4 Midsummer Eve Rants, 20/06/2017 Alnham

Notes from walking the four rants

I have made a previous post from this – here is my basic set of notes about my conduct of the Rants.

Up at 04:30, on site just before 06:00 and walking by about 06:20. Initial dismay whilst changing into my boots as I am being bitten by tiny black droplets of insects and I have no repellent. On with a beanie hat to give a physical barrier. Connect my kit, lock the car and set off only to find I have a marked creak from my rucksack. Unable to make it stop I walk back to the car and swap to a smaller, frameless rucksack that I have tried out the weekend before. It is slightly less comfy but silent.

The first leg is the Salter’s Way almost to the start of the open-access land then a hop over the fence to the ditch at the edge of the crop field. The path is heavily overgrown and wet with dew. I am, from the knees down, sodden.
There is a view over the upper Aln valley down to the Simonsides and across towards the coast. A gentle breeze and overcast sky (although this will clear). Pretty quiet with occasional birdsong and sheep.

uphill, crop field, hawthorn, dew-wet grass, drystone wall

Rant 1 Step 1
Very still. The wind barely moving the grass heads as they poke up amongst the oats. Distant chaffinch, wood pigeon – coo coo cooo coo coo – trala lah trallooah. The conversation of the sheep – naaah naaah. Occasional passing of a fly. Two hawthorn hedges, several plantations, down to the valley, rolling fields. Distant wood, bottom edges of the trees shaved off, grazed away, a low-level ceiling before the roof of the trees takes over. Drystone wall, capstones cemented in place, dark grey of the stone obliterated by the pale green-grey of the lichen, occasionally yellow.

Rant 1 Step 1 to Step 2 – along the edge of farm and fell then up to the edge of a conifer plantation. The way passes along a line of very old mature trees – Oak, Hornbeam – presumably marking an old way on the Prendwick estate. The plantation is part of the Prendwick estate shooting activities, heavily fenced – head high plus electric fencing. Dark interiors, surprisingly few gamebirds in evidence. Here the view is lower with other plantations – Four Doors, Churchbrae, Southbraes. The main birds calling and flying are wood pigeons.

Rant 1 Step 2

conifers, fenced plantation, game bird pens, valley burn
Long view across to low cloud on the hills. Cooing of the wood pigeon. Low thrum of the wind through pines. Distant wakening of the farm. Quiet call of the crows.

Rant 1 Step 2 to Step 3, the single longest step down to the south of “the island”. Back down the slope and over the Prendwick Burn, before the rough pasture, slow climb to the Salter’s Road. Down the hill to the site of the mediaeval village and east to the road junction. Crossing directly over the road and then wading the nascent Aln. The field is running with ewes and their lambs, lots of bleating as they stop/start run back and forth. The track goes up a slow gentle hill through two gates and a stockyard. Further up the hill three hares run from the path into the field and disappear over a low rise. Carrying on there is a gate in the wall and then a sharp left turn to start tracing the edge of the large crop field. Skylarks are flying in and out of the crop; one is moving ahead of me sequentially perching on fence posts before it finally leaves. At least two are singing; small dark jewels suspended in the sky by the thread of their song. At the junction with the track the way is to the right and along for about 400 m before moving to the site in the field to the south.

Rant 1 Step 3 
water trough, skylarks, crops, tyre lanes, distant road

Rant 1 Step 3 to Step 4 – I walk down the hill, through the gate at the bottom of the Hawthorne hedge and on through the buildings Scrainwood Farm. Walking into the field I follow the tire tracks which are symmetrically etched across the field until I reach the next recording site. Here land is lower; I have crossed the watershed between the Aln and the Coquet, the fields are full of crops, the woods are full of thrushes singing.

Rant 1 Step 4 

thrush song, solid wheat, farm, road, fence

Quiet rustle of the heads of the wheat as they rock in unison in the wind. The monotonous cooing of the collared doves. Distant blackbird demonstrating flutey song. Background hum of insects, a low drone.

Rant 1 Step 4 to Rant 2 Step 1. With rant one complete the way now goes north along the road. The next site is in the middle of a crop field and inaccessible. Whilst I record at the nearest point I will not use the recording.

roadside, crop, house, swallows

Rant 2 Step 1

Rant 2 Step 1 to Step 2. Rant two continues back at the Salters Road, so the way is along the road and then taking a shortcut which goes directly through the site of the remains of Alnham Castle. Stepping across the river Aln and over the wall I walk back up the Salter’s way to the edge of the moorland, turn to the north-east and the next site is amongst the trees of the ancient Avenue.

