“Sound in darkness as a conduit for haunting”: an interview with Rob St. John

Rob St John, Stainforth Force
Rob St John, Stainforth Force

This was first posted on the Liminal back in late 2012. Rob’s done a ton of things in the interim, all worthy of your eyes and ears. You can read about them here, and follow him on Twitter.

Rob St John feels like an avatar of an older tradition. The ‘folk’ tag has become somewhat hollowed out, a dead signifier; but vestiges of the tradition remain, and remain oddly powerful in their ability to both evoke the particulars of place and lever open channels to the past. St John, across a variety of projects – musical and otherwise – has revealed a keen eye for specificity and an alchemical descriptive capability; he also appears to be adept in listening to the clamour and babble erupting from that open channel and focusing it into some semblance of a coherent narrative. Weald, which came out late last year on Song, by Toad, was a record of what you might call, in a non pejorative sense, ‘hollowed-out’ folk music – the tracks were as much resonating caverns as actual songs. But there was also a smeary, vague quality to it: on a molecular level syllables colaseced, meanings blurred; on a broader sonic level, instruments followed this pattern and cross-fertilised. The result was an enigmatic thing, a gothic puzzle to which the ear slowly attuned. St John has been busy since, curating here and travelling there. We talked about Weald and the various projects St John is involved with – now and in the coming months.

Where are you know – what’s happening? And where have you been in the last month or so?

I’m currently in Lancashire, where I grew up, watching the rain fall outside.  I’ve been travelling around the Western and Northern Isles of Scotland with my partner, for the last few months: walking, writing, fishing, attempting to keep reluctant peat fires going.

You recently wrote a soundtrack for the Jeremy Deller’s documentary about Bruce Lacey – could you tell us a bit about how you became involved and how you came up with a soundtrack?

Jeremy Deller and Nick Abrahams got in touch to say that they’d heard my record and whether I could contribute some new music to the ‘Bruce Lacey Experience’ documentary they were putting together: specifically something to soundtrack Lacey’s free festival days. I’d been planning to move away a little from the dense, droney and dark thing we did with the last record. Whilst it was probably appropriate and cathartic at the time, it’s not a reflection of where I am now – both personally and musically. So the recording was an opportunity to tie together some of the music that has been recently exciting me lately and experiment with some new sounds. It was good to play some soft, rolling folk guitar again, underpinned by whirring synth and flitting flute, fiddle and saw, all recorded live.  We recorded about 15 minutes of new music. The film showed at Camden Arts Centre until September (2012) and will be released on DVD through the BFI later in the year, I think.  It’s fantastic to be involved with a project related to Lacey, he’s a national treasure, an eccentric mischief (and myth) maker. Maybe we’ll sort something out with the rest of the recordings for a small release, but it’s likely that the ideas and textures will turn up on the next record.

This is probably a bit of a loaded question, but would you categorise Lacey’s stuff as whimisical? What do you make of whimsy? And the notion of Lacey as some kind of shamanic figure?

In some ways, I suppose, but then again whimsy is a very subjective idea, isn’t it? In the documentary, he describes himself as a ‘professional piss taker’, I think. There’s a tradition there in parallel to the Goon Show and similar – seemingly light, silly entertainment that serves to skewer and satirise its subjects on a very subtle level. I’m a fan of his later works: as you say his shamanic, free festival Earth Rituals in the 70s, and his proto-play work, installing great climbing frames for inner-city kids. There’s a curiosity and wonder that runs through his work, a freewheeling optimism, confidence and willingness to experiment and invent. I think the idea of curiosity and ‘I wonder’ underpins many important discoveries – whether in the arts or sciences – but is something that is being increasingly lost by many people creating ever smaller frames of reference through the way they interact with and curate the technology around them, a safety net that it’s scary to move beyond.

