As published on Jazz Views, by Nick Lea:
THE MAKING OF AS WARM AS THE SUN – A Journal by Laura Cole
October 5, 2017
For many musicians the making of a solo album feels a natural thing to do, and also something of a giant leap of faith. If much of their music making is in the company of others, working through a composition as a ensemble sharing a unity of purpose, the solo performance is often a lonely pursuit but one which ultimately brings a different sense of reward for both performer and audience.
Pianist, composer and bandleader, Laura Cole has now decided that it is time to take that leap of faith, and wrote on her Facebook page on 12th July; “Decided tonight that I will share publicly that in September I will be taking myself -and my ideas- to be developed to the Northern tip of mainland Scotland, to Lyth Arts Centre in Wick, for work on my first solo piano project, As Warm As The Sun.. .this is the ‘solo thing’ I have shied away from for many years, but I think now is the time to confront it and see what music comes out of it.. think it takes courage to do it and I think I need to see where my courage- and my music- can take me. The album, in whatever form it will take, will be released on the Discus label by Martin Archer.”
Shortly after reading this open and honest statement, I contacted Laura and invited her to share her thoughts and feelings throughout the process, from the residency at Lyth Arts that lead up to the time booked at the studio to record the album. Laura had already had thoughts about about keeping a journey or diary of her experience, and agreed to submit a daily entry of her thoughts and feelings, along with photographs, during the making of As Warm As The Sun to be published in Jazz Views.
Laura’s journey can be followed with the publications of her writings and photographs over the coming days, and this will be followed up by an interview with Laura when the album is mixed and scheduled for release.
FIRST JOURNAL ENTRY – September 14th: 10.52pm
I am writing this sat in the cosy lounge at the cottage where I will stay at Lyth Arts Centre, with the Steinway waiting for me across the courtyard. There is no one else here; just me, and the Steinway, and the wind, which is insistent against the windows. Once I was let in and briefly showed around, I realised there was just the trees and my thoughts here, for the night- people working at the Arts Centre arrive tomorrow morning. The cottage is called Ann’s House: I will ask tomorrow who Ann is. I feel she is kind.
I feel the warmth of musicians staying here before me; this is keeping me company in a place which feels very remote, having arrived in the darkness, on my own, after a challenging drive up the coastal road to Wick.
As I sat at Manchester airport waiting for my flight to Inverness, eavesdropping on conversations and finding human interactions endlessly fascinating, I decided I will divide my writing during the residency into three parts: words I will only share here; words I will only share with people very close to me; and words I will only share with myself. I felt some clarity deciding this. I think this distinction between the private and the public spheres is very important to me. As a musician, as a composer, and as a person, this really interests me.
I feel composing and arranging are deeply private things to me; a kind of pulsing inner-lifeblood. But I express this privacy (mostly) through performing. What is this transition, to me? What does it really mean? I know that even just one person listening transforms how I play, and how I hear what I am playing. Maybe it is about projection. How I feel I project myself into the sound. How I feel empathy and connection. How I feel curious about how I am heard: the hearing as a presence in itself. Because as soon as one person listens, I feel the communication goes outwards. I have always struggled with this, I realise suddenly now, in this immense quietness, as a musician and composer. To release this internal life. Not in a precious sense, but in a protective sense. I feel it is essence.
I also think there is a pressure, as a pianist, to ‘just play us a tune!’ A sense that you somehow belong to everyone else’s tune, but not your own. I want to find my own tune… I think I have been searching for it for a long time.
DAY 1 – September 15th: 6.27pm
I am writing this sat again the cosy lounge in the cottage across from the Arts Centre, after a full day’s work. The last person at the Arts Centre left a few hours ago, so I am entirely on my own here now until Monday morning. I am finding this quite daunting. I have faith in myself though; I know I can be brave when I need to be. It is amazing here: bleak. I love bleakness; I love its wildness, its force. Today felt important.
