Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Nick Magnus - A kind of Alchemy

Nick Magnus
In the Sixties we were obsessed with the future. It is not the future we inhabit, for it was a romantic vision seen through a prism of psychedelia and a Tomorrow's World agenda which included robots that would do your housework. Films such as 2001 - A Space Odyssey, Solaris, Alphaville and Barbarella ranged from the fantastic to the grimly dystopian. A characteristic of earlier Sci-fi was the eerie music, in films such as The Day the Earth Stood Still and Forbidden Planet which enlisted the Theremin to create an other-worldly, electronic atmosphere which underpinned the sense of detachment from humanity and at the same time, dependence on machines.

At the end of the 1960's we began to see the emergence of the first commercially available synthesisers. Alongside this was the Mellotron, which was not a synthesiser, but a keyboard instrument which played Eight second-long tape strips of other instruments.* What became apparent was that, artistically electronic music was as capable of great things as it was capable of very bad things.

Today we have exponents of the genre who, whilst being adept musically, end up with a product that is little more than elevator music. On the other hand there are people out there who have mastered the synth and produce music which is truly sublime. What makes it all the more remarkable is that there were no real predecessors. None of the early exponents studied under a master, for there were none.

Nick Magnus
Which brings me to Nick Magnus. The name intrigued me. Had he chosen to call himself Nicholas Magnus I would have easily believed that he had taken his name from a 14th Century alchemist. Alchemy is what a good exponent of electronica appears to do. There is no real aesthetic or intrinsic value in a synthesiser. It is not a Stradivarius. It lies, in quite an inert state until someone comes along and breathes life. A good violin breathes and resonates, almost on its own and defines the sound to the player. A synth cannot do this in the same way and one model from the production line sounds pretty much the same as another.

What it appears to require is a different and wholly new approach from the player. Since its range is almost infinite, it must be tied down and conquered and not everyone has been able to do this. Nick Magnus has, and it will be interesting to see one hundred years hence, how his work influenced the music of 2111, for, in evolutionary terms, we are still at the beginning.

It is clear that Nick's work has referenced the film soundtrack as a genre of its own.

NM: That's intentional. That started to take off when I got to the end of my second solo album. The first one, Straight on 'til Morning, was a reflection of where I was at the time. I always harboured an ambition to write music for TV. Everybody was going out and buying albums and I didn't. I risked life and limb going around the back of the TV, wiring up my cassette recorder and I would record all the theme tunes that came on, even adverts. If I liked the music from an advert I would record that as well. Stuff from the Sixties and Seventies covered such a broad range of styles and you don't find that so much now. They have a horrendous habit of blocking the music at the end of a show, with, "Coming up on BBC1 we have..." and you just go, "Oh shut up, I want to hear the music." Being a TV composer now must be a thankless task because nobody ever gets to hear what you do.

So certainly from the Seventies to the Nineties, that is what I wanted to do and never got to do it. The pieces I wrote are very much reflections of that, they are short form pieces. I found it very difficult to write anything longer than about four minutes and that was pushing it. So the first album was a collection of would-be TV themes.

Moving on to the new album...

NM: There is a linking theme. I finally started doing the long-form stuff. Right at the end of the second album (Inhaling Green), I had teamed up with Dick Foster who writes all the lyrics. The next two albums, Hexameron and Children of Another God, both of them have an over-arching theme. This makes it so much easier to write because it is like scoring music to a film. In other words, writing music in a vacuum, just saying, "Oh, I am going to write another piece." I find very difficult. But the moment you give me a story - it's got a beginning, a middle and an end, and it has this overall feel to it, suddenly, you find melodies, tones, sound colours - they all just start forming in your head.

WW: I liken it to a kind of Sibelian idea of painting soundscapes based on narrative.

NM: Yes, that is exactly it. Children of Another God and Hexameron are slightly different in the kind of narrative. Hexameron has an overall subject (The Creation of the Universe) which each track looks at in a different way. It is based on myths and legend. For example; Brother Sun, Sister Moon is Medieval Alchemy.

WW: It's funny you should say that because the name Nicholas Magnus reminds me of a medieval alchemist or herbalist!

NM: (Laughs) I don't have a pointy hat or a cape. And somebody described Hexameron as being like a Nordic Saga and I really liked that description. It sounds a bit pompous and overblown..

WW: Well, Prog was a bit of a dirty word for a while.

NM: With the benefit of time a number of people can now admit to liking ABBA, whereas to have said so at the time would have been cringingly embarrassing, but now. of course, if you don't like ABBA there is something wrong with you. I hope a similar kind of thing will happen with Prog where the embarrassment factor goes away and people can say, "Yeah, well, I like Genesis - they are really good."

