Wednesday, 6 December 2017

Folklore Tapes: The First Five Years

An overview originally uploaded for a 'advent calendar' release of a special 5 year mix in 2016.

FTV. Five years of Folklore Tapes. It feels odd writing it down, both because it feels like this motley collective has been around for a far greater span of time – they have certainly amassed an impressive body of work for a mere half decade; and because their art seeks to transcend the notion of time. Only Timelessness, as David Chatton Barker and Ian Humberstone’s flickering 8mm eyeflash trip through Dartmoor landscapes (and inscapes) expresses it. The Folklore Tapes folks are essentially British visionary romantics in the spiritual lineage of William Blake and Samuel Palmer, Paul Nash and Michael Powell, Arthur Machen and Derek Jarman. All explorers of the genius loci, the spirit of place inhabiting landscapes in which geology, history and myth (personal or universal) have become compressed into intermingling strata. These antecedents are monumental presences in an alternative underground current, often rendered invisible or given scant, disdainful regard within a cultural climate overwhelmingly favourable to realism, whether social or psychological. It’s significant that several are visual artists. The visual element of the Folklore Tapes world is hugely important. This incorporates the exquisite graphic design of David Chatton Barker, which has graced most of the releases; the idiosyncratic packaging (from bespoke boxes and brightly coloured cassette casings to envelopes imprinted with unique ink-stamps and hollowed out and rebound books); the handmade, decorated and reconfigured instruments which are art objects in themselves (rather like Harry Partch’s ensemble of cloud-chamber bowls, gourd trees and chromelodeons); and the performances in which film and projections play such an important part.

The temporal may be transcended, or its linearity looped and warped, but Folklore Tapes was initially more spatially specific. It all began down in Devon, in the somnolent cathedral city of Exeter. These were the days of Devon Folklore Tapes, and the first release, Two Witches, set the template. A study and aural invocation of two local conjuring women from the nineteenth century, Hannah Hemley from Hembury and Mariann Voaden, who had inhabited a rough, tumbledown cottage near Bratton Clovelly, north-west of the Moor. Bratton Clovelly (whose church boasts a magnifent Norman font set about with fire-tongued dragons, impassively chthonic giants’ heads and solar wheels) is not too far from the Lewtrenchard parish of the Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould, who recalled Mariann in his 1908 book Devon Characters and Strange Events. Both locales may prove fertile ground for future exploration by folklore tapes researchers. Two Witches was a collaboration between David Chatton Barker and Ian Humberstone, who continue to be the central HQ of Folklore Tapes operations to this day, the binary system around which various bodies have since orbited. The guiding ethos and essential aesthetic approach was in place from the very start; the exploration and poetic evocation of folklore and the folkloric spirit through research, notes, quotations, field explorations and recordings, visual artwork and music.

David and Ian called themselves researchers rather than musicians or artists, an appellation which somehow incorporated all of the above into one coherent and all-embracing practice. The placing of a cassette inside a hollowed out book was also significant. The contents were a way of ‘reading’ the stories of the two witches through an act of identification, an imaginative inhabitation of the witches’ world which translated research into the direct emotional affect of music. The Rev. Baring-Gould may have offered one conduit into this world (just as he had lent imaginative fuel to Bram Stoker, researching Dracula in the British Library, through his Book of Werewolves), but it is Theo Brown who has proved the tutelary spirit guiding the Folklore Tapes seekers, from the beginning and for always. Brown was an unorthodox folklorist, working outside the clubbish confines of academia and therefore scorned by many of its pompous proponents. She engaged directly with her subjects, travelling about Dartmoor in her caravan and getting to know the inhabitants of its villages personally. Her accounts are written in a poetic style, retaining the element of storytelling bewitchment and colourful detail essential to bringing folk tales and legends to vivid, compelling life.

