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In Extremis

Nature Eclipses Culture: An Interview With Richard Skelton
Joseph Burnett , March 12th, 2014 08:25

Richard Skelton's timeless and elemental music, both solo and in duo *AR, draws its inspiration from the rhythms of the natural world and the remote landscapes of the UK and Ireland. Ahead of performances at Aldeburgh's Faster Than Sound and the North East's AV Festival, he speaks to Joseph Burnett about place, poetry and the glacial evolution of his musical practice

Richard Skelton distills music that reflects both landscapes and the human heart. For many years, he has been exploring the countrysides of Britain and Ireland, pausing when inspiration takes him to record aching, heart-rending string drones in a manner that is as intuitive as it is arresting. His Landings album, initially self-released but later delivered to the wider world via a 2009 reissue on Type, revealed an musician whose musical explorations of the wild landscapes of Britain’s north-west somehow resonated with deep-felt emotions inherent in every man or woman listening to them. With his wife Autumn Richardson, Skelton later formed *AR, enmeshing her beguiling, exquisite wordless vocals with melancholic guitar and string drones to elevate the aura of Landings to new heights - most recently on their latest *AR album, Succession. The Quietus caught up with Skelton via e-mail to discuss his unique relationship with landscapes, the emotional impact of his music and how *AR differs from his previous work.

You are perhaps best known as a musician, but are also a writer and - if this is the correct term - printer. How would you define yourself?

Richard Skelton: I make music, but don't think of myself as a musician; I write, but don't think of myself as a writer. This is possibly because I haven't followed the conventional path of 'formal study' to either of those professions, and therefore don't conform to the stereotype. I don't consider this a deficiency, in fact, for myself, I would consider self-study the only path to personal discovery. Nevertheless, definitions are useful. On my last tax-return, I think I put 'publisher', as I run a small press with my wife. Most of our output is our own work; words, music, pictures, but in 2013 we began to publish the work of others for the first time. It feels good to champion the work of others...

How did you come to form *AR?

RS: I met Autumn in 2008. We discovered a shared love of poetry, music and landscape. Given these sympathies, it was perhaps inevitable that we would end up working together. We initially collaborated in 2009 on a collection of place-poetry entitled 'Typography of the Shore', and later she lent her voice to 'The Clearing' on my Black Swallow & Other Songs album. Autumn then asked me to add strings and piano to her album Stray Birds. During this time ideas for a larger collaborative work began to take shape. We wanted to create a multi- layered response to landscape; a distillation of 'place' through texts, music and artefacts. The resulting Wolf Notes comprised a sequence of place-poems and essays, an album of music and a series of found objects.

From this initial, not-for-sale, work we derived a small 'folio edition', which we sold through Corbel Stone Press. Each exemplar was named after a toponym in the landscape, and included the music, texts and a small glass phial of incense. On the subject of toponyms, the root '*ar' is an ancient river-name element, thought to mean 'starting up, springing up, setting in motion' – we thought this was an appropriate pseudonym for our collaboration, especially as it also spelled out our initials.

Succession is the second album by *AR. Apart from the fact that Autumn is a stunning singer, what made you want to start using vocals in your music?

RS: I don't consider *AR 'my' music, nor Autumn's voice as simply an added element to an existing formula, although I can understand how it might be perceived as such. Wolf Notes began with her wordless vocal refrain, which itself was a form of call-and-response; hearing the contours of the landscape and transposing them into song. As such, she would never claim the melody as her own. The music then gradually accumulated around it – a long, slow process of deposition. The strings are therefore embellishments of an initial theme, and the work itself is a collaboration, between her and I, but also with the landscape. This may seem rather fanciful, as simply a metaphor, but we spent many months living in that landscape, experiencing it in all weathers, followed its tracks and frequently losing our way – so there cannot help but be something of it distilled in what we made.

Your music is very emotional, and do you think vocals allow you and Autumn to convey emotion?

RS: I don't consciously think of my music as a vehicle for emotion. Whatever is transmitted 'is', and I have no control over it, nor would I want any. I've always viewed music as a life-affirming, transformative energy. Most of my work has concerned itself with strings and resonant wooden-bodied instruments. Music made in this way is explicitly about vibration. It stems from a time when I picked up a guitar after a long period during which I hadn't played, and – as if for the first time – feeling the instrument against my own chest, the sensation of its body resonating in sympathy with the strings, and my body resonating in sympathy with it. It was a singular, transformative moment.

I'm sure Autumn could tell you how she came to sing. She studied piano, composition and later electronic music, but ultimately found herself using her own 'instrument'. I'm sure she would tell you about the connection between voice and breath – and therefore 'spirit' – that voice is the most primal and intimate form of song. It resonates down the ages and connects us to nature. It therefore cannot help but convey emotion.

Could you please give me some background on Succession? How was it conceived and recorded?

RS: Succession is literally a successor to Wolf Notes. We returned to Cumbria, to the landscape which precipitated the first album, and took up where we left off. We realised that, in retracing our earlier footsteps, there were new pathways, contours, lines of thought and melody. The new work is particularly informed by the work of ecologists, who, by analysing the occurrence of pollen in sediment layers, are able to construct a narrative of plant 'succession' over millennia, detailing the plant genera that slowly repopulated the post-glacial wasteland, eventually forming vast expanses of woodland before the arrival of early human settlers.

