“I’d found that in lockdown I’d been getting up earlier and earlier and really enjoying that special period when it feels like there are very few people awake. The first thing I did was to go out and record walking at sunrise. This was early May and the sun was up at about 6am, so not too early. Obviously, it kept going earlier because it went on!
I recorded the walk a few times, once time with my daughter, and I really enjoyed the snippets of conversation that got caught on that recording. That became the starting point, the first thing that ended up in the finished piece. The next thing I did was to write a little story, which my daughter recorded. That was very quickly written, but it gave me a map: 15 minutes of walking around at dawn, and the story on top of it. I find it really useful to work in this way: I have a duration of 15 minutes of audio, almost all of which I know I'm going to replace; and I've got a shape in the form of a story.
I had been yearning for ensemble music, and the sound of the sun makes me think of brass. I'd been very keen to find a project to do with Laura Jurd for a while - she's a fantastic trumpet player and a really brilliant composer. The way the process worked was that I would play ideas for brass parts on accordion, or really cheap, nasty brass sounds on a keyboard, and a great orchestrator called Ben Woodgates turned that into actual music. Laura and I spent a long time on Zoom trying things out and multi-tracking, which is the modern way, it seems.
Laura played all the brass parts, trumpet and tenor horn, and then the euphonium parts are a trumpet which has been pitched down, which was quite hilarious because she had to record all the euphonium parts at double speed so that we could slow them down.
"you hear things differently when you're walking, and things have a different effect."
Photograph: Sandy Butler
One of the important things about how this music came together is that Laura's an improviser, a very natural, real time creator of music, and so quite a lot of these things, including a couple of the tunes, came out of those improvisations. Once the brass was all recorded, I put various bits of accordion on it, keyboards, a lot of processing, repitching and squashing, stretching.
And very regularly, at least once a day and often more during that process, I'd stick it on headphones, and I’d go and walk and listen to it. The whole idea is that you walk and listen to it and actually, you hear things differently when you're walking, and things have a different effect. So I do a lot. Once the music was mostly there I started making environmental recordings: birds, wind, lots of walking on various different surfaces, sliding down a bank of earth...
I made these recordings with a binaural microphone, which is a device that attempts to make very realistic stereo recordings, so that when you listen on headphones, it's as close as possible to being there. We also used this technique to re-record the brass, so I played out each brass part individually through a separate speaker in a room and then recorded it all at once through the binaural mic to make it as close as I could to an ensemble playing together in real time. The last thing for me is the final set of words. So I threw away the story and replaced it with a more abstract set of words, loosely based on the same subjects. I love words, but they’re not my primary medium; I'm employing them as a kind of compositional flavour. For me, the words are there to change what the music means. A lot of composers talk about writing for a film in their head, and I'm just trying to tell people what the film in my head is.”