Sunday, March 29, 2015

The Black Earth

Last Sunday we were at the Sir John Soane church at Bethnal Green for the third and final performance of 'Landscape', three sets of new music by Rob St. John, Laura Cannell and Richard Skelton.  The last time I was at the church, Rob played some songs on his guitar; this time he came with two collaborators, a synth, a screen and an overhead projector.  The music and visuals - shadows of water, leaves, and disintegrating tape - were from his new record, Surface Tension.  For this he has drawn sounds from the dirty water of our local river, the Lea, as the Thames21 website explains:
'Tape loops of the field recordings as well as new music composed for the project were soaked in tubs of polluted Lea river water – duckweed, decaying leaves, oil slicks and all – for a month. When replayed, the loops slowly disintegrated, the river etching new channels and tributaries onto the tape, which slowly peeled off and faded away. The negatives of the film photographs were given the same river water treatment, with their prints developing odd new microscopic marks, layers and flares.'

Whilst Rob's music contains physical traces of the landscape, Laura Cannell reworks fragments of early music - Hildegard of Bingen, The Cantigas de Santa Maria, Henry VIII.  Her album, Quick Sparrows Over The Black Earth, is named after one of those extraordinary condensed poems in Anne Carson's If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho.  She plays two recorders simultaneously and reconfigures her bow so that it is impossible to lift it from the violin strings, creating a continuous drone.  One of the recorder tunes, she explained, echoes "the sound of deer barking in the woods by my house" - it was a lonely sound, floating out in the cold air under the church's high bare ceiling.  In her sleevenotes for Quick Sparrows Over The Black Earth she writes about the experience of recording the music in a different church, standing isolated in the Norfolk landscape:
'The cold winter daylight
pouring through clear leaded windows

The wind shifts against the stone walls
It bangs on the ancient oak door

Like the clang of a distant wherry
over the marshes...' 

Finally Richard Skelton and Autumn Richardson took to the stage to perform the forthcoming album Belated Movements for an Unsanctioned Exhumation August 1st 1984.  They were dressed, as Luke Turner says in his review in The Quietus, 'for a mildly blustery day on the tops, with sturdy jackets and solid knitwear'.  We still had our coats on in the audience - there was something chilling about this dark church, with its candle-lit paintings of Christ suffering on the way to the crucifixion.  Lindow Man, the bog body exhumed in 1984 may have died at the same time; the British Museum website dates his horrific ritual killing to between 2 BC and AD 119.  It would be a very different experience to the concert I wrote about here last year, where Richard played with the Elysian Quartet in another church, St Lukes, against a backdrop of leaves.  ‘We will begin with a collective symbolic descent into the soil',  Richard had said in an interview a week earlier, 'to the fox’s “earth beneath earth”, from where we’ll summon “Canis, Lynx, Ursus” and return, with great violence, to the surface.’
Listening to the first piece, ‘Petition for Reinterment’, it was apparent that the music would change very slowly.  As Richard describes it, this string elegy 'gently begins to disintegrate, to distend and rot, as if the music itself is being subsumed in soil and subjected to the natural cycles of decay and renewal. It is interesting to note that, whilst the skin of bog-bodies is often very well preserved, the bones undergo a process of decalcification - they literally dissolve from within.'  Eventually the music subsided with a kind of tolling sound and then merged into the second movement which I have embedded below, ‘To Your Fox-Skin Chorus’.  This refers to the arm covering on Lindow Man (the title is from an Edmund Gosse poem 'Old and New', contrasting BC and AD).  Once this too had receded there was a final slow build of intense, unsettling sound, with an insistent skewed keyboard pattern under the churning treated noise of a disinterred violin.  This last movement represents a 'downward delving to the bones of animals long made extinct in England by humans: the wolf, lynx and bear - animals that haunt the popular imagination.'  How long this lasted it would be hard to say.  Then, suddenly, the gale of sound abated and the last remnants of music faded gradually back into the ground.

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