The Isle is full of noises...
Music and creativity on the Isles of Scilly
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?
I was aware, it is true, of a few recent musical projects inspired by Scilly: Internationally important jazz saxophonist Tim Whitehead, a regular St Agnes visitor, had written and recorded his 1994 album Silence Between Waves whilst staying at the very house on the very island in which I now lived. Tracks on that album such as One View of Annet and Warners Well (sic) strongly appealed and had become companions to my daily island meanderings. On the radio, I heard the first BBC Proms performance in 2002 of composer Anthony Payne's piece - Visions and Journeys - inspired by the magical (if potentially arduous) journey to Scilly. Anthony is another longstanding St Agnes visitor. (I have met both men since, and have even played in the Turk's Head on St Agnes with Tim, who impressed wildly by transposing everything down a semitone on the spot in an attempt to coincide with the poorly-tuned pub piano.)
Going further back in time, I knew that the traditional sea shanty Spanish ladies contained the refrain: From Ushant to Scilly is 35 leagues, and I had come across Terryans Syllan or Scilly Wreck, which seems to be the one and only traditional surviving song describing an event (predictably a shipwreck) on Scilly. But none of these enticing titbits amounted to the rich tradition I was hoping to discover.
So I set myself - not in isolation but with the collaboration of a bunch of like-minded musicians - the rather grandiose and hubristic task of creating a canon of Scillonian music to echo that of Cornwall but with a distinct character of its own, mirroring the islands' proud sense of identity. Tradition, I figured, has to start somewhere...
So ten years later, having spent much of the intervening time engaged in the impossibly elusive task of representing truthfully a place in music, I found myself - on the train to Birmingham, oddly - writing a poem which crystallised this quest for me:
Beneath Indigo Seas
Deep indigo seas refract the past;
Prisms of inky stories split
To a point of origin>
The wide water spreads
Like chromatography over the sand flats
And divides the world into islands<
Light sings in columns
Through deep indigo seas -
Brings to the surface brief echoes
Of cultures curled up in silica -
Music is hidden in the strata
(Like the sound a fossil makes).
To articulate these ancient bones
We shuffle fragments of sonar on the page…
Like a skull, the present is carbon dated;
Our DNA joined up…
Thus, the past is mapped into life
Beneath deep indigo seas.
I don't know what (if anything) you take away from these few bizarrely-punctuated words (please feel free to tell me - I'd love to know) but, to me, on my way across the Midlands, they represented the faintly fanciful idea that, hidden beneath the rising seas, a long-lost, fossilised, Scillonian music could be brought back to life through a careful process of cultural archaeology. Perhaps, by searching and sifting carefully enough, one could piece together the skeleton of what might have been heard in those centuries-old island pubs.
A couple of tunes quickly followed. (I'd got off the train by this point.)
In my travel-wearied brain, these disparate elements fused into a coherent musical entity, where the archaic Lost Hornpipe is imagined as a distant, submerged fiddle tune giving way to a glossy and contemporary waltz - the whole piece acting as a metaphor for the way in which a real or imagined past culture can inform creativity in the present: artist as marine archaeologist: island music re-uncovered...
In 2017, I recorded this strange little musical fantasy with the Rough Island Band. With thanks to regular Scilly visitor, Cherry Phillips, who commissioned the track and suggested the name.
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.