Wednesday, 8 July 2020

Out of Place: on 'And On The Heath'

On songs on my new cassette/download album All Living Can Anyone Be Here.

It’s bound to fail, this impossible landscape

In Landscape Theory (2008) Kenneth R. Olwig writes in response to a roundtable conversation about representations of landscape. In the section titled ‘The “Actual Landscape,” or Actual Landscapes?’, he observes that there is a “consistent tendency to refer to “the landscape” in the singular…”, which is notable given that the roundtable suggests that “…landscape has a variety of meanings.” He goes on to suggest that “…landscape is notable for having a double identity…” it is, he suggests, following Yi-Fu Tuan, a “…‘diaphor’,  because it combines at least ‘two disimilar appearances or ideas’” which introduces a tension that “…derives from the fact that landscape means both ‘domain’ and ‘scenery’”. ‘Domain’ in this context is understood as “…a place, region, or country, or land inhabited by people and it thus belongs to the discourse of politics, economics, community, society, and what i would call the art of place making”, while ‘scenery’ “…belongs to the discourse of the aesthetics of space.” According to Tuan, he reports, “…the diaphoric meaning of landscape… lies not in one image (concretely known) pointing to another, but rather in both - equally important - imaginatively synthesized”. Olwig goes on to suggest that these two meanings are expressed in Dr. Johnson’s 1755 dictionary: “(1) ‘A region; the prospect of a country’; (2) ‘A picture, representing an extent of space, with the various objects in it.’” 

The song ‘And On The Heath’ exists within this “tensive meaning”.

Olwig continues his philological investigation of landscape by discussing the word 'prospect' as used in the first part of Dr Johnson’s definition, which he claims is “…actually ‘an extensive view’ with no particular reference to the practice of making pictures. The use of the term ‘prospect’ to refer to ‘a sketch or picture of a scene’ is in fact minor, and now ‘archaic.’ This suggests that artistic representation was not central to the constitution of landscape…” and that “…what one sees in prospect is a pre-given place that has been constituted through social activity in the course of making history.”

we can’t observe the boundless heath, all we do is point to things 

In 1993 social anthropologist Tim Ingold, in ‘The Temporality of the Landscape’, coined the term ‘taskscape’, to mark an attention to space being constituted as place through activity which takes, or perhaps makes, place.  In tandem with Olwig’s suggestions, these approaches to landscape would mark a shift from a visual artistic representation that places objects in space but lacks the representation of activity which might distinguish what makes the place. Ingold was particularly concerned with the spatial and temporal dimensions of the landscape in human activity as evinced in Pieter Bruegel’s famous painting 'The Harvesters'. 

In any attempt at landscape representation that engages with temporality in the form of duration and narrative as an inherent part of its media form, such as a film or music, human and non-human activity might become integral to the way place is characterised; in song pointing to and describing it, would, in itself represent an impossibility, a ‘visualisation’ which would put it out of place and out of time. From the position of the individual making the representation the place is only ever a subjective construction, it can’t stand in for the supposed objectivity of the map's geometric projection, or the fixity of the Euclidean perspectival view.

In ‘The Plains’ by Gerald Murnane, the landscape of the plains grows quite incomprehensible, as though familiarity engenders more a remove from it.  The landscape is avoided by its filmmaker protagonist, always only ever viewed obliquely, from an angle. It speaks of the impossibility of connection with landscape, it’s bound to fail, representation becomes a distancing, an uninhabitable landscape.

back on the heath, I try to write, the sense of site, invoke the place, the here and now and back in time, in 88 or 73 or 99

It is within this as an impossible ‘constituted place’ that the song ‘And on the Heath’ attempts to construct a landscape representation from the position of an eccentric relation to the place, space and the time, in relation to the non-centrality of the individuality of the writer to the heath of Blackheath.

and on the heath, sirens, police, crows, ducks, and geese

It makes its attempts at visual description, not from impressions captured en plein air as might be the case with landscape painting, but of the landscape as abstracted, oblique views, such as those of Murnane's plainsfolk, as seen in photos and videos I had captured on the heath, as well as from other associated sources.

low edge of cloud, shallow depth of field, forms rectangular, metallic sky, green underneath, and seen between, oblique squinting, ochre sunlight, dull glow diffuse, overcast

As I try to write the sense of place I include a bricolage of eccentric subjective personal and cultural associations, the temporal expressed as a kind of memorial association with the past, a ‘view’ that extends from the immediate present experience of place through imagined and historical resonance. 

