Music was important in my family: my dad played jazz records every day. He also played jazzed-up classical compositions by ear on our Bechstein upright piano, in the sitting room. His parents had sung Bach’s oratorios in church choirs. As children, my two older brothers and I were made to study classical piano, and were also gang-pressed into the local Church of Ireland (Anglican) choir. My mother’s musical influence was on Sunday afternoons, we jointly-listening to Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony.
I started my record collecting at the age of eight, when I heard The Kinks ‘Dedicated Follower of Fashion’ – not realising the sexually subversive lyric content! My parents were in the rag-trade, so I thought “why not?” Around the same time, idly turning the valve radio tuning dial one day, I discovered pirate stations, like Radio Caroline.
At boarding school I learnt piano under a benign teacher, and had vain aspirations to play in the singer-songwriter style of Joni Mitchell. I introduced him to Emerson Lake & Palmer’s rock version of Mussorgsky’s ‘Pictures at an Exhibition. I played as much Bach LPs, as Black Sabbath, on the school record player after prep. On my transistor radio I constantly listened to Alan Freedman’s Top Ten Countdown, and later, the innovative John Peel Programme on BBC Radio 1. To quote my housemaster’s pertinent words on one term report: “Louis and his (pop) transistor lead a pretty aimless existence…”
Most of my weekends were spent solitary in my sitting room, smoking French scented cigarettes, decoratively doodling while listening to repeat plays of revered singer-songwriter musicians.
Confessional style rock music was favoured most and played a slight spiritual part of my pre-conversion life: the closest to any “salvation” offered by those seventies singer-songwriters. Having started writing poetry at co-ed boarding school, I was entranced by introverted and sombre songs. I was also drawn to the emotionally-nuanced, feminine perspectives of Joni Mitchell and Judee Sill. Judee’s troubled life, nascent spirituality and lush orchestral songs sustained my generic spiritual interest for a while.
In time, I became an evangelical Christian convert. There was scriptural hope to learn …and much selfishness to unlearn. Christ’s challenge was to find my identity through Christian fellowship and Bible studies. One day, flicking through the LPs in a religious bookshop, I saw a record cover that showed an abstract plant with fire in the background. Fireflake was its title, Adrian Snell its composer. I thought – what is this?? I turned it over to read the sleeve notes and saw an incredible quote, from Cornish poet, Jack Clemo:
A fire-flake has pierced my silence,
And a tongue responds—too deep
To be greyly solemn, too sure
Of heaven’s glowing heart to let me sleep
I immediately bought ‘Fireflake’ and devoured its lyrics and piano compositions. I played that LP over and over, dumbfounded and delighted. Snell’s classical, piano-based tracks had me entranced, his music dramatic; sometimes his minor-chord melodies were even bleak, unlike much Christian rock that I had become familiar with. The nuanced, poetic lyrics demanded careful listening. I had found a musical substitute to my esteemed secular singer songwriters at last!
Snell had been classically trained, like many prog-rock supergroup members: Yes; Emerson, Lake & Palmer & others. I was smacked between the eyes with the passionately despair, sung against repeat-cascade of dissonant chords, like ‘Judas Song‘.
I started collecting all of the Adrian Snell record releases. I loved the contemporary arrangements of his songs, as well as the superior recording studio production values, to say nothing of the Hipgonosis-styled early covers of early recordings. All was musically inspiring for this rock nerd …until his concept album – ‘Beautiful, or What?’ It was billed as “a thematic pop/rock opera using allegorical tale about handicapped children. ‘Oh no’, I thought ‘Not another concept album! Yuck!” I gave it one unsympathetic listen and quickly put it aside. What would I do with this record now?? I certainly didn’t want it… it’s about handicapped kids, I’ll send it to my friend who works in L’Arche, the community that ministered to life-challenged people, I thought.
However, when my wife and I got the bad news that our second child, a daughter, was dead in the womb, I was devastated. With Liz in hospital, I decided to give Adrian Snell’s new composition a second hearing. Perhaps it can speak to me, I reflected. The hero-child in the song sequence could well have been my child. Perhaps had she been born, she would possibly have been physically or mentally handicapped. What then…?
As I began to think about my daughter’s funeral, I wondered how to present this loss and pain, in a meaningful way. I wanted hymns, of course – and chose ‘O the Deep Deep Love of Jesus’ for its Slavic-tinged melody and proclamatory gospel hope words. I wanted to read my immediate poetic response about her cut-short life. There would also be a reading of Liz’s heart-felt maternal ‘Letter to Holly.’ I wanted a bit more, though.
Then I had the idea of contacting Adrian and asking him for permission to use some of his recent music at Holly’s funeral. Two tracks from ‘Beautiful or What!?’ would make very appropriate entrance / exit music. Adrian quickly and kindly agreed. I was deeply, tearfully touched at such generosity of spirit.
With the help of a Russian graphics artist, I created a booklet called ‘Goodbye, Au Revoir Slan’ for the siblings of stillborns and to “celebrate” her would-have-been 21st birthday. I was then interviewed about Holly and that booklet in the Sunday Independent, a popular Irish broadsheet newspaper. My brother Guy then used the content of this booklet to create a video-short about Holly, incorporating some of the music from ‘Beautiful or What!?’
That video short ended up on an indie-movie dvd about stillbirth, called Return to Zero. It was also broadcast on German religious TV. Holly changed my life…. and Adrian played an important part in how I expressed that.
I stayed in touch with Adrian from time to time. The vagaries of music downloads, and falling CD sales in the music industry impacted the existence of all musicians. On the recording front, Adrian had take a seven year sabbatical. I kept on peppering him with ideas for songs. He was gracious enough to stay in touch with this over-insistent, blue-sky enthusiast. Then one email reply from him lit a fuse. He hinted that if he could replace his well-worn piano, bought over forty years before, he just might get compositionally inspired again. His current music life was in therapy for life-challenged children, rather than in Christian music ministry.
At that time, I had ended up with undreamt-of financial stability. I was very aware of the biblical responsibility that goes with such blessing. Money gifted by God was to be equitably and creatively shared with others. I offered to partner with the COVERDALE TRUST charity https://www.thecoverdaletrust.org/artists towards help buying a replacement piano for Adrian.
When the Bluthner piano salesman in London heard about Adrian’s piano-playing pilgrimage, he knocked £10,000 off the purchase price! In 2013, Adrian then went on to record and release ‘Fierce Love’, based on his experiences as a music therapist. It was a privilege to visit Adrian in Bath and to attend the launch party of that CD. I also visited Three Ways special school, to see where Adrian works. Seeing one of his classes in progress had me brushing away discreet tears…any of these profoundly impacted children could have been my daughter, Holly….To quote one of Adrian’s symphonic-styled songs, that proclaims the Christian hope for all hungry hearts: “Who holds the future if it’s not the one who made us?”