This is a hard post to share. But one with a gift at the end, here at the end of the year. And a story I shall begin with a hard-won creative truth.
To give a convincing performance, you do have to commit.
There is undoubtedly a lethal extreme sports example to be found that illustrates this principle; I dunno, maybe something like: Timidly half falling into a base jump is more likely to bash your breakfast all down those jagged limestone crags below than launching out off this cliff edge with the majestic eyeball buzzing certainty of a flying squirrel. Show no fear – arch your back and really leap, Brad. The single bead of sweat can be a lethal tell. You get it.
I could talk about this in lumbering masculinity terms, of course. The need to parade confidence and be always prepared to do it at someone else’s expense if you really really have to.
But I’d rather talk about it in the purely personal terms of just trying to live with it. A shameful kind of grief. A trickster haunting, ready to undermine confidence at any moment and have you fumble that cliff leap. You might know it.
I sort of live with an infection of it in my marrow. One that could quietly turn Momo’s gossamer-thin confident nano brand to ash flakes like doves leaving a fashion funeral, were I to broadcast it as I am about to. But a recent unpleasant big hit of it makes me wonder how to face a new year’s plans with it trying to surface. And how any of us are supposed to, in such an age of over inflated and collapsing expectations.
Expecting the worst.
Listening to a podcast recently about this very topic, in snarky mood I was unkindly tempted to call it Articulate chats between people with no real problems; “So, after Cambridge and your third sell-out stand-up tour you began to feel a little disaffected with success…”
By which I declare my recognition that this is how I might be about to sound to you.
But bear with me in this last rather personal post of the year, because failure is a pertinent topic for our times. It does seem tied to clunky ancient world mandom kind of problems, in the centuries old and still boringly ongoing crisis of masculinity. But I’d be more interested to hear people of differing gender experiences compare ideas of failure right now, in this seemingly failing world of ours.
Gang culture around the world has young male victims of economic failure pushing themselves through violent initiations and clandestine incantations like they’re still fighting the Roman Empire or something, while obviously really still working for it. But this cultural failure squeezes at least as much resource out of female bodies as anyone’s, and women are still comparatively rarely invited to choose any deal of complicit power in the transaction.
Back in the somnabulent mental shopping malls of old globalisation that I might know more about, at least a cosmetic step or two nearer to the middle classes, the more precise word to analyse that’s implied across literature and screen in post-modern times I think is simply: “expectations”.
Of economic democracy, of individualism, of progress – again, you know. It’s the humdrum root of many towering toxic chatrooms of flammable misery, I think. An apparent stockpile of fuel for short-term populism, all those undelivered promises of state and business, but ultimately an uncontrolled burn getting us nowhere new.
Especially since your last fig-leaf of self respect, worldly cynicism, does say back to you quickly when state and people and laughable private dreams alike fail you: “Well, what DID you expect?”
Stoked as you might feel in less beaten moments for explosive releases of reaction to the way your world is, I honestly feel the unfussy wisdom in Grayson Perry’s view, that: “revolutions that really affect lasting change happen thoughtfully in peacetime.”
For you and me to not have our lives consumed by a sense of failure, should such bitter temptation make you look up from ineffable privilege of living, the trick facing us poor vulnerable saps is to calibrate our expectations. Generally. Just staring out at our lives mutely, wondering what story we really are in.
But what are we to expect? Set sights low, and be comforted in our cynical un-ambition with how basically rubbish everything turned out to be? Or continue to feed the anxiety industry with goals to have it all?
I dunno. I’m always saying life is a series of impossible balances, so there’s a big fat wobbling one, mate.
But somewhere in there is the basic truth that failure, flip side to success, is always relative.
Taking a punch.
What are you trying to achieve? Now dial back that question to why are you trying to do it? By which I basically really mean: Do you want to do that? By which I actually really mean: “What do you want to do?”
The Great Resignation is an ironic title to have fallen out of 2021. It means the opposite of what it says; we’ve been living in the great resignation for generations, pal – it’s time to finally do something about it and walk out.