rain falls in grey far away

The song started to take shape in January 2020, when I went for a walk to Blackheath, 2 miles from my house. This is not the settlement, the ‘village’ of Blackheath, but the large open space of the heath itself. Already by describing my own activity I’m constructing a ‘taskscape’, the tasks of walking and listening are taking, and here, making place. I was listening to Syd Barrett’s solo album ‘Barrett’ on my earphones, the songs are evocative of a sense of London that largely no longer exists, the grey whimsy of a mid-week afternoon where nothing happens, set in rambling Victorian terrace houses. This particular overcast and drizzly afternoon as viewed across the expanse of the heath, was strongly evocative of this sense, and the phrase from Barrett’s song ‘Baby Lemonade’.

the heater’s on, the windows are thin, I’m trying hard to keep this warmth in…

This line from The Go-Betweens song ‘Quiet Heart’ on their 1988 album 16 Lovers Lane, reminded me very much of my own return to London in the mid-nineties after living in Australia for some years. The band had themselves returned to Australia after several years living in London when they recorded the song, and the line captures the sense of living in draughty cold houses, that of the mundane exotic.

smile with us, in the morning, the best music, we play it all for you

A car bombs past with music blaring from an open window, ‘Keep on Running’ by The Spencer Davis Group, speeding doppler, the effect of the memory makes me think of pop music radio, Radio One, in the seventies, its jingles became part of the soundtrack of the imagined place.

These all speak of an imaginary sense of a past London, within my living memory, again one that doesn’t exist any more, but up on Blackheath, maybe because as a large expanse it's slow to change, as ‘empty’ land, as a heath that’s existed for centuries, and this collage of memory sensations becomes accommodated into the place.

The heath is criss-crossed by roads, main roads, side roads, a hub for traffic from a number of places, local traffic on the side roads intersects with the traffic travelling between Central London and the South Coast on the main road. 

again the same car, driving more slowly, and other traffic, moves toward camera, before indicating, taking left turn, stationary cars, pedestrians

“Blackheath, London.
A for sale sign in a hedge and a parked Mini in view.  A blue Volvo estate car comes into view and the camera follows this car along the road.  Open village green with park benches.  The same car going the other direction. Children on the green. Surrounding buildings.  Again we see the same car driving more slowly.  Other traffic. Volvo moving toward camera before indicating and taking left turn.  Stationary cars and pedestrians.  Car comes into view up a hill and driver can be seen behind the steering wheel.  Car goes down hill and up hill again.”

The process of composing the recorded song consisted firstly of constructing the instrumental track. For this I used a method I first used on ’Sickness Country’ on the Abstract Vectoral Landscapes album.
It's also developed on a few of the tracks on All Living Can Anyone Be Here. I play through a series of juxtaposed slow guitar figures, triggered as loops in Ableton Live. Initially I improvise the lyrics from the various fragments outlined above, which after a few attempts coalesce into some kind of lyric. The final vocal recording is processed live using autotune and slow phasing effects which gives it a haunting quality as it floats across the ground of the backing track. 

The song was written and recorded in January 2020. I tried to re-record it for All Living Can Anyone Be Here in part because I wanted to change some of the lyric and for the production sound to be more in keeping with the rest of the album, however I was never quite satisfied with the re-recorded versions and decided to use the original. While the song predates the others on the album, as it was made before the coronavirus themes that infect some of the record, it is concerned with similar ambient poetics of place and time, and sets the scene formally for the approach I would take for the new songs, and as such seemed to be a good choice as album opener.

Wednesday, 1 July 2020

Out of Time: on 'Even On A Wednesday'

The first of a possible series of pieces about the songs on my new cassette/download album All Living Can Anyone Be Here

I was determined for this album to specifically not be my ‘lockdown record’, mostly as it was made in exactly the same place as most of my work, my studio at home, so the lockdown situation had little bearing on the conditions of its recording. However, the circumstances of the coronavirus became impossible to ignore and a couple of the songs inevitably reflect that directly. Looking back on this song now, from a point where lockdown is to be relaxed with Boris Johnson referring to the coming weekend as though it will be a kind of liberation, a 'Super Saturday', it's hard not to think that it could also be a super-spreading Saturday, and we might soon be plunged back into the kind of lockdown conditions imposed in March. Whether that would precipitate the experiences as recounted in this song all over again is unlikely, at that time the situation was pretty much unprecedented and it seemed all the more intense for it.

Set firmly in a domestic temporal context, the concerns of the song are signalled in its first line “...time here in the front room…”, and I’ll return to that in due course. But 'Even on a Wednesday' originated, in the first instance, before its coronavirus inspired concern with time and space arose, from my admiration for the Basque singer Mikel Laboa, in particular his 1969 song ‘Baga Biga Higa’, which for some time I'd harboured a desire to perform. 

Laboa starts the song in a somewhat hesitant, almost mournful tone, later becoming more animated. The lyrics are, on the face of it, somewhat simplistic, but also subject to some debate as to what might be their references and their interpretation, particularly in their translation from Basque, to Spanish.

