Burying small instruments in the soil and later exhuming them has been an instinctual gesture which I’ve made for many years, although I’ve never publicly documented the process, preferring to allude to it in writing.
“Bowed, plucked and chafed steel strings. The sound of stones gently rubbed together. Soft soil sprinkled on resonant wooden bodies. Grasses and leaves intertwined around neck and fretboard. Bone and wood plectra. Sound folded on sound. A collusion of place and instrument.”
Until recently I’ve never really thought about how these discrete, private actions fit into a broader cultural and historical context, but whilst researching the folklore of East Anglia, I came across this definition of ‘contagious magic’ which perfectly encapsulates the main impulse behind such gestures – the idea of a connection through touch: “contagious or touching magic – things that have once been in contact will always be linked however distant from one another they become”.
For me the process of burial is also a way of relinquishing control and ownership, and a form of petition – a surrendering of the instrument in the hope that it may be returned transformed, that in so doing my own creative process may become part of something larger. In this respect it is not so much a ‘burial’ as an act of ‘sowing’, and the subsequent exhumation is a form of ‘harvest’.
Recently I was commissioned by AV Festival to produce a new work in response to the theme of ‘extraction’. The idea of making a public work comprising a burial/exhumation seemed to resonate, although I was – and still am – ambivalent about documenting what has been, until now, a private act. Nevertheless, on January 17th I visited an area of Newcastle (where the festival is held) called Ouseburn. With no-one else present I chose a location and dug a small pit, placing a number of unspecified objects with the violin and gently sprinkled soil over it, until it was covered. I marked the location with a small cairn and left. The process took little over an hour in rapidly fading light.
Today, one month later, I returned to disinter the instrument. Although the action of soil and water on a musical instrument cannot help but be detrimental – with repeated or prolonged exposure rendering it ‘unusable’ in the conventional sense – I was quite unprepared for how significantly the violin had been transformed.
In a mere 31 days, persistent, heavy rain filtering through shallow soil had rendered the violin an archaeological relic. Each of its many glued joints had opened to moisture, its sides had collapsed inwards, and its back had fused with the earth – such that when I attempted to raise it from the ground it lifted clean apart. All that I could do was to gently excavate each part in turn, trying to avoid further splits or breakages. In no other circumstance have the funerary aspects of this process been brought alive in such an emphatic way.
Over the next month I will be ‘extracting’ sounds from the violin, and I can’t help but feel a certain violence in this use of language – a sense that, in some way, I will be interrogating the dead. These, at least, are my initial feelings – but then I must remember, too, that I wished to be a part of that complex web of life and death when I initially made such gestures on Anglezarke Moor; that there is always something picking over the bones of another:
As the instrument has partaken
of the landscape – its body
bequeathed to soil, and later
so, a bond is made.
A pairing of movements. Of gestures.
The second finger hovers over the third fret.
The swift downwards stroke of the bow.
The string stopped with a feather touch.
A piercing cry.
And on the moor’s edge
the red-brown bird takes up again.
Bridges the air above the Yarrow.
Its hunger momentarily sated.
(Quoted from Landings)