Rob St John feels like an avatar of an older tradition. The 'folk' tag has become somewhat hollowed out, a dead signifier; but vestiges of the tradition remain, and remain oddly powerful in their ability to both evoke the particulars of place and lever open channels to the past. St John, across a variety of projects - musical and otherwise - has revealed a keen eye for specificity and an alchemical descriptive capability; he also appears to be adept in listening to the clamour and babble erupting from that open channel and focusing it into some semblance of a coherent narrative. Weald, which came out late last year on Song, by Toad, was a record of what you might call, in a non pejorative sense, 'hollowed-out' folk music - the tracks were as much resonating caverns as actual songs. But there was also a smeary, vague quality to it: on a molecular level syllables colaseced, meanings blurred; on a broader sonic level, instruments followed this pattern and cross-fertilised. The result was an enigmatic thing, a gothic puzzle to which the ear slowly attuned. St John has been busy since, curating here and travelling there. We talked about Weald and the various projects St John is involved with - now and in the coming months.
Where are you know - what's happening? And where have you been in the last month or so?
I'm currently in Lancashire, where I grew up, watching the rain fall outside. I've been travelling around the Western and Northern Isles of Scotland with my partner, for the last few months: walking, writing, fishing, attempting to keep reluctant peat fires going.
You recently wrote a soundtrack for the Jeremy Deller's documentary about Bruce Lacey - could you tell us a bit about how you became involved and how you came up with a soundtrack?
Jeremy Deller and Nick Abrahams got in touch to say that they'd heard my record and whether I could contribute some new music to the 'Bruce Lacey Experience' documentary they were putting together: specifically something to soundtrack Lacey's free festival days. I'd been planning to move away a little from the dense, droney and dark thing we did with the last record. Whilst it was probably appropriate and cathartic at the time, it's not a reflection of where I am now - both personally and musically. So the recording was an opportunity to tie together some of the music that has been recently exciting me lately and experiment with some new sounds. It was good to play some soft, rolling folk guitar again, underpinned by whirring synth and flitting flute, fiddle and saw, all recorded live. We recorded about 15 minutes of new music. The film showed at Camden Arts Centre until September and will be released on DVD through the BFI later in the year, I think. It's fantastic to be involved with a project related to Lacey, he's a national treasure, an eccentric mischief (and myth) maker. Maybe we'll sort something out with the rest of the recordings for a small release, but it's likely that the ideas and textures will turn up on the next record.
Would you categorise Lacey's stuff as whimisical? What do you make of whimsy? And the notion of Lacey as some kind of shamanic figure?
In some ways, I suppose, but then again whimsy is a very subjective idea, isn't it? In the documentary, he describes himself as a 'professional piss taker', I think. There's a tradition there in parallel to the Goon Show and similar - seemingly light, silly entertainment that serves to skewer and satirise its subjects on a very subtle level. I'm a fan of his later works: as you say his shamanic, free festival Earth Rituals in the 70s, and his proto-play work, installing great climbing frames for inner-city kids. There's a curiosity and wonder that runs through his work, a freewheeling optimism, confidence and willingness to experiment and invent. I think the idea of curiosity and 'I wonder' underpins many important discoveries - whether in the arts or sciences - but is something that is being increasingly lost by many people creating ever smaller frames of reference through the way they interact with and curate the technology around them, a safety net that it's scary to move beyond.
To come back to whimsy, I guess I've no radical opinion. I suppose Weald was the opposite of a whimsical album, wasn't it? It was very dense and layered, and I wanted it to reward repeated listenings, to retain an element of obscurity to allow the listener to attach their own thoughts, experiences, whatever, to. But as I say, whimsy can be a vehicle through which to approach and express darker, more complicated subjects sometimes. Look at the Syd Barrett solo albums: he was clearly suffering with mental health problems, and the records are laden with whimsy, with terrapins, octopuses and effervescing elephants. There's an immediate surface of whimsy over a darker undercurrent.
I've not been to the area, but there are some descriptive passages of the landscape in Robert Neill's book Mist Over Pendle that are genuinely unsettling and imply a kind of menace in the landscape itself. Is there a case for arguing that certain areas/places can have a negative effect?
How do you mean 'negative' - On your own self, whilst you potter through the landscape?
