Album: From Which the River Rises
"I am haunted by waters" – Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It
Richard Skelton’s recorded work has always had something of the alchemical about it; and as he refines and perfects his explorations and processes it’s tempting to think he’s approaching some grand unveiling, where he’ll reveal a chamber of relics, residues of captured moments, of transmutations, crossings over he’s made – crossings between the material and the non-material, between self and place. His latest release – From Which the River Rises, his third as Clouwbeck - is specifically about a relationship with water; and on it, Skelton’s is acting as pure conduit, dissolving the boundaries between himself and the flow of the river, and seeking to evoke the very tissue of experience, both in the sense of a relationship built up over time, and in the raw moment of being.
Always the Yarrow…
The river in question is the Yarrow, a river that runs across the West Pennine Moors in Lancashire. It formed one of the central obsessions for Skelton on his last album Landings and also featured heavily in the text that accompanied that record. In those combined mediums, Skelton explored the landscape in an intensely personal way, creating a kind of mythic internalised map, which he then projected outwards, remapping the terrain, and in some way re-claiming that terrain for his own purposes. It was a form of conjuring. On From Which the River Rises, Skelton takes a (moving) element of that landscape and seeks to know it and to make it known - to transmute its power into another medium. Kathleen Jamie has said of poetry that it is ‘a sort of connective tissue where myself meets the world’ and that she uses it to try to tease at that frail and febrile relationship, that most impenetrable of boundaries. Gerard Manley Hopkins was the great master of this, the shapes and sounds of his word hoard coming as close as it could ever be possible into making forms and media coalesce. Skelton is arguably coming closer than ever to achieving this with music.
If I spent enough time by its banks, could I get to know the river?
From Which the River Rises is made up of two long tracks, ‘Come the Aegir’ and ‘The Water’s Burden’, and you sense that this move into longer song forms has been shaped by hours of studying the Yarrow in all its moods and moments. As such instead of the at times microcosmic atmospheres of Landings or even previous Clouwbeck releases such as Wolfrahm, From Which… is dominated by long and sweeping bowed drones, which, on ‘The Water’s Burden’ collect and eddy around a bass undertow of simple piano figures. There is the signature Skelton tremble to the timbres, but there is a definite drawing out, a sense of shape and tumult with long periods of studied calm and quiet giving way to gradual intensities of volume and weight. And it’s these tumults that dominate the piece as a whole. In one sense they invoke the Yarrow in full spate and are an invocation of the sublime – at volume they are difficult to listen to, you might even say harrowing – but they also invoke something more subtle, something hinted at in the text of Landings.
Come down by the banks of the river. Place your hands in the water. And hold them there. Slowly let the cold take you. Close your eyes and yield. And just as this river has found its way into the landscape, century over century. Find your hands and arms between rock and stone. Find your place through touch and instinct. And I promise that just before the pain becomes unbearable. Before your body begins to shake uncontrollably. A deep stillness will wash over you. And you will forget. And by the banks of that river. The pain will slowly, imperceptibly subside. The gift of stillness will gradually pass. And your muscles will move again.
It was this passage that I first thought of when I heard From Which the River Rises, and more specifically, the opening track 'Come the Aegir' (for the record, the Aegir is a figure from Norse mythology, a personification of the ocean but the word also references a tidal bore that occurs in the Trent River in Lincolnshire). Whilst the tracks does seem to reference an oblique rising and falling of a period in the life of a river and indeed different tracts of the same moving body of water, it might also reference this sequence of events as described in Landings – the rise and falls of the bowed drones mimicking, transmuting the effects of the intense cold on the motions and whorls of the body.
If I spent enough time by its banks, could I get to know the river?
Its rapid tracts. Its sudden lulls.
Its changeling colour. Its constant cold.
If you placed me along its length, blindfolded, could I tell you where,
just from its sound?
Would that be enough?
And it's this subtlety I find so astonishing in Skelton's work – this ability to evoke and invoke in such a meticulous and sustained fashion. The urge to document in such a way – this process of sustained watching of 'looking narrowly' - and to recreate these periods of scrutiny in another form is where the notion of alchemy comes into things. In some way it is a form of disappearance, as the artist seeks to absent himself, and simply become a medium of transmittance. It is enough that on this document Skelton seems within the bounds of achieving something like his stated aim, to get close to answering that final question – would that be enough? But imagine if we could listen closely and for long enough, and we could be laid blindfolded along the length of the Yarrow and know from these trembling recreations that we were in its misty grip, aligned with its contours and in thrall to its silvery sighing voice. That would be something would it not?