Which sounds like a very empowering big step towards success, taking back some control of your life and side-swatting the fear enough to leave a role you realise you hate or isn’t serving you without having a new one lined up. But if you did manage to break free, work out what you really wanted and then took a swing at doing it… what will happen when that fails?
Damn. That’s on you, old thing. Listening out for debt collectors at the door or not, you can still light a candle in the window for our old lodger Shame.
Now, I can’t work out quite whether Shame is renting a room in my little life hotel by the hour or just squatting in the parlour at night but recently it has done more than present itself as occasional footsteps in the loftroom and missing vintage cheese in the fridge. One nice summer day it jumped out in the garden and punched me hard across the jaw.
I didn’t go down. I barely caught my breath, truth be. But it might have grazed me with an infected knuckle duster.
Because I’ve always felt my life calling, like a weird cosmic gift lighting my creative pilot light as I came of age, was making music. And, ignoring for a moment the life-wide reality that I’ve never found a sizeable looking community to call home with my musical work, this year I had an experience as a media composer that is the main experience no composer wishes on any other composer – having your entire finished feature film score cancelled and recommissioned to someone else.
God. And it was my first ever.
Will it turn out to be my last ever?
It’s like being dumped and someone else being invited to the film premier. After you’ve bought your dress.
Beating the gen(r)es.
All confidence is an illusion.
Wait, don’t lose heart.
That is, all confidence is a performance. And in two key ways: A ton of work goes into presenting just the stage view of it, but doing it six nights a week really helps you embody the part.
I trivially marvel at anyone gifted with the Cool Gene. I can’t help it, because it’s a kind of spell they cast like pheromones that I wish I understood. They are people we can all spot who embody in style the core tradable element of fashion and cultural commerce and really any business at all – credibility. Perhaps niche, perhaps universal, but something an audience feels it can bank on as wantable and strangely authentic. Even though fashion seems empty. A trade-up association for most of the rest of us, feeling the pressure to lash together our own creds.
Rewatching some of Madonna’s performances over Christmas, I was reminded that she’s a global star because she has that core Cool Gene as much as any of the great fashion icons, but she seemed to combine it with sheer graft driven by big ambition. She’s cool and she applied it. Expressing it in a lot of cool, confident performances. She embodies a female dream of it like a fairytale in the film Desperately Seeking Susan – and in it she’s called Susan, for goodness sake!
Even True Blue is kinda cool. Who can manage that? An empress.
I realise you have to worry about slightly more significant seeming things than this.
But I think I am heading towards a point with my playground culture wars philosophy here.
Counter-culturally, I think it’s easier to be a bit cooler when older. I mean, I wish my fashion faux-pas and early four-track demos demonstrated someone more wholeheartedly lost to trend than I ever was as a surprisingly sensible creative lad in Bournemouth – my fashion victim pals have much cooler images of themselves from younger than I awkwardly do, much as we might titter at them. They’re making somehow more certain marks of tribe and intent with those more radical hairstyles and, I dunno, artschool disco tutus.
But most of my friends are a damn-sight cooler in their forties and fifties than they were at 20. Because they’re more themselves. Say it with me: Duh.
I know my music took years to mature. For me because I was no fashion chaser; I felt my only currency was me, and believed, not completely unwisely, that if I just kept playing that card confidently it would eventually come good. The truth would out. The marks would at least become much more confident. Which they did.
What I had from the technically and emotionally and stylistically naiive beginning was a central confidence of belief in the work, and love for it. I might have not found an audience to support me enough in this, which is a big contextual question mark for any artist, and I may even have had some disastrous live gigs technically, but I’ve managed to keep a veil of dignity over my modesty by still being an obscure artist.
What I’ve never been before is fired.
Just doing business.
When working as a creative gun for hire, there is a kind of spectrum of talent approaches between the chameleon and the auteur. The auteurs more often become the icons, because they stand out – and then end up in the possibly envious position of being hired to be them. Some actors might moan about typecasting but there comes a point in your career where you realise it’s a damn-site easier day at the office.
The skilful chameleons paint stories less noticed, donning costumes like character actors, or perhaps more so mo-cap performers – disappearing into the work. I have long believed neither is formally “better” than the other, they each reflect honest artistic character.