The sense created by these ecological records is of an environment in constant flux, perpetually in transition from one state to another. They also act as a reminder that the present state of the landscape is an accretion of its own pasts, deposited in skin-like layers, each sloughed in the process of transformation. The landscape therefore appears, not as a singular entity, but a multiplicity of different incarnations, each successively overlaid on the last.

It was this idea of multiplicity that inspired us to transform the music of Wolf Notes, to reveal another hidden landscape within its own harmonic strata. Hence Succession is drawn entirely from the recordings we first made on visiting Cumbria, in early 2009. We feel that the process of recovering these fragments and threading them into song is analogous to the work of palynologists, reconstructing images of past landscape ecologies from the layers of sediment. It is a kind of archaeology, a work of archivism.

It feels like a very different work to Wolf Notes, which was more "song-like", for want of a better word. Why did you aim this time for longer, more abstract pieces?

RS: I'm glad it feels different to you. I think it starts off in similar terrain and ends up somewhere that feels altogether different, although it's still the same place. The point we were trying to make is that the landscape has changed incredibly over millennia, and so we were trying to reflect that in the music.

I believe you have an interest in poetry and spoken word. Does *AR partly represent a desire to tie into those traditions via wordless music and singing?

RS: Poetry, yes. In our own work through Corbel Stone Press we aspire to publish poetry that meaningfully engages with nature and landscape, doing so without resorting to cliche or sentimentality. Big inspirations for us are the poet Thomas A Clark and artist Laurie Clark, who have been running their Moschatel Press and Cairn Gallery for many years. Their work achieves that rare balance of having great rigour and clarity, whilst also possessing humanity and beauty.

On the subject of the spoken word, I recently had a conversation with Thomas A Clark in which he expressed his own reticence about 'performing', based on the desire to be absent from his own work. It is that idea that once a poem is written, it is released, and distinct from its author: "When someone reads a poem, that is between them and the poem; it has nothing to do with the person who wrote the poem."

With *AR we are careful for the poetry and music not to converge directly; we haven't, for instance, recited the poetry over the music. They need to be distinct in order to retain parity; otherwise the music risks becoming simply a vehicle for the words. For us it's more interesting to create two distinct artefacts – a book and CD – which intersect by virtue of their common point of focus. Nevertheless, it's interesting to consider how the poetry and music can be brought together in other situations, such as a live performance. Currently we perform the music only – which is undoubtedly a disservice to the poetry.

Coming back to emotion, do you deliberately seek to convey a sense of sadness or loss in your music, or are you surprised that people may have such feelings?

RS: With Wolf Notes, our research uncovered a landscape that had undergone quite a significant transformation. There were losses to the plant and animal life that were undoubtedly the result of encroachment by humankind. Place-names referenced absent plants and animals, and we found these 'ghost presences' quite poignant. In particular we became acquainted with the history of persecution that certain species have undergone, including the wolf and fell-fox. If listeners have felt a sense of sadness pervading the music, then we would attribute it to this.

I can honestly say that, for me, Wolf Notes and Succession represent a significant advancement in my work, because they document a transition from a human-centred perspective to one which acknowledges other forms of life, and their right to exist. My previous 'major' work, Landings, was largely concerned with human issues; trying to come to terms with the shortness of the human lifespan; with memory and forgetting, and situating these things within the larger natural processes of decay and renewal. Nevertheless, over the course of the five years it took to produce, I began to be increasingly aware of my own impact upon the environment, that the 'blank canvas' upon which history is played out is actually a living landscape. In many ways, this prepared the way for how I approached Cumbria, and the subsequent work I produced with Autumn. This in turn reflected back to the West Pennine Moors (the setting for Landings), and I later tried to address these issues in the book Moor Glisk, which looks at the violence inflicted upon that landscape, refracted through the prism of poetry.

Your music is often very hard to categorise, as there are elements of folk, drone and minimalism. I'm equally reminded of Comus, Tony Conrad and Ellen Fullman, for example, when listening to Landings or A Broken Consort. Do you see yourself as fitting into a specific tradition, or do you consider your music to cross genre divides?

RS: I don't really concern myself with such alignments. I like each of those artists you mention. Perhaps my mongrel appearance is an index of my self-directed musical education – I haven't been brought up to observe the differences, to work within a particular set of restrictions, other than those dictated by my skill and imagination.

Could you please give me a bit of background on yourself, and how you have evolved as a musician?

RS: As I mentioned earlier, I'm entirely self-taught. I approach instruments in an intuitive and explorative way, I'm not interested in received wisdom, in acquiring skill or learning how to play 'correctly'. I don't want to become 'good', much less a virtuoso. I have no desire to play anyone else's music, nor to replicate their sound. I greatly admire many musicians, but try to stay clear of any influence they might exert. Naturally, some of it may come through, whether I like it or not, but I usually have a good radar for these things, and consign such efforts to the waste bin.

