Friday, June 21, 2019

Chanctonbury Rings

"Time had gone soft at the crossroads..." 

So begins Chanctonbury Rings, Justin Hopper's spoken word album, based on his recent book, The Old Weird Albion.  I have written before here about his reading voice, its American accent sounding 'neutrally classless, not immediately identifiable either with those who live and work on the land or those who own, walk over and contemplate it.'  An acknowledged influence on Chanctonbury Rings is 'the lost era of  poetry and music albums, like David Cain and Radiophonic Workshop's The Seasons', a strange record I discussed here a while back.  The narrator of The Seasons was poet Ronald Duncan, whose eerie delivery is partly what makes the record so unusual - 'when not aggressively melancholy, the register is madly affirmative'.  There is one track on Chanctonbury Rings on which Justin sounds urgent a little unhinged, like Captain Beefheart reading The Peregrine, but mostly his voice is so appealing that it draws you in and holds you, changing pace and emphasis according to whether he is remembering a walk or dramatising an uncanny experience.  The record ends not with words but with music, the story having concluded with a recollection of descending the hillside and seeing that 'the calendar had turned. It was summer.’

The music for Chanctonbury Rings was created by Sharron Kraus, who collaborated with Justin on readings when The Old Weird Albion appeared, and Jim Jupp, whose Belbury Poly project I first mentioned here more than twelve years ago.  An article this week on Caught by the River describes some examples: 
'The hallowed chords on ‘Layers’ and ‘Wanderer’ come from an open-tuned dulcimer, wherein Kraus strikes the instrument’s body like someone rapping a coffin lid.  Ghostly exhales and buzzy drones on ‘Breath’ were created by Kraus layering bamboo flute, vocal noises and percussion, with Jupp adding extra elements. The close-mic’d crackling from a box of dried leaves adds a hair-raising creepiness. ‘Bonny Breast Knot’ then conjures an impish galliard that high steps into a full country dance [...] Jupp describes the microKORG used by Kraus as a ‘wonderful and massively underrated little synth’. It conjures bestial riffs on ‘The Devil And St. Dunstan’ where Jupp adds Mellotron and tape echo feedback.'
I particularly like this track, 'The Devil and St. Dunstan', which tells the story behind Devil's Dyke, an extraordinary dry valley near the house where I grew up.

Trees above Devil's Dyke
Photographed by me in 2015

Today, the summer solstice, is the official launch date of Chanctonbury Rings.  According to a site devoted to Sussex archaeology and folklore, 'you can see the fairies dancing in the Ring on Midsummer Eve as well as UFO's flying overhead.'  It is also one of the special days when the Devil can be summoned by walking widdershins seven times round the ring.  I'll end here with a quote about this uncanny landscape from an interview Justin did with Gary Budden at the Learned Pig.

'Chanctonbury is one of the highest points in the downs, so it was always going to be important. In the Iron Age, all of the settlements were at the top of the downs; today they’re at the bottom. Chanctonbury will probably still be there when Brighton and Shoreham are under the ocean.  But beyond that, I do think that there are thin places. It’s a special place. I didn’t know anything about it the first time I went up there, and I have truly visceral memories of that first moment. I’ve never slept up there, but everyone I know who has has said they wouldn’t do it again. If you go up there, you can feel that there’s something special – and we can’t say exactly what it is.'

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