Will Gardner: The Personal Journey Behind 'Remains'

  In the realm of ambient music, Will Gardner's latest album "Remains" (2023) emerges as a deeply personal narrative crafted from the diaries of his father, who battled Parkinson's dementia. This album stands out not just for its rich soundscapes, but for its exploration of memory, the dynamic interplay between sound and an attempt at silence, and its overall emotional generosity. Gardner's work brilliantly demonstrates how the personal can be universal, offering listeners a journey through the complex terrains of memory and loss.

We had the opportunity to talk to Will Gardner about "Remains," delving into the inspirations, emotional processes, and the unique sound design behind this remarkable album.

FF: What inspired you to create 'Remains,' and how did your father's diaries become a pivotal element in shaping its theme?

Will: My Dad was an avid diarist and wrote a diary entry almost every day stretching back for fifteen years. He would often enjoy reading extracts from the diaries out loud to us. In the latter stages of his Parkinson’s dementia, when he was really struggling to remember very much at all, I would read bits of his diaries back to him - as something for us to do together, and as an attempt to spark his memory. 

It struck me that most of what I was reading to him he didn’t recognise as his own memories. He would often ask me “who wrote that?”. 

I guess diaries can often function like depositories of our memories, as places to keep memories safe so they don’t get lost. But what happens if we are unable to access those depositories and get locked out? What function do they then play?

It made me think about how powerful the diaries had become as a simulacrum of sorts for his own memory - and it felt like my Dad’s evolving relationship with them captured something of what I want to explore through music.

FF: Could you describe the emotional process you experienced while transforming the personal contents of your father's diaries into music?

Will:I would describe the emotional journey as challenging, confusing, inconsistent, and difficult to put into words. I started writing Remains some years after my Dad had passed away so I felt like I had found some sort of distance from the experience. 

I didn’t really know what I was doing when I began - only that I wanted to explore these themes around memory loss which led me to the idea of creating an ‘aural imagining’ of the dementia experience. This concept seemed interesting, perhaps on a somewhat abstract level - as a curious experiment in sound design, a documentation.

It seems obvious now, but it was only as the process continued to evolve that I realised how much of myself and my own experiences were making themselves known in the music, and how it flickered between something abstract and something deeply personal. I began to realise that the whole ‘aural imagining’ concept was really my own attempt to reach out and connect with my Dad, to try and retrospectively experience what he had gone through as an act of care, and that this was leading to some of the surprisingly soft, delicate sounds that would emerge from my writing sessions. There were moments whilst writing when I would listen back to what I done and feel really moved. Grief is a weird thing - it appears in unusual places at unexpected times.

FF: In terms of creative technique, how did you go about deriving rhythms and melodies from the diary texts, and what influenced your choice of specific fragments?
Adapting the diaries into music was a highly intuitive process. I began each day, first thing, usually half asleep, reading through the diaries that I had with me in my London flat. If I stumbled across a phrase that I liked, or that affected me in some way, I would write it down on a pad of paper. I did this until I had a good handful of short phrases to work with and then I began “composing”. At this point the process resembled the process of setting a text to music, like how a composer might set the text of a poem to music - the rhythms were led by the natural shape how you might speak the text, and the melodies grew from there.

FF: As a composer with a notable background in string arrangements, what unique approaches to sound design and instrumentation did you explore in 'Remains'?

Will:Writing string arrangements is often quite a rigid, fixed process. The arranging usually only begins when most of the song is already clearly defined - whereas designing the sound for Remains was extremely loose… everything was floating up in the air and the only guiding principles I had were the fragments of diary text and the concept of the ‘aural imagining’ of dementia. I deliberately chose not define the sound design per se, but rather tried to let the conceptual framework of memory loss lead my choices. I was particularly interested in the sound of the uncanny, and the sound design potential of taking a very familiar sound and making it unfamiliar.

FF: Can you share some insights into the recording process of 'Remains'? Were there specific techniques, equipment, or studio configurations that were essential in capturing the album's essence?

Will: My first inspiration for Remains was artists like Ian William Craig and William Basinski, who use degrading physical tape in their compositions and elements of these techniques found their way into what I was doing, but my process was much more digital. I’m intrigued by analog gear but it’s expensive and takes up lots of space so I find most of the work I do happens in the box, basically out of necessity. 

I found a small collection of digital processing techniques which were inspired by my thinking about memory loss, and the delusions and paranoias of dementia. I became quite fascinated by one in particular, a ‘Morphing’  plugin that allowed me to use two distinct audio signals to influence one another. Much like a Vocoder uses a voice to trigger a synthesiser, the ‘morphing’ plugin would allow me to use a piano to trigger a synth - or a voice to trigger a piano. This gave me a sound palette of strange, disturbing and organic ’conversations’ between various instruments which really worked for what I was trying to do.

For more insights into Will Gardner's work and his album "Remains" visit his website at www.will-gardner.com. You can also follow him on Instagram for regular updates and behind-the-scenes content at @willgrdnr.

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