episode 4: natural blueprints
Jess Dandy: So how’s it been going?
Alex Mills: Wow, big question! Yeah, fine – I think in some ways, it's like a kind of composers dream to be like in sort of semi-isolation: no distractions or limited distractions. I kind of like it; I think it speaks to the best and worst parts of me though – so, best in that it allows me lots of time to be creative and productive, but also worst in that I'm kind of prone to be a bit ‘isolatory’ in my behaviour – so yeah, it's good and bad – pros and cons.
Jess: Hi, I’m Jess Dandy and this is PodPath – the SongPath Podcast, where conversations about mental health help us to connect creatively and restoratively to ourselves, each other, and the world around us. I’m joined for the next two episodes by composer, Alex Mills, who I first met when I performed in his opera, Dear Marie Stopes, an epistolary uncovering of the realities of early 20th century birth control and the contentious questions surrounding women’s bodily freedom. And indeed, Alex’s work always delves deep, it’s a meticulous excavation of the human condition in all its angularity and tenderness, drawing on the intricacies of the psyche to create what has been described as “music of supernatural poignancy, melodic but otherworldly, narratively urgent but poetically impressionistic”. Alex wrote the anthem for our first SongPath, A Song Sleeps in All Things, which do not cease from dreaming, which we’ll talk more about in Episode Two. Originally from Pembrokeshire and now based in London, in today’s episode we talk about the unlikely confluence of these rural and metropolitan experiences, the orientating power of natural rhythms and the bittersweet – the benefits of reintegrating darkness into life. We recorded this conversation back in May 2020, but hope, as we re-enter lockdown in the UK, you find it helpful.
Alex: I like the space and time that it's given to so much of life – you've had to question everything really that you do – everything, every meeting that you were supposed to have done, every project, even the food you buy, I guess. How about you?
Jess: Yeah, I'm the same, I think – it's given me the space and time to have a slightly more exploratory approach to my life – you know, everything was dictated by schedules and almost arbitrary necessity and I'm quite a mind wanderer anyway and I think I hadn't quite realised the extent to which I’d felt constricted by the schedules of a non-COVID life…
Jess: so yeah, but I think like you as well it also it brings out the best and worst in you. I think a lot of introverts I've spoken to – if you can speak in terms of the of the binary – have felt this sense of guilty pleasure in it and I think sometimes it's amazing to kind of have the space to explore things and process ideas in a way that suits you but sometimes it's also great to be challenged by other perspectives, and maybe you don't always get that in quarantine really – it's almost like you can over dictate the terms even though we've been ostensibly robbed of those terms at the same time.
Alex: Yeah, I feel the same in terms of feel guilty pleasure thing, but I was already slightly hardcore about meetings and stuff in normal COVID life – I would make sure that I never do meetings that involve having to take rush hour transport and stuff, and like I'm in no position to do that. And I guess I'm not really a diva, but I just can't hack that amount of people actually and that level of stress, and nothing really is worth it for me to do that…so like, I was already really quite restrictive of my time which is probably good and bad but now this endless – well, it's two sides isn't it, I don't have to see anyone face to face which really suits me in one way, but in another way I really miss people, and also everyone is available 24/7 really because no one’s anywhere so at once there is almost extreme access to people because they aren’t busy they aren’t going anywhere, and on the other hand you don't see anyone. So I suppose it plays into both levels of my way of navigating the world. And I like that you said about introverts and, umm, if you can speak in the binary about it because yeah, I feel like I’m both extrovert and introvert, and everywhere in between at different points. I think I tend more towards introversion but know how to be more extrovert when I need to be, I suppose. But it's something that I draw on rather than it comes naturally to me, I think.
Jess: Absolutely, and I suppose in terms of being in a confined space, it's almost like being in a petri dish of your own psyche and there's almost like a sort of fixity in that – that you almost have to decide how you function, whereas sometimes life provides the circumstances to allow for a variety of functioning methods: so, if you want to be extrovert you will do a certain thing; if you want to be introvert you will do another thing, but those kind of choices have been taken away from us in a way.
