Musica Subterranea


In January 2014 I buried a violin at a secret Newcastle location in the name of art. Previously, such activities were enacted as private gestures and referred to obliquely in writing, such as the poem Bond, from Landings. An instinctive act – following the impetus of a sacral, rather than cranial, brain – the gesture felt like an attempt to connect with telluric energies and edaphological processes, to open the creative act to external influence; a literal surrender of the materia musica in the hope that they may return transformed. It is worth reiterating that a physical transformation was not the original aim or desire. Like the principle of ‘contagious’ or ‘touching’ magic, the duration of interment was of secondary importance.

When thinking about this process for an AV Festival commission, however, a longer duration was felt to be more relevant to the festival’s theme of ‘extraction’. A period of one month was chosen, and I interred the violin, not without some ambivalence. Returning a month later, the instrument had formed a physical bond with the soil itself, and the disinterment took on the appearance of an archaeological dig. I wrote, without irony, that “in no other circumstance have the funerary aspects of this process been brought alive in such an emphatic way.” I also wrote that ‘extracting’ sounds from the violin would be like “interrogating the dead”. Listen for yourself:

The instrument was exhibited on a table in an anteroom of Brinkburn Priory, Northumberland, with a black tablecloth concealing a speaker system beneath playing the music on a loop. This created the effect of the music rising up through the table and animating the violin’s corpse, which, displayed in anatomised form, reminded me of an archaeological exhibit.




Two years later and there is still so much to work through. The violin-corpse, like so many archaeological artefacts, is now carefully shelved in an archive; not a living “storeroom in the peat”, but a dry, climate-controlled repository, clearly labelled for future reference. But for what purpose?

Twelve months later I released the album Belated Movements for an Unsanctioned Exhumation, August 1st 1984. The first composition, ‘Petition for Reinterment’, expresses an ambivalence about the exhumation, preservation and exhibition of bog bodies such as Lindow, Grauballe and Tollund Man. Do we have a right to discontinue their centuries-old, crushing embrace with the soil?

It only occurs to me later that there is an implicit self-reproach here. What about the violin whose body I bequeathed to the soil, albeit only for 30 days? If I always intended to recover it, is it subject to the same moral governance? Does its otherness, its non-humanness, grant it any special privilege, or conversely, does it grant me the right to exploit it as I see fit? Curiously, some people have expressed their distaste that I would subject a violin to such an ordeal. None of them seem in the least bit disturbed that we should cut down a tree in order to manufacture the violin in the first place. Perhaps a return to the soil – to pedogenesis and to telluric processes – is its most fitting and natural fate?

(Photos: copyright Colin Davison / AV Festival)

Nimrod is lost in Orion and Osyris in the Doggestarre









Once a place becomes part of one’s inner landscape, the imagination – knowing no bounds or decorum – stitches it into its own patchwork of memory, dreams and reveries. It is subsumed into a greater fiction, and roads or trackways to other places, real or imagined, appear. Nimrod is an accretion of these imaginal processes – an auditory, textual and visual entanglement of the real and unreal, a blending of document and invention.

The excerpted texts that make up the accompanying book come from a range of sources, united by a hyper-sensitivity to nature itself; a desire to understand and come to terms with its ‘hidden state’. They are figures in the landscape, some of whom construct elaborate systems of classification and natural philosophy, others who seem wounded by their very affinities, and others still who seem lost, or are institutionalised. The tone of the work as a whole – which finds its analogue in the music – is aptly evoked in Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poignant phrase:

‘nature in all her parcels and faculties gaped and fell apart’.

There is a sense of things on the verge of collapse, of despair and regret.The combination of music, text and image in Nimrod offer such a glimpse, that it can paint the picture of a wood through which slanting light dimly traces other forms.

NB: My thanks go to Julian Hyde, and Rob & Barbara at Fireside Books.

