Messiaen & Ray Charles

By the time I'd been at King's Canterbury a couple of years I had grown so alienated I'd retreated into my own world where I did little else except play the organ and occasionally get beaten for noncooperation. My active antipathy to sport meant that I was singled out for bullying in that hellish academy of barbarians.
Messiaen was my salvation. I had first encountered him throu Allan Wicks, who also taught me organ. All weekend long I'd practise on the crypt organ, and by the age of 15 I could play all Messiaen's then-published oeuvre.
I had evolved a burglary kit that included a cathedral key & a coat hanger to gain access to the main organ loft. Being insomniac, I would wait until everyone in my dorm was asleep and then leave by the fire exit from Meister Omers, adjacent to the Choir School /House, go to the cathedral & let rip for several hours. Amazingly, I was never challenged, and no enquiry was ever raised about the organ being played 'Phantom-like' at midnight.
I ran up awful music bills for my poor father at Forwoods. £60 a term when a term's boarding fees were only about £250. (Hard to believe now!) And he couldn't even pay that half the time. Psychologists will understand something of the (non-)relationship that this way of demanding my father's attention was intended to provoke. Unsuccessfully.

When I'd first begun to compose, around the age of 12, I received no encouragement. My voice /idiom developed spontaneously under the influence of Messiaen as I learnt to play his intensely mystical organ music. Therefore I had the youthful experience of finding that exposing what was intensely meaningful for me produced indifference in everyonelse, including my parents who probably thought that composition was a just phase I'd grow out of when I needed to get a job.
This brought me to a crisis, which was essentially one of my own authenticity /self-worth: the more I followed my calling, my creative daemon, the more isolated it made me. Since those sounds that seemed most real & vivid to me aroused to response, except embarrassment, where did reality lie? The final straw for me was when I could find noone at Kings, boy or master, willing to read throu Messiaen's La quattuour pour le fin du temps with me. I just thought 'well if I'm in a parallel universe' maybe there's another one I do belong in, and if it does Messiaen must be in it. So to Paris I prepared to go.
I knew my grandfather had taken out War Bonds in my name, and discovered they'd matured & could be cashed. So I did so during the holidays & returned to school with my passport in the Easter term 1963. I could speak intelligible french – about the only thing I learnt at Kings.
Having been to the Trinité twice to hear Messiaen improvise after High Mass -wonderfully- and then seen him descend from the organ loft into a small sea of fidgety organophiles I knew I should never be able to approach him. Who was I? A a kid on the edge of a breakdown with no credentials, nothing to offer, barely able to give an account of myself. How could tell him -in french- I needed him to save my life? And if my god were to spurn me I must necessarily embrace the devil of suicide with which I had flirted constantly for at least 3 years.

The end of it was, my money ran out and I returned to England with my tail between my legs - determined on one thing only, never to submit myself to the confederacy of dunces called education. Accordingly I started work at Gala Cosmetics as a sweeper. My salvation was to meet harpsichordist Jane Clark & her composer husband Stephen Dodgson, who took me into their home and made me into a musician and a human being.
But my time in Paris was productive in another way, for I saw Ray Charles on his first European tour. Never before had I seen this level of incandescence, and rarely have I encountered it since. Ray was so attuned to his music that as a performer he seemed to be without physical limits - pure spirit. Nothing I'd absorbed about ice-race spirituality at Canterbury prepared me for a sun-race spirituality that was earthy and vibrantly sexual. Achieving a spiritual fusion between these polar antitheses of musical being, the intensely literate and the intensely intuitive, has been guiding principle of my evolution as a composer, music producer and teacher – not a superficial idiomatic synthesis, but an exploration of the nature of the energy relationship between intentionality and sound.


Joyce Grenfell

I saw an excellent doc on tv about Joyce Grenfell last Sat. What I found fascinating about seeing her from 20-80 was that in everything she did there was an inner truthfulness, an inspirational quality that was a testimony to her faith. She was never malicious, tho she could be acid enough to show she was well aware of the dark side, yet always chose the light. She probably felt her talents were trivial, but to my mind her memorial is not her work, it is that she was true to her Self. Apparently many pro actors denigrated her 'amateurism' - but actually that was pure jealousy because she had 'it' - that vestal quality that comes from ‘intunity’.