WW: There is no harm in talking about contemporary popular music in the terms that classical music is referred to for the simple reason that it might be the "classical" music of 100 years' time.

NM: I would like to think so. I would like to think the work has a lasting quality. Today's prog has divided into sub-genres in a way that it didn't used to be. Early Prog live up to its name, being progressive, in that every band had a unique approach and a sound. You only had to hear a snatch of a band and you knew immediately who it was. One of my main problems with neo-Prog theses days is they all sound the same. There is an awful lot of formularisation; what has happened is that there are acceptable routes of Prog that you cannot stray outside of and if you do you are considered a bit off-beat.

WW: The latest album doesn't seem to plough a particular generic furrow.

NM: Variety is what keeps it alive for me. And also, when you are telling different aspects of the story you have to change the mood and the feel. The problem is that there is so much around that you can take the lyrics from one Prog song and stick them in another and it would not make any difference. I like to write the music so that when you listen to it, pictures come into your head, as if you are watching a movie.

WW: So do you see pictures in your head when you write?

NM: Absolutely, yes. It's like watching a film - like having a story to write to so inevitably you do get the pictures in your head. And if there are no pictures I have to re-work the piece until I get them.

WW: The track that perhaps illustrates your point for me is Identity Theft, which puts me in mind of those cool black and white French movies of the Sixties. Alphaville etc.

NM: Yes, Cinema Noir - nobody says anything for ages and you think there is something wrong with the soundtrack and then somebody speaks and it makes you jump.

WW: Identity Theft conjures up pictures of Ferraris driving down a winding mountain road and also that Un Homme et Une Femme feel.

NM: I am really glad you picked up on that because that was exactly what was intended. There's a little touch of the Sixties espionage movie in there as well.

(We listen to an excerpt from Identity Theft)

One of my favourite film composers is John Barry. Some of the harmonic progressions in there owe a lot to him, without a doubt. When I look back at it, there is very little harmonic movement in it. It's almost all centred around an A Minor chord, but with little colour movements within it, and yet, it doesn't feel static. It is only after I had done the track that I thought that I had not done very much, but it sounds like it is going somewhere.

WW: How do you describe the overall theme of Children of Another God?

NM: Uniformity versus Diversity. The statement in the piece is that, with uniformity you get power and strength, I guess the Nazis are an example of that, but with diversity you get progress, supporting the Darwinian idea that long-term survival comes with adaption and change. The penultimate track, Babel Tower, wears its heart on its sleeve in this respect, and the album as a whole comes down very firmly on the side of diversity.

The way I define uniformity today’s terms is that everybody has to have the same thing. Mobile phone adverts on TV are the classic example. They are telling you that if you have this phone, you will have a fantastic life. No, you won't, you'll just have a sodding phone. All it is going to do is cut you off from the rest of the world because you'll spend your whole bloody life texting.

'The Colony Is King', is a much more cinematically visual track than either 'Brother Sun' or 'Babel Tower', and it shows two radically different interpretations of the same melody - essentially it's Uniformity starting out as something initially beautiful and graceful, then transforming into something ugly and threatening. It best encapsulates the overall theme of the album in a musical way, whereas 'Babel' does that rather more through its lyrics.

WW: As for being cut off, I had to look you up. It is not as if the cognoscenti don't know who you are but there are thousands upon thousands of people doing music and really, you have to look and look hard above the babble.

NM: Twenty years ago the idea of making reasonably professional music would have been pretty much impossible. Now, pretty much anybody can go out and for a few hundred quid and as long as they have the skills they can make some reasonable sounding music. So many more people do it now.

WW: I think the marketing has almost completely taken over. As you have implied, people are told what to listen to, on a scale we could not possibly have conceived of, twenty or thirty years ago. When an album came out it was an event.

NM: Yes it was an event. You would have a launch party and a bit of press. Now, people rely very much on the internet and the whole viral idea, which does work. For some people it works phenomenally well. You hear of somebody who has sold ten million albums as downloads, and I have not hitherto heard of them. The positive thing is that at least people can find you. They can find you by accident or they can seek you out, but at least they can find you.

Well, happily for me, I found Nick. He understands the internet in a way I wish other musicians would. This piece will be around for as long as the internet exists. However you find this, either as a regular visitor or a Googler or a seeker of something a bit more interesting than the top ten downloads, welcome. This is part of the legacy. Children of Another God is first rate; a broad-ranging, lush soundscape with a narrative, and a literate one at that. Nicholas Magnus has turned base silicon into precious music. An alchemist indeed.

You can find out a lot more about Nick on his own site, and in particular his association with the brothers Hackett, Steve (Genesis)  and John, and as a member of The Enid. Details of his latest album, Children of another God can be got here:

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