the album that was not to be – providence – a tribute to John Orsi, musician

I never met John Orsi in the “real world”.  I can’t really say we were close friends – although, in the relatively short time I knew him, we did get to know each other fairly well, and, as time progressed, we had developed an ongoing conversation – and as it would always be with John, it was mostly a conversation about…music.  That conversation, which began online and then spilled out into that very same “real world”; often, in the form of long, intense, handwritten letters from John, was a very important one to me.  We were of a similar disposition, we enjoyed similar music, and we found as the conversation went on, that we had much in common.  It was good to meet someone with similar views to my own, and similar musical interests too.

John Orsi was a musician’s musician, an extraordinary percussionist and drummer with a very unique style, and an even more unique vision of music as he saw it, as made real under the auspices of the music and art collective that he helped to found, “It’s Twilight Time” – which also served as the de facto record label for many of the bands that John was involved in.  John was very possibly the only percussionist I know who could play “ambient percussion”. His drum kits were no longer “standard”, and he was always dreaming up new and better ways to configure his unusual percussion set-ups. He was also always involved in several musical projects at any given time, including the bands knitting by twilight and incandescent sky, among many others.

I met John through a mutual on-line acquaintance of ours, the good Ian Stewart, who expressed the wish, openly, to both of us, that we make an album together – saying something like “you are two of my favourite musicians, I wish you’d make an album together”.  so – we decided, after an initial conversation, that we would.  it was that simple.

So the “Orsi-Stafford” project was born.  At first, we struggled a bit with the usual questions that any new band has to deal with, what are we called? (clearly, “the orsi-stafford project” was never going to do as a band name); what music are we going to make? and similar important questions.  As they always do, these essential details sorted themselves out over time, and we then moved onto to the details of the music itself, and the correspondence proper began.

I felt that for John, that he didn’t want to do anything in half-measures; he wanted this project to be done properly, and with a full commitment from both of us; so, it was agreed that the fruits of our musical labour would be released on “It’s Twilight Time” in the US, and for Europe, on pureambient, my label.

I was happy enough with this arrangement, so the next little detail was…the music itself.  I sat down one weekend, which I’d set aside specifically to make sketches for the new  band, which by then, bore the name “providence” – after the King Crimson song of the same name, and also, in honour of providence, rhode island, which is the area that John lived in, and also where, in 1974, King Crimson played said song…and I began.

I decided that since John’s work was of a calibre above most, that I wanted to present something to him that was more serious, more classically oriented (not anything predictable, like an ambient ebow loop – or other types of ambient music normally associated with Dave Stafford and his music) – so I, to challenge myself, and to go against what would have been predictable – I decided that the bulk of the material I would sketch out for John to listen to, would be piano based; and as a twist, I also recorded (at the same time) a mellotron track for each one of the piano pieces, so we could mix and match between grand piano and the more exotic sounds of the mellotron.  Normally, I would have played ebow guitar, ambient guitar, synth, but for some reason, I felt very strongly, that this project demanded – piano.  And piano like I’d never played piano before.  Not technically difficult or challenging, but, with an ear for beauty, looking for simple, lovely melodies – and by chance, with some luck, finding them.

I recorded a vast number of sketches on the piano, with three main musical themes, which were “grace”, “providence” and “intransigence”.  The music that appeared, surprised me, because it was so serious, so very classical sounding, and also, it was surprisingly beautiful – if I do say so myself. It was really, really quite lovely, and I was happy enough with what I eventually sent to John.

I then went on and recorded some guitar sketches, using the guitar synth, and while one or two of these were of interest, the bulk of the guitar work, while acceptable, did not knock me out as much as the large library of piano / mellotron works I did early on in the session (in all, 87 of these piano / mellotron takes were recorded !!).  There were some notable bits of quiet, Fripp-like jazz guitar that I wanted to incorporate, but mostly, I concentrated on those haunting piano themes.

I then spent some considerable time, taking the three themes, and arranging them into various test mixes, sometimes alone, sometimes combined with each other to create longer pieces, and I burned it all to a DVD and mailed it off to John…a mass of material, it was a lot of takes, and I sent him the whole lot, all the raw takes, in piano form; all the raw takes, in mellotron form; all the raw takes, piano + mellotron mixed together; and then, several long form test mixes, of various imagined thematic arrangements of the takes…

Some time later (after suitable time to digest this massive number of musical sketches), John wrote back, effusive about my sketches, and the test mixes; excited, and he paid me some really significant compliments, saying about one of the pieces that it was “already finished, I wouldn’t dare overdub it, it’s perfect just as it is” – which is high praise indeed.  His reaction to my sketches was altogether positive, and I heaved a sigh of relief – I’d done something good enough that he would want to continue the collaboration, and now, it would be his turn to produce some sketches of his own to contribute to the band’s pool of music.

We exchanged letters again, I, typing them on the computer because writing cursive is too painful for my elderly, tired old guitarist / keyboardist hands, while John always, always preferred to write out his letters long hand, which were a pleasure to receive and read. I liked that about him, he had an inherent dislike of technology that was really refreshing – it was something, in 2012, to meet someone who still preferred to write letters in long hand, on paper, with a pen.  Unusual.

I looked forward to his letters, which he would often write at the seaside, he would drive out to some lonely spot and then wax effusive about music, music and more music – we did converse about other things besides music, but not often and not much, we were wholly focussed on the task at hand, and we were both very excited about the prospect of building the “providence” album, and working together to create a work of real quality.