Alex: Yeah, totally, but then I suppose new ones have been presented to us – so I'm just thinking about all of the videos people have created about them doing extraordinary things that they may never have done before perhaps – just being driven to do that because they want to be seen and they want feedback and they want connectivity, I guess.
Jess: Yeah, I mean it's been interesting that people have talked about everybody being in the same boat and the backlash against that analogy that people have actually said, “no, we're not in the same boat, we're on the same sea.” And you've talked about this notion of navigating both pre-lockdown and during lockdown and I wondered whether you could talk a little bit about how you're mapping out a new life for yourself within London actually, because I'm up in Cumbria for lockdown and I think that is a very different experience based on my conversations with other Londoners. I can't quite imagine what the dynamic there is like…
Alex: Yeah, it's interesting – I mean, I grew up in really rural Wales in Pembrokeshire, and it's the last outpost of Wales, as far west as you can go, and I loved it, and I miss it, and I love the natural world, the National Park – the fact there’s no one there in winter anyway, and the feeling of being lost in nature and that's really close to my heart. And I always say when I'm chatting with people that I don't think I could ever live in like a town or a suburb – it's alien to me; the idea of that is alien – living in a city and in central London is the same as living by the coast in rural Wales for me in that I am all of the things I describe apart from nature, I am still isolated there is so much stuff and sensory information around me yet I can still be quite alone, and I kind of like that and so I'm quite comfortable being in London at the moment. And I think I'm particularly lucky in that the part about nature I said is I had a really little roof garden, which I nurture to within an inch of its life. I give it a lot of love; that's my connection to nature: yeah, literally growing stuff and creating stuff I'm looking at stuff nurturing things its creative and it keeps you connected to nature then it's so it's ideal for me in that I feel it's obviously convenient is so much so many like resource is around just for day to day life like going to the shops and stuff – that's really easy. But yeah, I'm still KIND OF in this mini Oasis if you like. And I thought about going back to Wales actually like I I really I still like London is SORT OF my home now, and even though Wales might be my spiritual home or whatever and somewhere I’ll always go back to just felt like I have what I need here. But I don't think I would be able to do it without having this little garden actually – it's crucial. And I think if I didn't have that I probably would have had to go back to Wales. So yeah, that’s the priority for me.
Jess: I find it really interesting with the notion of gardening this idea that we're a custodian of other life forms and that there is profound connection there but actually in the act of nurturing or cultivating, that part of that is a deep respect for the independence of that nature so you can set things in motion, you can help it on its way but you have to respect the time when each plant or life form will come to the surface, and also you tap into a natural seasonality of things, and I wondered whether you could talk about the effect that it has on you psychologically to witness those rhythms, to witness these life forms over which you have responsibility, but limited control.
Yeah, no that's so interesting. I was that was actually going to talk about that too because – and it relates to how people have been dealing with the pandemic as well – because I remember when I first started working freelance and left office life far behind me and I was so looking forward to it: free time, you know, structure my day… I felt crazy, I felt very like all at sea because there was no structure; there was no outline of what my day should look like. And it took me a long time to figure that out and I think that's the position that quite a lot of people have been thrown into overnight but luckily for them lots of people are doing, trying to navigate it too so they can talk about that…and relating to the gardening and nature itself, it's like looking after a garden or living by the sea or any place that has a connection to nature, it is a sort of blueprint or structure or an outline of life that it's just there. So especially when you go through a full cycle, so with the garden like a year, by going through all four seasons and seeing it change, and I think that once that's happened there's a familiarity that comes with, “oh, if I look outside my garden in May, I will know roughly what I saw last year – what's died back, what's not doing so well, what's doing even better, what's new, are there any weird weeds that have sprung up that I kind of like and just keep”. There's something extremely therapeutic about that to me and yeah I look at the garden every day and I like even if it's just for five minutes or less even, I look at like the leaves – and it sounds a bit odd – but I really like observing the flowers and leaves to see if there's any bugs on them, or disease that I need to look after or, or if there's sort of new growth or as I say, dying back it's so so important and it's, it's just like the cycles of the moon as well you know that it's a constant thing you can basically rely on it to be there. We hope we can rely on nature to be there – it gives a sense of consistency, and also a point to which I can orientate myself from – if that's a known factor, a known quantity – as long as I water the plants here and there it will basically be fine then yeah, it's a focal point in a way. I think a lot of it is, it's kind of more background information and I'm talking about this now very consciously but I don't really think about it like that in my day to day but thinking about it, talking about it here with you, that's the role it performs in my life. And I guess, like if you look at my Instagram page, people will be forgiven for thinking that I'm a gardener or something, not a composer because there's hardly any musical posts – they're all like pictures of flowers and yeah, it's very funny. But yeah, the moon is also really hugely important to me: I think mainly because the rhythm and cycle of the moon is, it's at just the right pace that you can really notice it every day, unlike the garden which has a slower unfolding; the sea as well obviously, but that's almost too quick; it's almost like, “Oh my God, it's going too fast!”, but the moon, I think for me is the ideal natural cycle in that, yeah, there's a day to day incremental change that feels very comforting to behold.