I think that's what I mean, yes - I think anyone who spends enough time out and about eventually has an inexplicable experience where an area/place/time just feels wrong somehow. I tend to be fairly sceptical about stuff like that and yet... Chris Watson said something in an interview in The Wire that's always stuck with me (extract taken from issue 318)
I hadn't seen that interview, nor had I heard of TC Lethbridge. It's interesting. David Toop says something in Sinister Resonance about the role of sound in darkness as a conduit for haunting. About how ghosts prosper in the dislocation of the dark, as sound is an ephemeral, fragile, unreliable, perhaps even unfamiliar, means of understanding your surroundings. You hear differently when you record in the field. With your focus on sound, your concentration picks up on what you may otherwise miss in a more multi-sensory landscape (and soundscape). On Weald, we used a set of field recordings by ace sound artist Patrick Farmer. One recording, of tree roots rubbing underwater in a stream, stood out and serendipitously mirrored the rise and fall of the bellows of my harmonium grumbling and groaning at the start of 'Stainforth Force'. I guess, when you dislocate sounds from their landscape, they lose their certainty of origin, and can be reinterpreted, in whatever way you choose. The drones in Richard Skelton's recordings - recorded outside, a melding of the sound of the landscape and the instruments - are beautiful and very affecting for this reason. But as in the Chris Watson thing, this dislocated stream of sound can be really disorientating and troubling.
So, to return to the question, no, I don't think that some landscapes are necessarily more menacing or 'evil' than others, it depends entirely on what sets of thoughts, ideas, preconceptions and experiences we bring to them. Some are more inherently dangerous, sure, some more bleak in landscape and weather. But never any inherent malevolent force. Going back to the idea of sound as a carrier of hauntings, I suppose it is in these dark, northerly landscapes- from Scotland, Scandinavia - that a rich set of mythology and folklore has sprung from.
But I think that your experience of a landscape is determined largely by what you bring to it, by the thoughts and knowledge you have in your head. It's like the 'peradam' mountain in that novel Mount Analogue by Rene Daumal, some things are only found by those who - however unconsciously - go looking for them. I've no real love for the idea of 'wilderness', of a landscape where you can purge yourself of problems, get back to some simpler, Edenic nature. Every patch of the earth has been trampled, gridded and girdled by maps, development, history. Most people assemble different histories of a place, that go with what they're comfortable with, what they have been told.
The set of writing about the Pendle Witches, by Robert Neill, William Harrison Ainsworth, even back to Thomas Potts' original document of the trials might set a precedent for how a visitor might feel when walking on Pendle. But is Pendle more mysterious or spooky than another Pennine hill? No, but you're guided by the preconceptions you bring. The narratives of the trials in the local area really are so mixed up. They veer from the misguided and disrespectful (I've a walking book by Ciccerone on the area, that punctuates walks with descriptions of the accused witches as 'repulsive old hags' and ' decrepit, sightless, old crones') to the banal and cartoon-like (cuddly toy witches, mass walks up Pendle dressed in capes and pointy hats). People tend to forget that these were real people, caught up in a web of persecution, superstition and fear.
The 'Pendle 1612' release that I've part-curated is a response to this. The box in which the release is housed will contain a series of ephemera and information, including a map of the area, and the witches route to trial from Pendle to Lancaster. We've spent a lot of time populating this map with photographs, grids, information that we think is relevant to the trials, which has been an interesting process that I guess ties together a lot of what I've talked about here, especially when trying to highlight the role of the persecutors in the trials. What to you include, prioritise and draw links between, when trying to construct a visual history?
In the middle of this process, I went to the Patrick Keiller Robinson exhibition at Tate Britain in London. I like Keiller a lot, especially his Robinson stuff. It seems a rich, almost playful approach to these knotty problems - the way he assembles such a constellation of - at times seemingly ephemeral - information, and traces a line made by walking through it all. To me, his work is encouragement to delve into the history of places and landscapes important to you, that through putting all this information that others have perhaps disregarded together, the most important thing is that you become connected to these places and landscapes in your own individual way. In a way, that's what Weald was. I have no historical connection with Lancashire other than I was born here - my family are from Ireland and Derbyshire. It was a way of finding meaning.
Read the full interview at The Liminal.
Mountain*7 - for the person with nothing better to do
Entries tagged as landscape
What the label says. Elemental (obviously) and beautiful.
