Writing Music About

Specific Gravity

Released in 2024.

Specific Gravity cover

This collection is framed by a set of four synthetic orchestral pieces – the Mythic Texts. In between are two poetic settings reminiscent of my previous settings of the work of Robert Frost. In this case, the poems treated are Charles Bukowski's 'Man Mowing the Lawn Across the Way from Me' (1973), read by the poet and T.S. Eliot's 1925 work 'The Hollow Men' read by Tom O'Bedlam.

The music of the Mythic Texts does not relate to specific narratives from mythology – it is not 'programmatic' in that sense. Rather, the musical narratives are archetypal, creating a series of 'semantic spaces' as Nicholas Cook might put it, which can accommodate a variety of interpretations. While there is no programme, it is obvious that the texts generally don't end well with all but the second culminating not in a comfortable resolution but a descent into something more unsettling. The second is more reflective, achingly sad, in a better place, but as though only through stoic acceptance of the situation. The message of these texts is that in some unspecific, but archetypally tragic way, things will turn out horribly and that stoic acceptance is the best you can hope for.

The poetic settings that interpose the third and fourth texts underline that signification. The Bukowski poem tells of the limited horizions of the majority of mankind. The text is abridged and its dark imagery of 'girls sharpening their knives', removed from the context of the full poem, takes on a more existential menace. The sound world, in contrast to the orchestration of the rest of the album is minimal, ambient even, with an acoustic piano rippling through digital delays, and the sharpening of the steel mirrored in tremolando distorted electric guitars.

The Eliot poem is categorically bleak and minacious. Written after the horrors of the First World War had shaken the developed world from its complacent belief in continual societal progress, Eliot's recounting of the horrors that men can do to each other is set in a dizzying orchestral kaleidoscope in which the tension only finds release in banality. "This is the way the world ends – not with a bang but a whimper" the reader intones over consciously trite RnB licks and the random electronic chirping of senseless machines.

The fourth Mythic Text is the briefest of all and like the Chorus in a Greek tragedy, relates to the audience the lessons to be learned from the drama that has unfolded in the previous scenes. The situation is tragic, it seems to say, and will end horribly. An impressionistic transcendental string elegy hints at a utopia that cannot be sustained and collapses once again into a terrible cadence.

And in a final nod to the hubris of humans who have done nothing to ameliorate the situation but have been determined to let the good times roll, as the music fades we hear the strains of a discordant theater organ, the senseless protagonists no doubt rolling in the aisles.

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The essay 'A Bloodless Coup' published to mark the release of this album is more candid as to the nature of the 'specific gravity' to which this album title refers.


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