Wednesday, 10 June 2015
Calendar Customs II: Merry May
The first Calendar Customs collection from the Folklore Tapes folks focussed on Halloween. It sought to unearth the layers of tradition and vernacular observance which have been largely displaced by the gothic horror pageantry which now characterises All Hallow’s Eve. For the second volume, they have spun the seasonal and calendrical globe to its obverse face, the light rather than the shadow side, and celebrate May and its merrie rites. Halloween, or Samhain in the old Celtic calendar, marked the setting of the sun, the diminishment of its fires as winter’s dark set in. May Day rejoices in its resurgence, the rebirth of the light which heralds summer’s suffusing warmth and easeful languor.
As with the first release, the music creates sound pictures of specific festivities or rituals, or more general springtime atmospheres. Appropriately enough, given the invocations of ancient traditions contained within, it is presented in a format which is, by the modern measure of accelerated time, an ancient relic in itself – the cassette tape. It is packaged with the care and imaginative use of graphic design which Folklore Tapes pride themselves in providing. The inscribed cover is a mutable symbol which could be interpreted in any number of ways: the top of a maypole; an British dreamcatcher; a diagrammatic, time-lapsed aerial view of the weaving dance around a maypole; a handmirror reflecting the fresh vitality of youthful blossoming; or an abstracted focal lens fixing the season’s vigorous moment of awakening. Or all of the above. Both the cassette and the box in which it is housed come in a light shade of pink, the colour with which the edges of some May blossoms are blushed. A small length of maypole ribbon is included, a gift whose handling summons something of the spirit of bright revelry which is the abiding mood of Mayday. Mine is a lovely emerald green, the proliferating colour of spring’s explosion of thrusting, unfurling growth. A small, photocopied booklet offers notes setting each track in context, giving clues as to the soundworld the artist has created. Its rough, handmade quality adds to the impression that the box set is a personal gift, an artefact which has been put together with minimal resources and a deliberate rejection of digital sophistication, but which as a result has a real, individual touch bearing the authentic imprint of the artists involved. Oh, there’s also an essay on May customs and cultural history by some bloke called Jez Winship. It’s alright, but he does go on a bit. He gets his Shakespeare wrong too. It should be ‘How am I, thou painted maypole?’, not ‘though painted maypole?’. Honestly! I suppose he’s only human, though.
The tape (or, more likely, the accompanying digital download) begins with the comfortingly familiar chimes of a domestic clock, with its household echo of Big Ben’s city tolling translated from the big smoke to a country cottage. Its clockwork carillon calls out from the mantelpiece to rouse the sleepy to wakefulness in the middle of the night, to begin the day long May celebrations at midnight. Time to venture out into the woods and fetch in the branches of may. Carl Turney and Brian Campbell, usually operating behind the surgical masks of Clinic, here set up their Lost Tapes Record Club to present this manufactured anthropological field recording, Alan Lomaxes of inner space. Tramping bass and processional percussion combine with reverse tape night calls and splashy harpsichord dabs, the latter adding a 60s psychedelic touch. The processing and electronic backdrop lend a bleary-eyed haziness to the sound, a dreamers’ parade. The second section of this three part piece (a mini prog concept trilogy) introduces the dawn birdsong chorus, and a sense of calmness and peace pervades. Soft variations on the old medieval round Summer Is Icumen In are played in fluting tones which sound at times like the exhalations of a mellotron, with its slight, breathy delay. Counterpoint voices emulate the intertwining calls of the birds as human and avian worlds combine, the birdsong recordings continuing to burble away in the background. It summons the spirit of a Vaughan Williams or Delius idyll, paradise gardens or larks ascending. With the day blooming into post-dawn life and light, the May rituals come into their full flowering. The third part of the piece brings in the springy, lo-fi thumps of tambour and marching drum. Electronic sounds spiral and wiz over the elemental rhythm, darting and bounding like fizzing will-o-the-wisps caroming in Brownian motion around the May paraders. It’s the background buzz of nature’s busy noise, the humming drone and dense sonic weave of summer after winter’s silence, order and pattern emerging from apparent chaos. Human voices join in the chorus, in their own simple, limited fashion.