Susie, one of the coordinators here (and also a conductor), showed me round the Arts Centre this morning before I started work. The main body of the building, which is now the venue space, was in fact the old Lyth schoolhouse. I really love this fact. I immediately heard the ghosts of children’s voices all around me. I discovered Ann was the sister of the director here; when she died he built this cottage with the inheritance. I was moved by this. So the cottage is a recent addition, although it has the feel of being old. I do feel Ann’s presence here; it feels warm and maternal. I decided today that I will write a piece while I am here called Ann’s House.
I was thinking today about being ‘available’ for people to contact me. Up here I am shutting myself off from that almost completely, with the exception of a few people very close to me. The thought crossed my mind that it would be very difficult to get back to my daughter quickly in the case of an emergency; I had to just strike it from my mind. But this led to me thinking about what it is to be a mother and a musician. What this responsibility actually means, to me. I feel one feeds the other; they are not separate, within me. But it is not always an easy pairing. Ann Truitt talks about this in beautiful depth and detail and emotional honesty in her book ‘Daybook’. I have this book with me; it is thanks to this book that I am here.
This place is reminding me of the only other place I have visited which is further north than here: Salluit, an Inuit community in Northern Quebec, just below the Artic Circle, where I visited my dear friend Jo, who had married an Inuit hunter, when I was just 21. It has the same character somewhere: a sense of space blowing through your soul. Of nature reasserting its towering strength.
I have decided that I will not disclose here the details of what I am working on, or the mechanics of the musical process; but speak more generally about my thoughts and impressions within this context. For context is so important to me. I think this context will seep into the music; the wind, the trees, the sky, the rain, the essence of being alone with a piano and my thoughts. I will however introduce the piano: he is called Sam, he is a Steinway, and he is very friendly. He will be my companion until Tuesday. We had a good day’s work, Sam and I.
I feel I would like to list the books that surrounded me while I was working today. Daybook, Anne Truitt; The Prophet, Kahlil Gibran; Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes; The Undiscovered Self, Jung; On Forgiveness, Richard Holloway; The Hidden Life of Trees, Peter Wohlleben; Jazzwomen: 1900 to the present, Sally Placksin. The first things I placed on the piano before I even played a note was the photo of my great grandfathers in the Cooperative Orchestra they were part of; and a lovely pine cone, which was waiting for me by the hire car when I picked it up, a gift from a kind tree. I will leave the pine cone here for the next pianist. I think it belongs here. I feel grateful to be here: I feel I am facing myself and the music.
Postscript to today: 11.37pm
After watching my favourite film, Salt of the Earth, about my favourite photographer Sebastiao Salgado by Wim Wenders, I have just remembered this moment during my journey to the far north of Canada more than 20 years ago.. thinking about journeys.
In the long journey up to the north, I became stuck at a place called Kuujjuac, which is where the tree line stops, due to blizzards (this was in mid-August..)… I sat in the tiny airport and had absolutely no idea what to do… suddenly the man sat next to me turned to me, and said ‘you’re Laura, aren’t you?’ ..I turned to him in utter disbelief.. I had no words… he patted me on the shoulder and said ‘I’ll be right back.. don’t worry. We’ve all been expecting you.’ Sure enough, he returned 20 minutes later with the the godfather of my godson in tow, who I had never met.. and who welcomed me like a long lost friend, and who I stayed with for a few days until the blizzards died down enough for me to get a plane up to Salluit. This experience taught me about the kindness of strangers, and it is something I still live by today.
DAY 2 – September 16th: 7.28pm
Today I worked really hard.
I am thinking tonight about how almost all the pieces I am arranging for the album are from composers who are alive; many of whom are very close friends and colleagues. With the exception of one piece, from a very special composer no longer alive: so I asked him aloud, ‘What do you think of this?’ And he replied, ‘Just keep going. If you like it, that is good enough for me.’ It took me into a space where I realise that this is one of the reasons I love my job; my music will outlast me. It enables me to have conversations with people I hugely respect and admire, both dead and alive. It is spirit. I feel the voices of all these composers surround me as I work. It is a source of great strength.
I talk to myself out loud a lot while I am working; conversations with myself. It helps me to vocalise my thought processes. I occasionally catch myself, and listen to my voice. It is here, and it is real, and I am listening to it.
