Sunday, 29 June 2014

Devon Folklore Tapes VI: Theo Brown and the Folklore of Dartmoor

Devon Folklore Tapes 6 (or DFTVI, to follow the acronymic condensation) is the latest in a series of beautifully presented artefacts which combine visual art, commentary and music, assembling a multi-faceted, harmonious whole. Each release has its own theme and geographical or temporal focus. DFTVI takes as its subject the folkloric explorations of Dartmoor undertaken by Theo Brown, largely in the post-war period from the 40s through to the 80s. This covers the prime hauntological period in which white heat futures and ephemeral pop presents combined with the revival of ancient memory and seasonal ritual. Brown was largely self-taught, a traveller who drew inspiration from her own youthful experience of the moor and its surrounding villages. She furthered her knowledge of its living lore by talking directly with its inhabitants, gathering new funds of story and anecdote. Hers was an idiosyncratic approach to the study of folklore, and one which found little favour with the more by the book elements of academia. The value of her work, which was notable for its combination of accessibility and scholarly breadth and depth, was only belatedly (and in many cases begrudgingly) recognised. Her papers now reside in the Exeter University archives; she was admitted to the halls of academia in the end, where her work is available to the more broadminded scholars of today. There’s currently a small display in the Old Library at Exeter University which includes material relating to Theo Brown alongside the contents of DFTVI and accompanying notes.

Ian Humberstone and David Chatton-Barker, the artists behind Devon Folklore Tapes VI, clearly sense a fellow spirit in Theo. They liken her to Delia Derbyshire, Lotte Reiniger and Vera Chytilova, the late Czech director of Daisies and Fruit of Paradise, who died earlier this year. Like them, she was a passionate individualist who pursued her own determined path in the face of indifference and disdain from a predominantly male establishment. Brown trained as an artist at the Westminster School of Art in the 1930s. Although she never fully pursued her talents in this direction, she produced some beautiful woodcuts, which provided the illustrations for a number of her books on folklore. Reproductions of seven of these are included as postcards in the DFTIV treasure box. David Chatton-Barker invokes Theo’s artistic spirit in a lovely design used in promotional material (which you can see at the head of this post). An imprinted profile taken from a youthful photograph is given a leaf-veined craquelure. It’s a powerfully poetic image, contrasting the freshness of youth with the engraved lines of age and experience – of time. The leaf veins suggest fragility and autumnal withering, but also a connection with the landscape and the cyclical renewal of the seasons. In this case, such renewal can be seen as a metaphor for the revival of Theo’s life work, and thereby of the vital spirit which defined her and gave her such vigorous purpose.

Nested at the heart of the DFTVI box are 7 7” singles, containing the music central to the project. To my knowledge, this is the first time a Devon Folklore Tapes release has been bereft of any actual cassette amongst its contents. But the title has become a recognised signifier of the series’ qualities and character. It’s suggestive of field research archives filed on modular shelving units in 70s brutalist bunkers, or of the forgotten rooms of rural town museums whose exhibits have remained unchanged for decades. Anyway, Devon Folklore Singles just doesn’t sound right – too much like a tweedy dating night down at the village hall. The seven 7”s present soundscapes connected with seven Dartmoor villages. 7x7x7 – there seems to be some occult symmetry at play here. The Dartmoor summoned up by the music is definitely a magical place; one full of sinister resonance, with strange, unearthly presences hovering behind the thin veil separating worlds. It’s a veil as evanescent and nebulously shifting as a moorland mist. At any moment it might enshroud you and transport you from all that was solid and familiar. It’s this uneasy apprehension of the uncanny, which goes hand in hand with the unpredictable moods of Dartmoor weather and its wild landscape, which the music attempts to express.

Given that the music is aligned with particular places, and is designed to evoke their ambience and the sense of the stories which have settled into their contours and seeped into their subsoil, the ideal way of listening to it would seem to be to travel to the locales in question. A map is included in the DFTVI box, presumably with this end in mind. Obviously, a certain amount of recording and transferral of formats would be required. Unless, of course, you happen to have a portable wind-up gramophone to set up beside your wicker hamperful of cold meats, hard-boiled eggs and ginger beer. Headphone absorption will provide an immersive soundtrack, and create the suitable sense of being at a certain remove from the ruthless rationality of the 21st century world.