Rant 2 Step 2
shelter, old trees, fence, edge

Rant 2 Step 2 to Step 3 – Turning back on myself I retrace my steps towards the top the Salter’s Road. This time I continue on and go over the top of the hill descending towards the valley of a stream that will eventually flow into the Scrainwood burn. My destination is 300 m into the field that contains a herd of cows with their calves, still small, and a single Charolaise bull. He shows no interest in me and the heifers have moved their calves away and stand at a safe distance watching me. I’m standing in the middle the blog and have made sure that move slowly, I know where my nearest escape routes are should either the heifers or the bull become overly interested.

Rant 2 Step 3

bog, slow, hill, larks
Freshening wind cooling against the exertions of the walk. Terratorial skylarks suspended by the thread of their song. Anxious heifers shepherding their calves around the field keeping them away from me. I make sure to move slowly so that I don’t startle them. They begin to feed again after I leave. The large bull stays on the ridge, utterly disinterested. More intent on keeping up with the small group of heifers than he is engaging with me.

Rant 2 Step 3 to Step 4. I climb out of the field and retrace my steps to the top of the Salters Road and then down the hill once more. The final site for Rant Two is back at the bottom of the island. In fact it is on the southern limit. The way takes me back over the site of the castle, onto the road, across the watershed once more and down to Scrainwood farm going southeast at Scrainwood and down a track following the path of the Scrainwood Burn I reach a point close to the site which is inaccessible in a field of flax.
(I record as close as I can. The recorder battery goes flat and I have to return to the car and come back with a fresh supply of batteries – 2 ½ miles I didn’t need to walk.)

Rant 2 Step 4

flax, gate, dense grown, river valley

Rant 2 Step 4 to Rant 3 Step 1. This start for Rant 3 is very close – through the gate up to a gap in the hawthorn hedge where I follow a vague track through the shrubbery and stand on the soil of the field.

Rant 3 Step 1
hawthorn hedge, scrainwood farm, crop cover, partridge

The umbels of cow parsley starting to rise and spread above the nettles; sweet cicely going over. Distant crows. The fluctuating, undulating hum of insect pollinators as they go about their work.

Rant 3 Step 1 to Rant 3 Step 2 – up by Castle Hill and so the walk goes back through the farm, then follows the burn up to Hazleton Rig, through Hazleton rig Plantation across to Castle Hill and on into a hay meadow to the north east. The plantation is cool and quiet; sound is dampened by the close pine trees and the moist earth. I have to pick my way through an obstructed track for the second half the plantation walk.

Rant 3 Step 2
grass meadow, clover, sheep, mowing hay

Rant 3 Step 3 is back over the Prendwick Burn. I can cross country walk through the gap between Pennylaw’s South and Pennylaw’s North plantations to the top of the Salters Road. I retrace my steps along the ancient line of trees, cross the Prendwick burn and walked diagonally over the field to the edge of the plantation.

Rant 3 Step 3
plantation, pheasant, wood pigeon, close trees

Rant 3 Step 4 is back by the site of the ancient mediaeval village so I am once again retracing my steps to the top of the Salters Road down the hill. Turning right over the cattle grid to the roadside site. Another herd of cattle is loose in the field and again they move slowly away from me.

Rant 3 Step 4
downhill, road, cows, stream

Rant 4 – the way is straight up the hill, ignoring the road, heading for Castle Hill. Through the gate and across the field I reach the site.

Rant 4 Step 1
uphill, hairpin bends, ringing gate

Rant 4 Step 2 is in the middle of a field close to Prendwick Farm. I have not been able to get a view of this field and so don’t know if it will be a crop field and inaccessible to me. I take the slightly easier route along the road and get to the bottom of the field at the east end of Southbraes Plantation. It is a pasture field with flocks of shorn sheep and about 30 cows. I walk up the field to the site at the north end of it.

Rant 4 Step 2
grass, shearing, sheep, cows, avenue

Rant 4 Step 2 to Step 3 – The remaining two sites are very close together and back towards Castle Hill. From where I am the quickest route is north to a track that runs through the Prendwick Estate at the right angle bend I carry straight on and walk the southern margin of a wheat field to get back onto the Salter’s Road. From here I walk up to the top of Pennylaws South Plantation and then climb the wall to walk the rough pasture to the site to the west of Pennylaws North Plantation.