I was very excited about working with John, and I really felt that this would become a superb collaborative effort, because both of us were experienced musicians, with different strengths that were entirely complimentary.  John could compose and play the percussion parts that I could not, and I could compose and play the piano, mellotron, guitar and ebow parts that he could not – so the two of us had the right complimentary skill sets, to make an amazing album, each playing to our own musical strengths, and letting the other fill in the parts that we ourselves, could not, or could not easily, do.

Various ideas and approaches were discussed: we would merge sketches, if possible; or, John would overdub my sketches and return them to me for another pass; or, I would overdub John’s sketches – we didn’t feel we needed to stick to one working methodology; we were both open to…whatever worked the best, and I was really looking forward to receiving John’s sketches to assess, play on, and work with.

I suggested that we keep an open mind – maybe, for example, the album would end up with five tracks of John’s overdubbed by me, and five tracks of mine, overdubbed by John.  That was just one idea that was suggested, we didn’t want to burden ourselves by making too many hard decisions about the final form of the album, but the ideas were flowing thick and fast, and it was a very exciting time for me, for both of us, I hope – I was really immersed in the process, I am accustomed to these long-distance collaborations (having done more than a few over time, drone forest, scorched by the sun, and so on), but this one was of a distinctly high quality; and I sensed and fervently hoped that the music that we eventually would make, would be most excellent.  Unfortunately, though…I never got to find out.

I had also promised John that we would absolutely work energy bow guitar into the final release, because ebow is really my signature sound, and John had worked with ebow players before, and we both loved the sound of the device.  He’d said that he wanted me to play energy bow guitar on the album, so I agreed that somehow, once the pieces were blocked out, we would find a way to incorporate some really beautiful ambient ebow loops or solos, into the finished record.  Unfortunately, we never got far enough along for me to even test this theory out, so there are no recordings of these proposed ebow pieces – they never materialised.

It’s at this point my recollection gets a bit hazy; I believe John said he was working on some ideas, playing some percussion with “providence” in mind, but I do not know if he recorded anything or not.  He very possibly did…but, sadly, I never received the promised sketches – while letters did arrive, more and more infrequently – no tapes ever appeared.

I thought nothing of this, sometimes, many weeks would pass without any contact between us, but I was not concerned, as I knew that John had my sketches in hand, and was happy enough with them; and that he was working on sketches to send to me, so it would just be a matter of time…or so I believed.  I just waited patiently, unworried, knowing that the ball was in John’s court, confident that he was busy working away on his set of sketches for the project…

Then – life happened.  My own life sometimes takes these twists and turns that mean my attention is drawn away, or must be focussed on other issues.  Time passed.  Then more time passed.  Suddenly I realised, it had been many months since I had heard from John.  I guessed that, perhaps, he was struggling with the material; that maybe, he hadn’t managed to record any sketches he was happy with, and I wondered if he had perhaps wanted to give up on the project, and work on his own music instead – I really didn’t know.  I said to myself, I must write to John and see what is going on, find out if he wants to proceed with the work on “providence” or not…

Again – more life happened, I didn’t act, I didn’t write – still more time passed, until last night, when suddenly Carrie Hodges appeared on Facebook, messaging me (so I knew something was up) with the news of John’s passing.

The John Orsi that I got to know, through his long, beautifully handwritten letters, and occasional on-line conversations, was a man of grace.  He was kind, quiet, and passionate about music, and I could feel his great love of music through his letters and in his words – and in the extraordinary music that he himself made, too.

For both John and myself, our favourite drummer was Bill Bruford.  We also both loved the work of guitarist Bill Nelson, who for many years was my hero, and my inspiration for picking up the ebow and using it instead of a plectrum or pick.

For whatever reason, “providence” caused me to play some very, very serious and moving music.  It just flowed out, as if I’d been storing it up for years on end, and then suddenly, there was a call for it – and there it was.  This was some of the first real classical music I ever composed – and I am incredibly proud of it.  It would not exist if it were not for John Orsi, and Ian Stewart before him. Strangely, by coincidence, since I hadn’t heard it for a long time, just a few days ago, I listened to a large section of the sessions, to remind myself of the quality of the music of providence, and wondered again why I hadn’t heard from John for so long…and now I know why.

Realising and respecting that John was a very private person, I didn’t want to intrude or ask too many questions (sometimes, people need space to work through their issues, whatever those might be), and by now, so many months had gone by that I was fairly certain the collaboration was not going to happen – but I assumed it was, perhaps, because John was having problems with the music, or he just wasn’t inspired, or perhaps other personal troubles were preventing him from playing – I didn’t know, but I did not want to intrude or bother him – I was, as they say “giving him space”.

There is no way no to turn back the hands of time, I wish I had intruded, that I had written – because I never got to say goodbye to my friend.  I didn’t even know he was ill, he was very careful to conceal that from me. He never said a word, or let on with any hints or other indications that anything was amiss.  Then, suddenly – he was gone.

Now I have to do that farewell, here and now, from my blog; I have to eulogise and remember my friend, my partner in “Providence”; kind, gentle, thoughtful John Orsi –

It’s Twilight Time, my friend.

~~~  sending peace and love to Karen Orsi and the family ~~~