So what of the music itself? It is loose, low key, and determinedly low-fi and homespun, a reflection perhaps of Theo Brown’s own defiantly amateur status. It is largely what could be described as electronic music, with sounds rooted in the post-war period of modernist experiment and Radiophonic play. But it has the feel of real-time performance rather than work which is primarily constructed in the studio (reel time, if we’re still looking at analogue ways, which is certainly the impression here). MEV (Musica Elettronica Viva) and Gruppo Nuova Consonanza, with their use of electronics in an improvisatory context, might be a more apposite point of comparison than, say, Stockhausen and Berio or any of the other composers who sequestered themselves in the airless labyrinths of state-radio funded studios. We’ll get the chance to see how the music plays out live during the upcoming Only Timelessness tour (which arrives in Exeter on 22nd July). Electronic and experimental music has been used to good effect in summoning up states of dislocation, unease and panic in horror film soundtracks. It is put to such use in DFTVI, painting a sound portrait of Dartmoor as an eerie, haunted landscape; a spectral terrain in which temporal laws and the boundaries of the rational lose their hard-edged definition.

In the Postbridge piece The Hairy Hands, electronic oscillations and wavering tonalities are reminiscent of Louis and Bebe Barron’s unearthly whistles and burbles for the Forbidden Planet soundtrack. There is also a series of reverberant metallic scrapes, of the variety referred to as ‘terror zings’ on the Radiophonic Workshop LP of sound effects Out of this World. These reminded me of the unnerving creaks and isolated percussive cracks and splashes of Toru Takemitsu’s film score for Masaki Kobayashi’s 1964 compendium of Japanese ghost stories Kwaidan. Echo and reverb create the sense of a strange space, with the open expanses of the moor suddenly rendered dense and enclosed. It’s as if a transformation in the natural order of things has taken place, resulting in a disconcerting shift in perception. A similar effect is created in Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Stalker. The rhythmic clacking of the railway track the three pilgrims are riding into the mysterious Zone is gradually and, initially, almost imperceptibly altered. It grows more reverberant, its overtones flatten and spread out like tendrils of enveloping mist. This transformation of sound marks the crossing of a boundary, a transition to a space and perceptual state in which the laws of nature (including acoustics) are subtly but fundamentally different. A heartbeat pulse growing steadily louder along with the introduction of respiratory rhythms which sound like heavy, bestial breathing herald the manifestation of the hirsute hands of the tale in question. These are said to have appeared on a number of occasions over the centuries to menace travellers taking the road into the village, and hinder their passage. There is a final frenzy of freeform noise on the Hairy Hands track, a chaos which seems to mark the terrified apprehension of the beast by the unfortunate passerby. A fearsome crash brings things to a halt, perhaps signifying the grim end of this encounter with a malevolent spirit. We can perhaps imagine a close-up on the spinning wheel of a motorcycle.

It’s all highly cinematic. The imaginary soundtrack is a modern version of classical programme music such as Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique. 60s and 70s horror film atmospheres are invoked elsewhere on DFTVI. The synth drone and rushing wind at the beginning of the Old Crockern tale from Two Bridges recalls the chill ambience of John Carpenter’s brooding, pulsing synth score for The Fog. In Wistman’s Wood, a heavy bass thudding measures the implacable, inescapable approach of some stomping entity, or of the Wild Hunt whose route legend maps across the skies above the stunted oak treeline. It’s a relentless pounding which recalls the terrifying aural assault in The Haunting, Robert Wise’s 1963 adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s classic of the supernatural. In the tale of ball lightning invading a church service in Widecombe-in-the-Moor with what appears to be a guiding intelligence, swishing sounds panned wildly across the stereo spectrum, together with scraped strings bent into upwardly ascending arcs (the Radiophonic Workshop’s ‘terror glissandos’) summon up fiery elementals. These will-o-wisps swoop and dive like sluggish swifts, their bobbing flight weighted down by dubby basslines. This brings to mind the scenes in the Hoichi the Earless section of Kwaidan in which spirits in the form of glowing balls of flame dart like moths across a ruined temple graveyard. The otherworldly atmosphere is enhanced by Toru Takemitsu’s tenebrous music, all wispy susurration and spectral sound.

