This is an edited extract from the prose work that will accompany the release of Dancing with Architects … It concerns ambition, intention and luck. Hopefully it will make some sense as it stands.
The opening to I, Sybarite is how every musician and artist wants their career to begin: to simply explode in the consciousness of the audience. No warning given, no real preparation possible. To just suddenly be. It’s a great contrast from the album’s opening track, Praxis. I’m guessing my rationale for putting Sybarite as track two was to confuse those who knew me and expected me to hit the ground at a full gallop and surprise those who didn’t know me from Adam.
Ambition is peculiar. When your interest in an instrument, or a sport, or any endeavour, moves into the realms of ambition, strange things happen. You start to dream of ‘being discovered’, of that one-time ripping back of the curtain when everything changes. From that one moment. And yet each time you think you have it in your grasp, that you have reached escape velocity and finally overcome the inertia that held you back, that you will now sweep through the industry, through the world in a great uncontrollable rush of irresistible triumph, it turns out that there’s another set of stairs to climb, another door to unlock.
All this notwithstanding, there are times when this does happen, albeit on a smaller scale, and it feels as though you’ve woken up a different person, a different musician. Throughout my first year with a guitar in my hand, I did what I always did: I did what I was told. My teacher, Lee, was an interesting chap. A very fine guitar player from Co. Durham, he had a three-piece jazz-rock combo who played around Norwich, playing Jeff Beck, Larry Carlton, that sort of stuff, and doing it well. He also arranged tunes like the theme from War of the Worlds, playing them chord-melody style on his Les Paul Junior. He played with a thumbpick and had very good technique. He was, to be fair, a pretty average teacher, but what he lacked in terms of the ability to knowingly pass on information in a coherent and accretive manner he more than made up for in style and attitude. More important than that, however, he was a great role model. As we all do when we find a mentor, I followed his words and tried to play like him. I was so unaware of what I was trying to do with my instrument that I copied his physical playing style without even thinking about it. I owe most of my technique to him, even if I refined it heavily, because his basics were spot on. I also owe to him my opinion of what made a good guitar player – and thus my ultimate ambition. Watching him play live for the first time, having persuaded my housemaster to allow me, a fifteen-year old schoolboy, to exit the boarding house one Sunday evening to, er, go to the pub, was one of those moments for me. Seeing how much everyone loved his playing ticked some box or other for me, and I woke the following morning a different person, though it took me a while to come to terms with this fact. Quite a while.
The more logical part of my brain had settled on a career in engineering. I had won a place at a military academy based at Welbeck Abbey, the seat of the Duke of Portland, a stately home riddled with tunnels and with a massive underground ballroom we used to play football in – the tunnel leading from the ballroom was wide enough to accommodate two carriages. The ballroom had its own carriage lift. The grounds were half Repton and half Sherwood Forest. The assault course even had an ornamental fountain smack damn in the middle. Competition for places was highly competitive and many were surprised that I had managed to squeeze myself in. It was a brutal awakening. On arrival I realised that this was not my path, but, having stated that it was, and having set out upon it, I could not let myself admit this plain truth. It took me six months to manoeuvre myself into a position where I was ‘asked to leave’ (I think that in this sense I am unique, or at least, I was).
I was now a guitar player. And I wanted, no, I had, to follow my star. I set my sights on being a professional.
Be careful what you wish for
All rising to great place is by a winding stair. This world is full of stories of great men and women who, at an early age, set their hearts on a certain goal. You know, those people who, having just received the Great Accolade, announce that they first knew they wanted to be a novelist/musician/olympian/politician when they were six and they first read/heard/saw/er …
It is also a commonplace that dolphins are sweet, loving creatures who look upon humans with a sort of proprietorial air (I think Douglas Adams is to blame for some of this), and regularly save lost swimmers from the jaws of the waiting sharks or the perils of the open ocean. This is the trope that pervades the ‘all you need is to persevere’ school of thought.
It is one of the most pernicious myths peddled in the modern world. The idea that you are master/mistress of your own destiny. If we ignore the obvious nonsense of including the word ‘destiny’ within it, we are left with a serious problem. If it is true that all that’s necessary is hard work and perseverance for any one of us to achieve our ultimate ambition, then we are left with the unpleasant idea that should we fail, it is our fault for simply not being good enough, and this is because we did not try hard enough.
The fact is that being good is simply not good enough. You also need to be lucky.
It was, I believe, Napoleon who asked for lucky generals.
Luck. Now there’s a thing. ‘What is luck?’, asked Pilate, but would not stay for an answer. Where are we on the luck/self-determination spectrum? This is one of those questions for which an answer is easy to formulate, if difficult to prove. Luck is something over which one has no obvious control. It is not luck that an individual excells at a sport or a musical instrument, it’s hard work. There is perhaps even no luck involved in their having an innate set of physiological characteristics that allow them to make the hard work make the difference. But there is luck involved in all sorts of the decisions we make, namely the ones for which the options appear equally good, bad or indifferent.
The real point about luck is that it does not discriminate. There is neither bad luck nor good luck. It’s just that some luck suits you, and some doesn’t. There is no fat controller. From some angles, my life has been sprinkled with good luck; from others, dogged by bad. From my angle, my life is just that. Life.
It was at some point in the early 90s that I rediscovered books. I had spent much of the 80s with my fingers wrapped around the neck of a guitar, and my mind wrapped around the idea of music. I made it through my last days at school and sixth form college by way of the fortuitous combination of an excellent memory, highly concentrated bursts of directed work and an affinity for words. But I craved escape from the intensity of my both practice schedule and my desire to succeed. The former led me into some dubious places; the latter some dubious decisions.
In the process of some word-based activity or other, I came across a word that I did not know: Sybarite. In what was a very rare occurence, I phoned my father and asked him. He explained that Sybaris was a city in Greece renowned for the self-indulgence of its citizens. Hence to be a Sybarite was to be someone whose chief activity is the indulging of themselves in sensuous luxury. Not long after this conversation I concocted a list of names for tunes as yet unwritten (I had assistence in this venture, from Marie, if memory serves. Thank you, Marie), one of which was I, Sybarite.
The tune itself is nothing if not self-indulgent. It was written as such. Perhaps written is too strong a word. It developed itself from a simple picking exercise that I subjected to a wild round of ‘what if’. It was on two strings, I added a third. It was in four, I lopped a bit off and played one of its bars in seven. Before I knew what I was doing I had a very difficult guitar theme that was ripe for expansion. It was challenging at any tempo. Naturally, it wanted to be played far too fast.
This tune came second in the album’s track listing for one reason: dynamics. I wanted to demonstrate within the first two or three bars of the album’s second track where, exactly, my dynamic range was. That is, like Bacon, I wanted all guitar to be my province. So the movement from Praxis to Sybarite was designed to be a simple statement that from now on, anything goes. This is my dynamic range – the markers of the limits of my ambition.
Dynamics are the very breath of music. They are the ebb and the flow of the tide. They are the very stuff of life. They exist on multiple levels.
As does ambition.
My stated ambition, when I first picked up the guitar, was simply to be awesome. In many ways, I achieved that.
But having ascended that first peak, I could now see things that had been obscured by low cloud. Ambition realised is achievement devalued. From the heights, all you can see is how you have failed. There may be new mountains to climb, but first you must descend from this one. And the quickest way is to fall.