Raw Recording mix of all of my wind recordings from 2010 - 2011. Captured throughout the Northwest of USA.
Absolutely no effects were used and all sounds captured straight to a ZOOM H2 recorder and mixed together seamlessly.
Daniel Menche Wind Recordings Collection Mix 2010-2011 by Daniel Menche
Roger Deakin's shepherd's hut (image by Justin Partyka)
A couple of things have led me back to Roger Deakin of late - a trip to the soft hollows of Suffolk and tangentially a wedding gift of a book of his, and the re-reading of JA Baker's The Peregrine, a book which in many ways is a harsher, more obsessive version of Deakin's own slow drift into the fabric of nature.
In 2005, after the success of Waterlog and during the writing of his second book Wildwood (and only a short while before his death from a brain tumour in 2006), Deakin made two programmes for Radio 4. The premise for both was very simple - to make recordings in different areas of the land he owned in Suffolk, including the farmhouse which he'd rebuilt from a ruin. The results are remarkable, gentle records of his daily movements through the landscape: listening to the timber frame house creaking in a gale, the chatter of swallows in the chimney breast, a magpie on the roof of his shepherd's hut, Deakin swimming in the moat that bordered the property. The magic is in Deakin's inclusion in the landscape, his collusion with it. He does something so simple and so fundamental, you almost see past it: he makes himself at home in the world.
Download: Roger Deakin - The House
Download: Roger Deakin - The Garden
This review first appeared at The Liminal.
I have always longed to be a part of the outward life, to be out there at the edge of things, to let the human taint wash away in emptiness and silence - JA Baker
Lawrence English has long consorted with weather and the environment when researching and creating his delicate and intricate music – be it the tonal shifts of the seasons on albums like A Colour for Autumn, or For Varying Degrees of Winter, or the more immediate concerns of the water-based field recordings for 2005’s Limnology; but with The Peregrine he has shifted this relationship slightly and in many ways taken on so much more. For with The Peregrine, not only does English face the unenviable task of reflecting on and recreating the immersion of another person’s experience of nature, but he has do so through the extraordinary refracting lens of JA Baker’s molten prose; and this sense of being twice abstracted from the source lends a strange power to English’s sonic homage and brings to life the books’ enigmatic beauty.
In JA Baker’s own admission he ‘came late to birds’. But when he fell, he fell spectacularly. His patch was, broadly speaking, the stretch of land that lies to the east of Chelmsford in Essex, out towards the Blackwater estuary and the Dengie peninsular. It’s a landscape that mixes the ordinary – beech, oak and hornbeams woods and arable fields – and the more unusual, with its blurred outer edges a labyrinth of waterways, marshland and tidal mudflats. For a decade Baker obsessively stalked the peregrine across this landscape (although he followed a number of these birds, it seems fair to use the definite article here, as for Baker the bird took on something of a Platonic heft, as though these birds were of another realm). And for once the adjective obsessive isn’t overplayed: Baker’s method was to become a function of the landscape, to immerse himself so totally that the hunting falcon would incorporate him into its visual memory. As Baker puts it: ‘The peregine sees and remembers patterns we do not know exist: the neat squares of orchard and woodland, the endlessly varying quadrilateral shapes of fields. He finds his way across the land by a succession of remembered symmetries.’ It is believed that peregrines have a total memory map of their hunting grounds and can recognise the slightest changes. Baker wanted to become part of this map.
This gradual process of invisibility and immersion is also evident in Baker’s extraordinary prose. In many ways he is barely present in the text at all, instead functioning as a kind of amanuensis for the Emersonian concept of the ‘transparent eyeball’ in which the self or the ego is subsumed in the vortex of the natural world. He seems more conduit than writer, transmuting raw observance into liquid forms that coalesce before the eyes; though of course this process is illusory as in truth Baker is a master craftsman, with a vast hoard of descriptive tools and metaphors. He is like a less-neurotic Manley-Hopkins, or probably more accurately a less-earnest Ted Hughes – he has both of these writers’ ability to invoke the swirling intricacies of place and our apprehension of it. His dexterity is alchemical.