To come back to whimsy, I guess I’ve no radical opinion. I suppose Weald was the opposite of a whimsical album, wasn’t it? It was very dense and layered, and I wanted it to reward repeated listenings, to retain an element of obscurity to allow the listener to attach their own thoughts, experiences, whatever, to. But as I say, whimsy can be a vehicle through which to approach and express darker, more complicated subjects sometimes. Look at the Syd Barrett solo albums: he was clearly suffering with mental health problems, and the records are laden with whimsy, with terrapins, octopuses and effervescing elephants. There’s an immediate surface of whimsy over a darker undercurrent.


You said that you’re looking to move away from the density of Weald – what’s driven that? Did I read somewhere that you used 80-odd tracks on there?

I think you need to keep evolving – however incrementally – in terms of the music you make. It’s so easy to be pigeonholed, and I respect artists who can continually reinvent themselves. Weald was the first of (hopefully) a set of records I’d like to make, and whilst the weight of it (lyrically, thematically, musically) suited my state of mind at the time, it isn’t a record I want to make again. It was cathartic, something between miserable and whistleable, but you need to keep moving.

We used 80 odd tracks – yes – but across 8 songs that isn’t really a great deal. Weald was a very quickly recorded thing – we spent two days on it from start to finish – with a few mixes and that was it. Layers upon layers, conducting players coming in and out to play their parts. We’ve played these songs live for a year or so as a relatively settled band and they’ve certainly evolved. I think it’s this evolution – for the better – that makes me want the next record to be more band-led. We’re mooting putting it out as a ‘band’ record under a different name, which would be exciting.

I’ve all but written the next record, mostly during an intensive few days in a house that once belonged to Hugh MacDiarmid on Whalsay off Shetland, trying (in vain) to keep a reluctant peat fire alight. Perhaps, not surprisingly, after reading On A Raised Beach for the first time whilst I was there, I became a bit obsessed with deep time. It’s very acoustic guitar led – more in common with ‘Emma’s Dance’ off the last record than anything else – and very lyrically dense again (positive, this time!).  How to write about positivity and happiness without lapsing into cliche and hyperbole is a new challenge.

You’re quite protective, if that’s the right word, of the meaning of your songs, or at least reluctant to say what they’re ‘about’ as such. I was quite intrigued by the ‘I never came down from that trip’ line in ‘The Whites of Our Eyes’ – is there anything obviously psychedelic in what you’re doing

I sing ‘I never came down from that tree’….but a fair few people have heard ‘trip’…so when we play live I’ll intersperse the two words to blur things a little. I like mishearings such as this – attaching your own meaning, mythology, or whatever. ‘Whites of our Eyes’ will be on the next record, so I guess I’ll have to solidify things a little on it – at the moment it blurs into ‘Domino’ during the live show in a 15 minute squall of feedback and drone (maybe the next record won’t be quite so quiet…).

That’s another thing that’s interesting, whether the recording is the definitive version of a song, or just a snapshot in a continuum (albeit one that’s more mapped out and planned than others)? I’d say every song should continually be in flux, every set should bring in something new or otherwise forgotten, to keep it fresh, both for us and the crowd. At gigs, we play as a band, and try and make each show a one-off, responding to the surroundings, the crowd, the other bands on the bill. Pushing and pulling songs into each other, expanding and contracting them. As a result, we’re playing far fewer shows than perhaps a year ago. In the summer before Weald was released, I played a lot of shows solo in small black-box venues in small towns to small crowds. I’d rather we played as a band, in interesting venues, where we can tailor the set to suit. I’d like to start using projections more during shows too.

To go back to meaning in songs, they’re intentionally left relatively ambiguous. I’m interested in dense, cryptic lyrics that draw on a whole range of ephemera and situations, from daft (whimsical?) to serious. Every line of every song should mean something to you, but also provide a host of scattered satellites for the listener to anchor themselves around, whether that’s through mishearings or whatever. I like collecting words: I fill notebooks with them, and then have to drastically cull them from new songs, save having to provide a thesaurus in the liner notes. It’s about finding the line between the real and the imagined, quiet revelations that most of us experience in one way or another. Everything that goes into the songs is real and thought through, but I’m interested in how they are interpreted so differently.

