A couple of weeks ago I began working on a piece of music using field recordings made by Layla at St. Digain’s churchyard, Llangernyw, Wales. This is the home of an incredibly ancient yew tree said to be 4,000 to 5,000 years old. The place has caught our imaginations, although unfortunately – due to commitments to my students – I was unable to visit with her. You can read about her Welsh adventure here.
Local folklore claims that the church has an indwelling spirit called Angelystor, or ‘The Recording Angel’. According to Elias Owen, on Hallowe’en the voice of Angelystor may be heard pronouncing the names of those in the parish who will die in the coming year. This echoes the practice often found in British folklore of waiting at a churchyard lychgate on Hallowe’en to see a spectral procession of those in the parish similarly doomed to die. It would seem entirely appropriate for an angel of death to take up residence alongside what might be the oldest living thing in these isles!
It’s been interesting working in this way, from Layla’s recordings and photographs. Usually I like to visit a site, improvise, record and draw inspirations from my own interaction with the place. Here I am working with artifacts, but they are still powerful gateways for the imagination to explore. It was perhaps the sonic element – that Angelystor pronounces names – that made starting work on this so appealing. What does the voice of Angelystor sound like? What does the body of Angelystor sound like? One particular idea that has caught the ear of my imagination is that Angelystor is not only winged (as befits an angel), but cloaked in the fossilised sound of birdsong and the fateful names he has pronounced over the ages.
Folklore suggests many other sound-pictures: Robert Graves has an extensive discussion of yew-lore in The White Goddess, which stirs up all sorts of ideas. These trees are associated with death, Saturn and lead: what would their leaden sap sound like as it moves from root to branch? Apparently they extend a root to the mouth of each corpse in the graveyard: what is the sound of root in soil and root against jawbone?
The field recording has always been an important element of my musical process and I’ve tended to treat them as generally sacrosanct: more often than not they inform the contours of the music with their swells and transients, like a piece of interestingly knotted wood. By entering into an environment, the recordist cannot help but influence it: the recording is more than a document. It is a dialogue with the genius of the place.
In this respect, I originally began this piece as an electroacoustic one, aiming to use only the recordings to ‘find the bright sound behind the sound‘. This approach yielded some interesting sounds, but I’ve never found this method of working very gratifying. It feels too reductive to me, whereas improvising unfolds all kinds of powerful imagery and patterns in imaginative reflex to the process of playing (see Psychogeographia Ruralis for more info).
However, as a result of this approach I became more familiar with the audio spectra of the recordings and a route into the hidden soundworld of Llangernyw began to open itself. Applying spectral analysis to a pair of crow calls from the churchyard, and abstracting pitch-classes from the peaks that make up the partials of the corvid voice yielded the hexatonic scale: C# D F Gb A Bb – an augmented scale with a mysterious sound which Liszt used in the theme of his Faust Symphony (1857).
In the musical language of Messiaen, it is also the truncation of his third mode of limited transposition. This seemed uncannily appropriate since Messiaen made notable use of transcribed birdsong in his some of his compositions. More importantly, Messiaen’s music is – to me – the very sound of angels. Fearsome, frightening messengers, who dwell in realms beyond mortal comprehension bringing holy terror with them on their incursions in to our sphere.
So, I’ve been experimenting with piano, organ and harmonium at present and – although it’s early days – things are starting to come together very nicely, although it’s not yet time to put up any rough mixes. However, as all of this waxing lyrical about trees and angels might indicate: I feel the hidden world of Angelystor and Llangernyw churchyard are slowly revealing themselves… and if nothing else, I’ve at least got something to keep myself busy over Christmas.
Edit: To listen to or download the completed Angelystor, click here.
Postscript: A couple of fun yew facts.
1) The fruits of the yew themselves are not poisonous – the aril (fleshy part surrounding the seed) can be eaten and is very sweet and sticky. Just don’t eat the seed… or any other part of the tree for that matter.
2) Welsh mystic John Thomas, alias Charubel, wrote a book called The Psychology of Botany, Minerals and Stones, which was published posthumously in 1906 (recently re-edited and published as Grimoire Sympathia). In it he details his psychic investigations of moss, shrub, tree and mineral auras in search of healing secrets. Of the Yew and it’s secret word (Adol-Rwng-Fa!) he writes:
To get the right expression of this word, fancy it being spelled thus: Adol-roong-va. Go over it seven times. At an age like the present, when the epidemic of suicides are on the increase, it becomes you to make use of this soul remedy
I’m sure some chanting of Adol-Rwng-Fa will make it into the final piece! According to James Webb‘s classic The Occult Establishment (1976), Gustav Meyrink was very impressed by Thomas’ work after subscribing to his Psychic Mirror (NB: it seems Webb mistakenly wrote Magic Mirror) journal and practicing his exercises with members of the Lodge of the Blue Star. However, he was off pursuing his work by his contacts in the Theosophical Society of Vienna (p.37).