Friday, 1 August 2014

Theo Brown and the Folklore of Dartmoor - Devon Folklore Tapes Live at the Phoenix, Exeter

The Devon Folklore Tapes VI release Theo Brown and the Folklore of Dartmoor was brought to life in the Phoenix, Exeter last week, not far away from the terrain from which it drew visual, aural and even biological material. The sounds on the DVD, CD, vinyl singles or cassette (the Folklore Tapes folk are catholic in their use of media) are often ambiguous, both spatially and in terms of identifiable sources. The prospect of discovering how they went about building this soundscape, which invokes both the Dartmoor environment and the haunted spectres, legendary beasts and fey creatures which are conjured from it, and how they would go about projecting it into a small hall rather than a living room or headphone-space was an intriguing and enticing one.

N.Racker - with cover image taken from Juraj Herz's 1969 film The Cremator
First up was N.Racker, aka Sam McLoughlin of Sam and the Plants renown, an old Folklore Tapes compatriot. I’d previously come across him at the late lamented LLAMA (Lynton and Lynmouth Arts and Music Association) festival, where he was utterly absorbed in striking coiled springs suspended from the frame of the small marquee tent which canopied his antediluvian electronic equipment. There seemed to be a good deal of wooded casing, and it looked as if it might have been salvaged from a WW2 radio communications HQ in the post-war period. This produced a pleasing visual analogue to the springy, metallically glinting radiophonic sounds he coaxed from his hands-on box of tricks. It was music for crackling campfires or starlit summer skies streaked with the occasional meteorite trail.

Tonight, he explored darker realms, and kept the lights down low. He sat in the midst of a modest array of small synths, electronic circuitry and home-made or modified instrumentation, lit only by the green glow which casts its heart of the oakwood radiance through a hexagonal box (a defunct bass drum?) at the front of which a dessicated frond of bracken was silhouetted. Sam scraped and struck and plucked whatever came to hand: zithers, lyres whose strings were metallic rods embedded in a length of wood (Les Sculptures Sonores and Harry Bertoia came to mind here), and an electric hand fan whose blades served as whirling, whirring plectrums. Everything seemed to be mic’d, so an object dropped to the ground produced a clangourous thump. This could then be looped and incorporated into the organically expanding soundmass.

There was a definite improvisatory, aleatoric feel to the proceedings, with chance and accident welcomed as cues and ideas for intuitively exploring new directions. The vaguely ominous ambience suggested supernatural scenarios, with synth lines brewing up John Carpenteresque Fogs. Sam even essayed the dextrous Rick Wakeman stunt of playing two instruments simultaneously, arms bridging the right-angled span between keyboards (or synth and zither in this case). Conspicuous virtuosity was not at issue here, however. The instrument banks were many degrees smaller than Wakeman’s monumental podium-mounted edifices, and far from requiring their own articulated lorry to transport them, could probably comfortably fit in a hatchback boot. Besides, Sam wore a self-effacing white t-shirt rather than a glittering cape, making his lack of interest in such showmanship quite plain. This was more a question of contrasting textures, the plucked string electro-acoustically transformed and the synthesised sine-wave.

The music came to the end of its natural lifespan, expiring after Sam had looked around for the next object to pick up and decided that, no, he had nothing further to add. He modestly suggested that we could repair to the bar now if we wanted, while he embarked upon a further sonic expedition. Perhaps it was a friendly warning. Because he proceeded to unleash a howling jungle of sound from his synth, harsh hissing, stridulent screeching and squelchy croaking. Several people did indeed decided it was time to refresh their glasses. I found it an exhilarating storm of noise, however. It reminded me of Henning Christiansen’s Symphony Natura, which I heard as part of the At the Moment of Being Heard sound art exhibition in the South London Gallery in Peckham last year, and whose sounds were recorded in Rome Zoo. It also brought to mind Bernard Parmegiani’s De Natura Sonorum and Pauline Oliveros’ early 1967 electronic piece Alien Bog. The latter is a marvellous title which could equally have lent itself to this unleashing of the untamed forces at the wilder edges of the synth spectrum.