I’m intrigued by your use of obscure words and dialect-specific terms and phrases – particularly Lancastrian and Scots. Gerard Manley Hopkins used to go out ‘collecting’ words – from specialist dictionaries and dialect dictionaries etc. He had a collection which he called his word hoard which sounds kind of similar to your approach. Is there a certain kind of magic in these old, dying words?

There’s a magic in the unusual and useful, I think, in the place and time-specific, the words that pop up out of a locally specific need, rather than necessarily their scarcity or danger of extinction. Maybe it’s important not to become some lyrical magpie, picking and choosing indiscriminately, but I think you can use certain words and phrases to ground your songs in specific places, times, atmospheres, and give the listener another chance to follow up on things. I enjoy art, records, books where you feel compelled to pick up a notebook and scribble down references, things to follow up, ideas. I don’t know a great deal about Hopkins, except a little about his proto-free verse – sprung rhythm – and the way he moulded and melded words together. I like the way Nabokov does a similar thing, his use of portmanteaus, moulding words to new uses, a playfulness in his structures, rhymes and narrative riddles.

We have a funny tradition of dialect poetry and song in Lancashire. It’s still strong as a culture, but I think that the emphasis on dialect and the use of anachronisms can sometimes come at the expense of content, maybe performers set themselves up as some sort of novelty act rather than as a documenter of what’s actually going on. So you have to be careful, y’know? For me, folk music (if you even need to define it), is all about people writing eloquently and interestingly about their condition in a certain place.


Domino’ is probably the darkest and densest thing on Weald – it’s got that Old Testament fire about it. I’ve puzzled over the title and the lyrics and only found out recently that the word comes from the French for mask. How did the track come about?

‘Domino’ is the oldest song I still play. It began as open-tuned folk song, and it’s about self-preservation and kindness. Whether they’re mutually exclusive. Maybe it’s also a little about sea trout fishing. It’s now a real cathartic squall of sound when we play live, like we egg each other on to make it louder than the last. I like that association with ‘mask’, it’s quite fitting, I guess.

Are you wary of the ‘folk’ tag? Is it still useful as a description?

I’m not wary as such. Folk music is still such an important, meaningful thing, but its very nature means that it is (and has been) open to the push and pull of change and appropriation. And that’s largely good, I think, but it means that ‘folk’ means multiple things to different people, is open to flux and change, and probably always will be. Look at the British Folk Revival in the 1950s and 60s. We often look back to that era as part of an unbroken tradition, but in reality there were a whole bunch of agendas playing out with Ewan MacColl and others over what folk was, and for whom. Similarly, go back to the start of the 20th century, and to the work of folk song collectors such as Cecil Sharp, again the notion of ‘folk music’ was wracked with questions of authenticity and appropriation.

Regardless of any of this, people singing out together with whatever instruments are to hand will never go away. Like I said before, I think more than instrumentation or sound, folk music is about telling stories and histories of place, landscape and local distinctiveness. So, I guess we do a lot of things with our music that have a lot in common with traditional folk. We use a lot of close, but often improvised, vocal harmonies, and we’re increasingly using fiddles, recorders, autoharps, picking out drones and modal scales. It helps that Tom Western (who plays keys) is a researcher into Alan Lomax and the practice of field recording. The next single we’ll put out is a Lancastrian traditional song called ‘The Charcoal Black and the Bonny Grey’, a split with Woodpigeon, both of us tracing our family histories through folk songs.

You’ve worked in a number of ‘collective’ situations – in and around Edinburgh, mostly. Has that had an effect on your writing and the style of music you play? Is there more forthcoming from the Braindead Collective and Eagleowl?