Rant 4 Step 3
rough pasture, trees

To reach the final site I skirt the top of Pennylaws North Plantation and walk towards the wall that is the west boundary of the Salter’s Road. The site is at the same level as the very first site but on rough pasture the site is easy to find.

Rant 4 Step 4
wall, hawthorn, boulder

I climbed the wall, step onto the Salters Road and for the last time walk down the hill.

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4 Island Reels at Sound+Environment, University of Hull, July 1st 2017

I was delighted to have a piece of work selected through peer review for the international Sound+Environment 2017 Conference at the University of Hull as part of Hull’s tenure as UK City of Culture.  These are my reflections on the overall experience.

Location: 4 Island Reels was installed in Ensemble Room 2. It was a good room, a decent size and good acoustic properties.  It took an hour to install it with two assistants and 30 minutes to take down.

Technicalities: The set up was a centrally placed table with the laptop and soundcard and four outward facing speakers set off from the tables’ corners.  Outward facing speakers, denying a listener a single spot to listen was an unusual set up, and one that seemed to confuse some listeners.

The work lasted 20 minutes and ran three times each hour on a continuous loop.  In general, it ran OK but there is a problem with something in the setup causing momentary drop out of the sound producing an intrusive ‘click’ (I am looking into what causes this; possibly buffering).

Aesthetics: The piece worked, and looked and sounded, as I wished it to.

On reflection, the place of walking in the method and the walk (and thus sense of movement) is not sufficiently apparent and I will seek to change this in any subsequent works using the same method.  However, some of the decisions about the balance of the various parts was driven by the organisers requirement of a shorter (15-20 minute) piece.  My ideal installation of this piece would be quite a bit longer.

Attendance and audience engagement with the piece: Twenty five members of the conference came through the room, plus five of the student helpers who were keen to hear the work.  This was a disappointingly low number given that there were about 120 people registered at the conference.  A major reason was that the work was scheduled for Saturday and in the morning there were parallel paper sessions and the afternoon was given over to works in Hull city centre and so, once the papers finished, most people left the venue without coming to the installations.

Of those who came to listen most stayed for about half the piece.  Four people stayed for the whole work. I don’t know how many people ‘got’ the underlying idea of the piece; most people took a copy of the concertina-fold booklet; a few people read the poems.  Everyone who offered a view was positive about the work.

I didn’t get a sense that lots of people were moving from speaker to speaker listening for differences or similarities.  However, people did have to walk around the room which was the idea behind the setup.

A couple of conversations with people about the piece prompted some new ideas for things I could do.

Overall it was a good experience.

Sound+Environment 2017, University of Hull

A four-day conference of sound incorporating the overlap between art and science.  The format was three parallel paper sessions in the morning and afternoon, lunchtime and evening concerts and installations running from 11.00 to 19.00.  Keynote sessions were given by Chris Watson and Leah Barclay.

Over four days and multiple sessions and works attended, the memorable works for me were:

Dave Burraston’s Rainwire (processed) – recorded from contact microphones on long cables and installed as a series of seven different loops the sound was unpredictable and absorbing.

Jez Riley-French’s Teleferica work – contact microphone recordings from long teleferica cables in Italy was a tour de force for durational recording and selective presentation.  It was surprising to be told that the recordings had not been processed in any way.

Annie Mahtani’s performance of Aeolian, an evocative wind based piece recorded in the College Valley in Northumberland.

Rob Mackay’s Equanimity, mixing environmental sounds and clarinet was one of the successful mergings of sounds and music.

Overall, an enjoyable and stimulating conference.

4 Midsummer’s Eve Rants

Building on the slowly growing series of Cageian pieces I have just completed a set 4 walks based on the Island of Alnham.  This mythical island in mid Northumberland is based around a 13th century church and contains a peel tower, the site of an old castle and an ancient hill fort; it is also marked by the rising of the River Aln and the watershed of the rivers Aln and Coquet.

Having identified 16 locations across the island and grouped them into four sets of four-step rants I recorded the sequential walk between the locations as well as recording at each of them.  Starting at just after six in the morning of June 20th I was walking for 12 hours, over 19 miles, and up a total climb of 3200ft.  The three local farmers had kindly agreed that I could access their lands but even so there were two sites I could only get to within 400m of as they were in the middle of crop fields.

