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Terminus — about the four-part EP from Stolace

January 31, 2020 | Michael | Music, Updates

Composing, arranging, and recording TERMINUS was quite the wild ride for me, both as a human being and as a musician. I originally hadn’t planned on creating this epic 17-minute monstrosity, but as I began working on the piece “On the Steel Breeze” it began to take on a life of its own and ideas started flooding in.

“On the Steel Breeze” was meant to be this stylistic tip of the cap to one of my favorite bands, Pink Floyd. I layered it with loads of guitar parts that had some blues-influenced lines and background vocals that sound like they were straight out of their song “On the Turning Away”, one of my all-time favorite songs.

There are two subtle references to Pink Floyd, ones that most would never catch. The first is the the call sign “Echo 3 8” used by the astronaut in the tail end of “Here for the Ride” and in “On the Steel Breeze”. During the bridge of “Learning to Fly” there is radio chatter between the pilot and the control tower, with a brief mention of “3 - 8 - Echo”.

The second reference is the title “On the Steel Breeze”, which is a line from the song “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” as well as a science fiction novel by Alastair Reynold.

The making of Terminus

Somewhere in the midst of recording “On the Steel Breeze”, I was inspired — perhaps even internally challenged — to try and write a self-defining piece, something a little larger than life. I began asking questions like, “if I only had a little time left on this earth, what kind of music would I make and what would I say? What would I say to those I leave behind? What kind of song would capture all this ane more?” With immense, performances like the Kenney Center Honors edition of “Stairway to Heaven” as another source of inspiration, I wanted to create something that seem to build and build and build.

After completing “On the Steel Breeze” I spent some time trying to figure out how I’d follow up on that piece, of which “Here for the Ride” was born. The further I got into that 6/8 piece, the resounding sentiment was that this would be the introductory piece, and that the setting of lifting off into space would become the backdrop for this ensemble. I layered in solid rocket booster sounds, chatter from the Apollo 11 mission, and combined with samples I created myself.

Apollo 11 rocket taking off

While working on these two pieces, I had also been doing a personal stoic exercise, where one remembers our mortality (memento mori) — a practice of understanding more fully how short our life is, that it’s precious, fleeting, to live in this moment, and remember that some day we will die. We don’t know when that time is, so make this moment count. Out of this exercise, a stronger theme came into play with the pieces that I’d been working on — what if the focal theme and protagonist of these compositions was an astronaut, faced with dire circumstances and come face-to-face with mortality. How does one respond when they’ve five minutes left to live? What do they say? What would they do? Who and what would they remember? What would those emotions be like?

This led me down the path of another exercise to more fully feel and understand this, to inform where this trilogy of pieces would end. So one day when I had the house to myself, I spent about a half hour meditating on the question, “What would I do and say if I had five minutes left to live?” When that half hour was up, I grabbed a voice recorder, pencil and paper, and a timer set for five minutes. And, go.

I remember it being an intense experience, vey emotional, and as time began to run out feeling more frantic and out of control, like I had more to say and little time to say it. But as the last minute approached, I settled into the most important things to me, what I felt was the few things worth passing on to those that survive me. You’ve only got this one moment — it’s filled with so much beauty, so live it, love it, and BE in it.

It was probably one of the most emotional moments in my life for me, recounting all the things I’d say to my family, to my friends. I noticed how I switched from recounting sentimental moments and things I had been grateful for, to a tone and focus toward inspiring and motivating others to live this life fully, to not waste it on worry or anger or fear — to fill it with love, creativity, joy, beauty.

After decompressing and processing all that, I wrote a freestyle type poem (one with no rhymes or rhythms), where the resonant theme is “there’s so much beauty.” [You can read the lyrics for “Part IV: Terminus” at the end of this blog entry.] It said everything I wanted it to say, but honestly struggled hard as to how to integrate it with both “Here for the Ride” and “On the Steel Breeze”. Do I turn it into a song? Do I break from my focus of instrumental music and actually sing one? It was even briefly discussed among a couple close friends the idea of turning it into a rap-style spoken word piece and hiring a hip hop artist to transform the poem into something with rhymes and rhythm.

That was March of 2019. For weeks I labored over this idea of, “how do I complete the trilogy? I want this to be my defining piece. My pièce de résistance.

And I stalled out.

Touched with grief

The spring really picked up with my personal life in both good and bad ways — one of the more notable distractions was the bad news that a dear friend of mine received from her oncologist, was that there was no cure for her cancer, and that she had less than a year left to live. We were all devastated and tried to pack in as many get-togethers, happy hours, lunches as we could. Her last day at work was a somber one, filled with tears, hugs, more tears, disbelief, anger at the cancer.

Just a month or two later the cancer completely ravaged her body, forcing her into hospice care where she died just a few days later. I remember holding her hand, talking to her, saying my “thank yous” and my “goodbyes” to her, weeping uncontrollably and shaking from the grief. I felt powerless, angry, immensely sad, and lost. But in the midst of my goodbyes, I had been reassured by the grief counselor that she could hear me, that she’s still “in there”, and that this is the sort of thing she needs to hear — hearing that I am grateful for my time with her, that she was instrumental in my life, that our friendship was important to me, and that it absolutely hurt to lose her.

It hurt so much, losing a friend. I’ve lost family members, and that wasn’t fun at all, but this… this was different. You don’t choose your family, but friends — friends are relationships that you choose and invest in, and are particularly hard to part with.

I spent much of my summer grieving, greeted by the face of mortality, learning how to mourn, and picking up the pieces and figuring out how to move forward without my friend and co-worker.