English’s approach to Baker’s text is quite a literal one in the first instance, in that he takes a section (for the first track ‘This Hunting Life’), or a specific diary entry (entries which are given only date headings in the book, and which English has titled using a theme or a particular detail relevant to that entry) and uses these as a basis for his sound explorations. The tracks then work with textual detail and flourish and broaden, using broad swirling drones and deep wells of bass to recreate the environmental conditions Baker experienced and so preternaturally transcribed. Obviously, by design, these recreations are impressionistic and idiosyncratic, as English is working with an already meditated set of impressions, and yet the remarkable thing is the way in which, sonically, in using a fairly narrow range of sound and instrumentation, the individual tracks do manage to so ably soundtrack the prose on the page.
For me, English’s greatest achievement on The Peregrine is the way in which he has caught the rawness of the air, and the sheer brutal reality of the peregrine’s meaning within the landscape and the environment. It must be said that for all its relatively small size, the domination of the peregrine is near total – the mere ghost of its presence, soaring a mile in the air, is enough to effect behavioural changes in the wildlife for miles around. Smaller birds dive for the thick cover of hawthorn hedges, cockerels throw their harsh shrieking into the sky, rabbits and hares escape to their burrows and the likes of starlings, wood pigeons, plovers and lapwings will take to the skies in their thousands, desperately trying to outflank our gain height on the hunting bird. With this is mind, English’s huge scurfy drones act as something like an elemental theatre, within which the smaller increment details highlight individual phenomena.
A track like ‘Dead Oak’ (a favourite haunt of the peregrines), for instance, and the track it bleeds into, ‘Frost’s Bitter Grip’, both use this arena-like technique, and the roar of the surface drones do have the feel of the upper air, and the granular detail becomes like the murmarations of desperate starling or lapwing flocks, banking and swarming in the viciously cold winter wind. ‘Frost’s Bitter Grip’ and ‘Grey Lunar Sea’ also manage to portray, using a mixture of high thin metallic and broader cloud-like drones (not dissimilar in texture to some of the sounds Basinki captures in the warping tape recordings of the Disintegration Loops), the shattering cold of the winter of 1962/3, during which countless birds died and significant parts of Essex’s North Sea coast froze for months on end.
The latter stages of the album follow the cyclical ascent away from the bitter winter into the warmer heights of spring. ‘The Roar Ceasing’ is the beginnings of this great thaw, ‘a day made absolute, the sun unflawed,’ and English evokes the subtle tonal changes by shifting the drones to a brighter register, using spare buried piano motifs to replicate the movement and release of all that trapped water. The closing track ‘And He Sleeps’ follows the last entry in Baker’s diary and details his last meeting with the peregrine before it migrates. In the text, Baker uses the cover of the sea wall to get close to the peregrine, as close as he has been throughout his period of pursuit (enslavement?), and eventually he comes within four meters, surprising the bird, which does not fly but fixes Baker with a stare before finally falling asleep. It is a moment loaded with significance as it marks a moment of acceptance, an acceptance which Baker had been seeking all along, and also a kind of mourning – a mourning that the pursuit was over (you sense the ‘and he sleeps’ applies as much to Baker as to the bird) but also something more expansive as Baker believed he was witnessing the extinction of this species in the British Isles. English’s fibrous, crying drones take on a new level of significance against this backdrop but in the familiar recourse to the same roaring elemental nature of the sound, instead of resignation, there is a note of defiance: with hindsight, we know that the peregrine has survived the massive downturn in its population and is back in its old haunts, the ancient eyries roosted once again.
There is a danger that with such a straight up homage to another work of art that the devotee could become paralysed by reverence and simply deliver a polite glancing blow that in fact fails to revere at all. I don’t think this accusation can be levelled at Lawrence English’s The Peregrine. Instead he’s created a piece of sonic theatre that doesn’t overtly romanticise Baker’s undertaking, and doesn’t shy away from the facts of the cold horror of the peregrine’s domination of its environment or the harshness of the conditions of life. The record also recognises the silences and quiet hollows of Baker’s mythic landscape and his place within it and gives them breath. In the end, the music is subtle and powerful enough to be able to stand alongside the original text.
