Douglas MacGregor : Songs of Loss & Healing : III : Song for Lost Childhood

Douglas MacGregor's mother died when he was seven. A tragic loss of itself, the event also removed him from his primary school, friends, social place, identity, home, and all the places he knew.

He has described it as "a loss suppressed from consciousness, but lived in secret every day, with every life event hiding the conspicuous absence."

Now a guitar-playing composer who brings elements of folk, classical and experimental forms together in his work, he has used music to explore and express a long delayed mourning.

MacGregor has already released two threnetic compositions to represent his journey through grief; the third installment (seven are planned in total), Song for Lost Childhood, is a waltzing lullaby of comfort to his childhood self.

Recorded live in carefully chosen settings, all the pieces are engaging, intimate and emotionally articulate; the most recent is especially poignant - as it was captured on tape on the eve of the anniversary of his mother's death at St Mary's, Buckden, a church a hundred metres away from the school he left at seven.

I spoke to Douglas to find out more about the project - a short conversation that illuminated why he is willing to place his own emotional path in public view, and how writing and recording the instrumentals has helped him gain an insight into his own life history, and a footing to move forward.

We started by talking about how he came to tackle such such personal themes through music, with Douglas explaining that it was something that had evolved rather then being planned,

"The pieces came naturally over time - the initial ideas seemed to write themselves, but they took a lot of work to get finished. It was never a premeditated process, they just came and developed as I picked up my guitar."

He took a step back to explain how he arrived at the point when he reached for his instrument,

"My now wife had talked to me about how I had not processed the loss (of my mother) - gradually, over years, in my rational head, I saw she had a point, and I tried to reconnect a bit. But I was dealing with it in a very piecemeal way and not totally emotionally engaged."

"At the same time, I was having difficulty in my broader life finding and committing to any path. I felt like I had internal brakes in me, stopping me making meaningful decisions. So, I went to see a psychologist, to try to find out what that was - but I really wasn't preparing to talk about my mother."

"Just before I went to see him, I suddenly had this incredibly intense feeling that I missed my mother, something I had not really experienced before. The psychologist cut right through my defences with a couple of well-placed words, and after that all this emotion was cut loose."

"It was overwhelming. So much I couldn't comprehend, both positive and negative feelings. I spent a year working on the music - writing the pieces was like processing the emotions. Even writing about and releasing the pieces now feels like a necessary step, with each piece coming out in a psychologically logical order."

There seemed an overlap in an absolute need to articulate with a conversation I had recently had with American Primitive guitarist Gwenifer Raymond. Raymond has a punk background, and talked about how she committed to an acoustic instrument and her current musical form when she found herself suddenly able to express feeling beyond what she could verbally using them. I asked if that resonated with his experience, and he responded immediately,

"Yes. I played rock, pop, blues, experimental music - nearly always 'songs'. Then I lived in Berlin for five years, and a year into that I started writing heavily in a more 'classical' way dropping all words. I found so much more depth in instrumental form - it spoke to something deeper within me. Looking back now, starting to compose instrumental music at this time, allowed me unknowingly to connect with my grief and circle in on it. It was like the music was revealing something within me to myself."

Making another connection, he then explained the importance of setting in his work,

"I started to record in different situations in Berlin too. There are so many amazing abandoned buildings - someone showed me round one, and I just had this sense I wanted to play there. I started making field recordings, sometimes breaking into buildings. The surroundings added so much."

I asked if it was the acoustics that drove his search for locations to record, and he acknowledged this, but quickly expanded the rationale,

"That is a part of it, but it is the history and the architectural feel too. I played in some places that had been linked to complex history - a former Nazi officers' barracks I used is a good example of that. There was also an element of rebelling against the clinical setting of a studio - looking for context, using the acoustics to inform the piece and situating the music in something beyond the self."

"So I'd take time to absorb the atmosphere of a building before recording. Although to be honest, in some of the places it was quite hit-and-run as I was a bit worried about getting caught!"

"All that thinking seemed relevant when I started this project - it was such an emotional, visceral thing to deal with, it seemed important to find the right settings for the recordings. But now I get permission, so I can have the right amount of time to work."

The audio file for Song for Lost Childhood was sent out with a press release which sets out very plainly how MacGregor's loss of place when he had to move suddenly from Cambridgeshire to Scotland compounded the dislocation of the death of his mother. I wanted to understand how the emotions around that had worked their way into the latest piece of music, and he thought for a moment before replying,

"It is a piece that has a child-like feel to it; it is soothing and consoling as if I am playing it to the inner part of me that was stuck at that young age, frozen in time by unprocessed loss. That theme became ever clearer as I wrote the song."

I prompted, 'With the songwriting as a reflexive process?' and he came back instantly,

"Yes, that's exactly it. Writing music, if you allow it to, can show you what's sitting below the surface. But in writing music, you can almost form a dialogue with what's there."

He then talked about the choice of the church to record,

"I hadn't been to that church before in fact, but I have been back to the area whilst working things through a number of times - to the school I went to, the house, and a walk I used to go on with my mother. The church was the right place to record this piece, it's a beautiful building and in the village where I went to school."

There is a strong binding to the memories, which is easy to empathise with. I asked if he thought that the 'hefting' of childhood to a place was unique in its strength - and again he paused before responding,

"Yes - it can be to very specific things - in Cambridgeshire there is a quality to the light, the sky, a soft evening light, that takes me immediately back to something I cannot connect to anywhere else. Even just being in the area feels therapeutic, walking on the land where walked once before stirring connections and attachments to a deep sense of place."

Near the end of the interview, I challenged Douglas whether he was limiting the listener's subjective interpretation of his music by writing in detail about what has shaped each piece, and that maybe it would be better to leave it totally to their imagination - he laughed, then said,

"I believe strongly in both approaches! But when I came to this project, I wanted the context to be there for two reasons - first, there are the themes: I am playing instrumental music so you would not necessarily come to them without a prompt and I wanted to connect with people through those themes. The writing also doesn't explain the music, but should give the listener a jumping off point. As pieces of instrumental music, when listened to on their own, there are no words to pin them down and they can be interpreted as subjectively as the listener wants. Even my relationship with the pieces is constantly evolving."

"The other thing I wanted to do is to explore, on a broader basis, how music can help with grief - and to do that I needed to be open, including my personal experience. Music and death have always been intimately and fascinatingly linked, but I think as a society we've forgotten how powerful music can be and how it can be used."

"The music came first though and has always been the essential focus for the project. It came much more naturally than writing about it afterwards .From the start, music allowed me to bring these otherwise terrifying emotions to the surface, identify them and thoroughly explore them without fear. Music was guide in the underworld and I would never have been able to do this, or write about it after, to the same extent without it."

There was just time left to ask if music had finally helped him overcome his sense of loss, and he closed the conversation with a heartfelt statement that was both emphatic in its positivity and nuanced in its emphasis,

"Not as directly as you might expect. It is not about getting over something - it has helped by giving me understanding and some control of, and a channel for, overwhelming feelings; helped me to develop a relationship with the emotions and discover them more fully."

"And that relationship is what is healing."