Though most record buyers may never have heard of Clifford White, his New Age album, Ascension, has sold over 50,000 copies worldwide, making him more successful than many charting pop musicians. Post-Ascension, he has recorded a whole series of best-selling works from his modest home studio in north London, and his latest venture is to start his own record label, 21st Century Music.
His success in the New Age field aside, I began by asking Clifford what had inspired him to start making music of any kind in the first place.
"As a kid, I wanted to be a movie director, and I made a lot of my own science fiction films, using a Super-8 cine camera bought for me by a relative -- this was before affordable video. I've always been interested in the fantasy aspect of things, rather than what's visible in the real world. But the problem with films is that before you can create a fantasy world, you have to build a set in order to photograph it. Once you've built something, it's no longer a fantasy -- it doesn't merely exist in the imagination any longer. Eventually, I realised that I wasn't going to be able to get my ideas across using the visual medium, which is when I started to develop an interest in music. The minute I started to play a synthesizer, I knew I'd found what I was looking for -- I could create mental images without having to create visual images."
Was there anything around that gave you musical inspiration at the time?
"The first thing I really listened to was Tubular Bells, and I played it continually for about a year! Sergeant Pepper also had a strong influence on me -- it demonstrated that you could produce these different landscapes through music and sound. It's ironic that the whole Virgin music empire was built on the back of Tubular Bells -- music considered by most people to be New Age! We're always told by the major record companies that New Age doesn't sell, but Tubular Bells II is also being sold in huge quantities.
"I didn't have any traditional music lessons to start off with, but I used to sneak up to the school music room, climb in through the open window at the top, and spend most of the afternoon tinkering on the piano. That's when I started to come up with my first tunes, which became the basis for my first album, Ascension."
For most people, writing a few pieces of music might have been as far as it went, but you turned your musical ideas into a best-selling album. Not only that, but you succeeded in a genre which, as we've already said, is supposedly associated with low record sales -- New Age. How did you go from your basic ideas to having such success?
"I'd already demo'd a few tunes using a domestic tape machine, covering the erase head to get another layer on top, and I told my family that I wanted to be a musician -- I didn't want to be a film director any more. My mother said that if that was the case, I should take piano lessons.
"At the end of a month of piano lessons, my teacher, Jon Land, turned around to me and said 'Look, I don't think you have the right attitude for learning to read music -- I'm sorry, but I don't think I'm going to be able to teach you.' At the end of the lesson, I mentioned to him that I'd been writing some of my own tunes, and he asked to hear some of them. You should have seen the look on his face! He said, 'You can't do that, you can't move that harmony there, you can't go that way, it's not conventional.' But by the end of it, I think he was more impressed with me than I was with him.
"From then on, he gave me a lot of encouragement, and became my first mentor -- if that's the right word. He spoke to my family, and said he thought I had talent. Don't believe anyone who tells you that you have to be able to read music to be a successful composer. In my experience, not being able to read or write music has meant that I don't know any rules, and not knowing the rules, I can go ahead and break them without worrying about it. I can concentrate on whether the music feels right on an emotional level, rather than being concerned with its technical correctness.
"The outcome was that I left school, and my ex-piano teacher and I put our funds together and set up a small recording studio. He had the classical training, and I had the ears for the sounds. This was at the start of the '80s, and velocity- sensitive, polyphonic synths were starting to appear, drawing the worlds of classical and electronic music closer together. We recorded enough material for about six albums, and at the same time, I was recording Ascension. All the time, people were asking what I was going to do with the stuff once I'd recorded it, because they didn't see how I could possibly market it."
How did you market it?
"I went to an event, the Mind/Body/Spirit festival, and I saw a catalogue produced by New World, full of very pretty album covers, descriptions of electronic keyboards, soft, sensitive sounds, ambient tones and textures -- and I thought, 'That's what I'm doing.' So I wrote off to Colin Willcox, who ran the company, and within two days, he came round and offered me a record deal for the whole lot. He'd been looking for British artists producing this kind of material, and he wanted to use everything I'd done.
