Will Gardner (Interview)
Good morning. Our five-year T-shirt is available here, and we will be off next week.
Today we’re listening to Will Gardner, an English composer based in London. After graduating college he worked on various film score projects across Berlin and New York City. He settled in London and in 2020 he started making his own music, “digitally transfigured contemporary classical soundscapes” in his words.1 His debut LP Remains came out last month. It’s a rich ambient record composed in memoriam to his father. Remains is Gardner’s only LP, so he recommended that we pair it with Ian William Craig’s Turn of Breath. An interview with Gardner follows the streaming links.
What were the life events that immediately inspired Remains?
The record is about my Dad’s Parkinson’s Disease, and the experience I had caring for him in its latter stages. After it was diagnosed in 2008, the disease progressively worsened, and towards the end he was suffering from disturbing visions and paranoias, and struggling to communicate clearly or remember very much at all.
It took me some time after my Dad died in 2015 to come round to the idea of writing about the experience. My first instinct was to explore some of the themes of memory loss that he’d gone through and conjure an “imagining” of the dementia experience through sound. It felt interesting and exciting on a somewhat abstract level, like a science experiment or a documentation.
Later, on listening back to some of the music that was emerging from my writing sessions, I realised there was a lot more of “me” in the work that I had intended. It seems obvious now, but I think I had used this abstracted, “scientific” process as a way to let myself go beneath the surface and explore the emotional side of the experience.
I began to realise that the whole “audio imagining of dementia” idea was me trying to connect with him, and to share this awful experience he was going through alone.
On the record, you achieve this haunting, staticky, glitchy effect. Can you tell us about how you did this?
I was drawn to flickering, glitchy sounds as one way to evoke an imagining of dementia through sonics, which is the theme of the record. There’s a lot of granular synthesis going on, which is a type of processing where an audio file or a sample becomes fragmented into small segments which can then be rearranged, transposed, etc. A lot of the staticky noise just comes from an old German tape machine I bought off eBay. It took me about a year to work out how to plug the thing in and get all the right cables for it, and even after that I wasn’t sure if the sound coming out was faulty or not – but I kind of liked the noisy effect.
I also became really fascinated by a digital “Morphing” plugin which lets you input two different audio sources and get them to interact and feed off each other to create weird, hybrid sounds.
What were the musical discoveries in your life that pointed you toward this kind of ambient music?
I don’t listen to loads of ambient music actually, but I feel drawn towards any music that can feel abstract, or has the potential to feel spiritual in some way. I used to sing as a chorister and I still find a lot of sacred, choral music to be extremely powerful even though I’m not religious at all. I suppose it feels abstract to me because the words don’t really mean anything to me, or because they are less intelligible. I probably discovered “ambient” music through plainchant and minimalist composers like John Tavener, Arvo Pärt, and Henryk Gorecki.
What's the best movie you saw in the last year?
Godland was really good! My partner is really into film and I’m lucky she often brings me along to the cinema with her and I don’t know what I’m going to see. I saw Godland like that. It’s a psychological drama about a Danish priest who goes to Iceland to build a church… It’s creepy, insidious, and there’s loads of wild, sometimes kind of disturbing natural cinematography to signify passing time that has really stayed with me.
Tell us about the featured musicians on the record: Thom Andrewes, Kate Huggett, etc. How did you meet them? How did you collaborate with them?
Remains was such a personal project that I decided to keep away from any collaboration until it was almost finished. Towards the end of the process I asked Kate and Thom, who are two of my closest friends from university and both amazing musicians, to add some touches to the third album track, “Blossom.”
Kate came over to my studio to record the vocal line. She has a really beautiful, unusual voice that works so well in the track. Thom is a composer and multi-instrumentalist who can turn his hand to pretty much anything. He recorded some guitar and autoharp parts for me remotely.
The process was easy and it felt special to share what I’d be working on with them for the first time by inviting them to participate. It feels specials to now have them as part of the record.
Name an underrated musician from the past 50 years.
I'm feel a bit resistant to the whole idea of rating artists to be honest. I know we all do it but at the same time I think "underrated" implies some sort of universal consensus that either has or has not been met. I feel like I've been hampered by that sort of thinking, particularly growing up in the classical world and being told constantly who the greatest composers were.
I guess I might say that “art” in general feels like it's underrated, particularly in the UK right now. That's what it feels like here as venues keep closing, funding gets cut, and artists are forced to fight it out between themselves for smaller and smaller pots of money to keep doing their thing.
What non-musical artist(s) inspire you these days?
I’m usually inspired by things that make me feel a bit weird and lost in the cracks. I saw an amazing exhibition in Lisbon this year by a photographer called Sandra Rocha, called Da Calma fez-se o vento. It was a series of portraits inspired by Ovid’s Metamorphoses, showing humans, inanimate objects, and animals in a cyclical state of transformation. I found it very powerful to see these state of constant motion and flux portrayed through still photography.
What are you working on next?
I have loads of different ideas! But at the moment I’m feeling really drawn to the process of improvisation. I want to devote some time to exploring improvisation at the piano more, and look at ways I can feed that back into my studio work.