Jess: It feels that, that you're really using that as sort of anchorage against the arbitrariness of our constructed time.
Alex: I guess so, yeah, like who cares about zoom meetings and schedules and stuff like really we will do and we all need to do them – and of course we need to do them and whatever we do for work, they are essential tools all this stuff but actually when you strip it back like that actually care but I do care about my connection to the world around me and what is the constant in that – it's actually not technology – even though technology is a constant but it's transient and ever changing and it's not, it doesn't give a sense of real meaning; it's a tool rather than a sort of ever present monumental thing that you can orientate yourself against.
Jess: Yes, I agree and I think what is beautiful about that as well is that it does have this ever presence but actually there is a constant change within it as well. So there's a wonderful poem by a Cumbrian poet called Duncan Darbishire in which he describes the tides in the Morecambe Bay estuary and he talks about “the changeless changing sea”, and I think that for me when you talk about the cycles of the moon or the seasons of the year, or even looking at leaves every day, and seeing if they have any bugs on them seeing what you need to tend to, you're actually combining a vision of a constant and a constant change, and I wonder whether that's something that actually is quite therapeutic for us; that we're tethered but we’re in constant motion at the same time; but we're also held within these macro rhythms, so as human beings we’re integrated into a much larger mechanism, and in some ways that takes the pressure off us a little bit that we're sort of integral but also infinitesimal at the same time.
Alex: Yeah, definitely, and I think it is helpful because at once it is that tethering, has that tethering force and power which is so helpful but it is bittersweet isn't it? It is ever changing, as you say, it is transient. In my garden the roses have just bloomed and they’re so beautiful and will be here for maybe a week and it's so sad when they go actually. It's bittersweet, and I think that is helpful when it comes to thinking about mental health and just trying to deal with your day to day life: yeah, things come and go I mean it's kind of a life lesson, isn't it? But they do come back and that's the good thing that will suffer cycle does continue and I think that's what's reassuring. It's like when the nights draw in and it starts getting darker, I personally love the sort of peak of that darkness but I don't really like the journey to it, I find that quite difficult, and I love the long days and the long night in terms of light, and I do feel sad every year, and I find it really interesting how every single year – it happens every single year and it has for ever – people always comment on how the nights are drawing in because it’s such an important change which has an impact on your mind and body reality check not sad but I like the light and I want it to stay light…………it's a reality check, I suppose.Times because it's nature and it's natural but easier to behold and accept because there's an inevitability to it you can’t change.
It’s the sort of Blake line of joy and woe are woven fine…
Yeah, I'm actually looking outside of my garden right now and I've recently started feeding the birds there with a bird feeder, and it’s something that I had done for years and I stopped doing it a year ago because we get so many birds it's so odd. Right in central London we have goldfinches, green finches, like such variety… and one day, a sparrow hawk came and started killing the tiny birds
Jess: Oh my goodness…
Alex: yeah, like again in central London, who’d have thought?! But yeah, this huge, huge – well it wasn't that big, but it was a sparrow hawk…because it was such a big attraction it was like there were easy targets and it left me with a really it's an unanswerable question, or conundrum in that has my human intervention to put the bird feeder up then cause this to happen, or is it something that would have happened anyway and happens all the time so it's like this really interesting talking about the good in inverted commas in the bad in inverted commas parts of nature and cycles of nature, um, coming together but in this instance like in quite a brutal way in my spiritual garden.