Yes, I’ve played with a lot of people over the last few years. I play full-time in Eagleowl and Meursault, and I help out other projects from time to time. Things were especially fertile around 2007-08 in Edinburgh, putting on shows in disused spaces and putting out short-run, home-made EPs. The collaborations forged then are still going now. The collaboration with Braindead Collective happened during a winter when I lived in Oxford, where we got together to improvise on a newly written song, recording the first take in a beautiful old church.

Has this year been typical in terms of being involved in so many different things? Could you tell us a bit about the Ghosts of Gone Birds project you’re involved in?

Things have been busier this year, for sure, taking on more projects. I like to keep busy. I’m not sure what is happening with Ghosts at the moment, as I think there’s been a personnel change recently. The last exhibition, in London, brought together a set of artists to make new work based on bird extinction in aid of the conservation charity BirdLife. I went with Ceri Levy (the organiser, up until recently), and a small group of artists to Malta in the spring, so we could all see the effects of illegal bird hunting first hand, and again base new work on this experience. I took hours of field recordings at dawn and dusk when hunting was most common, of gunshots punctuating the still air. We’re working on plans to use all of this work in some way next year.


You’re involved in a music project to commemorate the 400 year anniversary of the Pendle Witch Trials. Could you tell us a bit about that?

I grew up in a small village called Sabden on the side of Pendle Hill, in East Lancashire. 2012 is the 400th anniversary of the 1612 Pendle Witch Trials, a series of persecutions of people (mostly women) from the southern flank of Pendle Hill, on account of accusations of witchcraft. In the local area, the trials are now largely interpreted as cartoon-like caricatured black silhouettes of witches that adorn buses, pint glasses, gift shops and pubs. 2012 saw a host of local ‘celebrations’ of the trials, including a Guinness World Record attempt for the ‘number of people dressed as witches on a hill’.

Many of these celebrations and remembrances strike come across as a bit superficial and trite, I think, and so at the start of the year I set about trying to put together a record commemorating and interpreting the trials in a more appropriate way, however small. Early on, David Chatton Barker from Finders Keepers records offered his help, and to release the record through his imprint Folklore Tapes.

We’ve now finished the project, for release in November and have put together some great collaborators: Dean McPhee, David A Jaycock, drcarlsonalbion (Dylan Carlson from Earth), David Orphan, Tom Western, N Racker, Magpahi and others. Our contribution is a track called ‘The Mandrake’, a reinterpretation of a poem by Victorian author William Harrison Ainsworth, whose writings about Pendle and the trials echoed Walter Scott’s in the post-Clearance Highlands, lending an imagined romanticism to bleak histories. The project will be released on limited edition tape and download in a box containing writing on the trials, screen-printed maps, pressed nettles and other ephemera related to the area.

I’ve not been to the area, but there are some descriptive passages of the landscape in Robert Neill’s book Mist Over Pendle that are genuinely unsettling and imply a kind of menace in the landscape itself.  Is there a case for arguing that certain areas/places can have a negative effect?

How do you mean ‘negative’ – on your own self, whilst you potter through the landscape?

I think that’s what I mean, yes – I think anyone who spends enough time out and about eventually has an inexplicable experience where an area/place/time just feels wrong somehow. I tend to be fairly sceptical about stuff like that and yet… Chris Watson said something in an interview in The Wire that’s always stuck with me (extract taken from issue 318)



I hadn’t seen that interview, nor had I heard of TC Lethbridge. It’s interesting. David Toop says something in Sinister Resonance about the role of sound in darkness as a conduit for haunting. About how ghosts prosper in the dislocation of the dark, as sound is an ephemeral, fragile, unreliable, perhaps even unfamiliar, means of understanding your surroundings. You hear differently when you record in the field. With your focus on sound, your concentration picks up on what you may otherwise miss in a more multi-sensory landscape (and soundscape). On Weald, we used a set of field recordings by ace sound artist Patrick Farmer. One recording, of tree roots rubbing underwater in a stream, stood out and serendipitously mirrored the rise and fall of the bellows of my harmonium grumbling and groaning at the start of ‘Stainforth Force’. I guess, when you dislocate sounds from their landscape, they lose their certainty of origin, and can be reinterpreted, in whatever way you choose. The drones in Richard Skelton’s recordings – recorded outside, a melding of the sound of the landscape and the instruments – are beautiful and very affecting for this reason. But as in the Chris Watson thing, this dislocated stream of sound can be really disorientating and troubling.

