Over the past two years, UK artist Richard Skelton has been releasing small run documentations of his own musical explorations through his Sustain Release label. These recordings are always exquisitely packaged, in materials and imagery that really invoke the feel of the recordings locked away on the discs. Place and space play a big factor in Skelton’s creative process, transporting the listener to the environment in which the music was originally recorded. The visuals and tactile objects that are always included with the discs facilitate in entrenching the listener further in Skelton’s magical world that is brimming with sensation and history, as its not only Skelton’s music that the listener is experiencing, but how, in fact, he is able to maintain a deep and engaging conversation with his surroundings.
I had a go at playing the violin when I was quite young, but found it incredibly difficult. It’s a tough instrument anyway, but it didn’t help that I’m left-handed. I’m sure things are better now, but back then you had to learn to play right-handed no matter what, which meant I soon abandoned the whole thing as a bad job. In fact, it’s a miracle that I make music at all – it doesn’t come naturally. I’ve had to really persevere to get to a stage where I’m just pretty bad, instead of downright awful. Crap musicians of the world, unite, and take over…
A landmark recording for me was Gorecki’s Symphony No3. It sounds tangibly modern and yet incredibly ancient; hypnotic and yet brimming with emotion. It makes me see things –imaginary landscapes – something which I aspire to in my own offerings.
Another source of inspiration is the music of Nick Drake. There seems to be a whole world glimmering between the notes in his guitar playing, especially on his later, sparser arrangements. His music came to me at the lowest ebb of my life, offering a way back to the shore and the promise of visions. I found myself playing guitar just for the feeling of it resonating against my body – it was music as an almost physical presence; a kind of therapy.
A film that affected me strongly quite a few years ago was Jem Cohen’s “Lost Book Found.” Apart from being utterly beautiful, its central story of an ever changing city, and a book, which offers some kind of Gnostic tablature for coming to terms with it, was deeply affecting. It kind of pointed the way to what I wanted to do – not just with music, but with art, and the creation of artefacts that are linked inextricably to particular places. And once you’re on that trail, there’s a whole world of fascinating stuff – Hobo marks and signage, Land art, Aboriginal art, and the private worlds of outsider’s like August Natterer and Johann Knopf.
I started Sustain-Release as a commemorative tribute to my wife Louise, who died in 2004. She was an intensely creative person, in such a free and almost chaotic way – such an inspiration to me, as I tend to work quite slowly and methodically. If she’d lived, I’m sure that she’d have gained recognition in her own right, but I conceived the label as a way of getting her art out there, as a kind of visual companion to my musical offerings.
Thanks for that. It’s the kind of response I hope for. The idea began about six years ago when Louise and I worked on something together called Heidika. It was a little bag with a 3inch CDR, artwork, and bits of textured paper, fabric, leaves and seeds. We made a hundred of them – each one unique, and sent them off into the world – hid them on shelves in shops and libraries, pinned them to notice boards, and even posted them to random addresses. It was our little gesture – a blithe statement against consumerism. Eventually, John Peel from BBC Radio 1 got hold of one, played it, and we gave the rest away to people who contacted us.
With Sustain-Release I’m trying to preserve something of that spirit. I really wish each release could be a gift in the literal sense of the word, but I just can’t afford it. But if someone gets in touch, and that connection is made, it seems only right to send a personalised package in return. And the feedback is more than enough encouragement to keep on doing it - I’m just worried about how sustainable it is in the long term. I might need to clone myself at some stage…!
Well, as technology advances, the object is becoming less and less important, as is our involvement in the listening process itself. Hundreds of years ago, if we wanted to hear music, we’d have to make it ourselves, or witness it first hand. And can you imagine what it must have been like at the time of the first phonographs? To an unscientific mind it must have seemed magical to trap sound within an inert object. Those cylinders must have assumed sacred properties – and the act of replaying them must have seemed like an arcane ritual.
These days, as more and more music is consumed digitally, the physical artefact may recede from view altogether, and future generations may never feel its absence. But for me, there’s a world of difference between downloading an mp3 and receiving an exquisite package, especially if you know someone’s laboured over it for you. Quite simply, the object is a way into the music, it’s tactile and mysterious, generating its own oblique imagery which swirls around your head before you’ve even put the CD in the player.
I’d really like to include more artwork with each release, but as I print everything at home, the cost is prohibitive. Inkjet cartridges are ridiculously expensive. But then there’s stuff like leaves or seeds which I try to include with every release. Apart from being beautiful in their own right, they act as a link to the places where I record, and become triggers for the imagination. One day I hope to include a DVD of some film work I’m currently trying to get done. That would really complete the picture – music, artwork and visuals. If only…!
All I can say is that it’s incredibly important for me to make music that brims with life – full of the random, inconsequential noises that tie it to the physical world. I’d never dream of recording in a soundproof booth. So when playing an instrument, I’m more interested in those unintentional, unrepeatable sounds – the sudden, wonderfully expressive howl of a violin, or the rattle of the bass string on a guitar. When you add enough of these sounds together, the music starts to bristle and tremble with life – and I think it’s that collision of textures which stimulates the senses – colluding with our memories to evoke something that we can almost taste, touch and smell…
You mention “intent” but I really have little control over what the music evokes. It’s just about letting it do its own thing. The track titles and descriptions come last, when I’m listening to the finished recording and putting the packaging together. Instead of just listing the instruments I’ve used on a particular release, I thought I’d try to appeal to the listener’s imagination. I’m sort of saying “this is what I get from it, what do you get?” Quite a few people email and tell what the music conjures for them. I like that. Let’s get more of a two-way thing going.