Jess: Absolutely, it's interesting because it must have brought into sharp relief your place in the web of life in that respect…
Yeah, absolutely. It's just a weird feeling right you know we're all familiar with nature programmes weaved into we're a have notched and created it just makes you question yourself I guess I’ve created a habitat responsibility I was very happy with plants and something I could control
familiar with like nature programmes and what happens and animals each other and that's nature but then when it SORT OF weaves into an environment that you can create it just makes you question yourself like okay guess that created the habitat and so is it my responsibility, what responsibilities do I have dinner which is interesting I think that was maybe one step too far for me and that was very happy with plants and like something I could control but suddenly it turned into this like yeah living habitaty an animals and prey and it yeah just made me feel differently about it but I've just started feeding them again and yeah I mean like they bring so much joy so it's great but yeah I'm not sure how long it will last…
and in some ways, you know, you're supporting sparrow hawk life as well; the sparrow hawk might have been starving
Alex: Exactly, and all the sparrow hawk babies…so yeah, I'm contributing to that
Jess: I think watching the natural world and becoming an active participant in it is actually… I mean, I was listening to a podcast the other day with a psychiatrist called Gwen Adshead and she was talking about how our expectations are too high in terms of our own safety and happiness and it seems, you know I felt slightly uncomfortable initially because I thought, suddenly felt that it was almost accusatory, you know. But actually in observing the natural world and coming to terms with life and death and risk and need and fear and danger in its real form rather than a hypothetical form that might attack us in our most anxious moments, in some ways that's quite grounding and actually re- educating ourselves to reintegrate darkness into our lives – but not in a way that blots out the light, you know – just integrating it in a way that is calibrated with the light and is in communion with it in a way. You know, you talk about your love for these light, bright luminescent summer days and nights, and then love for the deep darkness of the winter, and, in a way observing the natural world in all its beauty but also, you know, not glossing it over, not saying, “oh, it's all lovely”, you know it's all sort of the photograph of the robin in the back garden. You know, male robins for example have been known to kill each other in territorial battles and yet we sort of almost want to forget about that bit. And I wonder whether it's a lesson for us in life that actually we need to reintegrate the negative and learn to just accept that it is a part of life and not in any exaggerated way, just in a balanced understanding.
Yeah, I suppose so, I think you're right. I think that it might be more challenging if you haven't really lived in a sort of area that's connected with nature in some way and have just lived and existed around that. So I was trying to relate to what you were saying when you were describing this and I was thinking if you've grown up in a rural place or place where there is nature you will have seen both good and bad sides a bit and I suppose for me it's, it's just a an accepted part of nature but that's it but then yeah, I suppose you're right, there is a tendency to sort of lean to the nice parts just like I like to lean to the blooming roses in my garden at the moment perhaps. I think that it is okay to do that as well, because we need hope as well, so many of us need, need that, but I think it's not just endless hope and I think going back to the bittersweet thing I was talking about because that's what life is, I suppose; that's what life is all about – unfortunately or maybe fortunately. Yeah, I just, I remember again like growing up by the coast and the sea being so, so destructive sometimes and so beautiful at others and endlessly changing, as you said. You can't trust it actually: you can only trust the tide to come in and out; but beyond that you can't really trust it. And in terms of what it will look like at any given time or how it will behave on a grand scale and I think that that's helpful because whilst it can be scary at times, especially in parts of world where nature’s an even much bigger force, but I suppose it does help us – again it goes back to the orientation and quality of nature: if you're not endlessly in control and if you can't trust every single thing around you, even nature, it makes you, it forces you to sort of orientate yourself and think about the world around you in a different way, I think.
