many different levels for me, most deeply personal.

It’s easy to assume that as a composer, one emulates the music of others that is especially admired or liked. It is true that in some of my initial efforts of throwing notes together I was strongly influenced by Vaughan Williams and the English Pastoral School. But I was also aware that this had been done and done brilliantly many years before so what could I possibly have to add by creating more ‘sub-Vaughan Williams’ music: Nothing! I was also aware that copying was not for me; even being strongly influenced by the work of others made me feel uncomfortable.

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Near Fring, Norfolk: pencil on paper (imperial size) circa.1989

At this point in time (late 1980s) I had no idea where I would end up musically, only that I was being driven forwards by a deep emotional need to write music; my ‘own’ music, that was unlike the music of others.

Emotionally, the sound-world of visionary pastoral music was my homeland. It had been for some time, especially through the very turbulent times leading up to and following the death of my mother in 1977. Although hard to quantify, I believe that the music I was listening to at the time kept my inner world alive. I had begun painting and knew that my life would never be the same again, but I was also being obsessed by sound and similarly knew that this ‘burden’ as it was then, would be central to my development. I would become a composer. These things were certain.

So Vaughan Williams (and others) offered me hope, light and sustenance to keep going through the gloom, misery and insecurity of much of my teenage years. This hunger for ‘soul-food’ was also reflected in my relationship with the land or to be more precise, with particular landscape and places. It’s clear I have a great connection to pastoral music and landscape but at the same time, would not compromise and emulate this music in my own work. So what was I trying to achieve through my own music and painting and now photography?

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Near West Chinnock, Somerset, 2012

This is such a difficult question to answer and I don’t know if I have sufficient command of my inner world to be able to give a definitive statement. What I can say and will no doubt repeat several times across these articles is that the quality of feeling I experience when listening to the music of some other composers coupled with particular landscapes is a keen driving force behind the kind of music and images I want to create. Whether misguided or not, I want to, in some inadequate way, communicate these feelings; recreate them – the wonderfulness, grandeur, warmth, value, desolation, ugliness, beauty, other-worldliness, transcendence, almost spiritual (as opposed to religious) sense of apotheosis particular landscapes as well as music of others engender in me, and re-create these experiences through my own work.

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Spring – Norfolk Fields: pencil on paper (imperial size) circa.1989

Lofty ideals and I’m not sure if I achieve any of them for I cannot tell what other people feel and think when they experience my work; I can only appreciate the feelings my work initiate in me, and that’s no guide, no guide at all for what others will experience! So, blindly (and perhaps deafly), I continue down this road. It’s the only road I know!

I’ve previously mentioned my love of chalk and shall write more extensively about that later. But for now, I’d like to focus on a time I spent exploring Norfolk in the late 1980s and how this land effected my work, acting as a vehicle to enable me to express through image some of the feelings I have described above.

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Beaminster Down, Dorset 2012

Horizons and light – big skies – that’s Norfolk in a nutshell! Towards the horizon’s endure. The land goes on and on – the horizon never ends; the skies are so large and heavy they press down on you, sometimes claustrophobically. The land is haunted with echoes of the past. Quiet, changing little, this land has a specific sound, feel and ambience; a very particular look that I can recognise instantly. Norfolk isn’t always a ‘pretty’ or twee place. Certainly around the coastal fringes, vast salt marshes and mud flats it can feel like the most isolated and lonely place on earth. And in bad weather; like the end of the world. It is a very particular place where ‘beauty’ is often found in its loneliest spots away from the picture-postcard tourist dives. This is where you’ll find the beating heart – where you’ll ‘hear’ the music.

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Near West Chinnock, Somerset, 2012

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Near Crewkerne, Somerset, 2012

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North Walsham, Norfolk: pencil on paper (imperial size) circa.1989

As ‘horizon’ is so central to these landscapes and so central to my own visual work (and in a bizarre sense, my music, too), I’m concentrating this article around photographs and drawings that exemplify my feeling of horizon. Not all the work is from Norfolk, but I hope it will be clear to see the common aesthetic thread that runs through my visual work, wherever its landscape is rooted.