“The lyrics do not have a logical translation, because in reality it is only a phonetic sequence . However, the following elements can be found: the first two letters of the first ten words (ba ga, bi ga, hi ga, la ga, bo ga, se ga, za i, zo i, be le, ha rma) coincide with the first two letters of each of the first ten numbers in Basque 4 (ba t, bi , hi ru, la u, bost, se i, za zpi, zo rtzi, be deratzi, ha mar). In addition the corresponding word bederatzi (nine) is bele (Crow) and the corresponding hamar (ten) is harma , meaning in Basque and Castilian match: gun , shot , bam! . Finally, it is possible to recognize the following Basque vocabulary: gerrena plat ( BBQ 5 and plate , in Castilian, 6 respectively), olio zopa (oil 7 and soup , respectively, 8), kikili salda (respectively chicken , with the sense of a coward , 9 and broth 10 ), edan edo klik (literally drink or swallow : edan is to drink , or absorb , 11 klik is the onomatopoeia of swallowing in Basque, 12 while edo is the disjunction or), ikimilikiliklik: tongue twister that includes the words above, kikili and klik.”  Wikipedia (auto-translation from Spanish)
So in essence the song could be thought of as a kind of counting song, however there is further discussion elsewhere that suggests that while it is indeed a kind of ‘nonsense’ poem, there could be more to it, there is some suggestion that it references occult activity, so that in addition to being a “…traditional phonic poem, based on onomatopoeic elements , without specific content. The numerical sequence 'bat', 'bi', 'hiru', 'lau' ..., becomes 'baga' 'biga' 'higa' 'laga'..., apparently used in rites of witchcraft, 'akelarres'.”  Also that it is “…a song to "pronounce", to train the child in a kind of pre-speech. The sense or meaning of the words is secondary". But it might also refer to “…covens, witches, potions ... Baga-Biga-Higa!” (Google translation from Spanish)

I have also been told anecdotally that Laboa’s use of the Basque language was in itself a radical act in Franco’s Spain; a simple children’s counting song used to smuggle in the language of a suppressed culture.

‘Even on a Wednesday’ doesn’t engage in the same kind of wordplay, or have such layers of possible contextual relevance, the Laboa song is primarily more of a musical influence, my melody in part follows his, but I do include a nod to it as a counting song in the lines “ two three four five six, lasting through the front room, everyday is Wednesday, seven eight nine ten...”, and to a children's nursery rhyme “…when the ticking clock, comes to a stop, dickory dock…”.

This also acts to introduce the theme of the relationship between counting time, clock time, and duration. The song is a reflection of how the subjective experience of both time and space became affected during the coronavirus crisis, when lockdown imposed a ‘virus time’ wherein the suspension of the usual demands of time, regulated clock time, such as regular work hours, have been abandoned. With this experience, exacerbated by the cessation of social activity and its attendant necessity for timetables and appointments, the measurement of time becomes more loose, if not completely abandoned. This is accompanied by a contraction of space, when everyone is obliged to socially isolate, to stay at home; it might as well be some uneventful time of the week, in a domestic setting, say Wednesday afternoon, all the time, even on a Wednesday. The extent of spatial experience becomes the distance from the front room to the bedroom, the cubic space of the kitchen, the front door becomes a boundary, the world beyond, the world outside, is a more dangerous place, a place to be avoided if possible. We are floating around our houses, on virus time, quarantime.  The confusion of time with its measurement is dismantled along with ‘just in time’ supply chains and delivery models, employment which dictates temporal conditions on workers, and of course ‘zero hours’.  Virus time is not clock time, it is zero hours all the time, now or perhaps some time on a Wednesday afternoon.

These experiences reminded me of the writing of Henri Bergson (1859 - 1941), which characterises duration as an unquantifiable continuous flow, as distinct from the more scientific conception which spatialises time. As a contemporary of Einstein, Bergson was critical of the idea of relativity, claiming that objectifying, regulating, mechanically measuring time, distorts the flux of consciousness, the subjective experience projected into space. For Bergson duration is qualitative, it is the continuum of ‘lasting through’ as experienced by a conscious subject. In bringing together these new spatiotemporal experiences, the recalibration necessitated by lockdown becomes a reflection of Bergsonian time and space; ‘Even on a Wednesday' reflects the subjective state of living inside the materialisation of this that the coronavirus brought with it.  (see Henri Bergson’s Time and Free Will: An Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness, 1889, and Duration and Simultaneity: Bergson and the Einsteinian Universe, 1922).

In constructing the music track I was particularly interested in the way Terry Riley, in particular in 'A Rainbow in Curved Air', 1969, constructs looping repetitive patterns which sound simultaneously as though they achieve a kind of stasis within duration. Unlike the more regimented repetition of the related music of Philip Glass and Steve Reich, there is a loose rhythmic loping quality, a not-so-strict meter, which might better reflect the experience of temporality as duration as distinct from mechanical time. I arranged samples of plucked arpeggio guitar chords over several rows in an Ableton Live grid. These were based around A minor and F, but juxtaposed with a number of other chords which when played together in different configurations produce differing and sometimes unpredictable discordance, particularly when enhanced with decaying looping effects. I recorded the song singing the lyrics while playing through the Live session sequence, which has the effect that the melody occasionally deviates from the chord structure. 

