How did you meet?
John: We met at the Folk Club with a Difference, an eclectic gathering which takes place once a month in Woodbridge in Suffolk, where we both live. I heard you could go and do what you liked, including reading fiction or poetry; you didn't have to sing or play music. When I had a short piece of fiction I would read it there. It was a good place to be heard—to hear myself—and get feedback. We're fortunate: Woodbridge is something of a musical and artistic hub in this part of England.
Jan: I saw the Folk Club advertised in the library and thought it would be an enjoyable change for me to listen to some music as opposed to playing/making music. At the monthly meetings I would sit in the corner listening, enthralled by the different kinds of spoken word, music and songs being shared in the back room of the pub, the King's Head. One day fortified by a local cider—Aspall's—I introduced my iPhone as a new folk instrument and proceeded to play it behind the poems I had brought to read. John heard this and approached me with the idea of trying some music behind a couple of short stories.
Why words and music together?
Jan: I love the sound of words—there is something magical about how 26 letters can conjure up so many different words, meanings and sounds in the same way that just 12 notes can produce so many different and beautiful melodies, chords and sounds. I believe there are certain vibrations that exist around words and music and there is a magic when the two creative translations come together.
John: Two reasons I know of. There's diminishing interest in listening to people reading out loud. I want to make listening more interesting. Music is more immediate and attracts people in a way that the spoken word struggles to (music, as Samuel Beckett said, always wins). It brightens the words. Secondly, my writing has always attempted to get away from plot, character development, etc—to me unnecessarily constricting, old-fashioned notions—to concentrating on the language used and emotions conveyed. Music tends to work in this very area: the emotional, the atmospheric. It doesn't on the whole get involved with plots either, so it takes me further down the road I'm already on. Jan's music, in particular, is good at allowing space for words but without insisting there be an actual traditional-type song.
How is your material produced? Which come first, the words or the music?
John: Until now the words have come first. But we may well work the other way around in the future. And there has been a third way: in our most recent piece, Chelsea, I asked to take a piece of music Jan had already composed; it had the emotional grandeur I was looking for. Of course, whatever comes first is only the beginning; there is a lot more to the process. We have a basic text and soundtrack—most of the sound being played on an iPad—but then we have to see how the two work together. This has almost always led to changes to the music or the text or both. A host of decisions also has to be made about how to read a piece. For example, when reading out loud I need to know where I am in relation to the music, so Jan might set markers amid the sound, or I might have to listen for a particular chord or note or melody at the same time as reading the text. It has been weeks and even months before we have a piece ready to present.
Jan: The musical inspiration that comes from the interplay between words and music has always fascinated me. I look for new ways to make that happen so love experimenting with capturing moments of time with my iPhone and taking the audio into the computer and painting with plug-ins and filters and layering with live playing—usually treated pianos with delays and spacial fx.
Has your venture in words and music affected your other writing/composing?
Jan: Everything I do expands my horizons. I thrive on challenging stimulation. I like to explore new territories and with John I feel I have had the opportunity to score for short spoken films.
John: Our project means I write increasingly in the direction I want to be going in. Reading publicly, which I enjoy—words just on a page can quickly go cool—has become even more important. Those are two effects. And there's been an effect on publication. Fewer publications can follow the freer form of the fiction I now tend to write (should the poetry editor look at it or the fiction editor?). Something else: when I read a piece without music between pieces with music, it gains a silence which wouldn't otherwise be there. This can lend helpful effect to a certain kind of story. And if a 'silent' piece is followed by one with music the brightening effect is in turn more pronounced.
Jan: I would like to continue and produce the performances for podcasts and radio. I have considered bringing in visuals but feel, as listening seems to be a dying art (or maybe how we listen has changed), and our attention span seems to be shorter and maybe more superficial, I think it is good to have something that is pleasant to the ear and inspiring in the mind, which is where the visualisation will reside.
John: What Jan says about visuals is interesting. WG Sebald and others have shown how photographs can successfully accompany texts. The possibilities for combining still and moving images, text and sound, are almost overwhelming.
The pink house
We always wanted to be living on the heath. Suffolk, sandy heath.
Out walking, on our way to the great old oaks—rousing a chocolate-brown
dog on a chain—we found the pink house
pink seen from the lane—black weatherboard to the forest
we told each other if it went on sale again we would move the earth to buy it.
Since we first saw the pink house
it's been through an owner
—as the dog leapt, and the oaks waited, and the pond lay coated in green bloom, and tin lanterns stood without attitude on a garden table—
was going through an owner
entering through the skin, getting under, inching through, cell by cell
going out the other side.
We would buy it,
live on the heath, beside ploughed earth,
on pale sand, by dark pine trees
and grow plants, walk in the rain
chase each other up the stairs
if we saw almost no one, so what?
—a van at the top of the lane
—a walker crossing the front gate, on the way to the great old oaks
in the morning we would hear birds,
open the curtains to deer in the garden—so people liked to tell us
hear the refuse collection truck, at the end of the lane, its motors mashing
there, the sun crossing the big, big sky
in the dark the next house would be a light in the distance.
And so we bought the pink house. The For Sale sign, its shaft snapped, lay in grass by the bins in the lane. We had the deeds with the names of the owners, come and gone
come and gone were their mangles and gramophones,
bellows and board-games
on the historic timeline it was farewell to the pantry, back-kitchen and
dining-room, barometers and eiderdowns, chimes on the clock
welcome to light, electricity
the workroom, office, studio, the changing sounds of the phone.
As to the owners
the pink house had been through a score
of their songs and opinions, rugs and governments, vases and dinners
listened to their various footsteps on the stairs
its air had settled the vibrations of their groans, coughs, murmurs and laughs; dispersed their tears between the floorboards.
The pink house had stared back from the walls
hidden behind mirrors
run around with water
shot wood smoke into blizzards
been loud only at night
creaking and cracking, as if rising from a chair
loud at night
or other times of silence
straight after going through an owner
waiting with the patience of oaks for the next pieces of silver—they say
every household has something silver
we have some ourselves.
Afterword: a musical time traveller
There is a light just before sunset that I call the Suffolk pink. When John read me The pink house my senses felt that. I wandered around with the words inside my head for weeks looking for inspiration. It’s always out there. You just have to find it and the river is a good place for that—full of memories older than mankind with different ones washed up every day. I had taken a photo that haunted me with the patterns of the fields and the creeping Suffolk pink. I thought there had to be a way of capturing those colours in music.
The river gave me an answer. Walking along one afternoon I heard what I thought was a cuckoo. The quickest way to capture the sound was by using my iPhone. This little vignette, with cows in a field and crows flying overhead, became the basis for the music of The pink house.
I edited a few seconds of usable sound from the video and, using freeware called Audacity, started stretching the audio. There were seven stages, each time doubling the length until it got to just over four minutes.
This stretching is like putting time in slow motion. The ambience of that moment, stretched from four seconds to four minutes, changes not only the sound but your perception of it. The crows took on a metallic silver sound whilst the cuckoo suggested a languid haunting melody.
I added washes of ambience—presets titled ‘ambient currents’, ‘flowing winds’ and ‘sea shore’, chosen by the persuasion of their names. There was a pentatonic melody hidden there—a sound from the earth only heard when you slow time down.
And so I became a musical time traveller to a pink house in Suffolk.