Saturday, August 22, 2009
Near the end of last year I picked up an album called ‘Marking Time’ by Richard Skelton, a collection of beautiful yet sparse arrangements of bowed strings, piano and acoustic guitar that evoked both a sense of space and melancholy. (If you put a gun to my head and forced me to pigeonhole it into a genre, I’d call it “ambient ethereal folk”.) At the time I liked it, but what with the age of information and sensory overload that we live in I didn’t give myself the time I needed to really live with it, to fully explore its spaces, to truly take in its feelings of longing and loss – other, more immediate pleasures caught my attention.
However, not long ago something made me pull it out and start relistening to it. Around the same time Skelton released a new album, recorded under the name Clouwbeck, called ‘Wolfrahm’. Listening to the two in conjunction, it hit me – there was a special, unique voice at work here, with a very distinctive vision.
The Lancashire based artist has been releasing music since 2005 under a number of names (A Broken Consort, Clouwbeck, Carousell, Heidika, Riftmusic), mostly on his own Sustain-Release Private Press label. Skelton created the label as a tribute to his late wife, who was an artist. He hand-makes special, personalized packages for his albums in very limited editions using the work his wife left behind – what Skelton calls a “posthumous collaboration”.
The standard editions look gorgeous, with personalized, canvas paper coverbands and unique art prints, but special editions can also be commissioned – exquisite wooden boxes filled with carefully chosen pinecones, leaves and stones taken from (I believe) the West Pennine Moors. (You can see photos of these beautiful packages here and here.) For Skelton there is a very powerful connection between music and place, something his packaging emphasizes.
There’s an excellent interview with Richard Skelton here. I particularly like what he says about the importance of the physical side of music, while also acknowledging the “object-fetish” nature of it all:
I might be in the minority with regard to this, but there’s also something about a physical, tactile object which bestows a sense of weight and purpose. It has a beauty and integrity which cannot be ignored. Music is essentially aetheric and temporal, but the physical artefact grounds it in reality, creating a landscape for the music to inhabit. Moreover, with my personalised editions, the package feels very much like a gift, creating a connection between myself and the recipient. Consequently, many people write to me, describing their emotions upon receiving, opening and playing the music, and responding to the artwork.
Clearly, most people nowadays don’t experience music in such a ritualised way, and eventually a whole generation will consume music entirely through digital means, and never bemoan the passing of physical formats. Having said that, the proliferation of “tape” labels recently seems to indicate the resurgence of certain diy aesthetic, and a form of rebellion against the ubiquity of the MP3. Ironically, many of the kids making these tapes weren’t here to experience them the first time around, so perhaps they represent something of a novelty. And of course Tompkins Square releasing a lavish vinyl version of Box Of Birch represents a more elegant contribution to the object-fetish subculture. Perhaps these formats won’t completely die out after all, if they continue to be produced with such passion and dedication?
I’m immediately reminded of Brock Van Wey/Bvdub here, with his hand-produced limited edition packages with photographs taken by Van Wey himself. I’m also reminded of The Tapeworm, the new cassette only label sold through the Touch shop, and the cassettes produced by labels such as Digitalis Limited, Stunned Records and others …
I'm going to order some releases directly from him (which are surprisingly cheap - only 7 or 8 pounds for the "standard" editions) ... there's something very genuine and honest here, and I'd really like to help support that.
You can find lots of sound samples of Skelton’s work at his Sustain-Release Myspace, his Landings Myspace, and his catalogue page. He also pops up on the recent Type Records mix over at XLR8R, which is well worth checking out if you haven’t done so already.