All is lithogenesis—or lochia,
Carpolite fruit of the forbidden tree,
Stones blacker than any in the Caaba,
Cream-coloured caen-stone, chatoyant pieces,
Celadon and corbeau, bistre and beige,
Glaucous, hoar, enfouldered, cyathiform,
Making mere faculae of the sun and moon,
I study you glout and gloss, but have
No cadrans to adjust you with, and turn again
From optik to haptik and like a blind man run
My fingers over you, arris by arris, burr by burr,
Slickensides, truité, rugas, foveoles,
Bringing my aesthesis in vain to bear,
An angle-titch to all your corrugations and coigns,
Hatched foraminous cavo-rilievo of the world,
Deictic, fiducial stones. Chiliad by chiliad
What bricole piled you here, stupendous cairn?
What artist poses the Earth écorché thus,
Pillar of creation engouled in me?
What eburnation augments you with men’s bones,
Every energumen an Endymion yet?
All the other stones are in this haecceity it seems,
But where is the Christophanic rock that moved?
What Cabirian song from this catasta comes?
Deep conviction or preference can seldom
Find direct terms in which to express itself.
Today on this shingle shelf
I understand this pensive reluctance so well,
This not discommendable obstinacy,
These contrivances of an inexpressive critical feeling,
These stones with their resolve that Creation shall not be
Injured by iconoclasts and quacks. Nothing has stirred
Since I lay down this morning an eternity ago
But one bird. The widest open door is the least liable to intrusion,
Ubiquitous as the sunlight, unfrequented as the sun.
The inward gates of a bird are always open.
It does not know how to shut them.
That is the secret of its song,
But whether any man’s are ajar is doubtful.
I look at these stones and know little about them,
But I know their gates are open too,
Always open, far longer open, than any bird’s can be,
That every one of them has had its gates wide open far longer
Than all birds put together, let alone humanity,
Though through them no man can see,
No man nor anything more recently born than themselves
And that is everything else on the Earth.
I too lying here have dismissed all else.
Bread from stones is my sole and desperate dearth,
From stones, which are to the Earth as to the sunlight
Is the naked sun which is for no man’s sight.
I would scorn to cry to any easier audience
Or, having cried, to lack patience to await the response.
I am no more indifferent or ill-disposed to life than death is;
I would fain accept it all completely as the soil does;
Already I feel all that can perish perishing in me
As so much has perished and all will yet perish in these stones.
I must begin with these stones as the world began.
Shall I come to a bird quicker than the world’s course ran?
To a bird, and to myself, a man?
And what if I do, and further?
I shall only have gone a little way to go back again
And be like a fleeting deceit of development,
Iconoclasts, quacks. So these stones have dismissed
All but all of evolution, unmoved by it,
(Is there anything to come they will not likewise dismiss?)
As the essential life of mankind in the mass
Is the same as their earliest ancestors yet.
Hugh MacDiarmid - excerpt from “On a Raised Beach”
Artist: Tiago Sousa
Album: Walden Pond's Monk
Walden Pond’s Monk is a quietly crafted and affecting appreciation of Henry David Thoreau built mainly around Sousa’s understated and fluid approach to solo piano work, complemented by the clarinet of Ricardo Ribeiro and the percussion of Baltazar Molina – though it isn’t merely a hagiography. The choice of the word ‘Monk’ in the title is an intriguing one as it puts Thoreau’s place in the narrative of American Romanticism under a strange kind of tension. He’s at once a solitary figure, the chaste (it’s believed that Thoreau died a virgin) anchorite sequestered in his tangled idyll, minutely observing the unfolding drama of nature; yet there’s something more complex to his vigil and his reliance on the civilization that was in truth a short walk from his Walden hut. And the way Walden Pond’s Monk plays out seems to accentuate this tension and also play on the notion of Thoreau’s openness to the force of nature in all its harsh glory.
Read the rest of the review over at The Liminal.
Artist: Hallock Hill
Album: The Union
Label: Hundred Acre
Our memory is our coherence, our reason, our feeling, even our action. Without it, we are nothing… Luis Buñuel
Tom Lecky’s recordings as Hallock Hill are situated at the intersection between landscape and memory, and The Union is a precise exploration of the ways in which this shifting ground both informs our sense of self yet also remains distant and remote – and the ways in which we seek to communicate and respond to this impasse. It has elements of nostalgia within the play of strings, but it has a broader purpose than this: at times it feels like a reification of the process of memory itself, a capturing of Adam Phillips’s dictum that ‘remembering at any given moment is a process of redescription; the echo can be different each time’.
Read the rest of the review over at The Liminal.