So, to return to the question, no, I don’t think that some landscapes are necessarily more menacing or ‘evil’ than others, it depends entirely on what sets of thoughts, ideas, preconceptions and experiences we bring to them. Some are more inherently dangerous, sure, some more bleak in landscape and weather. But never any inherent malevolent force. Going back to the idea of sound as a carrier of hauntings, I suppose it is in these dark, northerly landscapes- from Scotland, Scandinavia – that a rich set of mythology and folklore has sprung from.

But I think that your experience of a landscape is determined largely by what you bring to it, by the thoughts and knowledge you have in your head. It’s like the ‘peradam’ mountain in that novel Mount Analogue by Rene Daumal, some things are only found by those who – however unconsciously – go looking for them. I’ve no real love for the idea of ‘wilderness’, of a landscape where you can purge yourself of problems, get back to some simpler, Edenic nature. Every patch of the earth has been trampled, gridded and girdled by maps, development, history. Most people assemble different histories of a place, that go with what they’re comfortable with, what they have been told.

The set of writing about the Pendle Witches, by Robert Neill, William Harrison Ainsworth, even back to Thomas Potts’ original document of the trials might set a precedent for how a visitor might feel when walking on Pendle. But is Pendle more mysterious or spooky than another Pennine hill?  No,  but you’re guided by the preconceptions you bring. The narratives of the trials in the local area really are so mixed up. They veer from the misguided and disrespectful (I’ve a walking book by Ciccerone on the area, that punctuates walks with descriptions of the accused witches as ‘repulsive old hags’ and ‘ decrepit, sightless, old crones’) to the banal and cartoon-like (cuddly toy witches, mass walks up Pendle dressed in capes and pointy hats). People tend to forget that these were real people, caught up in a web of persecution, superstition and fear.

The ‘Pendle 1612’ release that I’ve part-curated is a response to this. The box in which the release is housed will contain a series of ephemera and information, including a map of the area, and the witches route to trial from Pendle to Lancaster. We’ve spent a lot of time populating this map with photographs, grids, information that we think is relevant to the trials, which has been an interesting process that I guess ties together a lot of what I’ve talked about here, especially when trying to highlight the role of the persecutors in the trials. What to you include, prioritise and draw links between, when trying to construct a visual history?

In the middle of this process, I went to the Patrick Keiller Robinson exhibition at Tate Britain in London. I like Keiller a lot, especially his Robinson stuff. It seems a rich, almost playful approach to these knotty problems – the way he assembles such a constellation of – at times seemingly ephemeral – information, and traces a line made by walking through it all. To me, his work is encouragement to delve into the history of places and landscapes important to you, that through putting all this information that others have perhaps disregarded together, the most important thing is that you become connected to these places and landscapes in your own individual way. In a way, that’s what Weald was. I have no historical connection with Lancashire other than I was born here – my family are from Ireland and Derbyshire. It was a way of finding meaning.

Michael Chapman – The Resurrection and Revenge of the Clayton Peacock

Michael Chapman, The Resurrection and Revenge of the Clayton Peacock

It was at a Jack Rose tribute gig in Philadelphia that the idea for this album was first mooted – Ecstatic Peace approached Chapman backstage and asked if he would record a limited print run improvised album for them. He agreed, and The Resurrection and Revenge of the Clayton Peacock is the result – two tracks, a running time of 38 minutes, and a sonic adventure that comes from the far side of the experimental guitar underground.