I’m obviously no creative chameleon and have known it from the beginning. Approaching me for creative support, you’re always hiring Momo, adaptable and intuitively good as I am within this. My innate theatrical confidence has me brazen this out well enough to take big leaps and swings in the work itself at least; not flinching in writing a strong tune, not trying to couch an idea in a genre but follow its own flow. Aim for the sweet spot in the idea always to hit resonance.
But when you are naturally a freelancer with a more distinctive auteur’s voice, you had better make sure you graft your arse off to get seen so that people get an opportunity to want a piece of this. And frankly, if you don’t fit any communicable genre at all how do you expect to sell any work, Peach?
It will also help your career if you’ve simply been beaten about the everything with the Cool Gene.
The new producer of the feature I spent years scoring felt none of this applied to my work or me. After final tweaks to a new edit earlier this year, having first laid down the themes and style four or five years ago, the new producer essentially said: “I can’t live with it.”
Weirdly, I wasn’t totally surprised. But a score binning is an extreme scenario I told myself wouldn’t actually happen.
In the fights for the things we believe in, our loves and values and communities, experiences like this at work give us a debilitating personal kicking.
I didn’t envy the directors making that phone call to me. They’re mates of mine from the modest and lovely local film scene and two nicer professional creatives you will not work with. They’re also grown-ups, talking straight about what they want. I had a dream schooling in feature scoring by working with them first, you might say.
But work has to be sold. And attracting a new producer to the project, some way into production, was to do that one vital job – sell the picture. And in his opinion as salesman, the Momo:tempo score to this picture wasn’t going to work. I didn’t really hear why, just that he never liked it.
Now. I’ve not really known how to take swings big enough in life to get serious criticism. I may have been laughed at a fair bit by the cool kids at artschool for being so uncool – and not in the now-cool nerdy way but the aren’t-you-supposed-to-be-at-drama-school-or-evangelical-college kind of way – but I have always had a handy un-need to be liked by everyone. It’s given me the ability to walk into rooms and be myself, knowing there is usually likely to be at least some relaxed souls who’ll rather like me. It’s probably fuelled more by Victorian male privilege than I ever realised, but one problem at a time.
The swing I took at the score for this charming and very British children’s feature film was the one I was commissioned to take – be very electronic and imagination filling, in an inevitably very Momo way. The end results as musical storytelling seemed to do the one job any composer is hired to do – tell the story correctly. It just seemed to fit, to my ear. And, at every stage it seemed, to my directors’ ears.
I think it was charming, bold, evocative and happened to be rather Momo.
Sort of Beverly Hills Cop meets Stranger Things via, I dunno, Ghosts. Which, go on, sounds brilliant put like this.
Yeah, and so maybe unsurprisingly, put like this, none this was credible enough for the producer.
I mean, this was never quite going to be Bladerunner 90210 or Dune – gorgeous mature moods as those scores are, this children’s feature felt like it needed motifs and character around the sound design. This made it effectively quite 80s – a hybrid score but with a tinge of nostalgia. Much as I see nostalgia per se as a bone-eating culture disease right now, a sprinkling of it can work magic – and kids as much as their parents love a big retrowave tune. Which is also surprisingly fashion of me, given the enormous reach of 80s synth music across games and films and TV, er, everywhere.
Like, e v e r y w h e r e.
The boys took me for a nice breakfast. One of them said to me: “I once had to do this to another composer. Let me say, there were no nice breakfasts that time.”
A fig leaf they threw me was that perhaps the new score was less interesting. Not sure I can bring myself to learn a lesson and listen to it. To hop in at the last minute will have been quite a feat for the new person. My directors also assured me they did not consider the Momo score in any way sub-standard professionally – I feel sure they’d have said early on.
And so, a film’s worth of music is floating free.
What does one do with this?
In getting closure on all this, I have produced a kind of private viewing playlist called Futureverses. And you can hear the whole phantom album below, to see what you make of it.