There is an element of soundscaping to some of the music, with field recordings, processed to a greater or lesser degree, incorporated to summon up the spirit of place. Wild weather is also an important aspect of the moor’s changeable moods, its barometer needle likely to swing with a suddenness which has caught many an unwary wanderer out. Fairies, spectres and elementals arise from the sounds and atmospheric conditions of particular sites. Dartmoor is a primal landscape which encourages a return to an animist view of the natural world, a sense that its elements are imbued with a variety of inherent spirits. DFTIV begins with the rushing of wind, from which cries emerge. The battering white noise of a gale or the rushing white noise of a river are highly suggestive. Just as any sound can be filtered out from a white noise base on a synthesiser, so the mind can parse any number of sounds through the filter of the imagination. The track based around the Old Crockern tale from the Two Bridges area draws forth a spectral horse from the scouring wind. Dessicated Casio rhythms provide the bones of sound which evoke a skeletal canter, a bounding, rattling ghost ride. Horror sounds pile up again towards the end, with splintering freeform piano and grating stridulation leading to much wailing and howling. Finally, it all falls apart, and we can imagine a pile of bleached bones scattered across the moorland scrub.

The Wistman’s Wood track begins with a whooshing space wind, with the amplified cracking of twigs and circumambient pinging reverberations suggesting the eerie suspension of time and sound in this moss-muffled, dwarf-oak canopied expanse. The pounding approach of the Wild Hunt is all the more alarming for intruding upon the quietude of this ferny, lichenous sub-world. The Piskies Holt in Hexworthy, a natural underground passageway by the Dart, is depicted with wavering, watery sounds. Glass bowls are struck and lowered into water so that the note glides downwards. Bell-like droplets drip with cold resonance, as if they were splashing on the surface of a granite chamber. The occasional slippage of sound charts uneven surfaces, wet slides and muddy skids. There are linked levels of liquid language here. The continuous flow of the river acts as a ground for the plinking pizzicato of the drips. Swirls, currents and eddies are the over and underlying overtones of this rushing drone. Sighing exclamations arise from these sounds, the gurgling oohs and aahs of the piskies. They are sweet and filled with childlike wonder, but feel as if they could easily and instantly morph into sharp-fanged hiss and screech.

In addition to the sounds of wind and water, we also hear the sounds of fire in the Widecombe tale of Jan and the Devil. This is a variant of the many sorry accounts of inadvisable deals with horned and cloven-hoofed strangers in which the soul is the disposable currency of exchange. Jan’s reckoning with his Satanic creditor is heralded by a tolling bell and low rumbling John Carpenter synth. Tarry, sticky sounds like glutinously flowing and banking lava queasily conveys a hellish presence. Wild, untethered theremin suggests supernatural flight on eerie currents, whilst electronic hissing blows out billowing clouds of sulphurous vapour, as if from some unholy censer. A wailing siren, the subconscious trigger signal for panic and fear, is succeeded by a series of thuds – the firm and sure knocks of fate at the door. A sickly buzzing accumulates, a swarming aural halo for the Lord of Flies. Jan is carried away, accompanied on his escorted passage to hell by the intensifying sounds of torment and strange chthonic storms leaking up from the underworld.

The two Dartmeet tracks make effective use of field recordings, the riverine flow a white noise bed from which other sounds burble up. For the Hungry Dart, throbbing low frequency oscillations hint at dangerous currents beneath the surface. It’s a pulsing, mesmeric drone, hypnotic and inviting. The simple, fatalistic rhyme, which voices an almost sacrificial acceptance of periodic drownings, offerings to the river spirits, gradually becomes distinct from the chaotic flow. It is intoned with dull lack of inflection, as if by the dead souls buried in their silted and pebbly graves, their hair wavering like waterweeds. More of the drowned join in as a call and response chorus builds up. This river’s sub-drone seems to shadow the repetitive, eddying melody, drawing enchanted listeners in to swell the siren choir.