The Blue Funz offer a two part piece evoking Beltane rituals on the Isle of Mull; Need-Fire and Milking Cows Through Cake we are bluntly informed, without any further explanation forthcoming. The sound picture gives us a fairly clear idea as to what is going on, however. We begin with the crackle of fire, like cellophane sweet wrappers being crinkled and rustled. Cow bells clank and jangle, carrying an eerie echo, as if heard through mist. A gentler, lulling female voice sings a soothing, slightly distracted melody in the background, leading the bovine herd onward. Glinting thumb piano or celeste plinks add to the aura of magical suspension. May Eve is a time for lighting bonfires, like All Hallow’s Eve, or Samhain, its shadowy counterpart. The veil between worlds grows thin during these temporal interstices, and protective measures must be taken against maleficent incursions from elsewhere. Thus, cattle are driven through the purifying gates of twinned bonfires as they are led out to pasture. The Need (or Neid) fire is lit from and ember nurtured from the previous year’s fire. A slightly sinister chant is introduced, hinting at spirit worlds a dream or errant fancy away from our fleeting perceptions. A bowed instrument like a sarangi sounds scraped, overtone burnished notes like the clarion calls of an otherworldly horn. But where do they come from, and whence do they lead us?
The second section shifts to an interior resonance, bringing us into the cowshed. The sounds of cows lowing, and the pizzling squish of milking, accompanied by pumping, machine-like percussion, gives us a clear picture of what is going on. Choral synth sighs lightly float around the space, producing an ambience of placid bovine contentment. Tinkling notes could be the splash of milk into containing vats (whether through holed cakes or not) or a continuation of the magical tingle felt outside. Apparently there is only one dairy herd on the Isle of Mull. The unpasteurised cheese produced from the happy cows is reputedly exquisite.
Arianne Churchman’s Minehead Hobby Horse builds a sound picture of a North Devon tradition which has become rather overshadowed by the renown of the Padstow ‘Obby ‘Oss a little further west along the coastline. It begins with the sound of a spectral, radiophonic sea (like the sound the BBC’s electronic workshop produced for Samuel Beckett’s Embers). A finger tapping drum rhythm beats out a procession. Processional drums are a recurrent motif running through this Calendar Customs release, along with the sound of birdsong. A reedy accordion wheezes into life, building up the bare bones of a folk tune; a sketch for a song we already know, even if we’ve never heard it before. A wooden clacking and clopping is a reproduction (or perhaps an actual recording) of the erratic, circling progress of the horse and its snapping, toothless jaws. Shouts of ‘hooray’ come from the horse’s milling entourage of outriders. The piece pauses halfway through, accordion set down for a moment, to allow for a count-up (‘one-hooray, two-hooray’ etc). It’s almost like a belated intro. We can imagine leaping morris dancers or some special and jealously guarded Minehead hobby horse moves coinciding with each celebratory cry.
Rob St John’s Bringing in the May returns us to the Delius idyll, spring as a blessed time of re-awakening. A slow showering of piano notes could be the aural depiction of May blossom slowly drifting to the ground, or shivering in a gentle breeze. Sweetly bowed overtone notes in the background create the impression of refracted light glinting through branches. What sounds like a viola adds limning colour to the piano. The circling, downward spiralling arpeggios are like the peals of distant bells. A piping flute, wavering like a whistling kettle, brings in a slightly off-kilter element. The flute is another characteristic sound threading through this compilation. It is the traditional instrument for evoking pastoral moods and the melodic outpourings of songbirds. Its recurrence in this context underlines the central principle behind May Day celebrations, that of going out into the fields and woodlands and renewing a direct sense of connection with the natural world. Let’s all sing like the birds. Rob St John’s repeated piano figure could also be a Messiaen-like imitation of birdsong. Towards the end it shifts up a couple of octaves, a raising of the spirits as our May communion fills us with a feeling of lightness and joy.
