Notes from sf author Stephen Palmer

From Bacteria To Bach And Back

From Bacteria To Bach And Back: The Evolution Of Minds, by Daniel Dennett

I wanted to like this. I should have liked it. I didn’t much like it.

I’ve enjoyed this brilliant author’s previous work, not least the groundbreaking Consciousness Explained, but this… this has great substance, yet the writing is terrible. Every paragraph is broken up with digressions, stuff in brackets – even a single question mark in one instance – and more utterly unnecessary stuff that any editor would ordinarily have excised. But Dennett’s editor didn’t. As a result, the book reads mostly like the half-assed ramblings of a doddery old professor.

I’ll say it again – the substance is great. The middle section didn’t seem that important, but the opening and concluding chapters in particular were important and good. Dennett’s thesis is that all explanations which posit a dividing line between mind stuff and brain stuff, as with Decartes’ original concept, are misleading. He thinks the so-called Hard Question only appears if you take such positions. He also agrees with Nicholas Humphrey that the point of conscious, the reason for its existence, is that it makes things matter in human life. When you’re in love with somebody, that person’s highs and lows mean so much to you for exactly the same reason. You therefore make an effort for them, regardless of the circumstances. Similarly, the fact that consciousness is a user-illusion is no contradiction to the fact that we human beings matter to each other. For this insight, I applaud the author.

In a nutshell: good substance, dire writing.



James Everington’s Music For Writers

This week quality genre author James Everington has chosen my music for his “Music For Writers” section on his blog.


My music, part 8

I began this week’s musical wander by saying: I rarely talk in author or SF circles about the music which I write and record, because generally speaking I’ve had a bit of a negative response to this aspect of my creative life, in those places anyway. Some people are interested and supportive, but at least as many are the opposite.

I’m sorry to say that some people in the creative world suffer from envy. When I was a newbie writer I suffered from envy a bit myself, until I realised it was a waste of time to compare myself with others on the basis of what in the end is more luck than anything else. I’m quite tempted now to try again with mentioning, and even promoting my music: maybe link to a few pieces and try and sell some CDs to literary friends – Facebook and real world. Envy is about feeling you have nothing within yourself and not wanting to see it in (successful) others. Envy is difficult to admit to, and most people use the inaccurate word jealousy when they describe it. But there’s a lot of it about.

Anyway, I’m no proper musician. I’m completely self-taught and do everything by intuition. I’m not a natural live performer either. An ex-girlfriend gave the best description of what I do when she called me a music builder. Although the instruments I play are about letting what’s inside of me out, my real home is the music studio. There, the balance of musical building and expression is just about perfect.

Here then is my final choice of favourite pieces: Culture 2 from the Blue Lily Commission album of the same name. This track was a bit of a renaissance for me, as BLC had been dormant for a few years when I recorded it. All the keyboards and synthesizers are played live on this one, not programmed, so the piece has a lovely relaxed vibe to it.

Steve live 2

My music, part 7

Some of the music I make is uptempo, it’s not all ambient or deeply meaningful!

One of the joys of working with the Logic recording studio system is that Logic comes with lots of software synthesizers, that you can programme easily, then alter in real time to give your music flow and progression. I use many of these software synths on my more electronic or synth-based music.

One of the pieces that worked particularly well was Luftgesang (Song Of The Air), written and recorded in 2009. I was at the time going through an unbelievably stressful personal situation, and I realised soon after the piece was finished that it expressed everything I wanted at the time – freedom, peace and quiet, a chance to fly away from house and home. Music saved me during this period. It gave me something to think about and do outside all the other stuff, and, because it’s music, it was a way to express what was going on inside me. Later I recorded a companion album, Wassergesang (Song Of The Water) using similar techniques.


My music, part 6

More about my non-literary creativity…

The other thing about living in and with nature is feeling the turning of the seasons. As with most people sensitive to the natural world, that cycle of change means a lot. The neo-pagan movement has done much to promote the stations of the sun, and there’s a lot to be said for using it as our annual calendar rather than the imposed, Christian, historical one, which only means anything if you believe that stuff. The eightfold wheel of the year is one way of connecting – or reconnecting – with the land, something we desperately need in the Western world.

I particularly like this wheel metaphor. The two solstices, the two equinoxes, and the four Celtic cross-festivals add up to a constant, ever-changing, ever-renewed calendar for people who love the land. Yule, Imbolc, the vernal equinox, Beltane, the summer solstice, Lughnasadh, the autumnal equinox and Samhain… all deeply evocative.

I have done a lot of music based around this neo-pagan calendar. With my band Mooch we did The Pagan Year, and a couple of years ago The Pagan Year Rewilded, between which I worked with Beck Sian and Shelagh Teahan on Stations Of The Sun. In my solo work I’ve done A Seasonal Round and other pieces.

This piece was one I did a few years ago to celebrate the winter solstice. I don’t own the guitar I used to play this (for the slide sound and the backing chords) but I could definitely see myself making more such pieces…


My music, part 5

Continuing the non-literary ramble…

Much of my music has land, weather or seasonal themes. A while back I wanted to record an album using a digital string orchestra (a real string orchestra being well beyond my budget!). The theme was to be primal, elemental: ocean, forest, mountain, water. I wanted to make some films to go with the pieces, so I spent many happy days filming the sea, rivers, mountains and anything else that looked suitable in various parts of Wales.