When Ian and David eventually came to pay tribute to Theo in 2014 with their Theo Brown and the Folklore of Dartmoor collection, they did so with the care and reverence due to such a formative and continuing influence. In their notes, they liken her to Delia Derbyshire, Lotte Reiniger and Vera Chytilova, the Czech director of Daisies and Fruit of Paradise – all women touched by inspiration, passionate individualists who struggled to make their highly distinctive voices heard. The box housing the varied artefacts of this multi-media release was a treasure chest, tapes making way for 7 x 7” inch records (a magically symmetrical calculus presenting the vinyl medium itself as an occult artefact), each carrying a sound picture of a Dartmoor village or locale and its attendant legends or spirits etched into its grooves, otherworldly presences ready to be released into the room as sinister resonances through the trembling vibrations of the speaker cones (or directly into your head through your phones). A DVD of the film Only Timelessness was included, its celluloid record of expeditions onto the moor digitised but losing none of the elemental texture of fracture and frost cracking and the corroded earth colours of biological decay nurtured by burying the reels in the organic matter of the moor for a month (the influence of Stan Brakhage evident and openly acknowledged). Damage and erosion is re-imagined as alchemical transformation, geological time running like a fissure through the images of the present to create a dual vision, an abstracted landscape where the processes of millennia are inscribed upon the experience of the moment, resulting in a sense of numinous immanence inherent in every rock, tree and stream (the kind of feeling which Arthur Machen attempted to convey in his story Hill of Dreams).

This is the territory from which myth and legend, folklore and superstition is born, making wraithlike and evanescent contact with the human imagination, emerging from the protean moods of the local weather and the unfiltered white noise of the rushing river as much as from the chthonic bones of granite underlying the whole humpbacked topography, occasionally emerging as the gnarled, arthritic knuckles of the tors. And it’s the abstracted landscape and its inherent spirit, ancient and intensely of the everpresent now, which preoccupied romantic moderns like Paul Nash and Eric Ravilious. And Theo Brown too. Also contained within the treasure chest was a series of postcards reproducing the woodcuts which she created as illustrations for her books and publications. For she was an artist too, having trained at the Westminster School of Art in the 1930s – even more reason for her to be the guiding anima presiding over the ongoing Folklore Tapes quest. Of course, every treasure box needs a map, and one was duly presented here – a guide to finding the geographical locales over which the records layer uncanny atmospheres. Although once there, such inner soundscaping may prove unnecessary. The Genius Loci works its own magic. The green box lid is illustrated with a silhouette profile portrait of a youthful Theo Brown contained within a circle, as if it were intended for a lover’s locket. Her face is lined with the fine cracquelure of leaf-lined veins, fragile and fissile but in its verdure holding the promise of renewed life. It’s a superb illustration which amounts to a declaration of love, and a determination to keep Theo’s spirit and vitality alive. It is this continuity of spirit, I feel, which lies at the heart of the whole Folklore Tapes adventure.