The Resurrection and Revenge of the Clayton Peacock (a reference to the track ‘The Death of the Clayton Peacock’ on John Fahey’s The Transfiguration of Blind Joe Death) is, unbelievably, Chapman’s first improv album to which the legitimate response seems to be, “where has this come from?” Chapman’s life and work, despite its scope of influence and its always oddly marginalised status, has been undergoing something of a critical reappraisal of late with the re-releases of some of his classic early albums and vocal support from underground figures such as the aforementioned and now deceased Jack Rose, Tom Carter and Thurston Moore; but still, none of that really prepares you for such a strange and other sounding album.

Inevitably, when confronted with a rupture of this nature, there’s an impulse towards investigation and speculation: to determine a piece’s provenance or examine the motivation behind the creation; to go looking in the artist’s catalogue for clues, or even delving into referenced source material – in this case the suppressed howl of the referenced Fahey original. Chapman’s work to date has covered a range of styles, but in the main he’s tended to concentrate on limpid finger-picked ragtime-inflected traditionals and originals, and more straight ahead folk rock and all-out rock. You might advance a theory that this improv space is the sound of the interstices between these forms, or is something like the sonic outfall of precisely these years of working with form.

And the two tracks that make up …Peacock are all about this notion of an improv space, creating a cavernous theatre into which Chapman threads tendrils of piped silver, or pours billowing contrails of feedback, the latter stages of which indelibly mark themselves out as bird calls, bird shrieks. All the while the inner ear searches for purchase, for familiar Chapman tropes and landmarks. And the truth is, they simply aren’t there. What you’re left with is a feeling that you’ve borne witness to a rite, an invocation.

The assumption is that Chapman must have been experimenting privately with this kind of sound for a number of years, or in the very least had been comfortable with the very idea of improvising in such a minimal yet abandoned fashion – the recourse to singing bowls and mbira in the second track (the ‘Revenge’) were presumably results of previous experiments. Listening to this in the dead of night, I had intimations of the occult, of a kind of spectral channelling – of what I’m not sure. But wilder flights led me to wonder if this was a comment on the end of things, the wasteland at the end of the tradition, or maybe the primal mulch from which it grew. It also felt as if it might be a glimpse into a musician’s fount or sacred space, the aural equivalent of peripheral vision, glimpses of sounds that may have drifted around Chapman for years, waiting exactly for this moment of channelling.

There’s an aside to all this and it’s around the usual rhetoric of age and creativity. Chapman has released upwards of 35 albums since his debut in 1969, which is a remarkable figure in itself; but to have suddenly found this new direction so late in the day, and to have inhabited it with such dexterity and force gives the game a whole different arc. If it wasn’t already so explicitly linked to Fahey you’d wonder if that most haunted and most haunting of figures had found some way of re-incarnating his damn(ed) self. The Resurrection and Revenge of the Clayton Peacock is an astounding bell peal, you should seek it out, now

Lawrence English, The Peregrine


I have always longed to be a part of the outward life, to be out there at the edge of things, to let the human taint wash away in emptiness and silence – JA Baker

Lawrence English has long consorted with weather and the environment when researching and creating his delicate and intricate music – be it the tonal shifts of the seasons on albums like A Colour for Autumn, or For Varying Degrees of Winter, or the more immediate concerns of the water-based field recordings for 2005’s Limnology; but with The Peregrine he has shifted this relationship slightly and in many ways taken on so much more. For with The Peregrine, not only does English face the unenviable task of reflecting on and recreating the immersion of another person’s experience of nature, but he has do so through the extraordinary refracting lens of JA Baker’s molten prose; and this sense of being twice abstracted from the source lends a strange power to English’s sonic homage and brings to life the books’ enigmatic beauty.

