With his sophomore album The Infinite and the Unknowable Daniel Thomas Freeman journeys through a brooding world, rich in mood and texture, and characterised by a myriad of influences. Despite having a longstanding career and an impressive resume of albums (under his own name and as a member of Rameses III), Daniel is relatively unknown in the world of neo-classical music and ambient. Nevertheless, The Infinite and the Unknowable, as well as his debut The Beauty of Doubting Yourself make him appear to be a composer with a story to tell.
Even from a young age, Daniel Thomas Freeman has been on a musical journey – journey that would take him through different sounds and mediums to the doorstep of silence.
“I got interested in electronic sound as a teenager,” Daniel begins. “I bought a simple synth when I was 15 and some 4-track recording equipment a couple of years later and I spent the next 20 years bouncing from genre to genre (including synth-pop, metal, techno, folk and drum and bass) as I tried to find music personal enough to me. I’ve got quite a wide musical taste and it took me a long, long time to realise what music most naturally emerges from me and to have the confidence to make it – and this only started as part of Rameses III when we made the ‘Jozepha’ EP (2004).”
Rameses III was started by Daniel, together with Stephen Lewis and Spencer Grady as an ambient/drone project. “Spen and I were already friends from being in a previous band when he asked me if I could help him make folk music with an experimental edge (think Scott Tuma, Loren Connors). His old high-school mate Steve joined a few months later, we did a few gigs and released an initial EP but it wasn’t until Spen encouraged us to expand our sound into drone and ambient that we really hit our stride as musicians.”
Being an oddball in the London music scene—which is primarily known for leading in underground and left-field dance music—it comes as no surprise that the music of Rameses III sounds nothing at all like anything typically South London. Throughout the ten years that the group was together, they created an impressive oeuvre that recalls the plains and mountains of North America in the sounds of slide-guitar and keyboards. But in 2010, after having released four LPs, the group disbanded, leaving a myriad of EPs and singles in their trail. It wasn’t for lack of popularity that Rameses III disbanded, but rather due to the whims of its individual members. Daniel noted: “…eventually Rameses III just ran its natural course when Spen and Steve wanted to spend more time on their new Padang Food Tigers project and it coincided with me wanting to strike out on my own with heavier and darker-sounding music.”
Going solo, Daniel exchanged the ambient sounds of Rameses III for a dark and brooding neo-classical style. He developed an intricate method of composing: “My main instrument is the recording studio and I tend to approach music as frequencies and textures rather than notes and tonalities, although I have been getting some formal education in playing the violin in recent years which has definitely broadened my approach.” This approach, which is characterised by the intense layering of violins and assorted noises, results in a majestic sound that could fill a shipyard. With these walls of sound and interweaving layers, The Infinite and the Unknown captures the story of a mythic sea voyage somewhat akin to the Odyssey in sound, all the while shying away from being impressionistic. Instead, The Infinite and the Unknowable clearly exhibits a diversity of influences—ranging from Tudor choral music to contemporary film—but Daniel is not afraid to give credit where credit is due: “Near the start of writing TIATU I attended an academic symposium on the works of Arvo Pärt and this proved to be a big inspiration; to understand just how his incredibly beautiful, complex and very human music is built on strict mathematical systems was a revelation and I realised it was a way for me to push past my own musical boundaries. I also got to meet him, albeit very briefly, and I was struck by his humility which was just as inspiring.”
Talking about his inspirations, he continues, “I tend to get deeply touched by music which tries to connect on a spiritual level in an intense way. So I would definitely include Tudor choral music (e.g. John Sheppard), Mozart’s ‘Requiem Mass’ and almost anything by Arvo Pärt as Christian examples of [my influences] but I would also include pieces like Jonny Greenwood’s score for ‘The Master’, Christina Vantzou’s ‘No. 3’, Low’s ‘Things We Lost in the Fire’, ‘Aerial 1’ by Tod Dockstader and ‘Nuuk’ by Thomas Köner.”
In the early 2000s, Daniel divorced his first wife, and went through a period of depression, after which he converted to Christianity. A set of experiences reflected in the recording of his debut album The Beauty of Doubting Yourself, released in 2011. “I started writing [The Beauty of Doubting Yourself] during a very dark and depressed period in my life and finished it soon after my baptism so there was a very clear story for me to talk of, but with The Infinite and the Unknowable it was more complex. My life had become immeasurably better than before—not least because of the love of a good woman and the support of three good churches—but many of the tones that came out of me when writing were still dark, still raging, still echoing in the void. This really confused me at first. Surely I should only be expressing love, peace and beauty? It was only when I remembered Hieronymus Bosch, William Blake and the books of Revelation, Job and Daniel from the Bible that it made sense to me – I can be faithful and yet still question, still recognise the great beauty of the world whilst raging at the distance from heaven and do so with the full palette of light and dark.”