After a year or so, the Devon diaspora began. Folklore folks lit out to triangulate the hidden topographies lying between Exeter and Manchester, Bristol and Edinburgh, London and the Shetlands, travelling and mapping new roads whilst continuing to unearth the old ways and the legends and lore which inhere within the amalgam of their centuried strata. And David and Ian picked up a ragtag band of fellow travellers along the way, some journeying for a prolonged period, others for a short stretch of the path. Here’s David Jaycock, weaving enchanted arabesques out of arcane guitar tunings as he would go on to do in his feted collaboration with Marry Waterson, the latest scion of the regal folk clan; and here’s Rob St John, visionary crooner of transported states and dream-infused landscapes, paying his respects to the Pendle witches on the 400th anniversary of their infamous trial; and spiritual father Andy Votel, fooling nobody behind his Wicker Man-citing Anworth Kirk nom de stylus, hymning and finding compassionate communion with lost Dartmoor soul Kitty Jay in a manner very different to Seth Lakeman on the second Devon Folklore Tapes release Graves; Magpahi (aka Alison Cooper) and Paper Dollhouse (Astrud Steehouder & Nina Bosnic) investigating rituals and practices in Devon folklore; Carl Turney and Brian Campbell taking off their surgical masks and emerging from the sinister psych Clinic to recreate a succession of calendrical customs; Sam McLoughlin (of Sam and the Plants renown) coaxing electronic sounds from unlikely places and embracing his dark persona as N. Racker; Mary Stark observing the turning wheel of the year and tuning in to the subtle shifts in its moods; The Blue Funz (Alex Borland and Daniel Potter) making merry hell and proving obligingly chameleonic to fit in with the atmosphere or requirements of the occasion, morphing at will into White, Yellow, Black, Gun Metal Grey and even, presumably for a particularly swanky do, Platinum Funz; and, of particular significance, the first post-Broadcast music created by James Cargill, in cahoots with old bandmate Roj Stevens and long-time friend, Ghost Box co-founder, graphic designer and Focus Group collagist Julian House. Their musique concrète narratives continue the direction started on the Broadcast and The Focus Group Investigate Witch Cults of the Radio Age LP. The name they have chosen for themselves, Children of Alice, pays homage to Trish Keenan, who loved Lewis Carroll’s book of nonsensical wisdom and in particularly the 1966 Jonathan Miller film, shot in gloriously psychedelic black and white. She is part of the Alice trio, her spirit inhabiting everything they do, and by extension she is also a member of the Folklore Tapes collective. There is no fixed present, only timelessness. She is there, always there.

The house Folklore Tapes musical style could be described as programmatic folk improv concrete psych soundscaping, although even such an unwieldy handle fails to cover all bases. Some concentrate on a few of these elements, others just one (there is an a capella folk tune on one of the Calendar Customs releases), whist the occasional brave soul attempts the whole shebang. Often the approach is more granular and pointillist, attention paid to the particles of sound, the suggestive noises which conjure up half-heard echoes, voices and animate scrabblings with no readily identifiable point of origin. Small sounds require concentrated listening on the part of performer and auditor, bringing artist and listener closer together. MEV (Musica Elettronica Viva) and Gruppo Nuova Consonanza (the Italian improv group which numbered Ennio Morricone amongst its ensemble members), with their real time improvisations, AMM with their favouring of small sounds and a tendency towards hushed quietude, and Hugh Davies with his homemade pocket ‘Shozyg’ musical devices all provide useful musical comparisons. But that’s only one aspect of the Folklore Tapes sound. Whilst they generally eschew rock moves, an occasional riff may break out and startle because of its very singularity. Ian Humberstone can certainly crank out the psyched-up guitar when the need arises, and make it sound surprisingly funky at the same time. And whilst this might not be the time and place to rock, there are plenty of sacred stones, and sounds ground and clacked from carefully selected pebbles and flints.

Writing is also an integral part of the FT project. Ian Humberstone’s treatise on Black Dog legends has been a long-treasured and extensively worked-upon endeavour, and gave birth to another treasure box of a release: Folklore Tapes Occultural Creatures Vol.1 – Black Dog Traditions of England. Its Rorschach hound splattered upon a gold embossed disc is an inspired bit of design, and the contents live up to its promise. Ian’s book is at the heart of it, and there are also spoken word interludes in the accompanying recording. The attention to detail in this work of art extends to the traditional inkpad print impressed upon the inside of the box lid, this time a pattern of clawed pawprints arrayed around a central, spiral-inscribed pad. The Black Dog Traditions box (or reliquary, as it is referred to within) is another central release in the Folklore Tapes canon, the realisation of a personal project (obsession?). Ian’s writing is wonderfully poetic and you can feel the presence of Theo Brown standing approvingly at his shoulder. The writing really comes to life when read out in performance. The black dog tales (and particularly the tale of the Barguest of Troller’s Gill) have been adapted into electrifying performance pieces, narration and in the moment musical soundscaping blending with intuitively congruent improvisational nous. The soft Scottish burr of Ian’s lulling reading voice works wonderfully to cast a spell over the entranced audience. Other writers have also been drawn into the fold, including your humble scribe, who has provided the notes to the four extant Calendar Customs releases (celebrating the ritual moments of the old year) and Bristol hauntologist and cultural polymath Richard Locksley-Hobson, who wrote about the eccentric folklorist and local ‘character’ Tatersall Wilkinson for the Lancashire Folklore Tapes release Memories of Hurstwood. And then there is the mysterious Barum Ware, a name which sounds like an old Dorset village centred on an ancient parish church and adjacent inn-house with beech-lined hillfort just beyond its bounds, but which in fact derives from the vases crafted in Barnstaple (once known as Barum) from Devon’s distinctive red clay. And M.Ware is indeed a vessel for jewelled, decadent prose weaving images redolent of Poe and Lovecraft, Beardsley and Harry Clarke. He has produced some illuminated and intoxicating sleeve notes and it is rumoured that his work can also be found in a fabled journal, whose possible provenance is whispered abroad by a favoured few.