In JA Baker’s own admission he ‘came late to birds’. But when he fell, he fell spectacularly. His patch was, broadly speaking, the stretch of land that lies to the east of Chelmsford in Essex, out towards the Blackwater estuary and the Dengie peninsular. It’s a landscape that mixes the ordinary – beech, oak and hornbeams woods and arable fields – and the more unusual, with its blurred outer edges a labyrinth of waterways, marshland and tidal mudflats. For a decade Baker obsessively stalked the peregrine across this landscape (although he followed a number of these birds, it seems fair to use the definite article here, as for Baker the bird took on something of a Platonic heft, as though these birds were of another realm). And for once the adjective obsessive isn’t overplayed: Baker’s method was to become a function of the landscape, to immerse himself so totally that the hunting falcon would incorporate him into its visual memory. As Baker puts it: ‘The peregine sees and remembers patterns we do not know exist: the neat squares of orchard and woodland, the endlessly varying quadrilateral shapes of fields. He finds his way across the land by a succession of remembered symmetries.’ It is believed that peregrines have a total memory map of their hunting grounds and can recognise the slightest changes. Baker wanted to become part of this map.

This gradual process of invisibility and immersion is also evident in Baker’s extraordinary prose. In many ways he is barely present in the text at all, instead functioning as a kind of amanuensis for the Emersonian concept of the ‘transparent eyeball’ in which the self or the ego is subsumed in the vortex of the natural world. He seems more conduit than writer, transmuting raw observance into liquid forms that coalesce before the eyes; though of course this process is illusory as in truth Baker is a master craftsman, with a vast hoard of descriptive tools and metaphors. He is like a less-neurotic Manley-Hopkins, or probably more accurately a less-earnest Ted Hughes – he has both of these writers’ ability to invoke the swirling intricacies of place and our apprehension of it. His dexterity is alchemical.

English’s approach to Baker’s text is quite a literal one in the first instance, in that he takes a section (for the first track ‘This Hunting Life’), or a specific diary entry (entries which are given only date headings in the book, and which English has titled using a theme or a particular detail relevant to that entry) and uses these as a basis for his sound explorations. The tracks then work with textual detail and flourish and broaden, using broad swirling drones and deep wells of bass to recreate the environmental conditions Baker experienced and so preternaturally transcribed. Obviously, by design, these recreations are impressionistic and idiosyncratic, as English is working with an already meditated set of impressions, and yet the remarkable thing is the way in which, sonically, in using a fairly narrow range of sound and instrumentation, the individual tracks do manage to so ably soundtrack the prose on the page.

For me, English’s greatest achievement on The Peregrine is the way in which he has caught the rawness of the air, and the sheer brutal reality of the peregrine’s meaning within the landscape and the environment. It must be said that for all its relatively small size, the domination of the peregrine is near total – the mere ghost of its presence, soaring a mile in the air, is enough to effect behavioural changes in the wildlife for miles around. Smaller birds dive for the thick cover of hawthorn hedges, cockerels throw their harsh shrieking into the sky, rabbits and hares escape to their burrows and the likes of starlings, wood pigeons, plovers and lapwings will take to the skies in their thousands, desperately trying to outflank our gain height on the hunting bird. With this is mind, English’s huge scurfy drones act as something like an elemental theatre, within which the smaller increment details highlight individual phenomena.

A track like ‘Dead Oak’ (a favourite haunt of the peregrines), for instance, and the track it bleeds into, ‘Frost’s Bitter Grip’, both use this arena-like technique, and the roar of the surface drones do have the feel of the upper air, and the granular detail becomes like the murmarations of desperate starling or lapwing flocks, banking and swarming in the viciously cold winter wind. ‘Frost’s Bitter Grip’ and ‘Grey Lunar Sea’ also manage to portray, using a mixture of high thin metallic and broader cloud-like drones (not dissimilar in texture to some of the sounds Basinki captures in the warping tape recordings of the Disintegration Loops), the shattering cold of the winter of 1962/3, during which countless birds died and significant parts of Essex’s North Sea coast froze for months on end.