"Not all of it did well, though I sold a few thousand of everything, but Ascension just went on selling -- and it still is today, 10 years later. It must have captured the imagination of people interested in New Age music, though I've never really considered my work to be New Age. To me it was just instrumental music."
Recently, you've set up your own record company. Why did you feel the need to do this?
"I don't want to say too much about my dealings either with New World, Start Records, who also released an album of mine, or various other independent and mainstream labels, but ultimately, record companies are only out to exploit the music for their own ends. To start with, I didn't know about the technical aspects of the business -- clauses in contracts, royalties or any of that -- and record companies are always glad to handle that for you. All you have to do is sign on the dotted line, and you can have plenty of money to record your album. And when you're a musician who desperately wants to get a record out, that's like dangling a carrot in front of a starving rabbit. You're going to sign anything, and the record companies know that.
"Now that I've got wise, they're not quite so eager to deal with me, because I'm not cheap, and I won't sell up my royalties. I was approached recently by a well-known TV hypnotist who wanted to use some of my music, and I had to turn him down, because he wanted me to waive my royalties. Even though he'd climbed up the ladder himself, it seemed he still wanted to exploit me. At that point, I realised that I was sick of feeding other people, and that to stay in control of my music, I'd have to start my own record label.
"I've approached the thing from a much more honest angle, because I'm a composer. I came up with the concept of 21st Century Music, which I felt was a suitable generic term for the style of music I thought I wanted to develop, but I don't mind the New Age tag. Traditionally, record companies control the musical output of their artists. I know of several artists who have written good instrumental music that isn't the same as most other New Age material, and it doesn't get released, because the labels only put out what they think fits in the New Age pigeon-hole. I've read lots of reviews of New Age music where it's described as wallpaper music, and you can't blame the reviewers if that's what the record companies are putting out. Even the independent labels start to work this way after they've been in business for a few years.
"Just before I started the label, I founded a club called NAMA (New Age Music Association) which, in some ways, is similar to EMMA. The record companies weren't putting artists in touch with each other, and when we did finally meet up, we discovered that we were being paid ridiculously low royalties. We promoted a lot of concerts, and got the first New Age music show, Spectrum Radio, on the air."
How are you marketing the music on your new label?
"I have a catalogue of 10 titles at the moment, six by me and four by other artists (including music by Jon Land, my ex-piano teacher, who I now manage), though we've only been going for around six months, so it's very early days yet. At the moment I'm concentrating on building up a distribution network, and also a direct mailing list. I've put together two sampler albums, entitled The Melodic Collection and The Ambient Collection, which provide a good cross-section of what 21st Century Music is doing.
"Where my own music is concerned, I've just finished two albums, Aqua and Inspirations. Inspirations is a symphonic piece -- very fast, very upbeat, based around the theme of travel. No one melody ever repeats -- themes are always developing throughout the album, and the instrumentation is constantly changing. It's the single most complicated thing I've ever done -- it's taken me over two years, and I never would have done it without my Roland Sound Canvas [see separate panel, 'The simple approach to equipment', for more about Clifford's use of this and other instruments]. I'm very pleased with the end result, though I would like to hear it performed by an orchestra.
"Aqua was written at the same time, as a breather from Inspirations -- I just needed to chill out and enjoy music. It's very relaxing, and though it still isn't strictly New Age music, it is mood-setting."
Have you ever considered adding acoustic instruments to your work?
"I don't use acoustic instruments in my compositions; I feel that if I did, the contrast between the acoustic instruments and the synthesised ones would be too obvious. If I used acoustic instruments, I'd want to use them for everything. I play a little guitar, but when it comes to my own music, I don't feel adept enough to play what I'm writing, and with my new material, it really is too complicated to play."
Does this mean that you're moving further away from the traditional New Age style, which tends to result in moody pieces covered in reverb?
"I moved away from that after my first album, Ascension, though the flagship of the 21st Century Music catalogue is Revelation, which is the follow-up to Ascension. I felt there was no point in starting a record label until I could do a follow-up which would allow me to reach the public who had already heard Ascension."