Jan Coo and the Piskies begins with a chilling howl and startling piano pounding, the discordant disruptions of a winter storm. The background presence of the uncanny is heard in the murmurous voices breathing ‘Jan Coo’ at the threshold of audibility, and by the unevenly ascending melodic steps of rubbed wine-glass sine waves. Pure and ringingly sustained and with little initial attack, it is difficult to place their point of origin. They just appear, manifesting out of the blustering backdrop. Rushing water and birdsong locate the moment at which the boy in the story is drawn by the voices and disappears for ever. A metallic horror creak (a ‘terror twang’) perhaps denotes the opening of a heavy door. It is followed by silence, apart from the steady, constant rush of the river. It continues its progress, oblivious and uncaring as to the fate of the boy who has been unceremoniously plucked from the continuum of existence. It’s as if he simply never was.

Some of the pieces on DFTVI depict the more human aspects of Dartmoor life. Pub atmospheres are evoked for the Forest Inn at Hexworthy and the famously isolated and invariably winter snowbound Warren House Inn near Merripit. The Hexworthy track is a sound collage of voices and noises (coin rattle, glass clink and accordion wheeze) which recalls the studio goofing of Jefferson Airplane’s A Small Package of Value Will Come to you Shortly. The slight air of artificiality lent by exaggerated echo creates a sense of distance, suggesting that what we are hearing is a ghostly impression from a time long past. After the ‘time please’ bell has been rung, and a final wave of lusty laughter has passed around, the voices fade. We are left with small, wavering pings and glinting harmonics, the hubbub of human conversation reduced to tiny particulate sounds half heard in the suggestive crackle and hiss of the fireplace. A harmonium drone articulates the hum of silence in the early hours emptiness of the bar; a silence which contains echoes of antiquity and the accumulated imprints of convivial chatter and merry carousal. Flexible bass notes bent downwards emphasise the emptiness of the space, the quiet after the spectral gathering has been dispersed. They remind me of the springy bass lines in Krzysztof Komeda’s score for Roman Polanski’s 1967 Hammer Spoof The Fearless Vampire Killers.

The Warren House Inn track summons up the interior atmosphere in the heart of winter, with doors and windows battened down against the besieging ice and snow. The mordantly matter of fact tale told is of an innkeeper’s sudden death, and the practical preservation of his body by his wife and daughter in the salt pit with the freshly slaughtered pig. There he lies until the snows melt and civilisation can be reached once more. Free improv creak and scrape, along with tiptoeing pizzicato, conjures an atmosphere of tense suspension; the itchy, fidgety feel of being shut in for prolonged periods, until the small sounds of the building become amplified to overly sensitised perceptions. A sudden grunt of pain marks the landlord’s last gasp. Or perhaps it is the shocked reaction of the vicar upon seeing the body in its salted mortuary. The tone throughout is comically sinister, the Addams Family via Royston Vasey. The scrunch and pop of the fire with which we are left, with its clustered layers of short-lived sounds, is reminiscent of Concret PH, the dense piece of musique concrete which Iannis Xenakis built up from tiny edits of recordings of burning charcoal.

There is a flavour of low-key psych-folk to the track The Sow of Merripit Lake. A dour ditty is chanted against a simple repeated acoustic guitar figure. This is the mournful mantra of the pig and her litter who are said to wander the foggy night at certain times of year in search of whatever measly scraps of food might assuage their hunger. Hollow ocarina whistling in the background suggests the wind playing through the cracks of doors and windows. A contrast between domestic interior and wild exterior is established, which makes the synth mewls of the piglets in the outer cold all the more pitiful. The lament of the pigs is really the human cry of starving peasants down the ages, a symbolic litany for hard times in a harsh and unforgiving environment.

More lonely and mournful sounds are heard in the tales of Dolly Copplestone and the Snaily House, both of which centre on isolated cottages. Dolly Copplestone, with its deliquescent shower of crystalline notes and hymnal minor key organ, veers in tone between new age and holy minimalism. The falling windchime synth lines are like poor Dolly’s tears as she sits alone in her cottage, cut off from the world by the jealousy of her hard husband. The Snaily House conjures up the interior of a cottage in the woods inhabited by two women. Their solitude and lack of visible means of subsistence led to rumours of witchcraft. The more sad and prosaic truth, however, was that they had been living off a limited foraged diet of snails and slugs. We hear a melancholic tune, a fluting moogy melody played over clanking piano chords. It’s as if the women were entertaining themselves during the long, lonely days. Creaking doors mark their forays out into the woods to gather their food. The ceramic clatter of snail shells in pots and jars provides the signature sound of the house.