I am singing to accompany myself a lot more than I thought I would: at times I need this extra voice, supporting what I am doing. It is the first time I have fully realised that this is why I feel the need to sing when I play; to support myself.
Around 4pm today I felt a huge fear; fear of the unknown; fear of being completely alone; fear of not finding the ‘right’ notes. I walked away from the piano, went outside and listened to the trees, and the birds. It was a huge comfort. I realised that my fear was actually coming from myself. That there was nothing dangerous here. Only birds, and trees, and clouds, and rain, and sun, and the wind. And Sam, my trusty friend.
I spoke to my daughter tonight. I asked if she would like me to write a piece for her while I am here. At first she said no, then changed her mind and said yes. I asked her if she would like to choose a title. I said it could be anything at all. She replied ‘Extinguish’. And then: ‘What does this even mean?!’ I laughed, explained, and said I thought this was a brilliant title. My daughter is amazing.
I went to John o Groats today- the end of a very long road. I love being this far North.
On the way, in the car, I was listening to Radio 3, and heard about Parsons Cross, which made me cry. And also heard a snippet from an interview with Tom Phillips about his opera. He said something which has stayed with me all day: ‘Our hearts speak louder than our voices.’ I was very very moved by this. My response to this is in my private writing. It is very personal.
Postscript to today: 10.11pm
Self protrait – felt it was needed.
DAY 3 – September 17th: 6.35pm
Today was very tough. My old foe, my RSI, has reared its head. I need to be very careful with my arms. But I still worked very hard and productively, with lots of breaks.
Today felt more about books and words than music, in some ways. I would like to share this passage from Camera Lucida, by Roland Barthes, which I read earlier, and gave me the words I was searching for in my first journal entry here about the distinction between Private/Public self-representation. The chapter is called Private/Public:
‘Each photograph is read as the private appearance of it referent: the age of Photography corresponds precisely to the explosion of the private into the public, or rather into the creation of a new social value, which is the publicity of the private: the private is consumed as such, publicly (the incessant aggessions of the Press against the privacy of stars and the growing difficulties of legislation to govern them testify to this movement). But since the private is not only one of our goods (falling under the historical laws of property), since it is also the absolutely precious, inalienable site where my image is free (free to abolish itself), as it is the condition of an interiority which I believe is identified with my truth, or, if you like, with the Intractable of which I consist, I must, by a necessary resistance, reconstitute the division of public and private: I want to utter interiority without yielding intimacy.’
This led me thinking about private/peaceful; which led me to thinking of ‘Shhh/Peaceful’ from In A Silent Way; an album I treasure, which I am listening to as I write this.
I realised a precious, if obvious, thing today; that you really can’t hear the true voice and resonance of the birds and the wind in cities. Here, I can really hear their voices. I watch and listen to birds calling to each other, with the wind carrying their voices, and it is giving me such great comfort and inspiration.
I read the personal statement of William Wilson, the founder of this arts centre, on the wall where I am working today, about his ideas for the creation of this arts centre. He states that he was attracted to the idea of creating a building which houses all the arts in a single combined experience- as ‘gesamtkunstwerk’. I sat for a while and thought about this. I do love the German language, this way it has of encapsulating, of distilling, life-meanings. I thought about how I am approaching this residency- and my music- with the whole of my being. Playing and composing are, I feel, not the only creative outlets I have; creativity has, in my view, a boundless energy to express and be heard. I believe it has the capacity to plant seeds in the most arid of soil. It is source.
Tonight the wind has completely dropped; the stillness is wide and limitless: I am listening.
Postscript to today: 8.23pm
I am thinking about post. How this word has been appropriated by facebook (whose noisy shores I haven’t visited for a few weeks now). What this word means to us, to me, now. As an after-wards; as letters; as after-words. Tonight I wrote a postcard to myself, which I will send to myself from John O Groats tomorrow. I have been hesitating whether to share what I wrote on this postcard here, but I think I will; as a human message to anyone reading this: ‘Never forget what you went through here.’
DAY 4 – September 18th: 7.21pm
The last full day here: I am done.