I listen to very little contemporary music, and none that may be considered 'similar' to mine. As an artist, I strive for purity and clarity of vision. I have no interest in working 'within a genre', of becoming part of a scene. All such things are ephemeral. I'm trying to make work that is timeless – that is connected to nature, because nature eclipses culture. My 'style' therefore has evolved at something of a glacial pace...

I discovered your music through your 2009 album Landings, one of my favourite albums of all time. Were you surprised by the attention it got?

RS: I'm not sure how to answer that. Did it receive much attention? Shortly after it had been reissued by Type Records - after my own small private pressing - Autumn and I relocated to the west coast of Ireland, and spent much of our days immersed in that landscape, which seemed very out of time. It felt like you could walk down one of those boreens and lose yourself completely, that years could go by. In retrospect it was a wonderful time of our lives, living by the sea, observing the rhythms of life, the green roads, the blue-grey stones, the shore birds.

Landings - and indeed almost all your music - has a strong resonance with landscapes. Am I right in thinking you often record outdoors?

RS: During the early part of recording Landings, from 2005 to 2008, I did make many outdoor recordings, but I began to experience a growing ambivalence, a feeling that such gestures, which initially seemed intimate and worthwhile, became increasingly meaningless when repeated and publicly dissected. Moreover, I felt a growing sensation that such actions were lacking in grace, tact and consideration; that they constitute a form of acoustic trespassing. They began to seem less about a conversation with the landscape, and more about a conversation with the self, a game of catching echoes.

I therefore began to explore different ways of achieving the same effect, of receiving a sense of place. Primary amongst them was the idea that something vital is imparted through contact. I would therefore leave my instruments for a short time in a specific location, before removing them, in a belief that a bond had now been made between the place and instrument. Sometimes I would bury and later exhume an instrument to achieve the same effect, although this process is itself quite intrusive and destructive. I would also collect small natural objects found on the moor. My belief was that such artefacts embodied the landscape; they were a miniature, a physical connection to the place of inspiration. Over the years, however, many of these gestures have fallen away because I believe that the simple act of spending time within a landscape in quiet, focused attention, is enough. If you are still and quiet, your shape gradually blends in, and nature pays you the ultimate compliment, and ignores you.

What is it, do you think, that draws you to landscapes like the Lake District, The Burren in Ireland and Angelzarke? Do you find inspiration in remote, slightly wild parts of the world?

RS: Each of these places is particular to itself, and there are specific and numerous reasons why I am attracted to them. Speaking generally, part of it is the topography: the land itself, its contours, shapes and surfaces; part is the ecology, geology and archaeology; and part is the history, culture, dialect, and how these things influence place-names and language relating to the landscape. Generally, I'm attracted to the more remote, the wilder, the less inhabited, but in Britain you're never really far from a road, from a town or village. Autumn, who is from northern Canada, often teases me that I should give 'real' wilderness a go, and see how I fare...

As well as *AR, you have recorded under your own name and others. Do you see one project as being the central one, from which the others are offshoots? What makes you decide to release an album under a certain name?

RS: I published twenty editions of music via Sustain-Release, between 2005 and 2011. There was no plan, but initially, as it evolved, it appeared that each new release would go by a different name. But somewhere along the line particular names repeated themselves; A Broken Consort, Carousell, Clouwbeck, etc. I was operating on instinct, and therefore I can't offer you a rationale as to when or why a particular name won out. As far as I can tell, those names will remain with Sustain-Release. I don't intend to resuscitate them, other than to issue unreleased or reworked material through my 'Archival Series'. 'Richard Skelton' will be carried forward, as will '*AR'. There may be new names on the horizon, too...

I gather you've been touring a bit. Does that require a different approach to when recording your material in a studio or at home?

RS: Yes. It's impossible to play live what's on the recordings, at least on my own. I would rather write something new, specifically for a live performance, and that's what I've been doing. It requires a completely different approach, technically speaking, and the consequence is that there are new parameters to explore, and certain limitations. But that makes it quite exciting.

Are you currently working on new material?

RS: Always. But I've learned never to discuss them until the ink has dried. One thing that I can mention is an upcoming performance with the Elysian Quartet in Aldeburgh for Faster Than Sound, and then in Newcastle for AV Festival. I've been working on a textual score specifically for the performance. This constitutes a departure for me, composing for other musicians to interpret. On one level, it represents a kind of distancing of myself from the music, as I normally 'compose' in the act of playing. But on another level it fits well with the textual work I've been producing over the past few years, because the score will function as a fully realised text, regardless of whether it is 'played' or not. Hopefully it may open up the possibility for some of my other texts to be similarly interpreted. In any case, I'm really looking forward to it.

Richard Skelton plays in collaboration with the Elysian Quartet at Aldeburgh Music's Faster Than Sound on Friday March 21st (click here for info and tickets), and again at the North East's AV Festival on 23rd March (information and tickets here).

Much of Richard Skelton and *AR's back catalogue is available to listen and buy at the Aeolian Editions site, and to keep track of Skelton and Richardson's activities, click here to visit the Corbel Stone Press site.

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