This is the third such series of walks that I have now done – the first was walking on Fair isle (https://mpefairislereels.wordpress.com) and the second was across the whole of Northumberland.  The Northumberland walks involving a lot of driving between sites and being back on foot felt both good and important and as a consequence (and unlike the Fair Isle work) the walking will become a major focus of the subsequent performance piece.

I have text to work with alongside the sound recordings and will need to explore how to reflect the two sites I couldn’t get to – silence is my current thought.  Still, this will all need to evolve over the next few months as I work my way into the recordings.

Big Ears 2017: A Great Music Festival

A second visit to Big Ears and hugely enjoyable it was. Back in Knoxville TN the venues were as warm and welcoming as before.  This post is my thoughts about what I listened to and the reflections triggered by this – a process that continues.

Thursday 23rd March

Nief Norf: Pauline Oliveros’ ‘Single Stroke Roll Meditation’ and Michael Gordon’s ‘Timber’ at The Mill and Mine.

Single Stroke Roll Meditation’ was a quiet start to crescendo to silence work on two cymbals, one wheel hub, one large cow bell and two other instruments that I never saw.  Spaced around the perimeter of a room full of a standing audience, the six musicians must have found it hard to stay in touch.  A long slow build of the tones across the six players, varied slightly in intensity, built from silence, gradually peaked and then slowly ebbed away.  Were I to experience this piece again I would walk around the musicians (here the size of the audience discouraged this).

Timber’ was played on six pieces of wood arranged as a hexagon in the middle of the room.  This was a durational piece in which the musicians slowly exchanged rhythms and tomes across a multitude of variations.  The range of tones, resonances and layering of sounds from six pieces of wood was extraordinary and the young sextet played this physically demanding piece over about an hour.  It was mesmeric with its slowly cycling sound and it was never clear where in the piece we were so there was also a feeling of being lost in the music.

Both pieces rewarded close (deep) listening.

Matana Roberts at The Square Room

A saxophone lament mixed with vocals, all recorded and looped.  The intimate venue helped the work with the almost physical presence of the saxophones tones within the room.  The accompanying collages video played a rapidly cycling selection of black and white, low resolution images that were a mix of random marks and scenes from black Americans’ lives in the early 20th century.

Reflections

Each of the pieces produced their sonic complexity by layering and repetition of sound.

Without any signposting Timber became a bit of an endurance work; there is merit in letting the audience know how long a work is likely to last.

 

Friday 24th March

Maya Beiser at The Mill and Mine

Experimental cellist.  The accompanying video piece for one work failed to appear.

Matmos perform Robert Ashley’s ‘Perfect Lives (Private Parts) at The Tennessee Theatre

Spoken opera with rhythm and music.  A surprising amount of activity and a great ‘lead speaker’ – animated of face and hand. Supported by two female chorus, and electronic percussion plus piano bass cello violin and reeds.  A video played on a screen at the back of the stage linking into the text and offering some further clues to interpretation.

Frederic Rzewski (The People United Will Never Be Defeated) at The Mill & Mine

An hour or so, a sprawling, meandering piano work that starts and (almost) ends in the famous song.

Claire Chase at The Standard

Flautist with a touch of Kate Bush.

Stale Storlokken & Arve Henriksen at Church Street United Methodist Church

Mournful organ and trumpet set off magnificently in the huge baptist church.  The music was experienced via the building.

Alvin Curran at The Square Room

A ‘prepared’ electric piano alongside a concert baby-grand.  At first there seemed no obvious structure and the apparent electronic cacophony was confusing, accentuated by Alvin Curran’s playing style which looked like he was getting electric shocks from the keyboard.  However, the emerging similarities between what was played on piano and what was played on keyboard became fascinating.  Ended with a few blows of a goat’s horn that he had pulled across the piano strings.

Carla Bley, Steve Swallow & Andy Sheppard at The Bijou Theatre

More familiar territory.  A relatively brief set and one that felt slightly ‘tame’ by comparison to much that had gone before.  I was startled by Carla Bley’s physical frailty (she is now 80) and this then became the lens through which I viewed the set.

Reflections

The combination of word and music in Robert Ashley/Matmos was very powerful and there may be some ideas that I can take from this when thinking about my sound works.

Both Rzewski and Matmos demonstrated the performance of slowly evolving durational works.