The inspired amateurism of Theo Brown makes itself felt in the instrumentation with which the Folklore Tapes musical researchers draw their sound pictures. These are charity shop orchestras and boot fair chamber groups. Amplified thumb pianos are constructed from hacksaw blades, player pianos reconditioned with bellchimes bolted on, home-strung wire zithers mic’d up for radiophonic ‘terror zings’, battery operated fans used as whirring propellor-plectra, paint pots and other household hardware pattered upon and bicycle wheels set into perpetual motion by attaching them to turntables and run with a lightly held stick for bespoke plinking thruuungs. Harmoniums, warmly humming portable analogue synths, bells, accordions, fiddles and even guitars are even employed. It makes for a fascinating performative spectacle, audiences craning forward to try and work out exactly how these sounds are being produced by these folk intently crouched over their floor-scattered devices as if they were cooking a pan of beans over a campfire. No ELP sized fleet of articulated lorries is required for this nonetheless rich and varied orchestra. It all fits quite comfortably in a hired transit van.

The budget ingenuity and of necessity-birthed invention (of necessity and, I suspect, also of moral choice) extends to the garage and garden shed multimedia contraptions which are employed for performances in art galleries, witchcraft museums and riverside festival tents. All have a whiff of Heath-Robinsonesque absurdity, but it’s a wonderful absurdity, a discovery of utility in the throwaway (without any Womble preciousness). Feathers, leaves and branches are scattered about and decked around pillars and posts. The husk of a fan becomes a mandala upon which a sheep’s skull is reverently placed (decorated with curved twigs and soon fleshed with candle wax). An antediluvian smoke machine wheezes thickenting seafogs out of its battered frame, filling tent spaces until radiant shafts of coloured light seem to take on an almost physical form. Sheets are hung up and become screens for the outline projection of ferns, dried flowers and seedheads. And centrally, an old overhead projector is switched into heat-producing action (the heat an occasional boon in some chilly environs). A functional device once associated with lectures and lessons, the rigorous and formalised decanting of fixed knowledge, becomes an anarchic and defiantly hands-on artistic tool (and one in which the prestidigitating hand of the artist is made transparently apparent). Transparencies are picked up and thrust under the light before being whipped away and replaced with another lying close to hand; a rapid transference performed with semi-improvised urgency. It’s a reincarnation of the magic lantern shows of the pre-cinematic age using 70s technology. Bill Douglas would have approved. Coloured inks are occasionally flicked and smeared across the transparencies with violent action art gestures. Inky fingers are then wiped across light-dazzled brows, leaving blue eye shadows and scarlet scars. This shamanic face-painting lends the illuminated operators a look of wild intensity, smudged with coloured axle grease from the mechanical toil of fixing immortal engines and sparking soft machines. These are the labours of the Folklore Tapes collective. It’s a tough job, but someone’s got to do it. And these boys and girls now have a good many years of experience underneath their belts. Long may the merry parade continue. Here’s to the next five years of research into the timeless.

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