Friday, 7 June 2013

Children of Alice on Devon Folklore Tapes

Harbinger of Spring, an 18 minute piece by Children of Alice, was released earlier this week, fortuitously timed to coincide with the long-delayed turn of the season, the sun warming up the English earth at last. It forms one side of the Devon Folklore Tapes Vol.5 cassette, which comes wrapped with typically imaginative and beautifully executed artwork by David Chatton-Barker. I must admit, the revived appeal of cassettes leaves me a bit baffled. They really did seem a redundant medium, made for mangling and hugely frustrating when you’re trying to wind to the beginning of a particular track. Recording on tape is now exponentially more effortful than burning multiple copies of a CD-R, and not noticeably cheaper, so this seems to be creating extra, time-consuming labour in a wilfully perverse manner. But retro-fetishisation knows no bounds, and I’m probably missing some charm inherent in these compact little plastic packages.

This is the first post-Broadcast music by James Cargill. Here, he forms a trio with old Broadcast cohort Roj Stevens and Julian House, Ghost Box co-founder and Focus Group prestidigitator. They have all played together recently, on the Focus Group LP The Elekrik Karousel, released last month. But James and Roj understandably took a more subsidiary role in Julian’s project, lab assistants in his experimental combinations of sounds. Harbinger of Spring forms a more cohesive whole than House’s deliberately fragmented and roughly edited collages. It marks a similar shift to that which could be heard in Broadcast’s Mother is the Milky Way, which took the ideas they’d developed in the Witch Cults of the Radio Age collaboration with the Focus Group and moulded them into a suite of more impressionistic and songlike forms. Harbinger of Spring sees the Children of Alice furthering and refining that line of development, emphasising the gently psychedelic soundworld and the mood of pastoral reverie. There’s certainly a sense of continuity with previous recordings by Broadcast and The Focus Group, and no attempt at a radical break with the past. Nor would their really be any need for such a ruction; there’s still much to explore here, new riches to discover.

The piece has a progressive structure, with various sections clearly delineated from each other, and characterised by their own distinct soundworlds. This makes it feel as if we are being led on a journey, passing through different stages. We begin with mechanical clock chimes, a cuckoo springing forth with a drawn-out, distorted cry which is multiplied to sound like the plaintive cries of estuarine waders. A clipped voice instructing someone to ‘replace your receiver’ suggests a household interior from which the responsible adult is temporarily absent, an impression deepened by the sound of giggling children. We hear a vaguely hummed song, an isolated child crooning to herself. LP surface hiss and crackle is like the hum of warm air, the drifting dust illuminated by the sunlight angling into a sleepy afternoon room. All that follows could be seen as an aural daydream, a mental meander through inner worlds akin to Alice’s journey down the rabbit hole.

Warm synth tones and birdsong move us out of the house and into the garden. From hereon, there’s a pastoral feel to the music, a hazily impressionistic, Delius-like reverie. This transition is cued by chimes and reverse tape effects which evoke that summery psychedelic haze. Electroacoustic autoharp (maybe) and the glinting swell of what sounds like processed harmonium respiration cast bright rays of sunshine upon and set caressing breezes playing across our recumbent forms. Xylophones and flutes sound like birdcalls, in the musically imitative manner of Messiaen (or Beethoven in the Pastoral Symphony, for that matter). Wobbly tape effects, with reels sped up or slowed down, make for birdcall variations. It all goes a bit Clangers for a couple of seconds, too, as if the knitted moondwellers had launched an expedition which landed in an English garden (one of Major Clangers grand projects which didn’t end disastrously, for a change). No doubt the few lucky souls who managed to get their mitts on a tape release in the millisecond before it sold out caught their breath for a moment when first hearing this section, thinking the fragile oxidated ribbon had already wrapped itself around one of the revolving capstans.

A bass drum and cymbal splash paints a picture of something diving and plopping through a watery surface – the garden pond, perhaps. Bubbly sounds take us underwater, where we hear submerged chanting voices, a drowned chorus. A music box seems to be playing a looped fragment of Someday My Prince Will Come, whilst a series of echoing boings conjure the image of a comic, animated frog leaping about, possibly with a crown fixed around his warty bonce. A jokey musical association, perhaps, with fairy tale connotations. Brief, brightly metallic notes struck on a toy piano are like small, darting fish, flashing mercurially across our field of vision.