Storlokken/Henriksen was the best (most obvious) example of hearing the music via the space.

 

Saturday 25th

Lisa Moore at The Mill & Mine

Performing in the round at The Mill & Mine the Australian born ‘queen of avant-garde piano’ played a one hour set of works by Glass, Stockhausen and Luther Adams.  This was an absorbing short recital.

Meredith Monk & Vocal Ensemble: The Soul’s Messenger at The Bijou Theatre

Meredith Monk plus two other female vocalists (one also a pianist) and a male reeds player made up the ensemble.  Monk was performing pieces from her back catalogue including from Atlas, Mercy and Dolmen Music.  This was the performance I had come to Knoxville to hear and it didn’t disappoint.  Meredith Monk was fantastic and I can safely say that I have never heard/seen anything like this before.  The sound plus the intense presence and physicality of Monk as a dancer was breathtaking.  The scale of what she has been doing for 50 years is awesome.  The sheer bravado of the route she has followed is inspiring.  The voice as sound – I find this much more interesting than the voice in song.

Colin Stetson ‘Sorrow’: A Reimagining of Gorecki’s 3rd Symphony at The Mill & Mine

I took against this from an ill-defined but early point in the performance.  The programme notes identified this as a work performed by a 10 piece ensemble that included a rock drummer and an indie-rock violinist to which was added electric lead and bass guitars.  So, it was not surprising that it was loud – but this performance was over amplified to the point of distortion (the sections with the cello and violin alone were too loud, and everything else was in step with this).  The orchestral version makes its impact with controlled clarity of sound (particularly voice and strings) and this rock band sound mush seems rather ‘obvious’ – a bit like shouting “this is emotive ‘cos it is loud” – the trap of the film score.

Gavin Bryars Ensemble at St John’s Cathedral

A quick trip into the cathedral for three pieces by Gavin Bryars ensemble – not really enough to get a good feel.

Frode Haltli: ‘The Border Woods’ (featuring Emelia Amper on nychelharpa) at The Knoxville Museum of Art

The ensemble was Frode Haltli with two percussionists and Emelia Amper.  Having expected a solo accordion the size of the set up was a surprise with cymbals and wine glasses at either end of the auditorium and a central strip of two large xylophones and a central percussion set of wood blocks/boxes.  The performance was a one hour work loosely based on traditional Scandinavian tunes that moved through various stages of definition (in terms of melody) in the form of a musical conversation between the accordion and the nychelharpa both punctuated and underpinned by the percussion.

Reflections

Meredith Monks performance re-awoke thoughts from the sound/words transcription workshop – the notion that sound could be transcribed and re-vocalised.  Plus larger message from seeing Monk was that what may appear well beyond mainstream is worth pursuing as long as it interests – forget being popular.

From Gavin Stetson I take a particular manifestation of the idea that ‘less is more’ – here I am looking for my use of silence and quiet and take this as a warning about the seductive illusion that amplitude can in some way replace content.

 

Sunday 26th

The Magnetic Fields ‘Fifty Song Memoir’ (part 2) (Stephen Merritt) at The Tennessee Theatre

A song a year for his 50 years. We lasted three years then left.

Gavin Bryars Ensemble: ‘Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet’ at The Mill & Mine

A song sung by a vagrant, recorded by Bryars and used as the basis for the piece. A long, slow increase in volume, always of the same accompanying refrain, then a slow fade away. The Ensemble was about a dozen various string instruments.

Oliver Coates at The Mill & Mine

A recital by a young English cellist.

Jace Clayton presents ‘Julius Eastman Memorial Dinner’ at The Bijou Theatre

A reworking and presentation of work by Julius Eastman.  Two pianists played Eastman work(s?) whilst Jace Clayton recorded and re-played them. Very fast, frenetic rhythms.

Deathprod at The Tennessee Theatre

Tissue vibrating ambient drone. Lasted five minutes then left.

Gavin Bryars Ensemble: The Sinking of The Titanic at The Tennessee Theatre

Similar idea to today’s earlier piece (with which it is broadly contemporaneous).  This work was combined with the turntable/synthesiser work of Philip Jeck and accompanied a screening by Bill Morrison.  Again a slow build then fall away.  Philip Jeck’s turntables added to the piece.

Reflections

Not all ideas are appealing, but most ideas will find someone who is prepared to engage with them.  Slow pace of change can be very effective.

Repetition can be very effective; after a while it can become the main point of a work.