There Should Be Tongues of Fire

Ted Rees

In his poem "The Common Gain, Reverted," J.H. Prynne writes that "it is a very wild and/ distant resort that keeps a man, wandering/ at night, more or less in his place," and in a sense, the three lines could work as a descriptor for Prynne's larger project of the past fifty-plus years, turning over language  in an investigation of what constitutes difficulty. Through many forking paths and wanderings through thickets of signification, Prynne has held to this investigation admirably.

I bring up Prynne not as an entrée to his work— despite being a massive fan of his poetry, I am not yet ready to tackle his work head-on, much less provide anything other than a glancing reading of it. But what I do observe in the work is a practice built on persistence, commitment, and longevity, so that even his prolific and varied output of recent years evidences his ability to dwell "more or less in his place," pawing over the same stones and roots again and again and continuing to find curious material there. It is the iterative and long-running quality of this inquiry that I want to write about here, particularly as it pertains to another prolific artist from the UK, the composer Richard Skelton.

Skelton has recorded under any number of aliases over the past twenty or so years, but his current trajectory began with 2006's The Shape Leaves, recorded under his A Broken Consort moniker. It is a record that was birthed from the tragic death of his artistic and life partner, and it sounds like it— ploddings that recall hollow, ghostly footsteps reverberate throughout the record's low end, while the middle register is a densely-tracked mix of aching string drones, shufflings, and repetitive guitar pluckings moving in and out of each other. Whistles and what sounds a bit like wind fill the top end. The Shape Leaves is a testament to the harrowing strains of personal loss, and even without Skelton's subsequent records, it would stand as one of the more deeply felt, brooding ambient masterpieces of the 21st century. Samples of the album's six tracks can be found below.

But perhaps what is most interesting about The Shape Leaves is that it also forms the aural blueprint of much of Skelton's later work, with its background in field recordings and using unorthodox methods and materials to attain certain sounds— branches are swept along guitar strings, stones scraped along violin necks, water dampening the tones of a pennywhistle. There is the gesture, then, that loss is something elemental, and listening to Skelton's work, the listener is struck by how organic it sounds, despite its intense arrangement. For those who have been following Skelton for some time, the tones of The Shape Leaves hum under much of everyday life.

The next of Skelton's major achievements, 2011's Landings, continues in this elemental direction, with its sonic and written investigation of the sparsely-populated moorlands near Anglezarke, a small civil parish in Lancashire. The book that accompanies Landings is interesting enough, filled with Skelton's reflections and investigations into the natural history, human inhabitation, and beauty of the area, but the record itself speaks again toward loss— what we cannot know about the land is pressed up against birdsong and the falling drone of strings, the ancient past is evoked by halting, minor-key piano impressions, and the clarity of a meandering brook is perhaps the only brightness we follow. An emblematic track, "Threads Across the River," is below for your listening pleasure.

One can hear The Shape Leaves in Landings, and I think it is this elemental compositional quality that allows the thru-line to feel present, but not burdensome. Instead, the records (as well as the several that came between the two) seem to be drawing out the conclusion that personal loss is intimately related to our loss of knowledge of where we are situated, who came before us, and why. There is mourning for our confusion and despair at our lot, as well as hints at understanding the grace that is a well of possibility at the center of our despondence.

Since the breakthrough of Landings, which continues to be Skelton's most well-known record and is an excellent point of entry for new listeners, he's continued to work through the idea of loss, often straying  from his earlier use of elemental materials to instead attempt to reflect elemental environment loss through more advanced technological means. Take Front Variations (One & Two), which Skelton "composed from sine waves subjected to increasing amounts of feedback in order to simulate the so-called 'ice-albedo' feedback mechanism," a major cause of rapid glacier melt and the present catastrophe. A project that began as a rumination on the shape of a human leaving the earth has morphed into a rumination on the earth leaving itself due to capitalistic growth impulse and humankind's hubris. There is no loss that is not connected to another.

Skelton's output over the past two years is evidence of another shifting approach to loss, now toward a desire for healing, which perhaps can only arrive from learning to comprehend the immensity of the geologic and cosmic processes in which we find ourselves. These Charms May Be Sung Over A Wound, released in 2020, is among the most dissonant of Skelton's oeuvre, filled with degrading waveforms and piercing shrieks of sound. The entire album is meant to reference ancient ideas of remedy and curative processes, with the pain of these yielding a sort of uncompromised vision of the wound we are witnessing grow wider and wider.

Finally, there is the brightness of last year's Talus, a two-track record that is part of Skelton's ongoing investigation into glacigenic landforms. The first recording is a sort of bright yet monolithic drone, with some melodic impulses, whereas the second recording mimics the formation of talus by exposing the first recording to granular changes, yielding a sharper, more dramatic result. Here we have an artist utilizing geologic processes that occur over millenia to guide aural explorations of what it means to live within the massive of our immediate place, and our larger, more cosmic space, too. There is devastation, loss, and fear, but there is also a humility and awe in acknowledging our smallness— we cannot "match the stone," as Prynne might have it, but in our lostness and loss, we might find a means to keep wandering toward the major key, more or less in our places.

You can find nearly all of Richard Skelton's recordings, including most mentioned in this post, on his label's Bandcamp page, which is here.

Thank you for reading, and look forward to one more mix before the week's end!

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