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Near Somerton, Norfolk: pencil on paper (imperial size) circa.1989

And to round off, the very poignant, impressionistic tone poem ‘Norfolk Rhapsody No. 1’ by Ralph Vaughan Williams

West Bay notices

music, landscape and me [2]

music, landscape and me

. . . . and then there was ice!
May 2 2012,

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Burton Mere, Dorset (2012)

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Burton Mere, Dorset (2012)

The winter of 1985 was a hard one.

Frozen.

For some reason I had decided to travel to west Dorset in the middle of winter to visit a place I’d never been to, Burton Mere near Cogden Beach, on the whim that I thought it may be an inspirational place to go.

I’ve been doing this for some time; packing off on a jaunt to a place that ‘calls’ me without any hard facts that it will prove to be the place I want to be at all.

The story (yes, I’m afraid there is a short one) goes back to a black and white poster I acquired from British Coal back in the ‘70s. Among other coal related photographs, the wall poster had a section of cliff displaying many layers of stratification. The poster was on the back of my bedroom door and bewitched me from the moment I put it up. I examined its every detail, from the shore to the cliffs, feeling my way around the rugged contours with my imagination. Originally, my interest in obtaining the poster was the fossils to be found in coal but this section of coastline, incidentally illustrated on the poster (for geological reasons I didn’t know at the time) stimulated my imagination and emotions in ways hitherto unknown to me.

Unfortunately there was no indication of where the location was. I committed the picture to memory – its feel and contours – for future reference.

Some time later whilst looking through reference books in the British Geological Museum Library (for which I obtained special permission, being a minor), I randomly happened upon a photograph of the same cliffs. I knew immediately this was the place; every fibre and sense in my body resonated with delight. What’s more, the book told me exactly where it was; Church Cliffs, Lyme Regis, Dorset. Henceforth my love affair with the county began. I shall make reference to this place in future articles. I was 13 at the time.

This brings me back to why I was visiting Burton Mere in the winter of 1985. I was drawn to explore because I had ‘felt’ the place from afar and knew it held something I wanted; something that the landscape there could offer.

I was a fledgling composer – full of music in my head and totally unable to write any of it down, as I knew nothing about music at all, just that it was running through my veins uncontrollably. But by this time, at the tender age of 22, I was quite the developed landscape painter. So I was there, Burton Mere, in the ice, to find subjects to take away and paint. Consequently, I produced two paintings from that trip (as below).

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Burton Mere, Dorset: oil on canvas 30×16″ 1985

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Ditch, Burton Mere, Dorset: oil on canvas 30×16″ 1985

There’s more:

I was alone on this expedition. For company I took my brand new Sharp cassette player with headphones (remember those)? Among the tapes I took with me was Tippett’s 2nd. Symphony; a wonderful work full of passion and colour and at times, ecstatic writing like only Tippett can produce (for me, he is the musical English Ecstatic). However, due to the conditions and where I was walking at the time, one movement of this work, the 2nd., slow movement, adagio molto e tranquillo, resonated with the landscape and conditions. The impressions it left have stayed with me, unchanged all these years.

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Burton Mere, Dorset (2012)

Beauty in austerity

The ice cold of that day was echoed in this music; the metallic, brittle sound of trumpets and percussion created the ‘coldest’ music I had ever heard whilst the occasional interludes of luminous, swaying strings brought a warmth that was much needed. Yet this music was neither ‘nice’ nor soothing nor necessarily inspired by the landscape, but within it’s rugged austerity there was a beauty I recognised and loved. Like Burton Mere, a desolate location, especially in the middle of winter, yet yielding a dignified rawness that spoke of the essence of the place with no frills, no ceremony or affectation. This was ‘real’ music resonating with a ‘real’ place in my body and mind. Somehow, the music and the land together catalysed an alchemy that sent my spirits soaring with a sense of being alive, in the present and connected to something greater than myself; such is the power of music and the land. When I hear the music now, I’m right back there in the blink of an eye; my memories triggered through the senses by the potency of this music.

