The Isle is full of noises...
Music and creativity on the Isles of Scilly
Almost exactly 10 years ago, I was having a drink in the Turk’s Head on St Agnes in the Isles of Scilly with a couple of long-haired, beardy types. We’d been brought together on St Agnes over the preceding months during a number of ad hoc, mildly random musical collaborations involving Lionel Richie covers, experimental bagpipes and the attempt to keep up with international saxophonist (and St Agnes lover) Tim Whitehead, as he blazed his way through Watermelon Man in front of a very lucky island audience.
As the pints went down, a flicker of an idea occurred to me (all the best ideas are born in pubs, surely). What if the three of us (plus a fourth island-visiting musician who had been responsible for a couple of cracking Africa-based Gig for Ghana celebrations in St Agnes island hall) came together to record an album of music inspired entirely by St Agnes? And what if we recorded the album on St Agnes itself, so as to really capture the spirit of the place?
I was an unusual musical nerd from a young age in terms of my listening diet. My brick-shaped mono cassette player (these were pre-ghettoblaster days) was a pretty constant companion. I didn't have many tapes: Handel's Water Music was number one for a very long time until it stretched and distorted to such an extent that even I couldn't bear it. I had to resort to Benjamin Britten's Curlew River after that instead... a tougher proposition. A few years later, my big brother - considerably cooler than me - organised a family whip-round to scrape together enough for an early model Walkman for my birthday. He accompanied this with a copy of Super Trouper, concerned (rightly) that I was becoming irretrievably dull. Sadly, Abba didn't catch on, and I soon replaced it with a much-loved cassette of Simon Standage's classic Four Seasons with The English Concert.
But it was Radio 3 that really shaped my listening over the years. My father, before me, always swore that he had been educated by the 'Third Programme' and, to this day, R3 has an uncanny knack of mirroring my musical interests at any given time. Yes, there is a fairly high proportion of the old warhorses - Brahms symphonies, Beethoven sonatas, Verdi operas, and so on. But this is diluted by a surprisingly adventurous streak that takes in experimental music, spoken word, jazz, ambient electronica and music by lesser-known (often female) composers.
Imagine, then, my childish delight on discovering that a track from the new Full of Noises album - en plein air - was to be played on R3 Late Junction, presented by Verity Sharp, on Thursday 23rd May. Late Junction is an incredibly precious thing in the modern one-size-fits-all musical world: after they've played all the Bach, Haydn and Shostakovitch during the day, those nice inquisitive people at Radio Three give airspace to the otherwise unheard - Kalimba players from Zambia get their moment in the limelight, alongside Appalachian song, avant-garde electronica, Galician bagpipers and, er...me. Weird music of the World unite!
The show is on iPlayer for a while - click here for the link (Full of Noise can be heard at about 17:30) but, in case you miss it, the track that Late Junction played was this one: The Meadow - 23/04/17 - 5am. It was recorded outside on the tiny island of St Agnes, Isles of Scilly, at dawn on a beautiful Easter sunrise. The dawn chorus was deafening and the island cockerel was in full voice...
The whole album was structured around a series of twelve improvisations recorded over a year on St Agnes. The recordings capture not only my playing but whatever ambient sounds of the island were occurring at the time - wind and sea, birdsong, the day-to-day noises of human activity... The hope was to distill the essence of particular places at particular times, rather as a landscape artist, setting up his easel in front of a view, would aim to capture the fleeting effects of light.
Back in the studio, alongside my producer John Elliott (of London-based folk/electronic ensemble The Little Unsaid - a man of unique and subtle musicianship) I added piano and electronica, aiming always to remain faithful to the atmosphere and circumstances of the original improvisation. The piano fragments on The Meadow, for example, hint at the opening of Bach's St Matthew Passion (it was recorded at Easter) and the track uses the field recording of the island cockerel to reference the part played by that thrice-betraying bird in the Easter story.
If you would like to find out more about en plein air, including streaming, downloading or purchasing the entire album, you can do so here.
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.
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.