A cuckoo clock sends its wooden herald concertinaing out of its hatch, marking another transition. We hear the ratcheting sound of wound up gears, a trundling wooden rhythm and percussive clashes, their resonance deadened. It’s as if a toy monkey had suddenly come to life in a haunted playroom, clapping its little cymbals together with manic fixity of purpose. Reverse tape effects once more suck us into the summer psychedelic vortex. The buzzing, drowsy drone with its molecular swirl of overtones evokes the dreamy drift of blossom and down filling the air. I’m reminded of the XTC song Summer’s Cauldron from their season’s cycle LP Skylarking. A cuckoo broadcasts its two note call above the soporific haze, the sound given a somnambulant echo, as if heard though dozing semi-consciousness, and shifted to a minor interval. The music of Delius once more comes to mind, in particular the perennial favourite On Hearing the First Cuckoo In Spring.

The cuckoo, whose call recurs in mechanical, field-recorded and processed form throughout, is the harbinger of spring. Benjamin
Britten uses Edmund Spenser’s poem The Merry Cuckoo in his Spring Symphony, in which the bird is identified as the ‘messenger of spring’. He also includes Thomas Nashe’s Spring, which celebrates the time when ‘Spring, the sweet spring, is the year’s pleasant king;/Then blooms each thing, then maids dance in a ring,/Cold doth not sting, the pretty birds do sing:/Cuckoo, jug-jug, pu-we, to-witta-woo!’ The piece concludes with the anonymous 13th century song Sumer is icumen in, familiar to many as the cheerful ditty which the Summer Islanders chant, merrily swaying in time, as they burn poor old Sergeant Howie to death at the end of the Wicker Man. ‘Sumer is icumen in/Laude sing cuckoo’. Britten may very well have been another inspiration here. He’s certainly been mentioned in Broadcast interview of old, and it would certainly be appropriate in this, his centenary year.

A shimmer of electroacoustic autoharp, of the kind which Trish used to play onstage with Broadcast, draws a translucent veil which marks off the permeable divide leading us into the next module. A wavering, plucked motif seems to have subaquatically distorted echoes of Ashes to Ashes, a tiny tear in time through which half-perceived sound of the past have leaked. A bass clarinet adds an ominous note, and a soft bell, initial attack smoothed away as if the clapper were wrapped in felt, begins to toll the progression of time. A descending synth pattern gives the impression of a ringing carillon drifting across the meadows from a church tower, the sound made more ethereal by the acoustic contours of geography and distance. This all draws us back to the preoccupation with bell sounds on the Broadcast LP Ha-Ha Sound, from Minim (‘how sweet the bells’) to the Little Bell (‘it used to ring across the air/It’s sweetened tone would linger there’).

A ratcheting, two-step wooden rhythm is introduced, adding a sense of urgency (as if we were suddenly following the white rabbit, scurrying along with his eyes on his pocket watch). It’s reminiscent of the propulsive flight path of Hawk, the concluding track on Ha-Ha Sound. A deliberate nod to the past, perhaps. More reverse tape effects suggest that we’re being rapidly called back from our reverie, sucked back up the rabbit hole to the waking world. A sprinkle of harp adds a folkish or bardic element, echoing the theme music of The Owl Service (which James and Trish included in a mix for Johnny Trunk’s OST show on Resonance FM a few years back). A line of dialogue from Village of the Damned, George Sanders tensely repeating to himself ‘I must think of a brick wall’, lands us in Midwich. As with the use of a sample in Mother is the Milky Way taken from the Nigel Kneale scripted Hammer film The Witches, also set in an English village, this adds a sinister undercurrent to the bucolic idyll, hinting that there are dark forces at work in the paradise garden.

Liquid bubbling sounds locate us by the pond once more, fishes gaping to the surface. A synth squiggle sounds like a bee buzzing across the stereo spectrum. Everything ends with distorted female vocals, singing a self-absorbed and slightly melancholic refrain. These sound more mature than the girls we heard at the start of the piece. Something has been learned in the course of this kaleidoscopic journey. Alice has woken up from her summer afternoon dreaming, and found herself older, the lonely little girl left somewhere behind.

Well, these were some of the impressions which occurred to me as I listened to this beautiful and carefully crafted piece of music. Happily, you can listen to it yourself, as James has immediately put it up on bandcamp. Close your eyes, put the headphones on and see what pictures it projects inside your mind.


Liz said...

Weird & compelling & beautiful composition, and your commentary is wonderful -- thanks for this.

Paul Watson said...

Very much liking Harbinger of Spring.

No, not sure of the appeal of cassette tapes, having grown up with them and spent too many hours trying to get jammed tape out of a cassette player.