Daniel is not overly keen to talk about his recent-found faith. As he has come from a hard-line atheist outlook on life, he knows the cringe-worthiness of being talked at by an over-enthusiastic evangelist. With The Infinite and the Unknowable, Daniel created a space where believer and non-believers can be equally at ease. “Talking about being quiet in the face of the divine can so easily be interpreted as being bland “holier than thou” and certainly Christians have, at times, been guilty of presenting an image of perfection when we’re as human as anyone else (perhaps the worst example of this image management being certain church attempts to minimise the problem of child abuse leading to catastrophic results for the victims). Bosch, Blake, Job and Revelation paint a very different picture; they depict humanity with all of its imperfections and goodness, ask difficult, searching questions of God and do so in complex, vivid and apocalyptic colours. I can certainly personally identify much easier with the weaknesses and strengths of Job or Jonah than I can with the stereotypical and unreal “perfect Christian”.” Daniel continues: “[H]owever, I do also see an enormous need for silence and to connect with the perfect divine along with this need to express doubt, frustration and pain. Some of my most extreme and revealing experiences have been in silence, especially in times of Christian meditation. With TIATU I am asking the big faith questions but I am also trying to convey something of the wonder of life and the Godly infinite.”
In accordance with Daniel’s reluctance to talk about his beliefs, these faith questions are not portrayed in any literal way throughout the record. “Rather than make a “Christian album” I want to create art that speaks honestly and deeply of my own life experiences in a similarly intense way to how Diamanda Galas talked of her righteous anger against the mainstream church’s treatment of AIDS casualties in the late 1980s with ‘Saint of the Pit’ or how Jonathan Glazer expressed his alienation at most of humanity in ‘Under the Skin’ or how Arvo Pärt fused medieval and 20th century classical forms to create a new form of Christian meditation.”
In the case of The Infinite and the Unknowable, this kind of meditation comes in the form of as a journey that travels through sound towards the visual medium. As the narrative in instrumental music is always visual in some sense, it is only logical that in Daniel’s process, the music comes first and the story afterwards. He explains, “the narrative for TIATU arrived near the end of the writing and recording process. While I always start with the germ of an idea I’ve learnt to trust that the meaning of each track and of an album as a whole will emerge naturally if I give myself enough time to hear what the music is saying. Through listening to rough versions of the album many times over many weeks I began to attach images to each track—for instance the rusting ships of The Song of the Abandoned Trawlers or the fractured reflections of the moon in Under the Dead-Eyed Lighthouse—and then that would inform the order of the tracks which, in turn, would provoke further images. Eventually the imagery for this album proved so strong for me that I extrapolated the album into the accompanying debut book of poetry and photography.”
This book, bearing the same name as the record, contains a collection of 12 poems and 24 black-and-white photographs that expand further upon the album’s concept and imagery. It might seem to be a stretch to go from musical composition to visual art and written word, but it is not strange, considering that some of the songs actually come from a film score: “Oil Drum Requiem is actually from a film score, albeit an unused one, as is Under the Dead-Eyed Lighthouse, so with TIATU [film and music] definitely have overlapped. And the title track is an alternate version of the last score cue from Catch Me Daddy, a tragedy set mostly at night out on the moors and in the small towns of Northern England.”
“Co-writing the score to ‘Catch Me Daddy’ with Matthew Watson was a complete and wonderful surprise to me. The Wolfe brothers (writers and directors of that feature) stumbled across The Beauty of Doubting Yourself on Spotify and thought my style might work well. Matt and I managed to hit it off straight away and wrote what became the wounded heart of the score in our first session which – having had a little further experience on other unreleased scores since – I’ve now realised is probably rather unusual. Catch Me Daddy has become a project very close to my heart, not least for the friendship I now have with Matt.”
Upon being questioned whether the two, film and music can overlap in his work, Daniel seems confident, “I do ‘see’ images when I hear my own music so the visual element is important even when I’m not writing music specifically to picture and I’m hoping to experiment more with combining music and images in my next project. I would love to do some more film work but it is a question of working on the right project – film can be pretty gruelling and it does delay my own solo work.”
Daniel is currently working on a new project, which will involve a new music record among other media. His second solo record The Infinite and the Unknowable, as well as his debut, The Beauty of Questioning Yourself are available through Blink in the Endless.