The latter stages of the album follow the cyclical ascent away from the bitter winter into the warmer heights of spring. ‘The Roar Ceasing’ is the beginnings of this great thaw, ‘a day made absolute, the sun unflawed,’ and English evokes the subtle tonal changes by shifting the drones to a brighter register, using spare buried piano motifs to replicate the movement and release of all that trapped water. The closing track ‘And He Sleeps’ follows the last entry in Baker’s diary and details his last meeting with the peregrine before it migrates. In the text, Baker uses the cover of the sea wall to get close to the peregrine, as close as he has been throughout his period of pursuit (enslavement?), and eventually he comes within four meters, surprising the bird, which does not fly but fixes Baker with a stare before finally falling asleep. It is a moment loaded with significance as it marks a moment of acceptance, an acceptance which Baker had been seeking all along, and also a kind of mourning – a mourning that the pursuit was over (you sense the ‘and he sleeps’ applies as much to Baker as to the bird) but also something more expansive as Baker believed he was witnessing the extinction of this species in the British Isles. English’s fibrous, crying drones take on a new level of significance against this backdrop but in the familiar recourse to the same roaring elemental nature of the sound, instead of resignation, there is a note of defiance: with hindsight, we know that the peregrine has survived the massive downturn in its population and is back in its old haunts, the ancient eyries roosted once again.

There is a danger that with such a straight up homage to another work of art that the devotee could become paralysed by reverence and simply deliver a polite glancing blow that in fact fails to revere at all. I don’t think this accusation can be levelled at Lawrence English’s The Peregrine. Instead he’s created a piece of sonic theatre that doesn’t overtly romanticise Baker’s undertaking, and doesn’t shy away from the facts of the cold horror of  the peregrine’s domination of its environment or the harshness of the conditions of life. The record also recognises the silences and quiet hollows of Baker’s mythic landscape and his place within it and gives them breath. In the end, the music is subtle and powerful enough to be able to stand alongside the original text.

Soul? I don’t know what soul this is about.

Former Russian ballet dancer Mura Dehn witnesses James Brown live:

His emphasis on ego breaks all bounds. He is like a newborn baby in tantrums to enforce his will… He leaves you astonished and awed because of the mark of genius and madness… The rest is a tremendous scream for something that he wants more and more of – and gets – and is ready to give his life in order to retain it forever… Soul? I don’t know what soul this is about. Nothing one could live on or remember when one goes away…. He is a mythological personage. What he asks for is love – boundless – which can never quite fill his craving. At the end of all that inspiration, talent, sorcery.”

“Maybe because it was repressed so long, it comes out in this boundless way – in strength and in complaint. That may be true, but theatrically speaking, a performer has to produce what our times demand – a monster personality to be sold for ‘phantabulous’ profits. James Brown is unprecedented. A man touched by divine power. He absorbs. He stuns. And yet you don’t feel enriched. You cannot live on what he reveals. You simply experience him, and he is fabulous.”

Jacques Derrida/Ornette Coleman


JD: What do you think of the relationship between the precise event that constitutes the concert and pre-written music or improvised music? Do you think that prewritten music prevents the event from taking place?

OC: No. I don’t know if it’s true for language, but in jazz you can take a very old piece and do another version of it. What’s exciting is the memory that you bring to the present. What you’re talking about, the form that metamorphoses into other forms, I think it’s something healthy, but very rare.

JD: Perhaps you will agree with me on the fact that the very concept of improvisation verges upon reading, since what we often understand by improvisation is the creation of something new, yet something which doesn’t exclude the pre-written framework that makes it possible.

OC: That’s true.

It’s because of Borges. He’s hiding somewhere (probably in a mirror) cackling maniacally, knowing damn well that somewhere Jacques Derrida is always interviewing Ornette Coleman. So it goes. Jacques Derrida interviews Ornette Coleman