It’s a heck of a curio. A lost score sounding very definitely like adventure and story are happening quite specifically somewhere… but who can know from this strange sequence of audio artifacts what is going on. I leave it as an evocative testimony to the work and heart I put into it all. A marker for a hard lesson, and some splendid musical storytelling fun. Music written for picture or show is specific somehow, and I rarely find it recyclable, so consider this a hidden chamber in the treasure vault of Momo. I feel okay about it, and retain my warmth for what fell out of my first ever feature score, quirky and un-Holywood as it is.
The main final theme of Futureverses I do rather love – the final movement of part 15, The Legends. I have clearly fallen foul of going to work for my portfolio this time, but there’s no denying that final tune, only hinted at as motif throughout the story but sassing off the screen over the closing credits, is a big confident swing that not all composers would be uncool enough to take. Sort of Streethawk with a brass section. As usual, I love what I do. Will I never learn?
The real question is what to do with the experience? What have I learned?
It’s a big commitment. Emotionally – digging into the ether to score a film. What do you do when you’ve really arched your back and leapt… but the chute fails?
How does one brazen out the walk of shame to everyone else out for dawn jogs and seeing you? Tights laddered. Parachute tangled around your head. Breakfast down your front.
Referring to my other especially personal Testimo post recently, what is the guided life leading me to here?
The most obvious lesson is to get up off the matt quickly. But I didn’t go down with that big right cross of this fail, I kept moving and ducking and weaving, so it doesn’t feel as easy to know how to clear my system of the infection in the cut. I do still feel a little ill.
I think, for me, it connects to a weird wider truth of failure – that it looks like I didn’t really want to be a media composer after all. The successful composer’s life I didn’t seem to commit to going for – something made me hold back from slugging it out with the other incredible talents on the scene, I am only slowly realising. But what? If not this, then for what am I creatively fighting?
Where does my ability and instinct to write to picture take me if not to being a media composer? It’s been a component significantly there from the very beginning of my calling. A recurring motif at significant nodes of my life. First art school, scoring a friend’s film project; design degree, splitting as soon as I’d put up my degree show to go home and score a friend’s animation degree short. Tutors on my Music For The Media course, years later, telling me I could do some things not all composers naturally can.
Then this fail. On a scifi film, for goodness sake.
In keeping with the sobering theme of Articulate chats between people with no real problems I want to mention something for perspective. On Annie Mac’s Changes podcast, the glorious Billy Porter said: “For such a time as Kinky Boots.” Star of the Broadway version of that story and of the beautiful frankly required viewing that is Pose, he’s a man who’s embodied the fight to overcome opposition in a dazzling display of charisma and determination against the foundations of our toxically skewed modern culture. I know nothing of being black, queer and HIV in Holywood. But of the many lessons Billy can minister with today, exactly my age as he is, his acceptance that there is timing about success and failure I feel sure he’d be happy for me to learn from as a limply untested straight white boy.
There is a time for everything. Perhaps everyone. And all is learning and healing towards that.
One smack across the jaw for me is nothing.
Listening in, if I can, dusting myself off, I can feel an excitement at something that will never be the career of Hans Zimmer but is partly equipped by some of those type of filmic skills – coming back to the total storytelling experience. I’m no Broadway guy like Porter, but something may still be leading me towards the full musical, to launching the lessons learned from my epic folly Chaser, if you caught my little Christmas Eve Memo and piano session. For if there is one thing I feel the heat of passion about now it is finding ways to help tell the new stories of us. I’ll give my life to this as meagre ministry of my own if I surely can.
I think, working into writing the Unsee The Future book and new podcast series, I’m most excited about making The Shape of Things To Hum in its totality at long last. And something – something – in all the home made TV lessons I’ve learned in 2021 seems to be giving me component practices of working up planet cabarets on the road to this. That’s me letting you see me fumble with a creative sextant. Has every wind blown me to here?
AY on an Italian street the autumn and an old client over good wine at Christmas both said to me: Just take a big swing, mate. You don’t need to think it out any more.
But what big swing? And how do I swing it?
After all the swearing it’s time to commit. To the truth of who you are, and what makes you feel truly alive.
At personal or planet scale, the F-word is left spinning by such bold leaps.