Alone I work
All around me darkness swirls
Of sinking stone
I will not stop ‘til all these walls
Have found their cause
Haeligewielle is Oliver Barrett’s (also of Bleeding Heart Narrative) first solo album as Petrels. It is a song of water, a song of stone. These two elements form the album’s thematic core, entwined in the story of the central figure of William Walker, the Winchester diver; but they also inform the album’s sonic makeup – onrushing, buoyant, coursing and at times dense and abrasive. It’s a record that excavates, and extrapolates outwards from, a particular and resonant historical undertaking and in its jubilant expansiveness grants it mythic, numinous life.
Unless you’ve been to Winchester Cathedral, (and unless you’ve been to a particular corner of Winchester Cathedral), you probably won’t have heard of William Walker. In 1905 it was discovered that the retrochoir, added to the original structure in 13th century and built as a shrine for St. Swithun, was gradually sinking into the earth. (And yes, that saint: ‘St Swithun’s day if thou dost rain/ For forty days it will remain’ – water is truly inescapable in all this). The truth of it is that the whole structure, built on a bed of peat and gravel, is sinking, but for now it remains relatively stable; the retrochoir, however, was on a comparatively uncompressed layer of peat and was sinking faster than the rest. Architects and archaeologists were called in to assess the situation and came up with an ingenious solution.
Essentially, trenches, or drifts, 18-20ft in depth, were cut alongside and beneath the sinking walls and foundations, with the idea that the layer of compressing peat – some four feet thick, and generally encountered at around 16ft – could be pierced, removed and new foundations built upwards from the solid bed of gravel. The main problem was that when the peat was pierced the drift would almost completely fill with water – laying concrete in these conditions was impossible. Enter one William Walker, an already renowned diver and part of the famous Siebe Gorman Ltd group. His task was to enter the drift in his 200-pound diving suit and working in absolute darkness scrape away the remnants of the layer of peat which was hoisted to the surface in buckets, then lay huge bags of concrete on the gravel floor which could be slashed open and left to harden for a 24 hour period. These would seal the hole, the drift could be pumped free of excess water, and more traditional brickies could then enter the hole and complete the laying of new foundations beneath the cathedral.
If that sounds like a huge undertaking, consider that it took Walker, diving almost single-handedly, the best part of five years to complete. Five years of 8-hour days in the darkness, bumping into half revealed coffins (for these were old burial grounds) and wearing a massive encumbrance, the boots alone of which weighed 20 pounds each. If the project was considered a total success, it is of course only a temporary reprieve – the cathedral, built on shifting ground and with an unpredictable water table, will eventually be pulled apart.
Taken as a totality Haeligewielle is partly a celebration of William Walker’s valiant efforts, partly a mythic recreation, but also a meditiation on precisely this last point – the heroic futility of such a small gesture against the sublime gravity of nature. Inside the thematic whole the separate tracks reference various other historic figures and events, indeed the album begins with a nod to Francis Danby’s The Deluge, an epic painting detailing God’s sending of the floodwaters to literally wipe away his failed project. The track’s deliberate build of synth washes is ominous and foreboding, but doesn’t peak as expected with a thunderous climax, instead it devolves into treated church bells and the slow beat of a single drop of water. There is also a huge vaulting track named for King Canute who bowed to the superiority of the waves and allegedly refused to wear his crown and robes again in the face of such obvious greater external power. The fact that this is supposed to have taken place a few miles from Winchester in Southampton only adds to the potential of cross-fertilisation in Barrett’s mythic framework. ‘Canute’s crescendo is the greatest on the album and might be erroneously seen as a monument to folly, but strikes me instead as a monument to piety and dissolution within a greater force.
The final four tracks are all given over to Walker’s story, and given what has gone before, the 5-year long task is transformed and can be seen as existing outside our own time-frame and elevated into another realm. What Barrett has done in shaping the album in this way is to allow the earlier tracks, with their references to earlier mythic figures and events, to act as a kind of platform – they do the mythic work if you like, creating the space into which the Walker story can expand, even allowing a simple bike journey to become coded as something greater than it perhaps might have been (it’s believed that Walker often cycled home to Croydon after a week of shifts under the cathedral, a distance of some 70 miles.) And in truth, the sonic nature of these tracks also act as a kind of crucible – at times, listening to, for instance, the epic ‘William Walker Strengthens the Foundations’ with its warm vibrating centre (think a fuller Richard Skelton, or some of the high trembling spaces of early Godspeed), or the massed voices of ‘Concrete’, the fabric of the music acts like a kind of amniotic fluid in which the mind’s eye sees Walker suspended in the darkness in his iconic, galumphing suit.
And to end at the beginning: that title: Haeligewielle. It’s an Anglo-Saxon word meaning holy well or holy spring, and obvious water references aside, it’s a particularly apposite title given that Barrett’s album is both something of a pilgrim’s shrine for Walker and a warm, bountiful offering.
Mountain*7 - for the person with nothing better to do
I recently spoke with Nicholas Szczepanik about various things from surviving the Chicagoan winter to drone foremothers such Eliane Radigue. His latest project is 12-piece subscription set, Ante Algo Azul.
You’ve just started a subscription series Ante Algo Azul – could you tell us a bit about this and what made you decide to go down this route?
I’ve been thinking about this project ever since I completed The Chiasmus back in 2009. From a creative perspective, the challenge of having to complete and new piece every month really intrigued me, since I usually work in spontaneous bursts of inspiration. I’ve always liked the time limit restraints of the 3″ CD format and approaching this project as a subscription allows me to work closely and intimately with my listeners and hopefully give them a glimpse of my life for a year. However rewarding or absurd that may be, we will discover that together.
Read the rest of the interview over at The Liminal.
Not Knowing (for Eliane Radigue) by Nicholas Szczepanik
Just been plugged into this by @grohs on Twitter. Not much else to say beyond that it's by Shinji Masuko of DMBQ and Boredoms and is beautiful and ecstatic guitar playing and needs to be listened to. Loud. You can get the whole release on Jagjaguwar (or listen on Spotify).
Shinji Masuko: "Woven Music For Silver Ocean" by alteredzones
I recently spoke with Evan Caminiti about Barn Owl, his various projects and his brilliant new solo album When California Falls Into The Sea out on R Loren's Handmade Birds.
You’ve studied ethnomusicology in the past – is that something you think you’ll go back too? How, if at all, did it influence your sound?
I’m pretty happy to not be involved with the world of academia at this point, and I have no desire to go back to school. I don’t have a degree in ethnomusicology, but I took a few different classes in the field and devoted a lot of time to it. Studying the music of certain cultures through the western academic mindset can be the wrong way to approach them and really limiting. But I learned a great deal about sound from my professor in ethnomusicology, the amazing musician Hafez Modirzadeh. It really came down to the fact that he was able to approach all these different kinds of music in this holistic way and on their own terms. Learning new ways of hearing was very important. Opening my mind to sounds that seem dissonant to western ears was a huge step in a deeper understanding of sound. Hafez is a saxophonist who plays free jazz, so he really has this personal connection to the organic interaction of sound which translates to studying something like Gamelan in a really meaningful way. I think this was also how I was introduced to Terry Riley and La Monte Young, which changed everything.
Read the rest of the interview over at The Liminal.
Evan Caminiti - 'Night of the Archon' from West Winds (Three Lobed 2010)