Ian Humberstone’s The Hunting of the Earl of Rone is a soundpicture of a particular May tradition carried out in Combe Martin on the North Devon coast, an observance which blends seasonal ritual with local historical pageantry. We hear a hubbub of festive voices and a braying horn calling the gathered hordes together to set off on the hunt. A hunt for human prey in this instance – shades of the Hounds of Zaroff. We are led on once more by processional drums, and the swaying tune of an accordion (an easily portable backpack of an instrument). A flanged electric guitar takes up the melody, ramping the folk up into psych territory. Pattering percussion produces the impression of a slightly chaotic pursuit. I don’t give much for the Earl’s chances.
Mary and David’s (that's David Chatton Barker, I presume) Wish Before Sunrise concerns the tradition of bathing the face in May dew, the belief being that it would lend the complexion a pearlescent glow for the rest of the month. Mary and David use small sounds to create an atmospheric evocation of this observance. It begins with tambourine and drum – the drum once more suggesting a procession going out into the fields. Recorder pipes away, leading us on a merry morning dance. Sprayed zither chords sprinkle us with cold droplets of dew, and the metallic bowing of strings (or of a cymbal’s edge?) suggest hands dipped in cold water, scooping up a cold palmful of May moisture to lave the face. The gleaming plink of plucked strings could be spilt drops splashing back down. Crystalline chime shimmer catches the diamond glint of light on dewdrops. The susurration of whispering voices invoke personal prayers to nature spirits. They are followed by bright, scintillating sounds, glissando glimmer and pulsating oscillations. The bright gleam of singing wineglasses or Tibetan bowls and the warm radiance of a resounding gong. All of which create the impression of a complexion brightening into a healthy, translucent glow.
Rite of the Maypole: An Unruly Procession is the latest concrete sound collage by Children of Alice, the post-Broadcast trio featuring James Cargill and ex-bandmate Roj Stevens alongside Julian House, Broadcast’s graphic designer, collaborator under his Focus Group guise and co-founder of the Ghost Box label. Children of Alice very much continue the experiments first formulated on the Broadcast and the Focus Group Investigate Witch Cults of the Radio Age LP. Rapid transitions and cinematic jump cuts create a kaleidoscopic sound collage akin to the fractured form of an experimental film. You can imagine the visual analogue to the sounds, with superimpositions and sudden edits, animated interjections and scratched frames, solarised footage and saturated colours producing an effect of heightened reality. The approach is not far removed from that taken by Richard Philpott in his 1989 film The Flora Faddy Furry Dance Day, included on the BFI Here’s A Health to the Barley Mow DVD of folkloric films. Philpott attempted to use film’s ability to collapse time to create connections between the modern-day celebrations in Helston, Cornwall and a more ancient worldview and symbolism. Images of the labyrinth are flashed up to forge a subconscious link with the dancers as they spiral through the narrow streets of the town.
Children of Alice’s procession is unruly partly in its similar disregard for temporal convention, its disregard for direct continuity and fascination with the juxtaposition of seemingly disparate elements. These create subconscious connections which subtly rewire the brain – truly psychedelic music. It begins with drums, tambourines and birdsong again. These are soon processed into fluid, psyched-out patterns, however. Bells toll, but odd reverb is applied so that their attack is blunted, their directional provenance rendered oblique and nebulous. This is music which attempts to blur the rigid framework not just of time but also of space. Birdsongs are concreted, which doesn’t make them strange as much as emphasise and work with their inherent strangeness. Birdsong is best approximated through electronic means, since their soundworld often feels closely analogous to electronic music (just listen to the remarkable call of a bird of paradise). It’s no surprise that imitative birds such as starlings have found it so easy to add the sounds of mobile phones and car alarms to their repertoire.
The interjection of a laughing female voice hints at the licentious aspect of May Day revels, the lustiness which so vexed Puritan critics in the 16th and 17th centuries. The voice forms a direct connection with the birdsong which has preceded it, calls which are a mix of territorial assertion and mating cry. The ‘unruliness’ of May license brings the human world closer to that of nature, to the seasonal awakening it feels instinctively drawn towards. An opening door and the jingle of keys seems to indicate a passage into another time and place, another scene. A wavering oscillation sounds a vaguely futuristic alarm call, which could also be heard as the whooping and stridulation of frogs and insects. A trundling, springing rhythm creates a slightly comical, cartoonish sense of movement through a boggy landscape, with bubbling and burbling sounds suggesting a squelchy passage. The revving of a motorbike engine acts as punctuation, and perhaps also references The Owl Service. Its title music also used a mixture of instrumental and concrète sound and employed startling collisions of sonic materials – including a motorbike engine.