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Cogden Beach by Burton Mere, Dorset (2012)

27 years later, I visited the Mere again and took a number of black and white photos; these are presented at the top and throughout this article. This time there was no ice, the reeds had been allowed to grow back naturally and cover much of the water; the water levels were much lower and the place full of the sights and smells of the cusp of seasons as winter erupts into spring. What hasn’t changed is the sense of isolation, openness and glorious desolation.

Sir Michael Tippett Symphony no.2 – 2nd. movement: adagio molto e tranquillo

Tinker's Marshes, River Blyth, East Suffolk

music, landscape and me [1]

music, landscape and me

in the beginning
May 1 2012

I am starting this blog in response to a request and suggestion from my great friend and artist, the fine art photographer, Ian Talbot who recently embarked on an exploration of his images and their relationship to the music of others here.

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Bincombe, Crewkerne, Somerset

Where to begin?

It’s difficult to unpack quite how I got where I am now, in my head, musically.

I don’t expect these articles to be a logical or sequential path through the ruminations of my mind and history; rather, a dip-in and dip-out of remembrances, feelings and perhaps conclusions that I have drawn about the relationship between the visual – my paintings and most recently, my landscape photography (as seen here), and my ever driving need to write music.

I have no doubt these links exist within me: My pulse quickens when I see configurations in the landscape that stimulate and this stimulation in turn evokes sounds in my mind. ‘Sounds’ as opposed to music – that comes later – but these sounds are somehow related to and driven by both the physicality of the landscape and the ambience of it. But not all landscapes have this effect.

Beauty is not enough.

In fact, beauty in the conventional sense of landscape quality has nothing to do with it. What drives my sense of excitement about a landscape is the geology that underpins it. For me, the noble Chalk is king, but in general, landscapes formed from sedimentary rocks capture my imagination. I love the Mesozoic geological period for the strata it owns and the landscapes, especially in southern England it engenders.

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Wynford Eagle, Dorset

It is now my life’s work to explore these landscapes and be inspired by them, this, not in any bucolic or nostalgic sense, nor even a romantic one (though these claims are perhaps a little too self-certain). In fact, I’m quite unsure how to define this drive and these responses. Certainly, my music best articulates how the visual (landscape) transforms into sound (music), within my work with the results being perhaps unexpected considering the source of inspiration, but who’s to say that our perception of what a pastoral landscape is evokes only a pastoral style music as valid response?

Having said that, my first profound music and listening experience is with English Pastoral Music and I have to this day, remained deeply in love and affected by the genre.

So, this is where I shall start.

Vaughan Williams’ Tallis Fantasia

I first encountered this piece when I was about 14. I was living in London. I had just started to paint – representational landscapes – this was the beginning time. I knew, even then that I wanted to compose but had no real idea what this was or what it involved, I just knew that my head was full of sounds and these sounds made me feel differently to usual.

My mother was dying from cancer. She loved to listen to music. Both my parents listened to Led Zeppelin, Emerson, Lake and Palmer and Focus – typical rock bands from the 70s.

I don’t know who bought it, but one day, my mother started to play an LP of Vaughan Williams’ string music, conducted by Sir Adrian Boult. Her favourite piece (I know this due to the repeated playing) was the Tallis Fantasia. The music would make her cry. I resented this. She was so ill and the sound of her crying was too much for me. Consequently I tried to stop her from listening to the music. I remember even hiding the LP for a time. This didn’t succeed for long.

Remarkably, as the weeks passed I began to despise the music less. Moreover, I was being increasingly drawn to listen, privately and away from my mother. I subsequently realised I had not only ‘despised’ this music because it made my mother cry, but because it challenged me, it made me want to let go of my emotions of grief and anger too; a threatening prospect as I was desperate to maintain a modicum of control. I became increasingly obsessed. Even more strangely, when listening to the music I was transported away to another place within myself. This place was full of landscape – landscapes a city boy like me hadn’t even seen yet – full of light and air and magnificence. It quickened my pulse and touched something tender inside that made me – drove me to want to paint and especially write music. I wanted to recreate the effect on others that Vaughan Williams had on me. At 14 years old, that is what I knew and it is that which pushed me forwards to become a composer and painter.

The music still has that same power over me now. What a masterpiece!

Ralph Vaughan Williams Tallis Fantasia