What are your immediate future plans?
"I feel it's time this music gained greater recognition in the mainstream; I plan to get it onto the radio, and I have a format worked out for a pilot radio show, with myself as the interviewer, talking to contemporary electronic composers and New Age musicians. If I'm not approached by one of the radio stations I've contacted to do this show by the end of the year, I'll go ahead and do the pilot myself.
"Although radio play is very important, it's still only one of the things occupying me at the moment. Other projects include concerts; I have an idea for a kind of New Age Live Aid concert, or series of concerts, featuring all the top names in electronic music from across the world. There's also a lot more work to do with the record company, and I'm pleased to say that Inspirations is already attracting some very good reviews."
"Don't believe anyone who tells you that you have to be able to read music to be a successful composer. In my experience, not being able to read or write music has meant that I don't know any rules, and not knowing the rules, I can go ahead and break them without worrying about it."
Clifford explained to me that he'd gone down the usual home studio route at first, and bought an Atari running C-Lab's Creator. However, this led only to disappointment, as he explained:
"I read all the technical magazines, and there's a psychological effect that when you read about something enough times, you want it. There may be a few facilities offered by a new piece of equipment that you think you're going to need desperately. Eventually, you feel you have to have it now, regardless of how overdrawn you are!
"After you buy it, you realise that this new piece of equipment hasn't really satisfied your desire, and you move onto something else. I was convinced that what I needed to develop my music was an Atari system, C-Lab's Creator and racks of gear, so I went to town and spent myself stupid. I experienced a profound sense of loss after the money was spent, firstly because I quite fancied a holiday which I could no longer afford, and secondly, because I found that working with the computer removes you from the direct approach to writing music, where you just sit down in front of an instrument and start playing. The problem is that you've got to switch the system on, load your software, set all the modules to the sounds you're after, and by that time, Mr Mood has buggered off down the high street for a packet of cigarettes! And quite apart from all that, there's the problem of eyestrain."
Perhaps due to his disappointment with computer-based sequencing systems, Clifford has now simplified his recording setup considerably. He still uses his old Seck 18:8:2 desk for mixing, and has no really up-to-date keyboards or effects units. His monitoring system is based around a couple of small hi-fi speakers, but nevertheless, his recordings, which are mixed directly to a Sony DTC55 DAT machine, are beautifully produced and impeccably clean. He now records his music onto hardware sequencers, namely a couple of Alesis MMT8s.
"I wouldn't want to be called a Luddite, but the system I have now is so simple that people do come in and sneer at it! But you switch it on and it's awake -- you don't have to feed it a disk. There are two MMT8s because some of the music on my latest album, Inspirations, exceeds the memory capacity of a single unit, so I run them together to share the load. I use them independently while recording, and then sync them up when I've finished, so I can hear all the parts playing together. When I've finished working, my songs are archived to an Alesis Datadisk, but while I'm working on a song, it's always in the MMT8, ready to start work as soon as I switch on.
"My pride and joy at the moment is a Roland SC155 Sound Canvas, and I save all my programs from that onto the Datadisk. It is one of the few things that I've bought that hasn't been a disappointment. I particularly appreciate the faders, which not only give me direct control of the mix, but also send out MIDI data, which can be recorded into the sequencer to provide what is effectively mix automation. I do have a Fostex 8-track recorder, but now I go direct from MIDI to DAT, and hardly use the multitrack at all. All my mixes are automated via MIDI, so once something is finished, it can be loaded up at a later time, and recreated perfectly. External effects come from an old Alesis Microverb II. For the classical work, I use a concert hall setting, patch 29 -- and you don't need to keep changing a hall, do you?
"The good thing about the Sound Canvas, though -- apart from the sliders, which are an acknowledgement that musicians have fingers rather than just stubs to punch their Ataris -- is that the sounds are almost gentle. My mother, who was a piano player, told me that the spaces in music are as important as the sounds -- and that's something I've always remembered. The spaces create the sense of tempo and anticipation, and leave room for the listener to exist within the music. The Sound Canvas patches allow me to create this sense of space, because they're not all competing to be at the front of the mix, as is so often the case with pop music.
