We were at St Luke's on Sunday, the converted church near the Barbican which we last visited to hear Terje Isungset play his ice instruments. This time we had come to see Richard Skelton and the Elysian Quartet perform music they devised together at Aldeburgh earlier this year. I have described Richard's landscape-inspired music here several times before; live performance with a classical string quartet is a new departure for him. The Elysian Quartet have a pretty cool CV, having performed Stockhausen's Helicopter Quartet and worked with people like Meredith Monk, Simon Fisher Turner and Damo Suzuki. What I have included below are the programme notes describing the three sections of the St Luke's concert, along with a few brief reflections on what we heard.
EA performed by Richard Skelton and the Elysian Quartet: Rivers have occupied much of Richard’s recorded work, including the fledgeling moorland streams of ‘Landings’, the narrow, quick Cumbrian rills and becks of ‘Limnology’, and the tidal-bore of ‘From Which the River Rises’. ‘EA’ continues this fascination with a study of Suffolk’s river Alde as it slows and widens past Snape on the final, estuarine portion of its journey to the sea. It is perhaps his most delicate and lyrical invocation of a waterway. The word ‘ea’ itself is Anglo-Saxon for ‘river’.Everyone I talked to afterwards found this slow, meditative piece particularly moving. The string quartet, with Richard sitting beside them bowing an adapted bouzouki, gradually brought the music to an emotional pitch and gently let it fall again, before taking its themes up once more and finally bringing everything quietly to a close. The riverine wash of the strings was punctuated by some insistent sounds like the cries of birds that at first I assumed were on a loop, until I realised everything was being produced by the five acoustic instruments. As the references to his earlier work above suggest, Ea felt close in sound and feel to the music in Landings and other more recent releases. The next piece was very different.
Above / Below performed by the Elysian Quartet: During his residency at Snape last December, Richard spent much of his time wandering along the Alde and through the nearby marshland towards Iken. Over the ensuing winter he began writing a textual score based on the names of birds and plants he observed in-situ, found referenced in public information signage, or discovered during later research by consulting books such as W.M. Hind’s The Flora of Suffolk . The Elysian Quartet selected eight species from the score and began working with Richard to develop a musical vocabulary that engages with them, hinting at the diversity of plant and avian life in Snape and its surroundings. The result is a series of miniatures, shifting focus from one species to another, from the earth-bound and air-borne – a sensitively observed journey through a specific environment. The species they chose were: common sorrel, curlew, heron, nettle, oystercatcher, redshank, yarrow and yellow flag.
For Above / Below Richard left the stage and looked on as the quartet interpreted his score, beginning with an irregular patter of notes from one of the violins that sounded like rain but was, I think, an interpretation of the motion of an oystercatcher. As the music progressed it was clear they were avoiding anything too obvious like the simple imitation of bird calls or other natural sounds. Instead the four instruments, plucked and bowed, sometimes alone and sometimes in concert, were channelling elements of the Suffolk landscape in more subtle ways. There is no recording available to listen again and try to identify any species, so the music will become a memory, like the recollections of impressions of a walk by the reed beds of the Alde.
Mimesis performed by Richard Skelton and the Elysian Quartet: ‘Mimesis’ is informed by Richard’s experience of the intense tidal surges of early December 2013, during which Snape Maltings itself was nearly inundated. Intimations of this flood-violence are found in the following public information sign along the marshland boardwalk: ‘The River Fights Back: In places along the banks of the river Alde, land was once claimed from the river to create farmland. Defences were built to protect this claimed land. Over the centuries the river has broken through again. The remnants of the defences are still visible, stretching out into the estuary.’ During his stay in December, Richard produced a collection of charcoal drawings, the majority of which seemed to describe the same river-like form undergoing a series of contortions. The ensemble have used these images as a kind of graphic score, producing a new work which evokes a river undergoing violent transformation.Richard returned to the stage for this final piece. By now the light outside was fading but still strong enough to illuminate the natural backdrop of leaves, visible through the large church windows behind the musicians and stirring softly in the wind. Mimesis started softly too, but grew louder and more turbulent, becoming a roiling torrent that had the kind of surging force that reminded me of seeing Godspeed back in the day. Richard's bow took some punishment and towards the end there were fine broken hairs curling from it, illuminated in the stage lights like electrical filaments or the spiralling seed heads of rose bay willow herb. It was over all too soon: the music drained away, the musicians left the stage and we all remained in silence for a minute, until the lights came on and it was time to make our way out through the darkening churchyard.
Postscript: After the concert it was good to meet Hannah Devereux, whose ink drawings feature in the second edition of Lintel, an art journal published by the Corbel Stone Press which Richard runs with his partner Autumn. They are purely abstract but suggestive of fine rock strata or expanses of calm water stretching away to the horizon.