My idea was to have one strong melodic theme anchoring the four ten-minutes pieces, with each piece having a second theme, which would counterpoint the first, and develop alongside it. Lacking any formal compositional training I just did was seemed natural and right, and, by and large, it worked, or so I was told. And Landscape is one of very few of my own albums that I’ll go back to listen to.

Here is the first movement: Sea.

Here is the third movement: Water. This section was often remarked upon as a favourite by those who heard the whole thing.


My music, part 4

Without doubt the best singer I’ve worked with so far is the gifted Beck Sian, aka Rebecca Sian Robson. Beck and I met through a local mutual acquaintance, Chris Gill, who I mentioned in part 2 of this music trek. In fact Chris himself met Beck through sheer coincidence at a petrol station in Wales, so this whole strand of my musical life depends on nothing more than random chance – often the way.

Beck and Chris had previously recorded her second album, but Beck wanted something different for her third, Ye Olde Silent Inn. I don’t sing, but I did write songs for my band Mooch, so we struck a deal. I would record her album at my studio, the Studio-by-the-Stream, and she would sing most of the songs on the Mooch album Stations Of The Sun. This was back in 2012 – 2013, and it was a wonderful experience. We had much fun, learned a lot, and made some great music.

Ye Olde Silent Inn encapsulates Beck very well, I think. She wanted to immerse herself into the land and the culture around her, for although a native of Australia she was sensitive to the British landscape. She played gigs locally and looked for other local support or lead opportunities – she would have enjoyed the marvellous and Beck-like Rheingans Sisters, playing locally. So Beck was both an enabler and a massive talent, enjoying what her region had to offer – local gigs, local venues where she herself might play, and the land itself – but adding to it in her unique way. Yet although she did love the Welsh Marches, for this album her heart was set on the Yorkshire moors, an area to which she relocated a few years later.

Working with Beck remains a standout time in my musical life.


My music, part 3

To continue the walk down musical lane…

When I started my solo project Blue Lily Commission in 2000 the inspiration wasn’t just a love of world-music, it was the acquisition of my first synthesizer. So it’s rather ironic that almost all the recent albums have been weighted much more towards real instruments than electronic ones.

Collecting world-music instruments has become a bit of an addiction for me, but the beauty is that I have a far wider range of instruments to use for Blue Lily Commission than would otherwise be the case. About 10 years ago I was challenged by a fan to make an entirely acoustic album, an idea which intrigued me at the time, but which I didn’t follow up until 2015. The album was called Undrugged, in a play on the word ‘unplugged’ used to describe acoustic concerts. Soon, after recording a few tracks, I had the idea to use every instrument I owned. I wasn’t sure that would be possible, but eventually I realised it was – all 119 of them. And the album was immense fun to record, which I wasn’t expecting!

Some instruments that I buy I can’t play or don’t gel with, but 90% of them I do like and can play, or at least make sounds from. Some of the instruments I use to create strange or otherworldly textures – for instance reed instruments, many of which aren’t made in Western keys – but others, like my guitars, are for ‘proper’ playing. Other instruments I’ve used to make my own samples, as I generally prefer not to use commercially available ones. But the main attraction is the joy of trying new instruments from across the world.

Having had such enjoyment from making Undrugged I wanted to try it again, but, not wanting to repeat the format, I went for an orchestrally supported theme, resulting in the album The Undrugged Orchestra. A few fans have told me this is their favourite Blue Lily Commission work, with this a favourite track.


My music, part 2

Continuing the stroll down music avenue…

A lot of my music is rooted in land, seasons, weather, landscape. I’m definitely Rural Man. Ten years ago I did a series of solo recordings loosely associated with 1970s music, and one of them was the album Border Land. I very rarely listen to my own music, but some albums, including this one, have a peculiar chemistry that I never can put my finger on. So I listen to this one quite often. It’s music to evoke a part of Britain very close to my heart, and pretty much where I live now – the Marches, the region where England and Wales meet. Border Land does dive south into Herefordshire, but mostly its world is the Marches area of Shropshire.

There’s a hint of Mike Oldfield in this album, but I played and arranged the instruments in a different way to how he does his music – more impressionistic. And because music is mostly about feeling and emotion, I suspect the reasons Mike Oldfield recorded Hergest Ridge in 1974 are similar to the reasons I recorded Border Land.

Around the time I made Border Land I had a group with two friends, one of whom, Chris Gill, lived in Criggion in Wales. We jammed a few times in the Criggion village hall, and I suspect the atmosphere of the place contributed to the spacey music that ensued. Landscape can influence music in many ways – in composition and in improvised playing. Chris, Andy and I may have been making rock music then, but we were channelling something more elemental, I think.

Border Land remains a favourite of my long form pieces.


My music, part 1

I rarely talk in author or SF circles about the music which I write and record, because generally speaking I’ve had a bit of a negative response to this aspect of my creative life, in those places anyway. Some people are interested and supportive, but at least as many are the opposite. So, for a few days here on my blog I’m going to highlight a few of my favourite pieces recorded over the years.

Blue Lily Commission has been my solo “world-fusion” project for eighteen years now, focusing on the various unusual instruments that I play, mixed with high-tech synthesizers and the like. A while back I bought some beautiful Indonesian flutes – the suling as it’s known over there – one of which seemed to have an Indian vibe when I played it, a bit like the bansuri, which I definitely can’t play. So here is a short piece for solo flute, which I improvised (I think I kept the second take) over a pre-recorded tanpura drone.