Yeah, that's really interesting. It seems like you speak about not being able to trust the sea but there is a deep respect there that I'm getting: that you know, you respect its constancy but you also respect its destructive quality, its unpredictability, its rhapsodic quality. Again, you're sort of orientating yourself in relation to it in a way that is, it's a relationship of equals in away rather than any of this sense of Man having dominion over something
Absolutely. Yeah, I mean it is a relationship you know every morning waking up and seeing it's like a loved one whether you love them or hate them it's there, they’re there (laughs). And yeah, and you can look out to the horizon and be able to tell sometimes with the weather is going to do when rains coming in all of those things that sound very lovely but also part of the daily life of like living in a somewhere like that and I think the same must be true so wherever you live if it's near nature in some way. For me again as I say just having this little, little snatch of garden in central London for me it serves the same purpose in a way, in that I get information from it that allows me to orientate myself,I suppose.
Jess: You’re attuned to it.
Alex: seems to it yeah exactly and if it you know if it wasn't that then I'd probably have loads of house plants. I do as it as a matter of fact, but I’d probably have more and I think it is most time an unconscious thing which is why it's so interesting to actually talk about it and think about the role that it does play how about you living at the moment in Cumbria, and having such a strong relationship to the natural world there.
Yeah, it's been amazing actually because I live fairly close to Furness Abbey, which is a 12th century Cistercian monastery – a ruin of – and I spent a lot of time there as a child and revisiting it has almost collapsed time for me and revisiting it in a sort of ritualised way has been quite amazing. I also have become far more attuned than I ever was to the agricultural cycles of the year – for good and ill – I've had the sort of very strange experience of seeing lambs being born and then disappearing from the field after a certain period of growth, and then cows coming into the field and then disappearing, some Herdwick sheep in another smallholding just disappeared in the last three or four days to be replaced by a cockerel, and so I suppose I've been introduced to a different sense of seasonality that I wasn't really tapped into and that has brought it to a conscious level for me. Again, you know, I can really empathise with this idea of you saying, “oh, it was sort of in my system but I haven't necessarily thought about it on the surface until today”, and I've kind of had the same thing that suddenly my attention has been retrained to see life from somebody else's perspective.
And agriculture is so interesting, I suppose because it is that, you know, frontline between human and nature and human intervention on nature, so it is a really interesting thing to behold, I suppose especially when it comes to animals; it is really interesting thinking about the darkness of nature and the dark side, or in this case human interaction with natural cycles. But again, I suppose it's an ancient thing too, you know – so much of the festivals of the year are marked around agricultural milestones. So I suppose it's part of our heritage and identity to sort of be so closely attached to agricultural life cycles because it’s how we feed ourselves.
Jess: Absolutely…and I think when there is a conscious acknowledgement of that through festivals and holy days historically, then people actually do become more self-aware in that respect. I think a lot of problems come when we're sort of estranged from the causality of things, from the provenance of things; we don't really quite understand how the food got onto our table, and it's quite easy to start living in quite a sort of disengaged way in that respect. And then, and then the fear around we engaging and really thinking about the reality of life and the way in which those sheep disappear, the way in which those cows disappear, there was a sadness in it, but there was an understanding, which I think counts for almost more than the transient feelings of happiness and sadness. To go back to this idea of bittersweetness, it's almost at the centre of the human condition, and I was actually finally going to make a reference to your music through this actually: that quite often I feel that there is a bittersweet quality to quite a lot of your music and the subject matters that you choose do look quite deeply and with a lot of emotional precision at very difficult circumstances for people and the sort of unedited nature of life.
Jess: you often use modality, ancient structures in a way – we've talked a lot before about your various influences – but this idea of a sort of constant with variations, and I wondered whether you might talk about that.
