The Book of the Sediments

by Newton Armstrong/Juliet Fraser
(All That Dust, CD, DL)

Before Rachel Carson delivered the devastating alarum that constitutes Silent Spring (1962), she wrote a biography of the oceans of our planet. The Sea Around Us (1951) is that rare thing – a scientific book (Carson was a marine biologist) as well as a piece of prose-poetry, a paean to the world and a warning to its fragility. It’s this book that underpins The Book of Sediments, a richly sensual voice and electronics composition by Newton Armstrong with the British-Canadian soprano, Juliet Fraser. One of four Carson-based commissions created by Fraser (details of the others are on her website), Sediments is aptly named. Its progress is one of layers of sound and words rising and falling in gentle motion, gradually building up new tones and rhythms.

Fraser, unamplified, is surrounded by four loudspeakers, tuned to her voice. As she sings, the loudspeakers generate their own layers of feedback. In this way, Newton and Fraser together create strata of sounds – acoustic sediments, if you like – that float in the performance space. The resulting acoustic phenomena produce slight beatings and hanging tones. The libretto is of slow words and phrases taken from Carson: ‘all’ is stretched to the time of a breath, other words slowly combine to create lines that are reminiscent of the textual rhythms of Samuel Beckett, or even more so, James Joyce’s ‘riverrun’. A second section, approximately six minutes in length, has crackling flashes of sound that flare briefly as the voice descends. The sounds live and then they die, and we, the listeners, become witnesses to that process. Using headphones offers the full, swooning effect of this meticulous and gently lovely recording.

Jo Lateu

Cloud horizons

by Kathryn Tickell & The Darkening
(Resilient Records, CD, DL)

The music of Kathryn Tickell, composer and peerless smallpiper, has, on occasion been called a clear example of ‘Northumbrian futurism’. Which means what, exactly? This, Tickell’s second album with the Darkening (an archaic word for ‘twilight’), offers us some explanation. While the composition is rooted in British folk musics (as seen in the instrumentation – fiddles, clogs, lyres and sistrum rattles), there is a curiosity as to how folk music might be more expansive rather than insular, looking to history to create new futures.

A prime example of this method is the glorious ‘Caelestis’. Its lyric comes from scholar and guest musician Stef Conner’s translation of a Latin inscription left by Roman legions near Hadrian’s Wall. The legionnaires, from present-day Syria and Libya, invoke a ‘Syrian goddess’, as well as bringing the god Mithras with them. Tickell’s music – pipes, anchoring guitar and percussion, a few electronics – creates an atmospheric weave, over which Conner and Amy Thatcher’s vocals soar. A reel and a ‘Clogstravaganza’ – fast dance music that’s given some effects as it speeds past – call to mind Steeleye Span, but cloud horizons really establishes its own unique space in its songs. ‘Long for Light’, voiced by Josie Duncan and Conner, is a statuesque progression of rhythm and sound. Some of its vocalizing is generated by Conner’s ‘Vocables System of Imagined Ancientness’ (she is an expert on ancient Mesopotamian music) that draws from clusters of sounds found in the family of Cumbric languages. The overall effect is a deliciously warped chronology that enriches the album throughout.

Jo Lateu