The Isle is full of noises...
Music and creativity on the Isles of Scilly
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.
(Video by Warren Neill)
There is a theory that seasickness results from your system reacting to a perceived toxin. As the ship pitches and rolls, the evidence provided by your eyes and the evidence provided by your delicate balance receptors in the inner ear seem to be in conflict. The brain interprets this disjunct as a sign of having been poisoned by some deadly hallucinogen, and passes on the message to the stomach that this toxin needs to be evacuated as rapidly as possible. (This is why the trick of staring at the horizon is thought to help, as it encourages the eyes and inner ear to come to a tense and fragile agreement about what on earth/sea is going on.) A sea voyage to Scilly is, by this reckoning, toxic - the advertising of a Scillonian return day trip as something pleasurable, akin to a cruise, seems to me the height of sadism on the part of the IOSSG.
Speaking of sadism, here (certainly not for your delectation and delight) is a short piece of doggerel which was written emetically during one particularly horrendous trip, and captures something of the ludicrous despair of seasickness.
Listening to music seems to be the one thing that can give some sense of forward motion to the unmoving hell of the boat trip to Scilly. The stream of sound in my ears carries me forward in a way that the shuddering (nauseously smelly) diesel engines do not. It is an antidote to the phantom toxin; the inner ear is soothed. Over the years, I have clocked up a Scillonian playlist that would probably take me round the world a few times (an awful prospect) and I have explored a wide and eclectic range of genres in an effort to find the perfect match.
Early trips were accompanied by the music that was most familiar to me - the classical and baroque staples I had grown up with - presumably in the search for comfort in a sea of discomfort. Then, as I widened my musical brief, I used the long trips to listen to the music I was learning to play: from the Cornish tunes that were exerting a growing influence, to the rhythm and blues classics that are the bread and butter of Roadrunner - the islands' very own Blues Brothers tribute band (in which I helped out the bottom end on baritone sax). When Sweet Home Chicago came on for the fourth time I knew we were probably in sight of St Michael's Mount.
Most recently, a growing fascination with ambient electronica has provided the closest match between music and the whole Scillonian experience. Something about the wide sonic spaces of the likes of Brian Eno and Boards of Canada seems to reflect the seascape in front of my eyes right back at me. The minimalist, slow-moving and repetitive structures of the music are able to induce in me an almost trance-like acceptance of the whole experience that little else can, somehow cushioning the boredom. Slightly paradoxically perhaps, it is the manmade and contrived world of technologically-derived sounds that increasingly provides (for me) the most effective soundtrack for the spectacular natural environment of Scilly. These intent listening experiences on the ship, more than anything else, have driven my compositional interests towards electronic techniques - evident in recent albums: The 5 Elements and en plein air. I really sense that my fascination with this genre is only just beginning and that there is much more to explore - particularly if I am to survive another two decades of Scillonian travel...
I would love to hear your suggestions regarding the albums and tracks that have worked for you on the boat trip to and from Scilly… Is there any music that has made time move faster? Anything that encapsulates that grey and white expanse of bleakness so perfectly that it blends into an almost meditative oneness? Anything, even, that might complement that very rare and euphoric timeless drift on a sunlit Atlantic millpond? Please leave your suggestions as comments at the bottom of this blog. Ideally, a three-hour soundtrack is needed to take us all the way to Scilly, so please keep the suggestions coming… it can feel like a matter of life and death when aboard.
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.