Clouwbeck ~ From Which the River Rises by sustain-release
Mountain*7 - for the person with nothing better to do
August is another song I know
that reminds me of the burning bridge
I’m on. It says there’s no way home
but the places I’ve yet to go.
It says I am alone in a way that shows
how good life is, like sunlight on a table
when hope is somewhere near.
From the translation by Bent Sørensen
Image by Dan Morelle
It has been awful quiet in these parts. I'll confess to a certain amount of lassitude certainly, but really life has got in the way in all its prickly forms. Not least a hideous dose of uvula pustules (or tonsillitis to the school nurse) which left me feeling like I had a hedgehog nesting to the north west of my larynx. Not much fun. I did hear this cracking show on Radio 4 whist I was off though - Chris Watson's Search for the Nightingale's Song. He does seem to be everywhere at the moment (the interview in a recent issue of The Wire is really something and it's led me to TC Lethbridge, more of which another time) - and with good reason. His method seems simple and yet there is something close to perfection in his (and his equipment's) output. His recording of the nightingale is a signature occurrence - thorough, rapt and so clear and pure at times as to sound artificial.
A few years ago I was walking down by the River Test near King's Somborne. It was late April and getting very close to the arrival dates for our intake of nightingales. It was humid for April, the air clammy and dense; and one particular field, set just back from the river, was boisteros with bird song, the air full of the criss-crossings of repeating figures of trills and whistles. From what I could make out the bulk of the noise could only have been coming from two or three locations, and despite never having heard nightingales in the field before, I was convinced these had to be them. It was an intense barrage of noise, at times like extended raygun peals, at others like some cracked and slipped motorik - always fading away into a single reedy note before the next barrage began. It wasn't song so much as textile, a swarm of threads knitting the air around me. I was mesmerised.
Unsure of myself however, I spoke to a friend who worked for the RSPB. He was free and suggested we could go back to the same location and clear the matter up for certain. These could be very adroit song thrushes, after all. So back we went. It was some 10 days later and the air had cooled and thinned. The low scrub where I'd heard the singing, still leafless at this stage looked dirtier in the lessening light. There was a heavy silence, punctuated by the occasional blast from a desultory song thrush. A series of weak trills and bleeps - where were the fireworks? I was a little sheepish to say the least, and though we waited for the best part of an hour, nothing appeared. I started to think it must have been an aural hallucination, maybe I'd ingested some ergot? Then he had an idea.
At the time I was driving a Volvo 340, an utterly graceless squashed whale of a car, replete with the turning circle of an arthritic brontosaurus. Indeed so heavy was the steering that the previous owner had affixed one of those snooker ball sized black knobs (hereafter to be called the knob of joy) to the steering wheel to help him get the fucker round car parks and the like. I hadn't removed it. My mate, for his job (so he says) happened to have all four CDs of Jean C. Roche's monumental All the Bird Songs of Britain and Europe ('396 chants en 4 CDs') on his iPod and we figured if we could get the car close enough to the field and play the iPod through the car's (frankly superb) stereo we might be able to lure the birds from whence they may have fled. I pictured us huddled safe inside the car whilst hordes of these light brown beauties danced across the thick metal roof... So there we are, furtively pulling up to a gate, throwing the doors wide open pouring the recorded psychobabble of the nightingale into the milky light of evening. We pause it frequently, partly out of embarrassment, partly to hear if our sonic fiction is having any effect? The air remains shallow of song. We turn it up as loud as we dare - loud enough to scare a fallow deer that had been sheltering in an adjacent field. It must have thought this was the nightingale apocalypse. We try for a full five minutes before shame and bemusement takes hold. Nothing. Not even a rasping blackbird.
I'll never know if they were nightingales buried in that low thorny scrub. Something tells me they were and that maybe they'd been spooked, or were just passing through to other known haunts. Whatever their reasons, they'd flown and to this day I've still not heard a nightingale sing in the wild. Thankfully, I have Chris Watson to listen for me.
Download: Chris Watson - The Hunt for the Nightingale's Song