As you may have gathered, Foruli Limited Editions Books are publishing a special edition of my autobiography this Fall. Among several other interesting features of this, there is a two-disc vinyl album called ‘From Conception to Birth’. This comprises eight songs that I wrote, each accompanied by its demo. [A seventeenth unreleased track – ‘Banyan’ – is also included]. As there seems to be growing interest in this, I’ve taken the liberty of writing some explanatory notes about the project, below.
‘From Conception to Birth’.
It’s surprisingly uncommon practice, but I thought it might be interesting to offer some sketches of how several of my tunes began life. These audio demonstrations – or ‘demos’ for short – are extremely rough because they were only intended for the ears of the musicians whose job it would be to bring them to life. Had they been required for a record company executive’s decision for investment – the more usual purpose of demos – more care and attention would have been lavished. Musicians will tend to see the general thrust of the music more quickly than business people, and are happy enough with the rougher stone.
In the visual arts it’s quite common to see preparatory studies alongside the finished work. Indeed, some prefer the incomplete sketch, holding out as it does an open-ended promise of how things might be or might have been. Audio demos or original sketches of the finished musical item have been increasingly possible with the advent of simple home-recording devices, and it was a visit to the Van Gogh Museum to see the artist’s ‘Potato Eaters’and attendant sketches that provided the gestation for ‘From Conception to Birth’.
The vinyl album ‘From Conception to Birth’ has 17 tracks. 8 demos precede the relevant sections of their 8 released masters, allowing direct comparison, and there is one additional demo that never made it to master stage. The demos reflect my chequered history in the realm of home recording. Given my efforts with electronic percussion – or perhaps because of them – it may surprise some to learn I’m something of a technophobe, and nothing of a recording engineer.
Early demos were more or less straight into what we used to call a ghetto-blaster. That was followed briefly by Teac Portastudio 4-track cassette recordings, which rapidly morphed into my favourit axe, the Roland MC500. I played in the midi data from my Yamaha keyboard, and outputted to sounds from my Korg O1/W orchestra-in-a-box. Everything on sides 2, 3, and 4 was recorded that way. Low tech it certainly was, but I was pleased with my Holdsworth ‘soundalike’ guitar playing on ‘Lingo’, my cheesy 12-string guitar that I had the nerve to play Ralph Towner before the sessions for ‘If Summer Had Its Ghosts’, and the drumming on the unreleased ‘Banyan’.
There is an honourable – if fatal – tradition among musicians of ‘falling in love with the demo’. In this, the composer has played his weedy version to himself so many times that he comes to hear its manifest flaws as attributes. He becomes deaf to the beauties of the new version being produced on the session, and wastes many hours trying to recreate the unrecreatable original. Not me. I was relieved and grateful, but not surprised, when this material sprang instantly to life in rehearsal rooms under the hands of the skilled musicians with whom I was lucky to play it. The way my amateurish sketches began to breathe and flex and break free from the stone-lined, midi-data encasements in which they were conceived was a constant reminder of the value of all-at-once human playing and the value of musical relationships of the flesh-and-blood rather than the automated kind.
I never quite made it to the laptop and software world of composition that seems made for more agile brains than mine. I had written the tunes on this album and many like them because my various bands needed something to play. When I retreated from organising groups, that need evaporated, and I ended up mostly as an improvising musician. Arnold Schoenberg allegedly offered the notion that all composition is just very slow improvisation, and I accept the corollary to be true, that improvisation is extremely fast composition. Things sound best to me when the composed sounds improvised and the improvised sounds composed. I was always most comfortable in the cracks between the two.