Colours of morning-Charm of Goldfinches, unused lyric
Waken my soul
Colours of morning
Bleed red and gold
Art historians will tell you about da Vinci: that, in a Madonna and Child painted by him, the infant Jesus is seen holding a European goldfinch in his chubby left hand; that this Renaissance master knew the goldfinch was thought to have curative properties, and that he likened this healing-bird to Virtue itself. They’ll tell you about Raphael: his Madonna del cardellino shows baby John the Baptist handing a scarlet-capped bird over to baby Jesus; the red head, which symbolised crucifixion, suggests that in this painting, John is somehow showing Jesus what lies ahead of him. Art historians might tell you about Donatello – about whom all I’ll say is that he’s no-one’s favourite Ninja Turtle.
Yeah, Michael – art historians and blog writers. I appear to be giving you lots of third-hand renaissance tidbits. Of the bird called carduelis carduelis, there are hundreds of very clear appearances in religious and secular art, and if you fancy some proper second-hand renaissance info, Herbert Friedmann has the book for you, called The Symbolic Goldfinch. But I didn’t know about any of this when I wrote a poem, years ago, one morning.
Song Stories #6: Charm of Goldfinches
The track’s roots go back nine years or so, to my Oxford days. First thing on a Saturday, I draw my curtains back and look down into the half-wild garden. It happens just as I say:
My first sight of things alive
There’s a small party of birds, of beautiful goldfinches, moving with such vivacity. Honestly I’m not much of a morning person – my head’s full of fog, and I lack lustre. So into that fog, whichever sensory experience that first presses itself in and says “take note!”, that experience colours my mind. If it’s a nice one, it lights me up. It’s a cold glass of water when you don’t notice you’ve been thirsty. This flock of finches flashes from branch to branch, yellow stripes streaming, “heads of fire-engine red” and a fun unrefined chatter. The fact that they’re common garden visitors in England – it just seems a luxury.
So I write a poem. Or a poem-like thought in blank verse, that’s glad to’ve received these garden visitors, and that links them back to a time not too long before, when I saw something impossible. You may think this is nuts – never fear, so do I. It was late at night in a church building, and from the dark of the ceiling came a substance, like a fine rain made from glittering specks of… something. The cloud of specks mainly stayed gathered up in the air, and moved with unpredictable fluid dynamics. It was quite weird, and was there for maybe 45 minutes in front of its hundred-ish witnesses.
What’s the link? I think I had a similar sense of luxury as when the goldfinches popped in. Luxury, as in a pleasant excess – excess, another word for which is superfluity, which in turn means an overflow. That in unseen places, whether in hedgerows by the Thames, or in spaces it’s impossible to see, there are beautiful creatures or qualities of light that no human would’ve thought to invent; that these overflow into our awareness sometimes. I guess if I didn’t believe that, I’d find the world a slightly threadbare place.
Let’s move from the esoteric onto something more solid – good old solid work. This job was my excuse to move to Bristol, the city where my girlfriend was studying (spoiler, she’s my wife, that went well etc.). A wage. The quiet hours piled up in the big one-room office, my head in headphones and my eyes in Excel and InDesign. Monday was fine. By Friday, I’d want to take some time for myself, so my lunchtime would be spent in Alex Does Coffee, where a guy and his skinny greyhound served me caffeine and a Friday toastie. Free magazines, a bright edgy playlist… leaving me more than a match for the few remaining manageable hours. One day, thus refreshed I had a tune in my head as I left the greyhound behind. I whistled it in the huge reverberant stairwell on my way back up. D# F# G# F# G#… six-eight time. Recorded right there on my phone, this is the melody you hear at the beginning of ‘Charm…’
The slightness of these two elements attracted me – I wanted to combine them for my nature-themed album. The stakes were super-low, and I didn’t even know if I had a song yet. Sticking with the morning theme, I started up my beloved DAW, Studio One to cook up some drums (pj bottoms on, curtains drawn, pre-breakfast. Relying on some slow brain waves to get me through). Let me talk you through making a drum pattern with Impact, an instrument in Studio One – there’re 4×4 grids of squares, and you can assign samples (well, any piece of digitised sound) to each one. Each square can be edited independently of the others, and on each square you can ‘stack’ samples on top of each other. So say you want to use sq 1 as your bass drum and sq 2 as your snare, drop some low, punchy sounds onto sq 1, and tweak them till they sound good. Same with sq 2 – something bright that cuts through on the offbeat. So now I’ve got whistling and programmed drums, around which to drape some folk-ish acoustic guitar.
This being spoken word rather than a ‘song’ freed me up from some musical constraints – I could treat this track like a collage, sticking on layers of sound and tearing some off to see what lay underneath. I let my friend Simon T hear a work-in-progress version – he helpfully suggested that the track needed electric guitar rather than acoustic. He’s a far better player than I, so I wanted him to record parts next time he came round to mine. Unfortunately, 2020 happened – so no inter-city collaboration for us. Instead I set my controls for the heart of the sun, mic’d up my acoustic really close, and used an array of effects instead.
There are a couple of software pianos too – XLN Audio have sampled a Yamaha U3, and I used its reverse setting; and the other one, by Felt Instruments, was made by inserting a sheet of wool between the hammers and strings. It gives the clammy, ethereal tones you can hear at the start of the track. So I listened to what I’d assembled, the day before F & F Side A was released, and the first half of the mix sounded weedy. Maverick choice: as time was pressing, I recorded an acoustic guitar line on my phone, without metronome or anything. Came out nicely raw, tremulous. And in the mix, it fit in uncannily well! Can you tell, when I used to do exams I was a crammer.
One of the collaged elements that got removed was a chorus, sung to the tune of my whistling: “Colours of morning / Bleed red and gold”. Only later did our friend Debs tell me about all the art history stuff. That the little goldfinch was used as shorthand for the death and resurrection of Jesus. I read some more in a review by E Faye Wilson, that from the 12th to the 15th century, “[o]ne of the Latin names for goldfinch… was lucina or lucinia, the ‘bringer of light’” – that “the two large periods into which the Middle Ages divided world history” were “the period ‘under the law’… and the ‘time of grace’ after the coming of Christ”. In this way she sees it as a harbinger of a bright new era. A lot of symbolic weight to bear for something that weighs about 16 grams.
A lot of weight indeed. Much as I don’t get to control the meaning of my songs, I can’t control the goldfinches, and in the lyrics I can’t even tell how many they are. Busy being themselves, they even move too quickly to keep track of. In perhaps the most famous painting of a goldfinch, by Fabritius (it’s the focal point of Donna Tartt’s novel), the bird is kept in place with a fine chain. They were often kept as pets, and taught tricks – often mistreated and cruelly trained to sing competitively. The only way I try to trap them is with my language – caged, in Fabritius’s painting and in Hardy’s poems, they escape even my anthropomorphisms and fly off.
Back to the guy who wrote a whole book on them. “(the goldfinch…) does not appear to have been included in paintings of the Resurrection. When the event itself was treated in a wholly obvious fashion it was apparently deemed unnecessary to include a symbolic reference to it as well.” So said Herbert Friedmann. So they didn’t coexist with the thing they symbolised – such is the nature of a sign, I suppose. Or a harbinger. But goldfinches aren’t primarily those things. They’re feathered, quick, and probably descended from dinosaurs; they eat seeds from thistles, and line their nests with down from that same plant, helped by their agility; are broad-beaked like the other finches, and sound like this: