Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Stornoway at RAMM


Stornoway’s Saturday evening appearance in the rear gallery of the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter was a prelude to a summer spent performing in idiosyncratic locales and at events which studiously avoid the routine repertory of rock dives. They will be landing for a brief roost at the RSPB reserve in Minsmere, waking up in The Village for Festival No.6 at Portmeiron, offering their optimistically humanist worldview for critical scrutiny at the How Lights Get In festival of philosophy and music at Hay On Wye, and filling their faces at the Summer Pie Festival in Spain. Such an eclectic schedule betokens a determination to avoid the obvious or to travel the usual, well-mapped rock routes. This adventurousness is also reflected in their willingness to try out a variety of performance styles, adopting different approaches to familiar songs and adapting to the environment they find themselves in. We would discover this for ourselves later on. But first, there were two support acts who were hugely enjoyable in their own right.


Cave Mouth were all about raw but controlled and corralled power. A classic rock trio, they pursued a propulsive Nuggets garage or early Velvets trajectory with pounding drums, ferociously thrashed electro-acoustic guitar and lithely stalking bass. There was something of the Buzzcocks to the no-nonsense, concise blend of pop nous with frayed punk edges, a mood compounded by the lead singer’s loose, broad-striped jumper and the sharp harmonies introduced in chorused chants. They filled the gallery with an infectious noise seldom heard rebounding around its generally hushed and contemplative space. The paintings in the current exhibition, taken from the museum’s fine art collection and focussing on local subject matter, had been removed for the duration. Necessary, but a shame in some ways. It would have been amusing to see the fixed oil gazes of bygone Devon worthies watching with impassive curiosity as these punk sons and daughters of the city performed before them.


Nuala Honan and Kit Hawes played Appalachian music via Bristol, from mountain country to harbourside city. They acknowledged the influence of Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, and indeed played one of their songs, Red Clay Halo. They certainly shared something of that musical duo’s adept way of honouring the tradition whilst updating and adding to it. Familiar classics such as Make Me A Pallet on Your Floor, also sung by Gillian Welch (and Sandy Denny in her early folk club days) and a number recorded by Doc Watson, I Miss the Mississippi and You, sat comfortably alongside Nuala’s own highly personal songs. Her voice perfectly captured that country catch in the throat which tugs so insistently at the heart. Kit Hawes’ deft and nimble guitar picking was technically highly impressive, but also deeply expressive, never straying into empty showmanship. Again, David Rawlings work with Gillian Welch was a touchstone here. Nuala was the vocal focal point, but Kit put on his best Hank Williams tones for a few responsive lines in one song, and added harmonising shades in others. They made a fine duo, complimenting and reinforcing one another’s voices in a manner which implied familiarity and ease with their respective musical personalities.


Stornoway prepared the audience for the ornithological tenor of their performance with mixes of bird-themed songs playing in the background during the intervals. We had Fly Like An Eagle by the Steve Miller Band, Night Bird Flying by Jimi Hendrix, Albatross by Fleetwood Mac, Nightingale by Laura Veirs and And Your Bird Can Sing by the Beatles, along with many more. No Hawk by Broadcast or The Owl Service by Pram, but you can’t have everything. Lead singer Brian Briggs studied zoology at Oxford and later gained a doctorate in ornithology, and is an enthusiastic and evangelical birdwatcher. He wrote a piece in the current RSPB magazine about the band’s Highlands, Islands and Ireland tour, which included a visit to the town of Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. He talks with infectious excitement about seeing golden eagles, black guillemots, gannets and a great skua, as well as a large shoal of dolphins, the ‘blue men’ of the Minch sea road which I had just read about in Robert Macfarlane’s book The Old Ways. He finds a sense of the sacred in the natural world, as expressed in his observation that ‘it was a gift to be visited by animals as beautiful and mysterious as these’. He also refers in the article to the band’s ‘bird-inspired pop’. This inspiration is certainly foregrounded in the title of their latest album, Bonxie, a Shetland nickname for the great skua. It is indeed a sizeable seabird, as I was able to discover for myself by investigating the museum’s bird cabinet, which stretches from floor to ceiling.


The album’s songs are interspersed with recorded bird song, sounds which sometimes continue into the tracks themselves, inflecting their mood and musical mode. The band attempted to reproduce and expand upon this avian collaboration during their performance. This was partly in response to the current sound installation by Chris Watson playing in the rear entrance lobby of the museum (although switched off this evening). Watson, himself a musician as well as a highly and much sought-after sound recordist (two roles he would make no distinction between) has been creating sonic pictures of local environments and blending them together into small symphonies of the natural world, evoking the ever-changing spirit of the turning seasons. In a recent talk, he spoke of the inherent musicality of many sounds produced by living creatures, as well as their astonishing range and variety. Stornoway intended to explore that musicality further in the hope that it might entrance the audience, drawing them into rich non-human soundworlds. They had invited people to send in their own bird recordings, and had also been given the use of one made by Watson himself – a nightjar’s eerie call captured during a Dorset heathland evening. So we were treated to the lonesome cry of the loon, the resonant booming of the bittern, the bickering of little auks and the joyful fluting of the nightingale. An inattentive Saturday night crowd, intent on partying with Stornoway as background and largely incidental entertainment, paid little heed however. The birdsong was not receieved with the rapt fascination which the band and Brian Briggs in particular might have hoped for. As the Strongbow and Heineken cans were loudly popped and conversations loudly continued, Briggs was prompted to ask ‘is anybody into this?’ A few half-hearted affirmations were voiced, but the general hubbub suggested otherwise. I suspect this aspect of the evening was severely curtailed, as were Briggs’ promised insights into his own reactions to the museum and its exhibits. The musicality and awe-inspiring sonic range to be found in the conference of birds fell on this occasion on deaf ears and dulled minds.


In the case of the keening squawk of the red grouse, the recording led directly into the song Lost Youth, establishing its emotional key. The wistful note which the song strikes, whilst balanced with a more customarily euphoric exhilaration, is at variance with the generally upbeat nature of Stornoway’s music, its determinedly optimistic worldview. We are lost, the chorus repeats. But its is a glorious lostness, a surrender to the tidal currents which sweep us through life. It was noticeable tonight that the old songs which received the most enthusiastic whooping reception were those whose big and open-hearted romanticism was expressed in the most direct and uncomplicated terms. Zorbing and I Saw You Blink are naively flushed with the first feeling of love, the heady rush of inchoate emotions when all is intoxicatingly new and the world is a sudden explosion of possibility and delight.


It’s difficult to write open, optimistic songs which don’t spill over into hymnal rhapsody or sentimental blather. Easier perhaps to write introverted songs of angst, misery and suffering dwelled upon and picked apart. Zorbing, Stornoway’s greatest hit, with which they finished their set, was greeted with a rapturous waving of hands, fists punching the air, as if the room had suddenly become a revivalist meeting house. For me, it crosses a border, positivity becoming eager puppyish bounciness. Charming in puppies, not so much in mature human beings. The emotional simile ‘I feel like I just started uni’ is particularly irritating, and liable to immediately alienate a good many listeners. I find the visual metaphor of couples rolling through the world in zorbing balls an unappealing one, more indicative of smug self-absobtion and a disconnection from the wider world than of mutually supportive love. This was a song from the very early days of their career, however (and perhaps one which they will feel increasingly burdened by as time progresses). The clutching, swaying motions which several couples indulged in for this and I Saw You Blink, as if this were the first dance at their wedding, suggested that others felt less curmudgeonly towards them than I.


To my mind, Stornoway’s songs work best when symbolically allied with the natural landscapes with which they are evidently intimately familiar. Sing With Our Senses is an almost pantheistic hymn to getting out into the wilds, finding one’s soul through a vital connection with the natural environment. ‘This is the world we belong to’ sang Briggs with real conviction. Battery Humans, sung in the encore, is a rallying cry calling on us to tear ourselves away from our screen-absorbed daze and explore the bright day beyond, thereby discovering a more fundamental level of being. Stornoway’s songs are full of mountains, shores and valleys, rivers, forests and skies. In some ways they remind me of the music of Laura Veirs (one of the artists played during the intervals), whose lyrics are also full of landscape imagery and metaphor, reflecting her geological studies. The song Between the Saltmarsh and the Sea, with which they opened their set, uses the interconnected environments as a metaphorical landscape of the heart, with its tidal ebb and flow, its transformation from ecstatic engulfment to parched aridity. The very specificity of the terminology here suggests a detailed knowledge of the natural world and a concurrent clarity in its use for literary purposes.


The exhilaration of flight is a recurrent theme in Stornoway’s songs, present in their emotional affect even when not directly in the lyrics. Zorbing contains the lines ‘send my body out to work, but leave my senses in orbit over South-East London’. There is a more general feeling of soaring over broad landscapes, viewing tree, mountain and ocean from above. These are dream songs, uplifting in an almost literal sense. One of keyboard and strings player Jonathan Ouin’s songs, Man on Wire, expresses this in terms of high wire walking between towering buildings. Inspired by Philippe Petit’s twin towers wire walk and the film made about it, it also reminded me of Catherine Yass’ film High Wire, included in the recent Walk On exhibition in Plymouth. This used a POV camera attached to wire-walker Didier Pasquette’s head, recording his passage as he trod an airy path between the high-rise roofs of the now-demolished Red Road estate in Glasgow.

Given this preoccupation with flight and spiritual elevation, it’s appropriate that the video to the new single Get Low (named with an irony no doubt consciously applied) should find them racing along an old runway in a jeep, following the streamlined flightpath of a squadron of greylag geese, looking for all the world as if they might take off with them when they finally ascend to the blue beyond. The chorus encourages us to ‘keep dreaming’, spelling out the subtext to much of Stornoway’s output. Uncertainty and fear do enter their orbit, but always with the prayerful insistence that they can be dispelled by the light. The lovely, lyrical ballad The Road You Didn’t Take once more leads us through wild, romantic terrain, analogous to the topography traced by the trails of a human life, and the proliferating paths of possibility stretching out before its ongoing progress. The chorus sings, with a rousing folk-inflected melodicism you can imagine being belted out by Ewan MacColl, of roads untaken, glancingly glimpsed in the peripheral vision. But the wonder of new territories to explore which the verses evoke refutes any retreat or backtracking into regretfulness or maudlin reflection. Keep on walking, the songs says. There’s so much more to discover, and there always will be.


In Fuel Up, another old song sung tonight, the disillusionment attendant upon growing up, poetically encompassed in the decade-skipping jumpcuts of a long car journey, is countered with a chorus which once again rejects the mire of maudlin introspection, the chorus issuing the command ‘so fuel up your mind and fire up your heart and drive on/and when your days are darker, put your foot down harder, drive on’. A new song, We Were Giants, offers a slight repudiation of such a gas-guzzling, petrol-headed metaphor from a band who are highly environmentally aware. It seems to look back with past historical tense at a post-disaster world in which the cars are now rusted wrecks. Whether the disaster is personal or on a universal scale is left tantalisingly vague, open to the interpretation of the individual listener and their judgement of its level of literalness. But even a Stornoway song which flirts with the apocalypse is still strongly seeded with optimism, a love for the natural world and a faith (an appropriately religious term) in its abiding strength.


Stornoway are often cast as an indie-folk band, a catch-all categorisation which may be influenced as much by their choice of name as their music. If they are folk (and it takes more than acoustic instruments to earn your folk spurs), then they appear to me to veer more towards the world of female singer-songwriters such as the aforementioned Laura Veirs. The wryly self-conscious Love Song of the Beta Male from the new album certainly rejects, in a humorous manner, the macho values of the rock world, indie or otherwise. Full strength folk elements definitely emerged this evening, though. A female fiddler joined the band for several songs. She was hardly playing jigs and reels, but the sound added a folkish tinge nevertheless, and the sight of a fiddle being bowed has undeniable folk associations. On the record, the subtly affecting string arrangements for We Were Giants stir memories of Robert Kirby’s setting for Nick Drake on Five Leaves Left. The sounds of accordions also drifted across the room at various points, and Brian Briggs even fixed a harmonica holder around his neck for a spot of Bob-like mouth organ wheezing during one song.


The band fully embraced the folk ethos when they unplugged their instruments and steeped back from the mic, gathering together in a close harmony huddle. At this point, it was as if the RAMM gallery had been transformed into a folk club. The lessening of volume forced the audience to focus, to actively listen or not hear at all. It was a bold decision to play the new single Get Low in this low-key style, reconfiguring it for the imaginary folk club. It was Josephine, another song from the new album, which really worked like a dream in this context, however. It’s a song which sees them taking a turn towards psych-folk with its abstracted, slightly mystical air and fairy tale imagery of towers and stairways evoking a mythic moment. In concert, the electrifying four part harmonies produced as the band locked into intimate vocal communion summoned the hallowed spirit of the Watersons, leavened with the sweet sublimity of the Fleet Foxes.


When they returned for an encore, they reverted to this mode once more. Briggs went the full folkie by singing an a cappella version of November Song (a conscious echo of Robin Williamson’s Incredible String Band October Song?). This skeletal interpretation beautifully brought out its emotional fragility and haunted nocturnal atmospheres. It’s a dark night of the soul song, but the Stornoway spirit comes through in the chorus, which holds out the promise of dawn’s light breaking and lifting the shadows: ‘No I won’t be afraid of the darkness a-coming/While I know a love that is as sure as the morning’. Finally, Briggs armed himself with a banjo and the band belted out a breezy version of Battery Humans, inviting us to break from the hypnotised thrall of our screen fixated lives and venture out into the great wild beyond, wonders to behold. It was an uplifting sermon to leave us with, sending us off with spirits soaring, brimful of that stirring Stornoway Soul. Keep Dreaming.

Thursday, 30 April 2015

Chris Watson at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum


Sound recordist and musician Chris Watson was in conversation at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum with RSPB communications officer for the South West Tony Whitehead last night. Perhaps the differentiation between the two endeavours is a false one, however. In response to a question about the influence of his natural sound recordings on his music, Watson replied that he made no distinction between them. He has spoken before about the microphone being his instrument, and a highly versatile and adaptable one at that. Musicians and composers have long attempted to mimic or summon up the sounds of nature, from the shrill marsh bird cries of Japanese shakuhachi players through Beethoven’s programmatic traversal of the countryside in the Pastoral Symphony to Messiaen’s transliteration of avian song .Perhaps electronic musicians have come closest to evoking the complex and profoundly inhuman soundworld of melodic birdsong clusters, the seethe and chitter of insects and the compression and echoing boom of subaquatic depths. Watson mentioned his own indebtedness to Pierre Schaeffer and his musique concrete descendants. He fondly recalled his own early childhood recordings with a portable reel to reel tape machine given as a present by prescient parents. He fixed a microphone to the seed-strewn bird table in the garden, set the reels in motion and retreated inside to see what hungry visitors he might sonically capture with his new magnetic magic box. It was one of those moments, epiphanic in recollection, when a lifetime of vocational creativity is seeded. Bird seeded in this instance.

Watson, a son of the People’s Republic of Sheffield now resident in Newcastle, spent a decade of discovery and experiment in Cabaret Voltaire with Stephen Mallinder and Richard Kirk from 1971-1981, pre- to post-punk, only recording in the latter years of that fertile period. Working in his attic, a space which was half artist’s garrett, half mad scientist’s lab, the trio played freely with sound, seldom producing anything resembling conventional pop or rock. If they did, it was by accident and would be swiftly discarded. Watson built his own equipment, exhibiting an inventiveness and ingenuity, as well as a readiness to make lateral use of the materials to hand, which would stand him in good stead for the challenges of his future career. He laboured over cut-ups and tape loops, guided his oscillator through undulating frequencies and transformed his organ playing through heavy processing until it sounded less like its instrumental self, more like a generator of sound swarms. He was delighted with the development of synthesisers, and the way that ‘non-musicians’ like Brian Eno used them, and bought an EMS AKS in the latter half of the 70s. It was this which he used on the debut Cabaret Voltaire LP Mix-UP, released in 1979. Watson left the group in 1981, shortly after a visit to the Top of the Pops studios to witness another band performing. Horrified at a vision of what might be, he left to pursue other interests. He did briefly continue his tape and concrete explorations with The Hafler Trio, however, a proliferating project initiated and masterminded by Andrew M.McKenzie and only occasionally and incidentally attaining the status of an actual trio.


Watson joined Tyne Tees Television as a sound recordist and then returned to that epiphanic childhood moment and worked for the RSPB, recording the sounds of birds and their environments. As he pointed out in his discussion with Tony Whitehead, the production of RSPB films was an invaluable apprenticeship for him and many others who went on to make wildlife films for the BBC. Watson himself is now a highly esteemed wildlife recordist, and has worked on innumerable programmes, including the all-important Attenbouroughs. He mentioned what a privilege it was to work with Sir David, describing him as ‘the perfect travelling companion’. These programmes have given him the opportunity to immerse himself in a hugely diverse range of environments and build up a cumulative sound picture which effectively encompasses much of the globe.

The detail and texture of sound are very important to him, as is the way in which it is heard. He is mildly disdainful of the compression and diminution of sound transmitted through TV speakers or stereo headphones. He prefers installations in which surround sound set-ups can come nearer to approximating natural sound as it is perceived in situ. The upstairs gallery to the rear of the museum allowed for a wide speaker spectrum, with a bass cone in the middle emitting low frequency rumble. This was ideal for the subsonic sounds of elephants, a harrumph whose vibrations affected the diaphragm as much as the eardrum. Watson pointed out that the fundamental, the root note, was below the range of human perception, so what we were hearing were the harmonics arrayed above it. Close-up recordings of a cheetah purr were similarly deep and resonant, solid waves of physically palpable sound which weren’t so far off from Sunn ((o)) drone power chords. Watson spoke of the musicality of this sound, and of others. There is something very Cageian about his refusal to demarcate between music and the sounds of the natural world. Close listening reveals the musicality inherent in a whole spectrum of living sounds. He also emphasised the intelligence of various animals, exhibiting a respect for life and a scepticism about the primacy of humanity and its assumed position at the head of the great chain of being. Orcas and Vultures seemed to particularly draw his admiration.

We were treated to a dizzying panoply of natural sounds, from the tiniest shrimps to the mightiest whales. The blue whale recording was not his own, he confessed. It remains his holy grail, a more benign Ahab quest to capture an awe-inspiring call capable of sounding out hundreds of miles of subaquatic space. The whale call truly tested the capacity of the speakers, its submarine frequencies a bone-shuddering groan until pitch-shifted upwards into a more audible range. It still made the chants of Tibetan monks sound like soprano squeaks, though. Watson argues, naturally enough, for the sound picture of a natural environment being as important as the visual aspect. It can be more stimulating to the imagination, and create more of a sense of being vitally present. Sound recording can almost be akin to magic in the way that it transports us to worlds which would otherwise be wholly inaccessible to our senses. We shrink to earwig on insect kingdoms and grow invisible to listen to animals which would shy from the merest hint of human presence. One of Watson’s most remarkable recordings was made by attaching contact mics. to the inside of a zebra’s rib-cage, killed the previous night and already lion-chewed and stripped of its prime cuts. Watson had rehearsed such a set-up on a post-Christmas turkey carcass, rejected by his seasonally satiated family. He recorded the metallic skraw of starlings which soon descended to devour the flesh and pick the bird’s bones clean. The vultures had spotted the zebra’s corpse from way up high and surrounded it, checking out the locale. Watson observed them and noted that they were highly aware that there was something unusual about this piece of carrion, even though he had done his best to conceal his wires and mics. Again, he emphasised the wily intelligence of these wary creatures. It took them some five hours before they eventually set to, beginning their thorough clean-up operation. By this time the unfortunate zebra was engulfed in a dark nebula of flies. The recording floats on the swarming drone of their incessant zzzzzzhhhhhh. Watson suggested that vultures were exactly as you’d expect them to sound – like scimitar slashes of guitar feedback. He was right. It was a remarkable sound, intoxicating yet slightly nauseating at the same time. You could almost sense the overpowering stench of death in your nostrils, an understandable synaesthetic response. Watson took this recording on one of his school visits once, using it to begin his presentation. ‘This is the last sound you would hear before you died, if you were a zebra’, he told the assembly of rapt children. He wasn’t invited back, he ruefully noted. But the kids loved it.

Chris Watson and Tony Whitehead on the Exe Estuary
Other sounds were called for by Tony Whitehead and members of the audience, Watson suggesting that it was becoming like a request show. The brief grunt of a cod even received an encore. It sounded like the swinging doors in Jacques Tati’s Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday. There was a haddock chorus from a fjord near Bergen, the ambient hum of midshipman fish, the sonic attack of a pistol shrimp, made with its oversized claw, and the grate and scrape of grazing limpets, recorded at high tide in Batten Bay, Plymouth. The tuned percussion of a capercaillie recorded in Scotland apparently attracted the attentions of Bjork, who was so entranced by its inherent musical qualities that she got in touch with Watson and asked if she could use it in a piece of her own. She has since attended one of Watson’s sound recording workshops in Iceland. He joked that she was a useful contact given her facility with a four wheel drive in the remoter wilds of her native country.

Watson and Whitehead both have an abiding concern with the issue of noise pollution in the modern world and the psychological impact this has on people’s lives. Watson noted that the recordings of starlings he had made 30 years ago, in which they imitated the sounds they heard around them, would be wholly different today. It was a sound picture which acted as a memorial to a world whose sonic character has changed rapidly over the intervening period. He mentioned the activism of Gordon Hempton in America, an ‘acoustic ecologist’ who is attempting to create a notional sanctuary comprising one square inch of silence in Olympic National Park, Washington State. Watson played his recordings of Orcas in the waters beneath the North Polar ice, emphasising the extent to which they lived in a world of sound; practically in terms of their echo location clicks and socially in terms of their keening calls and cries. He then played a recording in which the combine grind of the approaching icebreaking ship Odin could be heard loudly approaching from some 100 miles in the distance distance. Such noise pollution must have a devastating effect on such aurally sensitive creatures, he pointed out. It has been suggested that loud sonar beacons placed in the oceans to guide submarines have resulted in the mass beachings of dolphins and whales, driven out of their usual territories by this invasive noise. Watson talked of the almost transcendental experience of standing outside Scott’s hut in the Antarctic and reflecting upon the fact that in this quietest of spots he was experiencing a soundworld unchanged since the ill-fated expedition some century before. It was an experience unthinkable in most other regions of the world.


Watson is concerned with the loss of the ability to really listen. He is disdainful of the blanket use of music in wildlife documentaries. Sound recordings would be much more involving for the viewer, who would then also become a more active listener. I wholeheartedly agree on this point. The use of sweeping string themes, combined with swooping helicopter or crane shots, amounts to a bullying emotional manipulation, akin to being grasped by the lapels, shaken up a bit and yelled at to ‘feel some awe and shed a tear at the spectacle of it all, goddamn you’. Music, humorous or sentimental, also encourages a relentless anthropomorphism which detracts from a true appreciation of the otherness of non-human species. His own observance of quietude included conducting the interview in his socks. As he explained in an interview in The Wire some years back, in which an interviewer made the same observation, he doesn’t ‘like clomping around’. Whitehead shares his interest in quietude. Quietness not as an absence of sound, as both were quick to point out. That would be a highly, well, disquieting experience, an indicator of the absence of life. But quietness in the sense of an environment in which the true spatial depth and density of sound can be appreciated, the individual elements differentiated and their variation over time appreciated. Whitehead has invited sound artists from around the world to send their recordings of quiet environments to him, and he has released some of them on his Very Quiet Records label. They range from the island of Jogashima in Japan to Jean-Baptiste Masson’s recordings of the South African bush at midnight, Kalmara Xinsekt’s night sounds in the Amazonian rainforests to Joe Stevens’ birping of spawning Dorset frogs. Together, they form an invaluable soundpicture of the quietude still to be found in the world.


Chris Watson was a hugely personable speaker, conveying his enthusiasm for sound with quiet authority. His memories and sound-illustrated anecdotes were ably facilitated by the informal and also highly informed Tony Whitehead. A marvellous evening, in the true sense of the word. Chris was here in conjunction with the sound installation currently running in the museum’s back entrance area. The sound picture here shifts from the coastal ebb and flow of the tide through the kelp beds of Maer Rocks, Exmouth, the song of cirl buntings, skylarks and greenfinches in the RSPB managed farmland atop Labrador Bay near Shaldon, Dartford warblers and tree pipits on the Aylesbeare pebblebeds and finally to the oak woodlands of Yarner Wood, dense with the calls of song thrushes, cuckoos, willow warblers, wrens, tawny owls and carrion crows. It’s a fine piece, a sonic journey which takes us seamlessly through four different environments. A little sound bleeding from the geology section below introduces a bit of ambient drone from time to time, but it’s not overly intrusive. Some might argue that it actually adds a further dimension to the experience, although I suspect Watson wouldn’t be amongst them. Natural sound is rich with its own musicality, he would point out, and needs no distracting attempts at enhancement. The sound picture will change with the seasons, offering us pictures for ears from 7 more sites, presumably including those deadly pistol shrimps from Plymouth. CRACK. So go along to the museum, stand by the balcony at the top of the stairs, close your eyes and conjure up your own pictures in sound. In this light filled interior atrium, you will soon be lost in your own interior world.

Saturday, 18 April 2015

The Beatles in Japan





A bit of a Beatles bonanza in the Oxfam Music and Arts shop in Exeter yesterday, with 8 LPs spanning A Hard Days Night through to Abbey Road (1964-70) coming in. Sgt Pepper, the White Album and Abbey Road were Japanese releases produced by the Toshiba company, two on red translucent vinyl (this in 1967 & 69!) Apparently they are particularly prized by audiophiles, being immaculately pressed. Researching them introduced me to an element of record collecting hitherto unknown by me: the 'obi strip'. These are the paper sashes which were wrapped around LPs in Japan. Their very disposability has now made them rare artifacts, and one of these records with its obi intact would be worth a considerable amount. Alas, there was no obi. The ruby vinyl looked splendid illuminated by the sunlight, however, making a particularly pleasing contrast with the crisp granny smith green of the Apple logo. The artists advertised on the inner sleeve of the Sgt Pepper album hint at why The Beatles caused so much excitement in Japan - they look very staid in comparison. Julian Cope's excellent survey Japrocksampler outlines the development of the Group Sounds craze which drew its inspiration from the fab four, and exploded in the wake of their tour of Japan in June 1966.



Abbey Road and Sgt Pepper have the price printed on the back cover, rather like a paperback book. Both would have set you back 2,000 Yen. The White Album had its Richard Hamilton poster and John Kelly photo portraits present. Interesting also to note the background collage on the inner gatefold flap of Beatles for Sale, presaging Peter Blake and Jann Haworth's more famous montage for the Sgt Pepper cover.


Sunday, 5 April 2015

The Ashton Ascension

PART ONE


The early days of March signal the first tenative stirrings of Spring, a turning time of the year when the bite of winter lingers but begins to cede its supremacy. It was a propitious moment to set off on a quest, a pilgrimage of sorts to discover the mysterious magic of pre-Reformation medieval and Tudor worlds as preserved in three local country churches. We would also be confronted with the jarring juxtaposition of the sacred and the secular, of heavenly and earthly power competing for attention. We would excavate stratified layers of history, occasionally catching a fading echo of some ancient archetypal myth figure, a fleeting peripheral flicker from the imagination of our pre-Christian forbears, still resonating in the carved stone arcades fashioned by medieval church masons. We would struggle up mighty slopes, bow our heads before driving hail and return through owl-haunted darkness. But with hope in our hearts and the shining white tower of the Haldon Belvedere to guide us, we would never give up.


First we needed fuel, however, and made our rendezvous in the warm and welcoming confines of Café 36 in St Thomas, west of the Exe and beyond the old city walls of Exeter. I, guiding vicar for the day, naturally drank tea. My friend and travelling companion David Chatton-Barker, instigator of the expedition under the aegis of the Folklore Tapes Tramping and Loring series of sonic investigations, washed down his bacon buttie with a cup of coffee. I regarded his hearty repast with a jealous eye. But I had forgotten my wallet, leaving with a paltry pocketful of change. A shorting of what is usually a reflex action upon leaving the flat, it was the first of a series of incidents which imposed an allegorical narrative upon the journey. I was the pilgrim travelling without means of support, trusting in the generosity of providence. We were both fools on bicycle steeds, venturing into the warren of Victorian terraced streets mazing their way to the village of Alphington. It was a bright morning thus far, and we set off at a relaxed and convivial pace. To the west, over the ridge of the Haldon Hills which were our destination, a solid wall of darkness divided the sky, its gloom-doomy front advancing with the steady pace of inexorable fate.


The hail hit as we approached the iron gates of Pincet Gardens, the words proudly wrought in black and gold Art Nouveau lettering. The gatehouse of these elegant Edwardian pleasure gardens, with their wisteria walk, rose beds and croquet lawn, provided sanctuary from the elements, as it once had for the groundsman, a figure from a publicly-spirited age long-dispensed with. The sheltering arch, and by symbolic extension of Victorian and Edwardian civic rectitude, allowed for the testing of sound levels and the consultation of maps. My Ordnance Survey map of Exeter and its surrounds dated from the inter-war period, the nerve network of local railway lines taking the place of the thick, wormy, blue arteries of motorways to come. It seemed appropriate that we should resort to such dated cartographic means to guide us. We were, in some ways, following in the footsteps or cycle tracks of inter-war British artists and writers like John Piper, Myfanwy Evans (later Piper) and Geoffrey Grigson, who had found inspiration from the medieval art they discovered in old country churches. Figures and faces carved in stone or from wood which appeared to them as immediate and modern as any of Picasso’s work derived from the art of ancient non-Western cultures.


Passing through the old village of Alphington, with its prospect over the city below, we left the boundaries of Exeter and turned onto an old country road which soon carried us over the Autobahn thrum of the A30. It was a crossing which felt significant, putting the functional roar of hurrying modernity behind us and leading us to older roads; lanes whose sparse usage allowed for ridges of hardy, tufted grass to draw a thick dividing line along their length, a rural version of the central reservation. In the village of Shillingford St George, we paused at a junction marked by an old stone cross, and crouched below the overarching beech tree, hunched against a fresh onslaught of hail. The small, frozen white pellets bombarded the moss landscape atop the flat plateaux of the cross’ arms like tiny meteorites crashing onto remote granite-bedded moorland. The right arm of the cross pointed to a lane which cut across the hillside, and we followed its transverse directions as if it were a signpost, which it may well have been. The dark mass of the hail cloud lumbered east over Exeter and the sky’s blue was all the more cerulean in contrast. There on the hill was the white tower, a radiant beacon capping the horizon of the Haldon Ridge rising above us. Haloed in a baroque nimbus of cumulus cloud, it drew us onward, a destination both symbolic and real. Once we reached this tower, the long, hard climb would be over and we could sail down the other side of the ridge to Ashton on the upper slopes of the Haldons.



As if to wake us from nebulous, cloudy dreaming and remind us that the tower was still some steep distance away, David’s faithful old steed Victor chose this moment to limp to a halt, its chain slipping off under the strain of steady ascent and firmly wedging itself between gear wheels. The venerable old bike was on its last legs, or spokes, and this was very likely to be one final, epic excursion before it was laid to rest. But it appeared as if the journey might prove too arduous for its aging frame after all. Desperate efforts to lever the chain out with a pitifully inadequate spanner were all in vain. It bent as if made from pliable plastic. Fingers were cut on gear teeth and blood mixed with oil, but even this sacrifice failed to release the chain. The shining tower was beginning to look like a taunting mirage, an elusive dream which would remain forever beyond our grasp. Even a sturdy old bronze key was unable to dislodge the stubborn links. Victor was mulish – he wasn’t going anywhere.


It was at this point that a Land Rover drove up and turned into the drive of the farmhouse outside of which the recalcitrant old bike was upended. David ran in to request aid and returned with a hefty steel spanner. Proper job! The chain was forced out and reset, the farmer profusely thanked, and we were on our way again. Victor was treated with the respect due to his frail seniority and led gently up any significant inclines, of which there were plenty to come. Reaching the end of the winding hillside lane, we arrived at a crossroads, a symbolic point which really marked the obstacle we had just overcome. The four-armed signpost pointed eastwards to Exeter, the direction in which we would have disconsolately limped had our serendipitous benefactor not happened along. But we now headed west, enjoying a brief descent, freewheeling and cheering, before the inevitable push to the heights of the neck-craning horizon.


Some distance up the hill, Victor now being pushed up the steadily increasing incline, we took a diversion to the north, following a short lane as it wound down into a sheltered dell. Here the red sandstone church of Dunchideock nestled, adjacent to the monkish quadrangle of a cluster of old farm buildings. We parked the bikes and prepared to walk through the small, unwalled graveyard to the church porch, eager to enter our first church of the day. It was at this point that David began patting pockets and rummaging through his bag with an escalating air of quiet desperation. The painful realisation dawned that his keys had been left lying in the road where Victor had experienced his breakdown. There was nothing for it but to go back and pick them up, hoping they would still be sprawling, keys akimbo, in the central spread, untwisted or flattened by the trundling passage of tractors. So it was downhill and up and turn south at the crossroads. And there they were. But a post van was rapidly approaching, filling up the lane with its purposeful progress and looking unlikely to take kindly to a cyclist dithering in its path. I swiftly stooped and snatched up the keys, pressing myself and my bike into the hedge to allow the envoy of the Royal Mail to pass. We would see him in the distance on several occasions during our journey, his van a small corpuscle pulsing along the hillside roads, a vital force yet, the lifeblood of the countryside. He was almost like a tutelary spirit, a background presence ready to intervene at opportune moments.



Another obstacle to the quest had been overcome. The third symbolic mishap, the loss of the key. Firstly, I had come out without any money, reminding us of the pilgrim’s need to rely on the generosity of the world and its inhabitants. Secondly, the venerable Victor had become lame, requiring stretches of the journey to be made on foot. This necessitated a slowing of the pace, a slight alteration of the schedule, and led to a more contemplative state of mind .The journey is a fundamental component of the quest, the time in which significant encounters take place and vital lessons are learned. This incident served to remind us of this, the meeting with the farmer being an example of the world providing in our time of need. Don’t be in too much of a hurry to reach your destination, you may find that in your speed to arrive you lose your sense of purpose. The loss of the keys made me retrace our path and notice the storm clouds sweeping over Exeter, slanted hail connecting cloud and earth like smudged pencil shading. The tower above was still illuminated, however, a castle in the clouds, and the hail passed us by. The keys, once retrieved, seemed to represent a symbolic blessing. The way is now open to you, they said.


I returned to Dunchideock church. A richly rolling nameplace, a pleasure to ennunciate. It’s name, in the old Celtic language, meant the wooded fort. The high places of the Haldon ridge had long been seen as an advantageous site to set up camp. They were now crowned by a white tower which had more recent and far-reaching military connotations, as we were about to discover. It set its gaze far eastwards, but also inward to the mysteries of the human heart.




I found David wandering around the graveyard, recording its atmospheres and ambient sounds. As often proves the case, the stone garden, planted with the dead, was full of life. Graveyards are often oases of nature, residual respect for sanctified resting places leaving them largely undisturbed. The flat granite and slate planes of gravestones also provide a highly amenable environment for hillocks of moss and the slow-spreading, symbiotic stains of lichens. If the dates on the graves have been erased by weather and time, they can be aged by the extent of the lichenous growth across their surface – the arcane science of lichenometry. There are some splendid specimens in the Dunchideock graveyard; efflorescent orange suns, pale green planetary discs and vermillion nebulae. Whole lichen universes expand across the grey stone, life blooming in a wholly different dimension, a long, slow, silent millennial explosion.




Mosses also thrive on the stone surfaces, finding root in the clefts formed by the stonemason’s chisel as he carved out memorial words. These are now traced in green lettering, a moist, green language. These growths also spread across the tomb flatlands, arms extending in ecstatic nebular outreach. Elsewhere, ivy eagerly grasps the corners of the tabletop tombs which invite convivial day of the dead feasting. They crawl onto their flat surfaces and crack open exit doors for their inhabitants whilst shielding their names with thickly twined knots of woody vine, allowing them the blessed relief of anonymity.


The north side of the graveyard was sparsely inhabited. The sun-warmed south side of the graveyard has always been considered more favoured ground. The shadowy north side is more sinister, more prone to intrusions from elsewhere – the Devil’s side. Those buried there might be considered unfit to keep company with the respectable southerners. Those whose lives had been tainted by scandal, who had committed crimes which had not been forgotten, or sorrowful suicides sufficiently beloved in the locality to be granted hallowed rest. Or, of course, those who were simply too poor to gain access to holier ground.




At the base of the stone arch framing one of the windows on the north side, the carved heads of a monk and nun looked out over the graveyard. Their faces were filled with grace and benediction, red lichen lending them a flush of rubicund life. They had the appearance of graveyard guardians, their calm, assured regard enough to stare down all but the most malevolent and powerful demons. To the north, the darkness was gathering itself together once more and advancing towards. The bright suncreated stark, Manichean contrasts between light and shadow. It was time to seek shelter – sanctuary if you will.


The interior of the church was neat and compact, a very tidy and well-ordered space. Not that there weren’t a few church spiders in residence, shading in the coiled curlicue at the tip of a crozier or lacing their webs through the wooden vines of the decorated rood screen. The red brick of the exterior was continued inside. Aisle columns were built from local red sandstone, chromatically consonant with the ruddy cast of the surrounding soil. The columns are rough and particulate, compacted amalgams of pebbly matter. It looks like the space around them could have been excavated from the Haldon hillside itself, leaving its bones exposed. That this is a sacralised quarry raised from its subterranean pit.




The rood screen separating nave from sacristy, the worldly and quotidian from the holy and eternal, looks Victorian. It’s a reflection of the 19th century desire to reach back to a pre-industrial past, retreating into a dream medievalism, conjuring up a simpler world which, of course, never really existed. It does in fact date from the 15th century, but was extensively restored by Herbert Read in 1893. Read had set up business in Exeter as a church conservator and craftsman in 1888, so this was a relatively early job for him. He also carved the wooden pulpit, its facets inhabited by fiercely bearded representations of the missionaries of the early church in Britain: St Columba, St Augustine, St Boniface and St Petrock. They are framed by trailing greenery in which birds alertly perch, plucking succulent grapes and snapping up climbing snails.


It’s hard not to notice the sizeable marble monument which takes up a large part of the north aisle wall. The wordy white tablet is capped with the black outline of an obelisk at the top of which a medallion-framed relief portrait of its subject is embedded, like an oversized pocket memento of a loved one. A war drum lies on the tomb, its beating silenced, a cessation akin in this case to the termination of the heart’s lifebeat. This is the memorial to Major General Stringer Lawrence, who died in 1775. Sometimes referred to as ‘the Father of the Indian Army’, he was the commander of the East India Company troops (a clear indication of the commercial imperatives behind Empire). His military exploits were instrumental in establishing the British presence in India – of building an Empire in the East. The language on the tomb is unabashed in its imperial pride, celebrating victory and conquest and proclaiming Stringer Lawrence as a saviour ‘born to command, to conquer, and to spare,/As mercy mild, yet terrible, as war’ in the words of Hannah More’s epitaph.


The memorial was funded by Sir Robert Palk, the Governor of Madras and at one time paymaster to the Indian Army. Stringer Lawrence lived with Palk for the last 6 years of his life in the nearby Haldon House. Hannah More writes ‘in vain this frail memorial friendship rears,/His dearest monument’s an army’s tears’. She could well have been referring to Palk, though. He clearly bore a great love for the old soldier. Not only did he name his son Lawrence, with the Major General acting as his godfather, but he raised a further, even grander monument in the form of the white tower on the hill. Few now recognise it as Lawrence Castle, but such was it designated, dedicated to Palk’s dear friend when the building was completed in 1788. It stands as much as a testament to one man’s love for another as it does to the Major General’s prowess in battle. With such knowledge, the tower becomes something else. A symbol of desolation, isolation, of unassuageable sorrow. Something has gone out of the world, something which you loved above all else, and it’s never coming back.

A small plaque on the south wall facing the Stringer Lawrence memorial bears much quieter and less triumphal witness to a parishioner who died on the fields of Flanders in the First World War. Similar records can be found in or near almost every parish church in the country. They particularise the terrible, blank magnitude of wartime mortality statistics, rooting them in specific place, in the family names engraved in the graveyard library. The gravestone chapters of lived local history, of generational lineage are brought to a sudden, violent halt. Unwritten pages are torn out of the book of life and cast to the wind.



The imperial atmosphere generated by Stringer Lawrence’s memorial seems to permeate the rest of the church. The 15th century roof bosses are arrayed in a brightly painted cavalcade of heads and masks, beasts and mythical creatures. A Turk with luxuriant black moustache focuses his bright, sharp gaze down on our craning heads. A crescent is affixed to the brow of his turbaned headdress. Adjacent to him is a lion’s head with a corona of gold mane. Its eyes are wild almonds and a sugary red tongue lolls pantingly out. It resembles stylised Chinese or Indian iconography more than the Christian artistic styles of Western Europe in the late medieval period. The colours are gaudy and gay, boldly carnivalesque, the roof a noisy parade of disparate, wildly contrasting participants. Here are three fish linked in a tail-biting Trinity circle, a plushly red triangular shield their sensual centre. A raw, phallic extrusion, seemingly emerging from the fish’s scales, tentatively probes this sacred ground. Around thethe fishes, golden fruits are slashed open to reveal scarlet flesh. The whole is an amalgam of Western animal symbolism and Indian Shiva lingam, a universal hymn to abundance and generation.




More symbolism comes in the traditional form of the Green Man. Or is it a foliate head? One such here seems to be a Green Man in profile (‘just carve my best side’), a branch emerging from the side of the mouth to wrap around its head in an oval foliate portrait frame. Its large, exaggeratedly upswerving nose gives it a jesterish look. The gold leaves could almost be bells on its softly pointed hat. The sky blue, red and gold colours make it a creature air, blood and sun as much as wood, leaf and earth. Another foliate face is the flowering bud at the heart of a spiral of light green vine and gold leaf. I am the true vine – a powerful symbol of the uncoiling spring of life’s seasonal cycle.



The circling vines are echoed in the whimple headdresses which frame the female heads which are present in some number. These are Hollywood Technicolor representations of medieval femininity. But given that they actually date from the late medieval period, the usual grumbles about authenticity are made redundant. This female presence in the church, and the rainbow rejection of grey sobriety the gay boss figures present in general, acts as a welcome counterbalance to the martial, male memorial, with its priapically erect obelisk reaching up to the roof (but not quite reaching its lofty heights).


This celebratory, polychromatic spirit even spreads to a memento mori skull at the base of a 1697 memorial to one Marthae Bryant. The bony visage is given an gleaming gold gilding, eye sockets glowing with corporeal redness, as if the fires of life were still burning somewhere within. The missing teeth in the jaw hinted at a verisimilitude reproduced with disturbing precision.


David had not been idle whilst I was on my key-retrieving side quest. He had discovered an old harmonium in a quiet corner of the Lady Chapel and had set to working its wooden pedals and filling the church with creaking, reedy chords and arpeggios – sounding out its sandstone corners and wooden arches and recording the results. The upper E note was fixed in permanent depression, as if someone had become addicted to its keening drone, lost in the expanding clouds of overtones. As David produced a few more chords in my presence, I could almost hear the faint ghost voices of Nico and Ivor Cutler (a very odd duet) drifting in from the aether beyond.



It was a hypnotic sound. But we couldn’t allow ourselves to drift too long into harmonium reverie. We still had to reach the heights of the white tower, Robert Palk’s shining declaration of pure love and heartbroken loss for his Major General. We emerged to blue skies, the dark sweep of the storm front menacing Exeter safely below us to the east. Onward and upward, we traversed the short lane dipping into the rounded cleft of the valley fold in which Dunchideock nestled and rejoined the road climbing steeply to the summit of the Haldon ridge. In deference to the venerable Victor, this was a walk and push stretch, companionable conversation interspersed with huffing and puffing and other assorted exhalations. Finally, we attained the summit, and were rewarded with stunning views across the Teign Valley to the tor-knubbed horizon of Dartmoor.



The road traced the spine of the ridge, and we followed its blessedly flat track until we reached our turning, the sign pointing to the downward slope leading to Doddiscombsleigh and Ashton. The white tower was immediately above us, pristinely outlined against luminous blue sky. A plane contrail etched its cloudy line across the outlines of winter branches. We debated about taking a short detour and exploring it, but decided that it would serve us better as a symbol, a tower of fable. The fact that it was now behind us indicated that we had reached the goal to which it had guided us, acting as an everpresent beacon. ‘To the tower and to the ravens’ as Sandy sang, although we had to make do with crows. We had made the ascent, and the route to Ashton was now open to a joyful freewheeling glide.



The valleys before us, with their folds and wooded slopes, curving streams and sheep-flocked fields, were enveloped in a dreamy afternoon haze softly obscure distances suggestive of nebulous Samuel Palmer Edens. We paused under the power lines strung between the grasping iron arms of pylons which strode in receding formation across the hillside, coniferous plantations magically parting to permit their progress. Their hum and crackle formed the droning ground over which birdsong, a crow of a cock and the passing sigh of a single car were laid – a rich rural mix. There was even a bit of stereo panning as a surge or stutter in the electron flow sent the electric drone pulsing behind us and then ahead before resuming its steady OHM drone. I felt like joining in, adding human overtone harmonies to the technological oscillations. This would sound great mixed with the harmonium respirations, I thought. A blend of exterior and exterior drone atmosphere, the electronic combined with the organic, wood with wire.


Passing beneath the pylon wires was like crossing some kind of threshold. Shortly thereafter, we entered an avenue of dark evergreen trees, and the Ashton sign appeared at the side of the road. The descent into the village was an exhilarating whoosh, the church tower suddenly appearing above thatched, whitewashed cottages. We parked our bikes at the foot of the church wall and climbed the steep, uneven steps which wound around to the lychgate rising greenly above us. We had arrived at Ashton, the main church on our itinerary. Our quest was reaching its fruition. It was time to pause for a well-earned sandwich in the porch, followed by a celebratory segment of Kendal Mint Cake. Hell, let’s make it two.