For me, making music is an articulation of the here and now. At first, I just wanted to salvage something against time’s passage – to document the fact that my heart was still beating, and that life goes on. But more and more it became important to me that I should record in places with which I have a particular connection. This could be anything from feelings of kinship with the atmosphere or acoustics of a place, to how it stirs the memory or imagination. Everyone has these places: The wood with the tree whose branch you tried to jump up and touch when you were a kid; the path through the fields where you walked with a lover; the view of a lake that made you want to travel.
I feel such a strong connection with particular places that I almost can’t contemplate recording music indoors anymore. For instance, I recently rediscovered a place called Anglezarke moor, not far from where I live, which is covered with the isolated ruins of farmhouses that have been derelict for a century or more. It’s thrilling to just sit and watch the sun come up and cast shadows across these ruins, whilst hearing curlews and skylarks make the air shimmer with their calls. The atmosphere of these places can’t help but affect my playing, and also, if I play quietly enough, it filters into the recordings themselves.
It’s funny you should say “spaces tying in to the music”, because I recently started taking it to that literal extreme, with an ongoing series of recordings called “Landings”. What happens is I go and record in a place, take it home, burn a CD, package it, and then take it back to the place and leave it there. A kind of offering. Sometimes it’s just hidden amongst the stones, or even tied to a tree. If there’s enough interest in these things I might even release them at some point, but for now they’re just one offs…
Everything is 100% improvised – but that’s not to say I don’t edit things afterwards. I often see liner notes on CD’s that say “recorded live – no overdubs” as if it were a badge of honour. I can understand that, from a certain point of view, but for me, an overdub is another layer of richness; another slice of “here and now” that you compact into your creation – making it richer and more vibrant. For me, the more layers the better. Similarly, I use loops a lot, because they’re kind of poignant – little slices of time that are constantly being reactivated, like reliving a memory and keeping it alive, despite time’s passage. By using loops I’m holding onto something valuable that in the real world has slipped away.
I’m very committed to the process being meaningful in itself. For instance, I’m currently doing a recording under two different bridges – one that’s still in use and the other one quite derelict. I’ll record under the first, and then replay the results under the second, using little portable speakers. It’s a bit like a transfusion from one place to another, and in doing so; you make a connection between the two, with yourself as the bridge. And of course bridges are incredibly resonant places anyway, so each time you replay something, you get a whole host of ghostly overtones, colours and textures. In the end it’s as if you’re playing the place, allowing it to imprint itself onto your recording. It’s a beautiful thing to do, especially very early in the morning, when the rest of the world is asleep, and it’s just you and maybe a fox or an owl for company.
All I can say is that, on an instinctual level, the names, artwork and music all … fit. I suppose if you think of it in terms of me trying to establish a taxonomy, rather than series of musical personae. The names identify the music, or rather hover around it, and form another strand, or another layer of imagery, along with the artwork. Some of the track names run into each other, such as “A stone ploy / redolent / of something lost”, so there’s the idea of connections, or a narrative. They also act as indicators of certain themes, places, elements, or even seasons. So, the first Carousell recording had a strong autumnal feel - dry and fibrous, like handfuls of fallen leaves. Even though it sounds completely different, I’ve recorded a new album that literally reeks of autumn, so it’s going to join the Carousell fold too. I’ve been sitting on it for about six months now, waiting for the leaves to fall so that I can release it with them.
Well, besides the stuff I do with Sustain-Release, I really enjoy meeting and playing music with other people. I’ve also been asked to record something for a few labels as well, so that’s going to keep me pretty busy. Also, looming large on the horizon is a new Harlassen release. Picking up the surging, elemental theme from the last one, I recently recorded a piece of music inspired by the life of a river, full of tremulous violin, accordion undertow and shimmering percussion. I shelved it for about three months and then listened to it again about a month ago. Feeling that it didn’t quite evoke the power of a great, mythical waterway, I asked Jed Bindeman from Heavy Winged to add some much needed rhythmic muscle. I’ve just received his contribution back – a single take, nearly forty minutes long, of powerful, and yet wonderfully sensitive drumming. To be honest, it makes my recording sound a bit flat, so I might have to do it all again, but hopefully that’ll be a new release before too long.
After that one’s in the bag, and the Carousell album is released, I’ve been contemplating something a bit different. I’d really like to get a two way thing going, where people send me something – music, drawings, photos, leaves, poetry – and I make something that responds to, and incorporates that offering. The resulting music and artwork would be completely unique – made especially for that person. It’s then up to them whether they share it with the world. It’s a bit of a pipe dream, but you never know…
I’ve just about finished that one – it’s going to be called “Box Of Birch” by A Broken Consort, and should hopefully be released to mark the second anniversary of the label. The first edition is two 3inch CDR’s – one white, the other silver, wrapped in linen and encased in a little jeweller’s box, with some of Louise’s artwork and a bag of birch wood. Sadly, it’s limited to 28 copies – but there will be another, more practical edition hot on its heels, I promise. I’m bound to say this, but I think it’s my best effort – full of haunting melodies played on a little bowed mandola, wrapped in a fog of harmonium and accordion swells, with briars of tangled percussion creeping in at the edges…
I’m embarrassed to say it, but I’ve on recently taken the plunge with Six Organs Of Admittance, after reading one of my own reviews, which compared me favourably. I’ve got to say that the review did Ben Chasny a great disservice – his stuff is incredible – I sometimes listen to Dust & Chimes repeatedly, on my four hour commute to and from work.
Other than that, I’ve been blessed with some lovely CD’s from the generous souls behind such labels as Phantom Limb, House of Alchemy, PseudoArcana, Akoustic Disease and Deserted Village. Long may they continue…
-- Cory Card (24 July, 2007)