Where I vibe with Grenfell is that like her I was never ‘professionalised’ by the education industry. Therefore what I write I write because I feel it compellingly important. It is of course a source of intense frustration that it is totally unimportant to the world at large: but I've learnt to understand that spiritually. I am motivated by my faith in Christ, and therefore the soundworld I (wish to) evoke reflects that belief system. The rest of the world (largely) isn't & therefore doesn’t respond to the vibe I'm into. I have come to accept that my task is not to ‘be conformed’ to the world’s values, but to respond principally to the truth I sense within me.
On the whole subject of inspiration, see http://msteer.co.uk/analytical/creativoxtext.html

Interestingly, music seems to be the one area where faith persists in our faithless world. Messiaen remained an undeviatingly devout Christian, and it was the mystical integrity of his soundworld that first gave me hope when I was at my lowest and lostest. Charles Ives put up with ridicule, obscurity & never heard his music performed, yet is now regarded as the father of 20thC US music thanks to the evangelism of Lenny Bernstein. He was an intensely inner-led Christian – who used his prodigious creative energy to found what is now the worldwide pensions industry because of his compassion for the elderly poor. There are numerous others I could tell you of: Stravinsky was a sincere Russian Orthodox: Schoenberg an observant Jew. Contemporary UK composer Jonathan Harvey is a devout Buddhist despite being as experimental as all get-out. Tavener’s Greek Orthodox faith is doubtless known to you. Duke Ellington wrote only religious music at the end of his life. Funkmeister Herbie Hancock is a practising Buddhist. The list is far longer.
Often, it is the intensity of someone’s mystical inner sound world that makes hir unafraid to be experimental – because the integrity of that world is validated by the spirituality of their world-view.
We each of us have a path to tread; and the issue –for the composer as much as for each human– is not to achieve great things in the world’s eye, it is to behave with an integrity and vision that balances one’s inner truth with the greater truth as one sees it. And to leave the results to God. Despite the great joy of the relationships in my life, that inner personal walk has often been wearisome & unrewarding, but what has always guided & inspired me is the confidence of hearing the Saviour’s greeting: “well done, thou good and faithful servant; enter thou into thy rest.”

Everyone has cultural preferences based on their personal world overview. For some of the reasons why western musical history has evolved see http://msteer.co.uk/analytical/jmtimbre4.html. Suffice it to say there is always an intimate, if circuitous, link between a person’s ‘intentional proprioception’ [their (non/) belief system about how the world is] & their aesthetic engagement/s. The difference is our individual human identity: the harmonics of those differences create genres and styles according to the number of people who experience their place in the world similarly.
How much easier my life would be if I didn’t ‘hear’ things & didn’t feel obliged to ‘externalise’ my inner world … but how infinitely poorer. The prophet Jeremiah said much the same thing but, I would say from reading him recently, never reconciled within himself the anger he experienced at having his (divine) vision rejected! What I or any composer write/s is a ‘negotiation’ between a collective perception (genre /idiom /style) and a personal inner voice.
All my life I have experimented with bringing the popular and the esoteric, the sacred and the profane, together. After many failed attempts, I see my latest experiments bearing fruit, and still regard this as my sacred vocation to bridge those worlds – to reconnect people brought up in the trivialising environment of electronic culture to the timeless depths of historical cultural continuity, while at the same time providing a contact point for those who exist in those depths to gain access to the energy latent in the surface tensions of modern media.

Writing about this is my way of clarifying my own intentions, of articulating to myself what I need to do further to manifest this reality. Our power as artists is that we create the future (‘unacknowledged legislators’ & all that) – so anyone who seeks to be artistically-conscious is required to be clarify their intentions that they may be vessels for ‘what is of God’ to enter the human dimension. That’s all I've sought to d0: it doesn’t make sense to ‘the world’ because they're not looking for those values. But it’s been an amazingly improbable journey. I've kept a record of it here because, far as I have been from any kind of acceptance to date, I know how the story ends (as certainly as I know Christ is my saviour) and therefore I wish what occurred in my life to be a matter of record, so that other people 'undergoing' what I have may see how salvation comes from holding to faith not from conforming to prevailing trends: and obversely to make clear to those who judge from the surface of my music (when it is finally heard as I intend) that my life was smooth & light-filled, just how dark the journey really was.
There is profound insight into the psychology of 20thC European culture to be gained from Dreaming With Open Eyes by Michael Tucker. He depicts a mainstream European culture that had become sterile & formulaic by the time of WW1 being swept aside by a shamanic irruption of the collective unconscious that had been repressed by Christian & post-Christian orthodoxies – not necessarily rejecting them in essence, but certainly rejecting them in their existing form/s.
There is, and will always be, a tension between the rational world of science & social order and the inner anarchy of the creative subconscious. This was first exposed in the rise of the Gothic movement paralleling that of early-modern science. Today we feel it more acutely because, under the impact of science, as a culture we have lost the ability to see meta-physically or meta-phorically, and can only see literally. [Hence the furious battle between Creationists & Dawkins-ites!]