The Isle is full of noises...
Music and creativity on the Isles of Scilly
It is good to get away from Scilly occasionally… To be overloaded with such pure sensory beauty on a constant basis - that endless sea and sky, that unspoiled air, that pristine soundscape - can lead to a loss of perspective. In the same way, the social minutiae of small community life need, from time to time, to be placed in the context of 7.5 billion other people going about their daily human business.
Unfortunately for me, ever since a near-death episode on a Boeing 747 in the skies over Africa in 1999 - https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2000/dec/30/jeevanvasagar.lizstuart - travelling away from the islands has been a battle with anxiety and creeping self-loathing that I have lost more often than I have won. And so it was again. As I unpacked my suitcase in our Montparnasse hotel, rather more spilled out than a travel adaptor, my two smart shirts and the Rough Guide to Paris...
The clocks have gone forward and I have just endured my first Scillonian voyage of the season, a sure sign that spring is on the way and that memories of snow (yes, even on Scilly this year), torrential rain, cold and dark are soon to be left behind in the old ship’s wake. But time can do funny things on board this physically traumatic iron-plated gateway to the islands. Einstein would, I feel, have had one or two extra epiphanies as to the exact nature of his space-time continuum had he ever visited Scilly. Time just will not pass - the horizon, while heaving, is tauntingly static and the range of vertical movement on each Atlantic swell seems greater than the horizon(tal) progress from A to B - from SC to PZ. I am not one of those happy few, with a cast-iron stomach, who can sit calmly in the bar down below drinking pints and reading the paper. I can - just about - survive on deck, sitting very still, wearing all the clothes I have packed for a week away (but still shivering), staring intently at the horizon and urgently willing past every nautical mile.
10 years ago… I am at a gig that will turn out to be one of the most important of my life, sitting, spellbound, in the audience at Old Town Inn on St Mary’s. I have only just learnt to call them ‘gigs’ rather than ‘concerts’ having grown up on a geeky playing and listening diet of almost exclusively classical repertoire.
I had barely picked up an instrument since leaving college: the intense effort in attempting to master the demands of those classical pieces as a young musician had left me more than a little disillusioned. The beautiful, if temperamental, oboe which I had done battle with over the years had been passed on to a younger player. Instead I had moved to Scilly with my wife and was slowly becoming a different person - one who went out in the dark to catch Conger Eels with a long line and a torch; one who was obsessed with the weekly ritual of gig rowing; and one who was struggling to master the portfolio of skills required to qualify as an ‘island man’ - emergency-plumbing/tractor-driving/shed-filling/etc.
But it was as if I had forgotten to pack a bit of myself when we filled that big blue Pickford’s container and set off for island life. I wasn’t becoming an ‘island man’ as fast as I wanted. (I have still never learnt how to drive a tractor - though my shed is pretty full now, and I have a beard). The growing realisation of this 'shortcoming' was tough to take at times. At low ebb, on a whim, I had recently ordered an alto saxophone and a penny whistle - my subconscious seemed to have worked out exactly what had been missing in my island world, even if I was oblivious. So Dalla arrived into my life on that evening in the Old Town Inn at the perfect moment.
Some years ago, I was getting to know and to love the traditional music of Cornwall - including those fairly ancient tunes associated with the feast days of Cornish towns. Bodmin Riding, Liskeard Fair and Helston's Hal an Tow all seemed somehow different from other Celtic music I knew from Ireland or Scotland and were intangibly stamped with a sense of Cornishness. In parallel, I was becoming increasingly saddened by Scilly's lack of any surviving indigenous traditional music. Was this the payback for Scilly's longstanding cosmopolitan atmosphere? Being sited at the junction of several major international shipping routes, and being garrison throughout much of post-medieval history has made Scillonian society uncharacteristically open, tolerant and diverse for such a remote community. I took to wondering what might have been sung and played in the pubs and churches of Scilly in previous centuries. A rich melting pot of songs in different languages? Breton bagpipe tunes? Russian dances? Scandinavian fiddle airs? Or was there instead a rich treasury, now lost, of identifiably Scillonian local music?
Full of Noises is delighted (and a bit nervous) to launch a new musical project at the unsuspecting world. Here is a very short video, filmed by my good friend Tom Dyson, which will give you the flavour of it:
Author - Piers Lewin
I am a musician and writer living on the Isles of Scilly. These articles and posts explore music, poetry and creativity inspired by the landscape and culture of the islands.