My aim with The Eye is to shine a light on music, film and literature that deals with landscape in a multitude of ways.
The evening begins with a drone. For the first couple of minutes, Jim Ghedi, accompanied by double bass and fiddle, plays his guitar upright with a bow, sending sublime tremors over the Abbeydale Picture House, Sheffield’s newest and most impressive venue.
The band lock into a lilting rhythm, with percussive fingerpicking from Ghedi, who lets his strings jangle and clank against the frets. A delicate composition takes form, with a quick changeover from violin to harmonium lifting and pushing the tide of sound onward. There’s an intuitive back-and-forth interplay between double bass and guitar on the booming low-notes, which catches the eye on the dimly-lit stage. The third piece carries echoes of Bryter Layter-era Nick Drake, with its frequent, rolling changes in pace absorbed fluidly by the band.
‘Phoenix Works’, a standout from A Hymn for Ancient Land, tells a story of Ford, a hamlet in northeast Derbyshire, and the scythe and sickle industry that dominated there as far back as 1489. Inspired by a poem left behind by a former worker, on the accompanying video Ghedi comments:
“The remnants of history somehow creep into our landscape and you can still envisage glimpses of these older traditions and industries. Whether just imagined by viewing the moss-coated stone rubble on a Sunday walk or discovering a local working forge while rambling down a forgotten pathway, it strangely shapes our imagination in places so close to home.”
The set ends with a traditional Scottish folk song, Ghedi throwing his gritty baritone across the front rows of the audience with powerful determination.
Richard Dawson ambles into activity in a charmingly bizarre manner; rather than wait around a few more minutes to begin his scheduled performance, he sings two songs as “DVD extras” before the proper show begins. After a searing a cappella Mike Waterson cover, he lurches into ‘The Magic Bridge’ from the record of the same name, melodies tumbling from Dawson’s contorted mouth and ragged guitar.
‘Soldier’ begins a run of songs from Peasant, Dawson’s latest transcendent record. The corners have been sanded off these arrangements, with beaters thudding on a minimalist kit at the back of the stage and sturdy bass providing accompaniment. There is little evidence of the creaking, buzz-saw character of the recordings, as the band fall back on a more dynamic style of presentation to give these songs a fresh vitality. It’s when the chorus kicks in that the song’s rough edges break through the sonic fog, as the trio throw thunderous frequencies into the cavernous space.
We drift into ‘Beggar’ next, which possesses its own peculiar momentum, before a fairly faithful rendition of ‘Weaver’. The sixth song is one of five pieces Dawson wrote for a prison film, set between 1400 and 1600. Singing from the perspective of a mother whose son died at war, he steps off the stage to deliver an unplugged and raw vocal rendition. The crowd twitch into silence as a motorbike surreally speeds along the road outside, intermingling with Dawson’s yearning vocal.
Other highlights include a lovely rendition of ‘Wooden Bag’ and a soaring version of ‘Ogre’, with its addictive closing refrain (“when the sun is dying”) gnawing away hysterically. ‘The Vile Stuff’, repeatedly requested, provides the highlight of the gig. This is surely the ‘ritual community’ music Dawson has alluded to in interviews when describing his work. Tribalistic rhythms accompany his tale of an anarchic school-trip, which details a day of cracked heads, Castlemaine XXXX, and an incident in which our narrator drives a Phillips-head screwdriver through his hand while breaking open a coconut. This is ageless music, determined to document the gnarly and mundane in all its intoxicating detail.
This is the first in a series of recordings captured at locations around Sheffield.
In The Peregrine, A.J. Baker traces the movements of a pair of peregrine falcons over the fenlands of Essex over a seven-month period. On the surface, his account is little more than a humble attempt to capture the day-to-day behaviours of a species he has boundless admiration for. On this basis alone, the book would be considered a memorable contribution to the field of nature writing.
What lends the book its alluring edge, however, is the way in which human and bird slowly become so psychologically entwined that the boundaries between their identities begin to blur. As Werner Herzog says in the introduction to the recent reprint, “[Baker’s writing is] almost a transubstantiation, like in religion, where the observer becomes almost the object – in this case the falcon – he observes…”
From page 95:
“I found myself crouching over the kill, like a mantling hawk. My eyes turned quickly about, alert for the walking heads of men. Unconsciously I was imitating the movements of a hawk, as in some primitive ritual; the hunter becoming the thing he hunts. I looked into the wood. In a lair of shadow the peregrine was crouching, watching me, gripping the neck of a dead branch. We live, in these days in the open, the same ecstatic fearful life. We shun men. We hate their suddenly uplifted arms, the insanity of their flailing gestures, their erratic, scissoring gait, their aimless stumbling ways, the tombstone whiteness of their faces.”
Baker states early on that he finds “detailed descriptions of landscape… tedious.” He therefore sees fit to elevate his writing to a higher form, developing a lucid, poetic language that lends movement and suggestion to the mindlessly repetitive patterns of his observations. Very little happens. After a while, it seems like Baker is using the tedium of his investigations as meditation, or as a springboard for an act of intense worship. How many times can one describe a sun-dappled meadow and make it sound refreshing and beautiful?
Everything that does occur carries a peculiar weight of significance. The borderline between life and death is reduced to the beat of a pigeon’s wings or a snapping twig. He writes, “All that is still is dead. All that moves, and stops, and does not move again, then very slowly dies. Movement is like colour to a hawk; it flares upon the eye like crimson flame.” Also, it seems, to Baker, who adds pigment to his own life by quietly observing the tiny dramas of birds.
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