That Which Takes Hold

Autumn and I recently completed a short residency at Hilltown House, County Westmeath, Ireland, during which we were asked to respond to a specific site on the estate. We chose the ‘castle keep’, a derelict structure with a roof canopy of sycamore, ivy, ash and hawthorn. Our residency was part of the Hilltown New Music Festival, and so we decided to cordon off the area from visitors, turning it into a temporary ‘nature reserve’. Our aim was to highlight how sites of human dereliction are quickly reclaimed by nature, and to draw attention to the value of this different kind of ‘habitation’. We especially wanted people to be aware of delicate, ground-dwelling flora; the kind of plants that are unconsciously trodden underfoot.

That Which Takes Hold / Hilltown, Ireland That Which Takes Hold / Hilltown, Ireland

We did this by focussing on the act of naming as a way of giving attention to, and therefore acknowledging, nature. We compiled a list of identifiable plant species – 15 in all (there were surely many more), and turned them into labels which were attached to the cordon itself. Out of expediency, we used materials that were to hand: the cordon, for example, was made out of chicken wire and fishing line. It struck us as rather apt that materials used for containing or catching other animals were here repurposed to keep humans out.

We also created a new pamphlet that incorporated some Irish words for each plant species, and their English approximations, taken from John Cameron’s ‘Gaelic Names of Plants (Scottish and Irish, 1883)’. As with our previous research into Irish plant names (published in ‘Field Notes’) it was interesting to note both the functionality and inherent poetry of Gaelic words. We entitled the work ‘That Which Takes Hold’, a translation of an Irish word for Ivy, Faithleadgh.

That Which Takes Hold / Hilltown, Ireland That Which Takes Hold / Hilltown, Ireland

Finally, we made several sound recordings inside the keep itself, as well as around the Hilltown estate, and edited them into a composite recording to be broadcast on a discrete set of speakers installed in the keep. The recording primarily consisted of bird calls; blackbird, buzzard, chiff-chaff, jackdaw, raven, robin, swallow, wood pigeon and wren.

On reflection, the work raised a number of difficult questions; chief among them – did it have the intended outcome? Is it reasonable to ask people who have come to attend a music and art festival to be attentive to nature? How can ‘art’ raise awareness without being perceived as sanctimonious or didactic? We had the opportunity to observe many people interacting with the work – most paused briefly at the threshold, before moving on. A small number stayed for quite some time, and we even had the chance to discuss the work with a few visitors, some of whom seemed genuinely moved by our intentions.

There is also the not inconsiderable issue of our own impact upon the site during its brief transformation. Whilst installing the work, for example, our footfall undoubtedly caused damage to the species we were trying to protect. Isn’t there a double-standard at work in excluding others from a site whilst also having a detrimental effect upon it ourselves? To our knowledge, none of the plants present in the keep were rare, but our aim was not to conserve the scarce – we simply wished to draw attention to the common and overlooked. In many cases plants such as nettle, dandelion and ragwort flourish in close proximity to human settlement – are considered ‘weeds’ for their ability to withstand our attempts to remove them, and for the way they colonise temporarily ‘neglected’ spaces. In fact, some plant species even thrive in disturbed ground, and respond with vigorous new growth to being cut or damaged.

That Which Takes Hold / Hilltown, Ireland That Which Takes Hold / Hilltown, Ireland

In retrospect, the audio recording, too, must have had a detrimental effect upon the birdlife that ordinarily made use of the derelict structure. This sound loop, punctuated with repeated alarm calls, must have consistently upset the ‘natural’ rhythm of the site. Our intention was to evoke birdlife for the visitor, thereby reinforcing the notion of a derelict building as an inhabited space, but did we do little more than supplant the sounds that would have already been there? It seems to me that despite our good intentions, we temporarily re-took human possession of the structure, using it for our own purposes, rather than being truly attentive to the site and its inhabitants. In conclusion, we might ask – how can we draw attention to something without intruding, or upsetting the delicate balance that already exists?