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Black Sky Thinking

Wordsworth Reimagined: tQ-Commissioned Artists Respond To The Prelude
Luke Turner , September 28th, 2020 10:47

Working with the Aerial Festival, we commissioned five artists to respond to William Wordsworth's poem, The Prelude. You can listen to what they came up with here

How do you respond creatively to a poem 250 years after it was written, in a time radically different from our own? This was the challenge thrown down in The Quietus and Aerial Festival’s open call for musical artists to respond to William Wordsworth’s The Prelude, published a few months after the poet’s death in 1850. Out of a strong field of 200-odd applications, we chose the five artists below to create new, funded work that succeeds in reevaluating Wordsworth’s poem in the context of some of the most significant issues of 2020 - race and who our land belongs to, the destruction of habitat and historic sites for profiteering construction projects, climate change, and how we relate to loneliness and our separated families, as well as our city spaces, during Coronavirus. You can listen to the work created by Alice Z Jones, Hawthonn, Viridian Ensemble, Tom Fox & Nick Murray and Rob Walker and his mum below. We would like to thank everyone at the Aerial Festival for providing the funding and resources to make this project possible. Please visit the Aerial Festival website for the rest of the work created for the online edition of the event, featuring further Prelude work from the writers of the Willowherb Review, a new project by Natalie Sharp, music from Hayden Thorpe, a collaboration between Rob St John and Richard King, and a celebration of Richard Skelton's Corbel Stone Press.

Alice Z Jones - That Silent Language

“And for this cause to Thee
I speak, unapprehensive of contempt,
The insinuated scoff of coward tongues,
And all that silent language which so oft
In conversation betwixt man and man
Blots from the human countenance all trace
Of beauty and of love."
Wordsworth, The Prelude (Book II)

“Those who are most active in promoting entire and immediate Abolition do not seem sufficiently to have considered that slavery
is not in itself and at all times and under all circumstances to be deplored. In many states of society it has been a check upon worse evils; so much inhumanity has prevailed among men that the best way of protecting the weak from the powerful has often been found in what seems at first sight a monstrous arrangement; viz., in one man having a property in many of his fellows.” 
(William Wordsworth’s Letter to Benjamin Dockray, April 1833)

When we choose which words to forefront and which to omit, we align ourselves with their power. Soft power: still capable of violence, not luxurious or abstract. With whose words and with which we chose to examine the past and the present will, inevitably, hold influence in every tense. From the vantage point of retrospect our choices can be made aware of their own weight, our quotes can be deliberate, perceptive. Or we can choose to repeat, in an endless play of imperial call and response, words which would deny us. 

To offer the benevolence of nature’, ideological transcendence, in place of material freedom in a time – like now – of extreme urgency for many of the non-white, non-middle class, non-cis-gender- male populations of this world is denial*. To remove oneself, one’s proud green country, from having played any part in that is denial. Denial serves in the maintenance of dominance, in the displacement of historical and political burden, in repression, deflection and diversion from threat. This is the ‘old normal’, the current normal – and until we choose to arm ourselves with more than the fragments we are handed, it will continue to be normal too.

Hawthonn - The Corpse Way

“Music and text inspired by a local Corpse Way – an ancient funeral path – crossing a Leeds field, and now threatened by a major housing developer. The government’s proposal for a post-Brexit, post-pandemic development boon paint a bleak picture for plans criticised for their lack of affordable housing and attempts to densely populate a small field with 99 dwellings. Over the space of a fortnight we documented the Corpse Way for posterity, considering the conflicts between progress and conservation, capital and the needs of the area, and the liminal areas between them”
You can read more about The Corpse Way in this booklet Hawthonn have put together to accompany the release

Rob Walker - Greenhouse Freedom

My mother Mary Walker is 76 and is at elevated risk from COVID. She lives in Manchester in the house I grew up in, and I live in Berlin. I haven’t seen her in eight months which is the longest time in our lives. She has been quarantining since March, I do online food shopping for her as she doesn’t like the internet. She is resilient and has adapted well to being alone, firstly after losing my father Richard in 2002, and again this year without easy access to her friends and family. She has a greenhouse in her garden which was installed by my late father sometime in the 1980s. He grew tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers in it which we enjoyed eating. My neighbours and I accidentally smashed panes in it with footballs or stray golf balls, I kept a pet spider in it and many other childhood memories are associated with it. It would slowly gather thick lines of moss on the north side of each join in the glass which needed periodic removal. My mother still uses it to store tools and things for her garden.

I will travel to see her but I will stay in the greenhouse and she will stay outside while we talk and catch up. This is to ensure we take COVID distancing precautions. The sound piece comprises two main elements: my mother reading extracts from Wordsworth’s The Prelude and the sounds of the greenhouse I create by tapping, stroking, rubbing and otherwise agitating the structure and its contents. The resulting piece was replayed atop a hill near Grasmere in the open freedom of the Lake District. I re-recorded it in this environment, so her words can travel in the freedom of the air, and the sounds of the greenhouse can travel with them and merge with the environment that inspired the words in the first place.

Tom Fox & Nick Murray - Progressions

Mvt.1 (Book 7/ Natural/Industrial)
Mvt.2 (Isolation/Infection/Open Space)
Mvt.3 (Hope/Fear/Global Temp)
Wordsworth described many journeys, literal and allegorical, through his deeply reflective extended poem. Progressions picks out this motif and uses it to form the structure that defines it. The three movements, and the piece as a whole, draw on data pulled from digital data – from meteorological archives to Twitter threads – to map the journeys we have taken in 2020 and beyond. Fox and Murray have reworked global temperature data, instances of urban creep, the frequency of isolation, and the terminologies of hope to craft a series of harmonic patterns that form the structure of Progressions. Combining electronic and acoustic instrumentation, the piece serves as both a document of and a salve for the times.

“The piece is composed of three movements that each explore a particular journey. In just this year, human beings have been forced to travel so far in terms of how we live, how we interact, and how we see the world. Progressions explores our reflections on those cultural, ecological, political and emotional movements”

Viridian Ensemble - Viridian Prelude (Part One & Two)

In 2020 we have all been subject to fear and tentative hope in different ways. The isolation has forced us to be innovative in how we create music together, and out of that we have found joy in new ways of experimentation and improvisation.

We have used parts of Wordsworth’s Prelude text as cut up poetry lyrics, representing the 16mm film that is normally our starting point. The new poem is made from 250 words, celebrating Wordsworth’s 250th anniversary.

An improvised performance, recorded live in Bristol, August 2020, the vocals are accompanied by flute, double bass, waterphone and percussion.

Like most, we have missed the physical spaces in which we congregate, socialise, and play. We welcomed the chance to record in an active outdoor space: A large railway tunnel adjacent to Bristol Temple Meads station. At the beginning of lockdown, having felt the stasis and inertia of life and literal buffering/zooming, we see the possibility of stillness as an active space in which to cherish the importance of listening, reflection and evaluation.