The final track of DFTVI is The Last Wolf, which refers to the belief that the last wolves in Britain were killed in the woods around Drewsteignton and Brimpts in the 1780s. Metallic clanks and sonic booms expressionistically represent the killing shots and the fall of discarded shells. Low key music in the background sounds like an electronic pibroch lament, a solemn epitaph for the eradication of a native species, and for the steady erosion of the idea of wilderness.

Only Timelessness, the film which the artists have made for the DFTVI set, transforms their field trips into filtered eyeflash rushes of abstract colour and pattern from which significant forms and locales emerge – trees, ferns, rivers, wild ponies, churches, inns and bridges. The curved back of the moorland horizon, with its granite tor vertebrae, is a recurrent presence, an outlined theatrical backdrop which instantly conveys the sense of place, even when reduced to semi-abstraction. The artists rightly draw a comparison in their notes with the visionary work of the American experimental film-maker Stan Brakhage. They are themselves occasionally glimpsed wandering about in that hazy, dreamlike drift which 8mm film can convey so well. It’s a mood which Derek Jarman evoked in his super 8 films; his Journey to Avebury might be seen as a point of comparison here. Some of the film stock was buried in soil and other organic matter from the moor and left for some time. The acids from the earth worked on the celluloid and produced the rich colours of chemical decay; purples, aquamarines and rusty reds of the sort which might film the surface of an acidic Dartmoor pool or mire.

Only Timelessness - the artists are present
The idea of incorporating the processes of decay into a work is a particularly resonant one, and has been used by a number of artists in recent years. This is partly due to the rapid progression of recording technologies, the resultant redundancy of old media, and the reflection on change and passing time which this occasions. Richard Skelton has buried instruments in Lancashire soil, the resultant imperfections once unearthed providing a record of natural transformation. William Basinski’s Disintegration Loops series uses the oxide erosion of magnetic tape as an integral part of the music, which becomes an almost philosophical meditation on time and its depredations. Tacita Dean’s film Kodak uses the last 16mm black and white stock ever produced at the firm’s factory in Chalon-sur-Saone. It thus stands, in the very substance of its medium, as a record of redundancy and ruin.

There appears to be a good deal of double projection in the film as digitally preserved on DVD. The corroded footage is layered over more concrete scenes shot on Dartmoor to create a kind of dual vision. Present time is juxtaposed with geological time (or maybe a heightened visionary time), the flickering patterns of long-term erosion and decay patterned over water, rock, moorland scrub and the structures of human habitation and cultivation. There is an elemental quality to the unearthed film, something of the air, earth and fire to the scratches, burns, folds and cracks. They make the texture of the film material evident, and make us aware of the act of seeing. Strands of bracken and nettle are pushed onto the lens to form plantform silhouettes. They remain for a fraction of a second, imprinting their complex outlines on the retina; part of the protean shifts of colour and pattern, of the ever-changing transformation of matter. The finger of the artist is sometimes seen poking them into place, again making us aware of the processes involved, of the retinal film of vision through which we perceive the world. The film of corroded film is like a veil between worlds, a glimpse of otherworldly vision. It hints at another dimension existing parallel to our own. The tales cited in DFTVI record the moments when it breaks through.

There are serendipitous conjunctions between image and music (a special condensed mix of the album accompanies the 30 minute film). Or perhaps that directing finger is at work again, creating hidden patterns of divine order. For the Copplestone track, vertical scratches visualise poor Dolly’s falling tears, etching them onto sky and landscape. The footage of Widecombe church is licked with chemical flame, a magical fire which blazes but doesn’t burn.

DFTVI is an artefact to be treasured. A map to the treasure, guidebook to the terrain of legend, catalyst for the inner eye of the imagination, visionary prompt and scholarly primer. But most of all, it is a thing of beauty, put together with great care, artistry and love. It’s a worthy memorial to the life, legacy and spirit of Theo Brown. And sufficient tribute to placate the piskies for a while.

1 comment:

J Simpson said...

Amazing writing! Amazing musick! It seems that we are investigating many of similar topics and style. I really love how you illustrate the various sounds with concrete analogies; its a difficult thing to describe sounds that have no precedent. And nice analysis of the acoustic going wonky, as an entrance into a liminal state, like in Stalker. THAT's the kind of observation that makes me love reading about music! Devon Folklore are a bloody inspiration!