GUEST FEATURE • by Alison Mathews
In this guest post, Alison outlines a fabulous benefit project she has committed to, as well as unveiling a brilliant new piano composition…
Moments of Inspiration
This year has been filled with moments of inspiration, taking my life as a pianist and composer in unexpected and enriching directions.
It all began at the start of the year when on January 8th, I spotted a crowd funding campaign for the British musician Tim Smith who over the years has inspired devotion and fierce loyalty from fans, along with respect from musicians across the musical world. Best known as the front man and creative force behind the cult band Cardiacs (formed in 1977), his music influenced the likes of Blur, Radiohead and Napalm Death.
This devotion is quite an achievement for someone who has not achieved wide recognition and whose career came to an abrupt end in 2008 after suffering a full cardiac arrest at the age of 46.
This caused severe hypoxic brain damage and left him with the little known condition dystonia, affecting his movements as a whole, his dexterity and ability to speak. In his own words,
“The only way I can try and let you know how I feel at the moment… is, imagine if you were wearing a skintight bodysuit made of fishnet all around you with electrical pulses going all the…time. This is what my body feels like unless I fall asleep”
An outpouring of support and donations followed the start of the campaign and within a mere 10 hours of setting up the page, the original target of £40,000 had been reached. A revised target of £100,00 followed and achieved within 6 weeks.
Given access to the right treatment, Tim would be able to continue his rehabilitation with the possibility of regaining his ability to make music.
I was glued to social media for that first 24 hours, riding a wave of emotion reading the comments and watching the figure quickly advance. The response was inspirational and truly moving!
Discovering Tim’s music
I discovered the music of Tim Smith about 5 years ago. I have always had an interest in music that stands outside of “normal” genres and to step out of my traditional classical background.
It is very difficult to define the music of the band Cardiacs. Tim Smith’s writing is uncompromising, highly individual, at times playful at others fierce, charged with intense emotion. The use of whole tone scales, unusual harmonies, changes in tempo and metre, interesting instrumentation and complexity can create at times seemingly surreal, chaotic music.
In fact it is highly structured, developing and pushing the boundaries of the art of song writing.
After donating, I began to consider what else I could do to raise awareness and celebrate the music of someone who is one of my musical heroes.
The most natural way was to take a song and arrange it using my own “musical voice”, that of a contemporary classical composer. My hope was that this would ignite interest from those who would not otherwise hear or appreciate Tim’s music.
One song stood out, “Big Ship”, from the album “Big Ship” (1987). It is anthemic, full of emotion and with compositional subtleties that I could explore.
I wanted to write a piece that was not simply a piano transcription, but something new, inspired by the original that would “tease out the beautiful subtleties of compositional genius that are sometimes hidden within the original’s wall of sound”. This comment, sent to me by Nick Elborough, a Cardiacs fan, sums up perfectly my intentions.
The amazing response I had from my recording took me by surprise and just as I thought I’d achieved all that I could, the filmmaker (and Cardiacs fan), Charlie Mounsey of Unwelcome Human Films, offered to create an accompanying video.
Here it is, in all its glory!
Continuing the journey…
During the year, I continued to write and record, producing sheet music that anyone could download, requesting a donation was made to the continuing campaign.
Whilst I was playing my small part in raising awareness, there was an ongoing effort by fans to introduce the work of Tim Smith to a wider audience.
Time, creative effort and energy continued to be given by so many people. A festival day was organized by Greg Braysford during August – the Whole World Window II – a huge undertaking. This came along with a benefit CD with 40 tracks donated by independent artists and bands. I was especially honoured to have four of my recordings included – a thread running through the track list.
As with all festivals and events, there is the potential to raise money through merchandise. Again, inspiration struck!
I decided to produce a book, in as high a quality as I could manage, with all of the arrangements I had completed. With help from another devoted fan, Noel Storey, the cover was designed and I spent a weekend printing and compiling “Happiness and Joy”.
Doctor of Music
Then, in October a remarkable piece of news – Tim Smith was to be given an honorary Doctorate of Music by the Royal Scottish Conservatoire of Music.
Behind the scenes others had been campaigning for this long deserved recognition, including the Head of Composition at RCS, Gordon McPherson and composer and alumnus Martin Keary. The Director of Music, Dr Gordon Munro, who sponsored the conferral of the doctorate, talked of Tim’s “exceptional creativity and inspirational approach to music making over many years”.
The award ceremony took place on October 28th, followed by a celebration on November 24th in which Tim received his Doctorate in person, surrounded by friends and family. I was thrilled to learn that my piece “Piano on a Big Ship” and the video was included in a compilation played at the event.
Time to be inspired once more!
As we head towards the end of 2018 and the end of the original campaign, it feels like a significant moment. Time to be inspired once more!
While I was busy promoting my own book of Christmas Carol arrangements, I realized that one of my all time favourite carols, “Gabriel’s Message” had some similarities to “Victory Egg” from the Cardiacs album, A Little Man and A House (1988). Not only that, but the track explored a theme common in Tim’s lyrics – that of WW1 and WW2. This was the perfect opportunity to create a combined tribute in the WW1 centenary year, wrapped up in the highly evocative carol “Gabriel’s Message”.
Both melodies are similar in shape at the beginning and make use of the familiar crotchet/quaver rhythm in 6/8. The key and harmonies used meant the progressions needed to make both songs recognizable could flow and blend. I needed a climax for the piece, so I took the highpoint of “Victory Egg” where Tim Smith sings defiantly “I will give myself to the war”. Here, I highlighted the melody by adding octaves in the right hand and balanced these with low bass notes. This created a richer, more dramatic sound at this point. The piece ends with a gentle “Gloria” from “Gabriel’s Message”.
I approached Charlie Mounsey to see if he would create a video for the track. The result is an animation that is both moving and humorous – very much a tribute to all who lost their lives during the war.
Please do watch and listen to the intermingling of the two pieces of music.
The sheet music is included as a pdf download below. All I ask is for a donation to Dr Tim Smith to improve the chances that he will be able to express himself once more through music.
Thank you for your support!
Photos of Tim Smith and Jim Smith reproduced by kind permission from Stephen Payne.
Alison Mathews is a composer, teacher and classically trained pianist. Her recent publications include Doodles, Treasure Trove, Capturing the Spirit of Christmas and Capturing the Joy of Winter. Her aim is to write music that engages the imagination and provides opportunities for pianists to develop their musicianship.
Further arrangements and recordings of Cardiacs songs can be found on her website here.