Alex: Sure, I mean yeah, it's interesting thinking about the kind of music that you write as a composer and the topics you choose, and again it's an unconscious thing most of the time. And once you’ve got a few pieces behind you can look back – even if it's just a handful – you're like, “oh gosh yeah, I can trace some big themes”. My journey to music I suppose which I guess I never expected to really do, or to embark on. I remember being maybe five or six and my father suddenly on a whim, he decided to subscribe to a classical music magazine he probably thought that we should all be much more cultured or something and he made me and my brother and my mother start piano lessons or he suggested that we did. And I remember the magazine came with a free CD of Debussy and Tchaikovsky music and I remember listening to it, and I just fell in love with it – it was a whole world of you know, excitement I haven't heard before and my dad stop stopped subscribing to the magazine within like two or three issues it was such a whim but it was enough to keep me hooked and the piano lessons that started around the same time were enough to keep me hooked – and I just liked it. And then, later on in my childhood I had some really difficult and challenging experiences, and having music already was such an amazing gift because music became the way that I communicate the difficult things and feelings that I was experiencing, and so, as a child not having the vocabulary to talk or to express really difficult emotions, and not even having a person really or anyone to you really can talk to you music definitely became my sort of therapeutic means to express myself. I was never interested in technical proficiency or becoming a concert pianist; I was never interested in that; I didn't like performing in any way because it was always such a personal thing for me, and that's the way I got into music, I suppose, and that stayed with me until this day, but I think the connection with music that was hatched at that young age was so charged with emotion and early experience that to study music was, um, I didn't even think about it, I couldn't go there; it would be like psychoanalysing myself it felt like to study music. So I studied journalism instead, and it wasn't until my mid 20s when, I suppose in hindsight I sort of had a breakdown, I guess: I hadn't dealt with any of these difficult issues from my childhood and they’d just been brewing and festering and I'd been wearing a mask essentially – it wasn't until that point when the mask was sort of ripped off that I felt like I could actually really invest my time in music and explore it and thus explore myself and so, going back to your question, the topics that my music often deals with, which are difficult topics to do with all kinds of human feelings, but often the more challenging ones, I think relates back to all of that, all of that experience. And I think it's just that I have a – what’s the best way to describe it – but I just have a need or a desire even, a belief in music that can help express difficult feelings and to communicate these difficult feelings.
A piece I wrote maybe four or five years ago – the first piece that I really like myself, it's it's a simple string duo called Three Bocets for the Living protect is a type of Romanian folk music – it's a vocal tradition song at funerals or when mourning and I came across this way of expressing grief and firstly I liked that this existed that there's a music and there are many other examples from different cultures but this is the music that is, is purely designed to express an emotion, there's no other need for – it's not entertainment, it’s not performance you only sing this music on certain occasions – I liked that there was that gesture, but I also felt like, “Why does this have to be reserved for when somebody dies? What about the things that we have now that we grieve about?”. And that's why it's called Three Bocets for the Living and so it was expressing the difficult feelings that we harbour today as we still live that don't go away. And I remember in the premiere of it afterwards a lady came up to me and she said thank you so much is I've really enjoyed it and she said so many nice things and then I saw her look at me and she was making a decision in her mind, she was weighing something up and she decided to go for it and she said to me, “My husband was killed in a traffic accident a year ago and your piece expressed emotions that I've been trying to talk about but hadn't found the words,” and I mean that's an incredible gift and it’s the moments like that that are the reason why I'm a composer really because in that act and that very generous act of her opening up, it was someone responding to my whole kind of reason for writing the piece and that is enough for me to, it’s more than enough for me to, to feel like I'm a composer, and have something to say even if it's just that one person in my whole life; if no one ever says anything, I'm so happy because for me that's what music is for, and that's what my music is often for.
I mean, how amazing to give that woman her voice back…
Yeah, it was extraordinary, and the feedback, I suppose as it was so helpful because it was just like yeah music can do this and it does do it for so many people and they are important things to talk about; they’re human things
Yeah, and such an affirmation of your shared motivation
Alex: Yeah, it was such a unique piece of communication I can't you know this is hardly any ways to describe it really but the just the fact of having felt something myself which wasn't the same as hers but somehow in this venn diagram of communication it overlaps, and that's an incredible gift, I think, and if I'm ever struggling with my self-belief and question, “why am I doing what I’m doing?”, I think about the moment and I think how lucky I am to have had that sort of feedback. I keep saying the word gift but that's what it was like whatever you believe in it it was definitely she gave me a gift she said that and again it's the whole idea of ‘heart speaks to heart’, and you know that was a definite example of that, quite an emotional one as well.
Jess: That was the first part of my conversation with composer, Alex Mills. Join us next time, when we talk more specifically about Alex’s work on the music of trauma and fragmentation, and the healing to be found in owning oneself and discovering one’s own language of recovery and re-connection. In the meantime, you can read Alex’s contribution to our Mind Wanderings blog at songpath.co.uk. Stay safe, stay connected, and keep walking the SongPath.