It is, in effect, out of time.

Monday, 8 June 2020

All Living Can Anyone Be Here forthcoming album on cassette and download

'Even on a Wednesday' is a song from my forthcoming album All Living Can Anyone Be Here which is now available to pre-order from Linear Obsessional. The pre-order includes one song download now, the full album is on cassette and download released on June 25 2020.

All Living Can Anyone Be Here contains four songs and one instrumental. All but one of the songs were written and recorded during April and May 2020, two of those ('Even on a Wednesday' and 'Private Ambulance’) reflect the coronavirus situation of that period, concentrating in particular on the attendant shifts in the subjective experience of space and time. The album’s title track is an abstracted meditation on what might more broadly be called 'the state of society’, a bewilderment of news reports and the author’s own observations. ‘And on the Heath’ was written and recorded before the crisis, and considers spatial and temporal dislocation in attempting to evoke the place known as Blackheath in South East London as a ‘landscape’, wherein the song’s narrator is resigned to admit that ...we can’t observe the boundless heath, all we do is point to things.

recorded January, April, May 2020 
cover image by Nigel Ball @_nigelball

Wednesday, 3 June 2020

Time and the Weather

Time and the Weather is an ambient soundscape mix of Bastard Island (Linear Obsessional, 2019)Dispensing with vocals the instrumental recordings redolent with spatial diffraction, signal refraction, small sounds, and distance communication, evoke the atmosphere of the island. Paid download includes a bonus track.

Wednesday, 6 May 2020

Wednesday, 29 April 2020

all about Crumpsall Riddle - Looking After The Duck

Looking After The Duck, the album recorded by Jude Cowan Montague and me under the name Crumpsall Riddle, is attracting quite a bit of attention and some critical praise. I'll dedicate this post to reviews of and other news about the album and update it as and when there is something new.

Here's an interview we recorded with Andy N for Spoken Label:


 ...a masterful craft, spilling an abundance of emotion without superimposition or myriad sound designs; rather seizing the breath of the listener through an adventure of minimal instrumentation: structuring scenic palpation’s.  
- Anti: Music Review 

 If people just had ten precent of expressive freedom as Crumpsall Riddle have accumulated over here, the world would be already a much more fascinating and wonderful place!
- Yeah I Know It Sucks speed reading somebody else’s book collection whilst listening to the Bagpuss soundtrack as whistling Jack Smith rifles through your girlfriend’s knickers drawer just out of view...  
- Monolith Cocktail  

What a triumph of beauty! One of my albums of the year and comes with the highest possible recommendation from TQ zine.
- TQ Zine issue 30

Monday, 6 April 2020

Storm Bugs - Table Matters (1980)

Table Matters is a super 8 film made in 1980 to accompany the Storm Bugs EP record of the same name. For many years it was presumed lost, but resurfaced recently and has since been digitally restored with a 4K scan by nanolab (, and reunited with its original soundtrack. The film, shot on location in Chatham, Kent, in early 1980, echoes the themes of grimy mundane consumerism explored on the EP through songs such as Eat Good Beans, Window Shopping, and Make Customers Matter.

Monday, 9 March 2020

...and on the heath

It’s bound to fail 
this impossible landscape
It’s over there
always the past
out of place
and out of time
we can’t observe
the boundless heath
all we do is
point to things 
for all we see
the camera phone
might as well be
in selfie mode

the heater’s on
the windows are thin
I’m trying hard to
to keep this warmth in
smile with us 
in the morning
the best music
we play it all for you
again the same car 
driving more slowly
and other traffic
moves toward camera 
before indicating
taking left turn
stationary cars 

all grey up on 
the black heath
low edge of cloud
shallow depth of field
forms rectangles
metallic sky
green underneath
and seen between
oblique squinting
ochre sunlight
dull glow diffuse 

and on the heath
sirens, police 
crows, ducks, and geese
a Tuesday in
the afternoon 
up on the heath 
early winter 
crisp and chill 
mounds in circles
bus rattles past
sirens and geese
crows and police 
mind how you go
raven or crow
light on a branch
skeletal tree
on Whitefield Mound
birch, fir and gorse

camera pan
speeding van
rain falls in grey
far away

back on the heath 
I try to write 
the sense of site
invoke the place
the here and now and
back in time
in '88 or '73 or '99

It’s bound to fail 
this impossible landscape
It’s over there
always the past
out of place
and out of time
we can’t observe
the boundless heath
all we do is
point to things 
for all we see
the camera phone
might as well be
in selfie mode