Following a tip off from Rima Staines, I went to see the Al-Mizan exhibition at Oxford's Museum of the History of Science yesterday. It's basically a collection of astrolabes, those extraordinary devices, in use from the Middle Ages right through to the Early Modern period, that are part star map, part compass, part clock, part work of art, part science, part magic. They are exquisitely beautiful and reveal a phenomenal understanding of maths and astronomy (not forgetting astrology too).
There's an online exhibition for those who can't get to Oxford, but if you're anywhere near, then I recommend you visit.
Since speaking to Rima astrolabes must have been on my mind, for they feature in a new song that I finished this week. Though there's been much hammering and bending in my tune-smithy of late, I haven't written a song for nearly a year - sometimes the creative coffers are just empty. I've learned not to try and force a song to come, though during the lean times it's hard to trust that the muse will ever return.
Most of my songs begin with my secreting myself away, lighting a candle or two and noodling on the mandolin for a few hours. I try chords at random, leave one or two or more strings open to act as drones, let my ears guide me. Occasionally it is as if the instrument leads my fingers to new patterns that I couldn't consciously have discovered - most mysterious.
When I have a set of chord sequences that work, I play them over and over and start to sing nonsense over the top until I have a melody that I'm happy with. Like most people when they start writing songs, my melodies used to be simple and horizontal - now, as my melodic sense has improved, they are more vertical, with ever longer curls and tails.
I find that the chords present images to me - once I have the chords I already know what the song is to be about. The tricky part is writing the lyrics, taking these opaque images and feelings and trying to convey them with words that fit the melodic and rhyming scheme, but which aren't hideously cliched. I am all too aware that sun, moon, silver and gold are my most overused words (and, of course, moon appears in the song)!
Sometimes a complete line will occur to me as I wake up - I find the hypnagogic morning state to be most productive: though it may look as if I'm lazing in bed, my mind is active as can be. So one morning I woke with the opening line: 'Last night I saw Rachel turn into a bird.' Lovely! But the rest required a lot more work as you can see from the amount of scribbling in this photo (though please don't look too closely at this work-in-progress).
Once I have most of the words pinned down I have to make sure that they 'work' - the written word sounds very different when spoken or sung. I 'sing' the song in my head as I walk or cycle around Oxford. Changes and improvements occur to me. Eventually everything settles.
It's through the writing of the song that I find out what it's about. This one began as a farewell song to a dear friend who, in a sense, is moving away. By the end it had become a song about change and mutability, about how we are constantly in a process of metamorphosis and about how, if we try and hold on to the past we simply hasten the end (the keen-eared among you will also pick up some classical references that managed to find their way in: to Orpheus, Syrinx and Heraclitus).
So here it is, Astrolabe (I hate having to say this, but I'd probably better - Copyright © Andy Letcher 2011), recorded with my beloved by candlelight in our front room, warts and all. If you listen carefully you might be able to hear the fridge in the background. Perhaps one day it will become a Telling the Bees song and you'll be able to hear how it changes in the playing.
Astrolabe by andyletcher