Back in the game

As winter approached, I had been listening to a steady diet of the incomparable Jacob Collier, a Grammy Award-winning composer, singer, and multi-instrumentalist — one who inspires and motivates me. He has this way of making music that I can only describe as “colorful” — like when you listen to run of the mill music, it’s great and all. But when you listen to some of Jacob Collier’s music, it’s like the whole world opens up in surround sound and goes from shades of grayscale to vivid, three-dimensional color.

Listening to his music fueled a desire to get back in the game, and finish the trilogy. So I revisited an old acoustic sketch I had done years ago called “Nightfall” under an old performance pseudonym I used to use back in the day. I liked the idea of the transformation of day into night as a metaphor for the passing of life to death, and it seemed to fit as a closing number. However, I just couldn’t see how the poem “Terminus” fit into the whole package.

After a few weeks of noodling on it, I decided that “Terminus” really should just stand on its own. I’d tried a few variations of weaving it into the piece “Nightfall” but it felt contrived, forced, and out of balance. “Nightfall” had a rhythm and a gentle motion to it, but “Terminus” was jarring, had deep-seated emotions, and followed no real patterns or rhythm, making it near impossible to make it work.

So from that was born this idea, that what if our astronaut in this tale were drifting off into a daydream like state, recalling his favorite place on earth and being there with the ones he loves. So I wove in there the sounds of a campfire, some layered crickets, and set the scene like he was camping with the people he loves and saying his goodbyes. Towards the end of the piece, he is ready to leave his daydream state, returns to awareness of his surroundings in the space module, and leaves the listener with his final words:

"Don’t wait for someone else to write your story, or to come along and make it happen for you — you’re the author. You’re the poet. Fill your pages with your own tales of seeking wisdom, showing kindness, practicing the lost art of patience, and finding every opportunity to show love and compassion. Write your stories with an insatiable thirst, a thirst for making this moment count. You only have this one moment. And it’s filled with so much beauty. So much beauty. So much beauty."

It’s been a wild ride seeing all this together — the individual pieces, the sonic gems added in there to add depth and dimension, blending it into a four-part interstellar journey, and then putting together the visual for the YouTube video. You probably don’t know just how proud I am of this achievement; it’s the most ambitious musical piece I’ve ever composed and recorded. I just wish I had the kind of budget to shoot the video footage that I really wanted to include in this. I had reached out to Adam Savage’s Tested crew to see if they could help supply some B-roll footage, knowing they had a replica NASA launch suit and were pretty skilled with videography. But they’re busy and famous, and I’m not and have no budget. Of course they didn’t oblige my request and said, “Sorry, but we just can’t do that for you.”

I wanted cockpit footage, an actor to play my astronaut, performing the dialogue from “Terminus”. I wanted blinking lights and the flipping of switches to match the audio in “Here for the Ride” along with other little subtle details. But it just wasn’t meant to be. As an independent artist with no backing, no budget, not a lot of expendable money to spend, and no notoriety, there were no favors to call upon, no record label-backed budget to spend, and few resources at my disposal. All I really had was some free video stock footage from pexels.com, the public domain footage from NASA and the International Space Station, and a few videos and photos of my own that I threw in there as well. All those limitations considered, I’m still really pleased with how the video came out.

Pipe dream: maybe someday a label with cash flow and belief in what I’m doing will help make that sort of thing possible. Until then, would you consider becoming a supporter at the Stolace Patreon page? Your modest monthly contribution helps enable me to get a few steps closer to creating the kind of music and videos that are churning inside my mind. Just $1 a month gives you access to freely download my music on patreon.com/stolace. Thank you for your support! It means the world to me.

Become a supporter — For as little as $1/mo you can download the new album and all new music freely! join today! patreon.com / stolace

Part IV: Terminus (lyrics)

I still have this photo, when we were in the mountains
I wish I could see you one more time… Just one more time…

You never know how things will play out,
Like there’ll always be another tomorrow —
But who am I to tell fate that I haven’t had enough,
To tell Death, “not yet, just one more day.”
I’ve had a good run at this — filled so many good things.

Despite all the troubles, the hardships, and pain —
All the nonsense that I ever stressed over —
All my ambitions, the things I worked so hard for —
Vain attempts at making a name for myself —
..they were nothing at all,
…not when I think about how amazing my time has been
…with you
…and on this amazing planet we call home.
So much beauty.

All that we worry about or trouble ourselves with,
It can’t compare to the joy of seeing the sun rising over the horizon,
Or witnessing the emerald green fields, glistening after a summer shower,
Or passing through the snow-capped mountain ranges, that stretch far beyond the horizon,
Reaching out towards the sky and boasting magnificent tales of their longevity,
Or listening to the meditative mantra of the great waters presenting itself to you on the shoreline,
Or lying on your back, gazing at the stars at night — numberless, near-eternal, like the possibilities in front of you.

The entirety of our cares, or our concerns that burden us in our short existence,
They pale in comparison
To the beauty that surrounds us.
To the vastness of the oceans, or broadest of seas,
To the enormity of this giant rock orbiting the sun,
To the incomprehensible size of our universe
And all the wonders that lie eternally beyond our reach
So much beauty.
So much beauty.

You’ve got this finite window — you’ve been given this little memento from death
A postcard to write your own story on,
Filled with moments of joy, suffering,
Love and loss,
Peace, conflict,
Don’t wait for someone else to write your story,
Or to come along and make it happen for you —
You’re the author.
You’re the poet.
Fill your pages with your own tales of seeking wisdom, showing kindness, practicing the lost art of patience, and finding every opportunity to show love and compassion.
Write your stories with an insatiable thirst, a thirst for making this moment count.
You only have this one moment.
And it’s filled with so much beauty.
So much beauty.
So much beauty.

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