“With this particular album, I think your own personal response to the music is just as valid as what I might have to say. Most of my recent albums, from The Hollows and Four Workings to Lastglacialmaximum and Stadial have had a strong conceptual element, but I simply describe A Guidonian Hand as ‘sinistral’ music – meaning ‘left-handed’, and also therefore, for me, instinctual, intuitive, emotional. In other words, the music isn’t made in service of a particular idea – its relationship to my other work could be said to be the same as that between abstract and landscape painting (notwithstanding the fact that abstract painting is often highly conceptual…)”
I have chosen to leave the introduction of this review to the words that Richard Skelton himself wrote to me in relation to his latest work, “A Guidonian Hand”, because they made me reflect a lot; they took me back to the deep roots of my passion for much instrumental music and, in particular, for what, for pure convenience, we will call “ambient” (a category to which, alas, I also simplistically ascribe Skelton’s music).
One of the profound reasons for my love of this form of musical expression is its ability to lead me to directly face the mystery of art. Without the ‘mediation’ of lyrics, you find yourself, alone and without facilities, in front of the mass of sound that composes the music. It is a physical, sensory, intellectual, and emotional confrontation, and the way we react to listening expresses our taste and determines our judgement. The mystery lies, therefore, in the dialectic between two subjectivities, that of the author and that of the listener, and in the relationship between composition and fruition. The artist can discover, through the listener’s interpretation, an unconscious aspect of his own composition, and the listener can discover something more about himself, thanks to the suggestions that listening provokes in him.
Richard’s answer, which I quoted at the beginning, displaced me and forced me to reconsider the approach I had had up to that moment in listening to “A guidonian hand” (a mnemonic technique used in the Middle Ages to help singers in reading at first sight); it almost forced me, in short, to make a healthy “factory reset” of my being a listener.
On the one hand, his words encouraged me to consider as meaningful what I could see through the filter of my perception, but on the other hand, they reminded me that subjectivity itself, to be sincere, must be free from preconceptions (in this case, the first preconception I had was that Richard’s music was necessarily conceptual).
So I tried to focus on some particular aspects, to “test” the first impressions I had. In particular, I tried to focus on the sound and the more “pure” sensations that I got from listening to it.
The album begins with a sort of suite, made up of three tracks that are intimately linked. The first one, “The first point of contaction”, presents us with a low-frequency drone, a strident string instrument, one of the author’s trademarks, and layers of some percussions, similar to gongs. The immediate impression is that these three components are at first decidedly separate and confined to their own space, but then, as time and the pieces progress, they move in search of common ground, mutual understanding, and, finally, balance.
If we relate this pure listening sensation to a more formal and structural reading of the music, we can discern in this dynamic an attempt to reconcile the electronic sounds (which Skelton has particularly explored in the last period) with the acoustic sounds that constitute one of the cornerstones of the English artist’s music.
And Richard’s own words seem to confirm this:
“I do see the album as relating to both “Border Ballads” and “These Charms May Be Sung Over a Wound”. As you point out, the first is acoustic and the second is electronic, with this album forming the third point in the triangle somewhere between them.”
Indeed, we can find a similar approach in most of the tracks. In the cyclical nature of “Nectar of Fifth”, where a ripple of sound represented by a brushstroke of strings, joining the other sounds, grows into a wave that submerges us gracefully; or in the transcendent “And instrument Incision”, where the distortions of the beginning of the track, introduced by the vibrations of the gong, are sublimated by a trembling organ. Or again in ‘Nature is Become a Point of Art’, where gradually distorted sounds and a gloomy atmosphere take over.
In the long unfolding of “In ancient fabrics”, we also find the melodic motif that characterized “The motion of Indivisible”, the last part of the initial triptych. From the titles and from listening, a possible suggestion of a connection between the weave of these “ancient fabrics” and the interweaving of sounds that become “indivisible” matter emerges.
There are two tracks where the electronic sound prevails: “In the altar of Burnt offerings” with a deep pulse dictating the rhythm to sharp and distorted electronic sounds wrapped in sporadic gusts of the gong. “A longilaterall figure”, on the other hand, starts with an ecstatic cello that is slowly absorbed by a gradual crescendo of electronic sounds, marked by an inexorable pulse, which is then progressively overtaken by distortions and synth vamps.
A theme, that of the dark atmospheres that take over through distorted sounds and almost industrial metallic clangors, which returns in the finale of “The Late Afflicting Fire” and which, to return to the “triangle” mentioned by the author, brings us back more to “These Charms May Be Sung Over a Wound” than to “Border Ballads”.
So let’s try to bring the comparison and the link between these three records a step further: let’s assume that “Border Ballads”, with its prevalence of acoustic sounds and the influence of the environment as a primary source of inspiration, represents the natural element, while the electronic sounds of “These Charms May Be Sung Over a Wound” represent the anthropic one. So the choice to connote with dark and leaden atmospheres the synthesis between these two souls operated in “A Guidonian Hand”, could be seen as an attempt, maybe unconscious, to represent the destructive spirit of man and his tendency to submit nature to his own purposes?
This was the idea I saw between the lines when I first heard it and asked Richard about it. As I did at the beginning, I leave the closing to the author’s own words which, instead of dispelling my doubts about it, bring me back to the heart of it all, namely that art’s task, rather than giving answers, is to stimulate questions and confrontation.
” … some of the ideas you mention could be operating at a subconscious level – but I don’t address them directly, and so I don’t choose to reflect on them retrospectively. …I hope that helps – but I’m much more interested in your thoughts than my own…”
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