David Chatton-Barker and Ian Humberstone commune with the spirits of Dartmoor
The two artists behind Devon Folklore Tapes VI (and the whole Folklore Tapes project), David Chatton-Barker and Ian Humberstone, came on to introduce their performance. Besides being musicians and sound artists, Barker is a visual artist and graphic designer and Humberstone a writer and librarian. These professions and talents combined in the first half of their programme, as words and images were harmoniously combined. They told us of the life and remarkable work of the folklorist Theo Brown, who was herself a talented visual artist. Photographic portraits and examples of her striking, dramatic woodcuts were shown on a small screen to the right of the stage. After this eulogy, they took it in turns to read out a selection of the tales which Theo told. We heard of the Sow of Merripit and its pitiful plaint; of the siren call of Jan Coo and the dangerously capricious moods of the Piskies; of the demonic invasion of the church at Widecombe-in-the-Moor by hovering and prowling ball lightning; the hunting down and eradication of the last wolves in the Dartmoor forests; the grimly humorous anecdote about the death of the Warren House Inn publican and winter preservation techniques in the remote heartland of the moor; and of the sad isolation of Dolly Copplestone in her lonely moorland stone cottage. All of these legends were told in David and Ian’s soft, mellifluous Mancunian and Edinburgian tones, which gave them a storyteller’s distance from their source. There was a delightful air of Jackanory about the whole thing. A zither provided the odd emphatic flourish, underlying a dramatic moment or bringing things to a conclusion, as if turning a page or firmly closing a cover. It was a touch which made a connection with older oral storytelling performance traditions; traditions superbly brought to life by Benjamin Bagby in his wonderfully atmospheric telling of the Beowulf tales, his cradled lyre providing the dramatic musical interjections.

The young Theo
The reading were lent an accompanying visual poetry by projections cast onto an adjacent screen. Whoever had ceded the storyteller’s chair crouched down over an Overhead Projector laid on the floor to the rear of the stage and sifted through a jumble of transparencies. These were slid onto the illuminated table and the sometimes rapid progression of images making their momentary appearance on the screen gave an impression of basic yet evocative and effective animation. They offered prompts for the imagination. It was somewhat reminiscent of the Eastern and Central European animations of the mid 20th century, with their cut-outs and silhouettes. This was the kind of hands-on device (and hands were indeed visible on the screen from time to time) which the duo favour. An OHP is an old-fashioned and readily graspable mechanical apparatus which you can manipulate and tinker with, a more personal level of technology than that which we are confronted with in every aspect of life today. One noticeable advantage of using an OHP rather than some modern digital affair is the absence of the lengthy prelude during which a procession of people try to figure out just how you magic your meticulously prepared and catalogued laptop pictures onto the projector screen. Here we’re back to the old days of simply pressing the on switch. There was a certain element of randomness and the chance moment to the rough order from which images were selected; an openness to the happy accident similar to the musical approach taken by Sam in the first half.

Simple means were ingeniously employed to create OHP special effects. A semi-opaque circle within a black square of masking card framed a picture of the Widecombe-in-the-Moor church tower, enveloping it in a sulphurous brimstone haze. Moorland matter – leaves and twigs and bracken – was scattered onto landscape photos to produce branching, brachiate silhouettes which invoked the Matter of the Moor. Red sweetwrapper cellophane smoothed out over the Warren House Inn sign cast it in a hellish glow. Dark inkdrops splashed onto a woodcut of a wolf were smeared out to reveal their blood red pigmentation. It could almost have been an homage to the ominously portentous opening scenes of Nicolas Roeg’s film Don’t Look Now, in which Donald Sutherland’s characters spills something on a slide of a church he is studying, causing a red stain to spread across it like an expanding pool of blood. It was a very effective moment. There was something inherently refreshing and involving in watching the performers busily sorting through and playing with the images in the background. The process was made transparent. It re-connected us with the materiality of art, with the palpable feel for the way in which images are created. There seemed to be a deliberate rejection of the kind of digital sophistication which can remove us from any sense of human agency or individual artistic signature. Long the defiantly Luddite amateur, the inspired tinkerer, their actions silently cried.

Such an ehos was carried through into the second half, when they picked up their instruments, and were joined by Sam, who returned to the stage. This trio provided a soundtrack to the super 8 film they had made on their travels through the Dartmoor landscapes and villages. The film itself veered towards flickering ochre abstraction, its bracken, heather and granite colours partly the result of the biochemical processes of decay caused by its burial for a period in soil and organic matter brought back from the moor .The film material itself embodied time and erosion. As images of tors, ponies and rivers, churches, bridges and inns manifested from the kinetic play of transformative colour and nebulous form, memory (personal and cultural) and the elusive spirit of place was poetically evoked. The music incorporate field recordings, along with effects-blurred guitars, bowed objects, electroacoustic zithers and home-made instruments and electronic wizardry and gimcrack inventions of diverse and mysterious variety.

It formed a continuous, evolving suite, with moods shifting from the haunted and sinister through the devilishly playful to the plaintive and melancholy. Hints of Radiophonic soundtracks to supernatural children’s TV series came through – think the Moon Stallion and The Changes (out this month on DVD!!) There was a touch of spacy dub to the Widecombe section, tracking the floating balls of lightning across the pews, and a Ghost Boxy ambience to some of the more melodic passages. There was also a good deal of abstract soundscaping, which suited the constant transformations hypnotically flickering and flaming across the screen. It was a highly effective translation of the atmosphere of the DFTVI recordings into a live context. For a short period of time, the spirit of Dartmoor’s landscape was raised in the Phoenix. And who knows, a part of it may remain there still.

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