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Issue 129


Richard Skelton (Type, 2010)

BY Jace Clayton in Critic's Guides | 01 MAR 10

Landings - Sounding the Landscape, Limited edition book, 2010. Photograph: Richard Skelton.

In 2004, British musician Richard Skelton picked up a guitar bequeathed to him by his late wife Louise and strummed an open chord on the out-of-tune instrument. What happened next ‘was an epiphany’, he explains via phone from his home in northern England, ‘feeling the way it resonated throughout your body.’ Although he had been playing guitar for years, in that instant a new corporeal understanding entered the self-taught musician, sending him on an exploration of sonic texture, physical resonance, and landscape- and object-based composition.

Skelton’s work is published under various pseudonyms (A Broken Consort, Riftmusic, Clouwelt), primarily on his own ‘private press’, Sustain-Release. His music proceeds as if by geological processes: time feels stretched out, layers accumulate and interlock into complexity, and it’s underpinned by a gravity and drift whose appeal is at once emotional – Skelton’s biography looms large – and elemental, as if these sounds have always hung shimmering in the spaces between air and land. He describes layering improvised takes as ‘creating something far more beautiful than you could have written yourself’, and invokes selflessness to explain a penchant for scattering his work into pseudonyms: ‘I see the names as another layer of imagery to try and create a self-contained context for the music, so it’s not about creating a persona or some kind of identity for myself.’

Lancashire’s West Pennine Moors provide constant inspiration, from improvising out on the low hills to taking ‘very small things – pine cones, bits of wood, bark, grass, bits of bone [to] use these as plectra, actually use them to play my instruments at home in my studio.’ Skelton’s instrument choices evolved from years of outdoor recording, using ‘concertina, violin, mandola, guitar, small percussion, woodwind, anything that can be carried easily across difficult terrain.’

A typical piece is refined from multiple layers of improvisation carried out on various instruments. Bowed string lines take prominence, but one will rise to the forefront only to spill into compatible tones, and all the while a background field of tuned, reverberant textures remains dynamic. Change is everywhere.

Skelton’s most recent work, a limited-edition book and accompanying album titled Landings, is his most landscape-suffused project to date. A deeply personal historiography, the book traces ‘a connection with the land itself through its hidden narratives of displacement and loss; a solace in the regenerative cycles of nature,’ as twined by memoirs of his personal grieving and music-making processes.

Skelton’s emphasis on contact and the material basis for sounds gains potency in the MP3-era of dematerialized music. Process and place are more than integral, they’re constantly shared: those who mailorder from Sustain-Release get individualized inscriptions and found objects. Poetic descriptions of Skelton’s philosophy fill Landings, and much of the text itself came from diaries he kept whilst on the moors: ‘I sit on the threshold of the copse. Grasp handfuls of balsam leaves and thread them into the sound hole of my mandola. Rub their greenness onto its dull brown strings. It strikes me that this process has been more about letting go than leaving a mark.’

The album alternates between gorgeous, melancholic pieces organized around overlapping bowed strings such as ‘Of the Last Generation’, and selections such as ‘Pariah’, where plucked lines repeat asymmetrically, quietly deconstructing amidst tonal swells. Field recordings of streams and birds creep around the songs’ edges, ushering listeners back to the moor. The 12-song album clocks in at more than 70 minutes, yet every piece feels too short. This is a good thing. As Skelton writes: ‘All that mattered was without weight or consequence. Nothing lingered or resonated beyond the instance of its own making. Everything listened.’

Jace Clayton is a musician and writer. His book Uproot: Travels in 21st Century Music and Digital Culture was recently published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.