Children of Alice seem to incorporate, knowingly or not, all the elements of the Calendar Customs May compilation. Next in this extraordinarily condensed, multilayered work we hear piping sounds, the pastoral flute once more. It is subject to reverse masking and other manipulations, but it still bears its established associations. Two step drum beats once more mark out a procession, and the combination with the drawn-out, curving cries of electronic estuary birds (more meetings of human and avian worlds) suggests that we may be in the midst of the ‘Obby ‘Oss celebrations in Padstow, our senses synaesthetised by a combination of ale, crowd psychology, sunshine and repetitive music. An echoed cluster of xylophone notes perhaps marks a brief, refreshing shower, as well as providing another moment of transition. Glassy sounds resemble those produced by Les Sculptures Sonores for the 70s BBC children’s programme Picture Box. More childhood memories are stirred as a cheerfully creaking, ratcheting duo bring to mind the Froglets from The Clangers. Another jump cut and we are in the middle of a village festival, bass and drum patterns reminiscent of those found on Broadcast’s Tender Buttons LP creating an impression of bustling crowds. Car sirens, bikes and shouting voices bring us into the soundworld of the public information film – time for the Advisory Circle to intervene with an admonitory message, perhaps. There is another switch to an interior resonance, and the chaos dies down. What sounds like an amplified autoharp (of the kind Trish Keenan used to play during Broadcast gigs) is slowly strummed. Its upward glissando conjures warming flames in the fireplace of a village inn. A slowly tapped drum relaxes the rhythms of the day, winding down as evening progresses. And so to bed.
Sam McLoughlin’s I Want to Sing Like the Birds Sing, Not Worrying About Who Hears or What They Think is as good as its wordy wish. It begins with a shimmering, celestial synth drone, the clear air of a crisply blue-skied morning. Harmonium and pattered finger drums add their more earthbound voices before birdsong recordings are once more introduced. Sam then begins his duet, piping with untutored instinctiveness on a wooden flute. The sound becomes denser as more flutes are layered on top, until a joyfully cacophonous chorus has filled the spectrum. Chinking mug percussion is added, lending further urgency to this frenzied attempt at transformation, to enter a birdlike state of unconscious grace – to become the song. The drone drops out at some point, the early morning shimmer clarifying into day as the dawn chorus amasses more and more voices. The piping ceases to allow space for a firmly plucked zither arpeggio. It’s like a free jazz big band dropping out to make way for a featured soloist. John Coltrane’s Ascension, for example. The celestial drone returns and the manic piping builds up mass and momentum once more, swanee whistles adding a particularly antic note (free jazz swanee whistle, now there’s a thought). The recordings of birdsong carry on underneath, like a play along tutor. This is how it should be done. It sounds a hell of a lot of fun. Do try this at home.
Malcolm Benzie rounds things off in low-key fashion with Hawthorne. Birdsong recordings play in the background one more time (this not surprising for someone who plays in a band called Eagleowl). A low-fi drum machine sets up a relaxed rhythm over which bass and guitar gently sway. Benzie’s vocals, easing back in the mix, are pleasingly mellifluous, with a light Scottish inflection. The repeated refrain offers a descriptive paean to the hawthorn bloom, sung as if addressed to the flowering bushes themselves as the may is gathered in. It’s a morning song, soft and blurry with waking. A hymn of sorts. It all ends with the birds, a final fluted note pitch-shifted down until the sound is switched off. It’s a perfect way to end, to disperse the conference of birds and bid farewell to Merry May. But what a fine survey it has proved to be. What calendrical quadrant will the Folklore Tapes family alight on next, I wonder? What further curious customs and arcane observances will they uncover? We will have to wait and see.