I have successfully worked on everything I wanted to work on here, and have finished everything to a degree that I’m happy with as first- and in some cases, final- drafts.
I am exhausted again tonight, and words are not coming easily to me, but I do feel a real sense of pride for having finished. I have really surprised myself during this residency. It has been fascinating to hear what notes have come out of it, how I have felt during the process, and how I have felt being here.
This morning I was struck by a feeling of continuity and connection; in that many, many artists have been through this process, and I am sure have discovered many, many things about themselves and their art in the experience. What a gift this is. I felt a strong sense of legacy- a word that has permeated my time here- and lineage in this, words which are both inherent in how I approach my work, I think. My great grandfathers have been looking over me- after me- from the photo on the piano the whole time I have been working here: today I thanked them.
I finished the piece Extinguish for my daughter today, and had a lot of fun writing it; I realised that of all the people I am writing or arranging for, I am most nervous about playing my daughter’s piece to her when I return home. She will say straight away if she likes it or not! I found myself imagining her listening to it as I wrote it. Laughing at me as I talked to myself as I wrote it. She finds my music ‘weird and dramatic’: this led me to thinking about drama, about this tragi-comedy of life that we all go through. I intensely missed my daughter today- although as a single parent and musician I am used to having periods of time away from her, a song she likes came on in the cafe I was in at lunchtime- piped music feels so aggressive when you’ve been away from it for some days- and I felt a huge emotional surge of this ‘missing’ for my daughter.
I am also thinking about the nature of ‘returning’ tonight; what returning home means to me after this time away, with myself, and a piano.
September 18th marks the anniversary of the death of Jimi Hendrix; he was on my mind a lot as I worked today. I am listening to Little Wing as I write this, my favourite Hendrix piece.
DAY 5 – September 19th: 11.01pm
I can barely string a sentence together after a very long journey, so I am going to let my photos speak for me for today, and write some thoughts tomorrow.
Postscript – 11.48pm
Some thank yous.
I would like to warmly thank Nick Lea for approaching me and asking me to write a journal of my residency at Lyth Arts Centre for Jazz Views. I had intended to document this process in words and photos in any case during my time in Lyth, but this has made me think very carefully about what I present to people I don’t know at all, in the public sphere; what I present to people I know very well, in the private sphere; and what I present to myself, in the personal sphere. This tri-division has clarified lots of things for me; and I feel this has fed into the process of what it is to make a solo album, throughout my time in Lyth.
I would also like to warmly thank- from the bottom of my heart- the very close friends and family who have been there for me throughout this process. I hope you know who you are: I think you do: I really will not forget it.
And I would lastly, but no means leastly, like to thank anyone who has read this journal, whether known to me or not; it has been a truly learning and cathartic experience to write it, and experience what a residency means.
The final postscript will come tomorrow..
DAY 6 – September 20th: 11.26am
I asked myself when I got home: ‘Why did I do this?’ Not in a reproachful or regretful sense, but in a questioning sense: what were my reasons? When I was away I had moments when I said to myself ‘what am I doing here?’ Again not in a reproachful or regretful sense, but in a questioning sense.
I think my answer to myself is that I had to see if I could rise to the challenge of doing this. I think I am someone who relishes challenges. My time away was many, many things; and at times it was certainly challenging.
I also realised a simple thing yesterday: that it was only natural that I would take myself away, on my own, to prepare for a solo project, which I will of course be reproducing, on my own, in a recording setting next month.
However, I think one thing became very clear to me while I was away; that I was not divorced from my environment by this being ‘on my own’; that to be surrounded by nature, the support of some special people, and a feeling of legacy lent a very special sense of connected-ness.
Sam the Steinway rose to the challenge with me; I greeted him every day with a ‘Hello, Sam’, and at the end of every day bid him farewell with a ‘Goodbye, Sam’. I think every piano- indeed all instruments- have their own distinctive character. Sam always listened, and was always friendly.
I think there will be an afterword to this afterword, this evening; but these are my thoughts this morning, sat in my cosy home, with the sun breaking through the grey clouds and streaming in through the window.