"The Sound Canvas is used for backing instruments such as drums, pads, bass and that sort of thing, but my main melodic instruments are piano and flute. My piano sounds come from a Roland P330, which I hated when I first heard it, but then I borrowed one from a friend for a while, and fell in love with it. The flutes come from my S950 sampler, and I have a variety of flute samples that I use. I think the sampler is important, because when you're writing your own music, you need to give it your own trademark. With so much equipment, you rely on standard, stock sounds, but with a sampler, you can find something new to add, by choosing samples that aren't used by other people. I don't have the time to sit around all day programming new patches, and anyway, how many different string patches can there be?
"My master keyboard is a Roland D50, though I have to admit that I don't use its sounds very much at the moment. I used it a lot on some of my earlier work, but my last three albums are virtually classical music, and draw on sounds from the Sound Canvas, piano module and sampler. The D50 sounds too electronic for my current projects, though I do have plans for a future album that will make more use of it, to produce Tangerine Dream/Jean-Michel Jarre kinds of sounds. I loved all that kind of stuff, but in a sense, it's had its day, which is why I've been concentrating on classical arrangements. When it comes to using those sounds again, I'll need to give them a new twist."
Clifford White has composed and produced seven solo albums of instrumental music since 1985. In addition, he has collaborated with other musicians on a further 11, and produced another eight -- a total of 26 albums in nine years.
CLIFFORD WHITE SOLO
Ascension 1985 New World
Spring Fantasy 1987 New World
The Lifespring 1989 Start Records
Twilight Paradise 1992 21st Century Music
Revelation 1993 21st Century Music
Inspirations 1994 21st Century Music
Aqua 1994 21st Century Music
Title With Released Label
The Speed Of Sound Jon Land 1985 New World
Legacy Jon Land 1985 New World
Ionospheres Jon Land 1985 New World
First Orbit Steve Russel 1986 New World
Sundancer Steve Russel 1988 Theta (Polygram)
Moonstone Stairway 1988 New World
Beyond The Sky Jon Land 1991 Audio Art
Dolphin Love Chris Michell 1991 Astarte
The Inner Child L'Esprit 1993 Dawn Awakening
Floating World Free-Flow 1993 21st Century Music
Out Of The Dark Jim McCarty 1994 Higher Octave
"Often, I'll start a mix from silence, or very quiet, and then build on it. With silence, when you play your first piano note, you get the atmosphere that you need. When I say silence, I don't necessarily mean absolute silence, but something quiet that creates the sameeffect. Maybe the strings are soft and shimmering in the background, and while they're doing that, I'm visualising a flute melody positioned further forward. And then I might slip an organ into the background, to create a whole three-dimensional image by trying to keep everything as quiet as possible -- until the climax, of course!"
How do you compile your albums? Do you work from a pile of DAT tapes, copying them all onto another machine in the right order, or do you use a hard-disk editing facility?
"Because all my mixes are automated, I don't have to think in terms of copying my original DAT master, because I can recreate the original performance any time I want to. I can save the whole mix, programmes, sounds, and so on, making a few notes along the way as regards the sampler, sound module and so on, and then put all the mixes straight down to a fresh DAT tape in the right order. Everything is first generation.
"By the time I've mixed an album, I'm desperate to move onto something new. The music is inspiring me to write something else and I find it very hard to finish an album; I have to tell myself to finish it, otherwise it might sit on the shelf for ages just missing a mix."
Perhaps this need to finish something and then move onto something new without looking back is responsible for your prolific output?
"I wasn't always like that, but the only person who suffered from constantly remixing and reworking things was me. When I was working with tape, things took a lot longer -- working entirely with MIDI means that I am able to move on."
To obtain a 21st Century Music catalogue, write to: 21st Century Music, PO Box 235. Edgeware, Middlesex, HA8 6SW.
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