We were on Dartmoor, Brent Fore Hill at Ball Gate to be exact. The date was the 29th July, 1971, though there was little evidence of summer to be heard in the howling wind. During the same year I was given access to the BBC Sound Archives. Among the treasures of that vast collection was a song from Barra by Mary Morrison, an ecstatic Gaelic clapping song whose title was printed in English – “Who Will Go Mad With Me” – an invitation to entrancement I assumed at the time, given the song’s shamanistic repetitious circularity, the singer’s breathless air of abandon and a ragged communal accompaniment of voices echoing her lead, whooping at the joy of it.
In reality it seems the madness referred to romance rather than trance, a song about boys, a tease, a release shared by women after a hard day of waulking the tweed. But an inherent sound, its uncertainties and disturbances, a more than historical remoteness for which the crude reverb added for unknown reasons at a later date seemed to locate Mary Morrison and her companions deep underground in chthonic ritual space, all of this complemented by the surface noises of its transfer onto crackling 10” vinyl, then the hiss of my cheap mono cassette machine, a layering of effects converging into a tangibility of being in a place both known and unknown as if to form a shadow or echo, which is how a recording might be described, of the pagan moor, its legendary mists and bogs, its standing stones and bleak horizons leading not to 20th century roads and seaside towns but to the edge of the world. We were walking and marking places as if building a henge without form, Marie Yates placing fragile sculptures of twigs and muslin, their life as short as the temper of the weather (http://marieyatesblog.wordpress.com/). I was marking invisible boundaries with flute sounds carried away by the wind. Field Workings, Marie called these activities, and that is how they seemed – walking and working from within the self and under the sky, deeply private even though conducted on open land and documented. From this remove an intentionality or conscious method seems apparent but at the time it was all instinct, a response to the volition of unstoppable forces. At one point I took advantage of another boundary, hanging my microphone on a wire fence, then walking away as I played sounds that were snatched from me as if by invisible hands.
Later I listened to the recording and felt a shift away from the centrality of myself as singular humanity, beginning to hear sound as an ear, like a shell – the wind’s course over rough land and stone walls, the rattling fence, the bleating of the sheep, all opening up and gathering together the sounds passing through, brushed away, dying away with my slivers of breath only a part of this flow of forces. Other examples of Mary Morrison’s remarkable singing have been given an afterlife, notably a recording by Alan Lomax of her interpretation of canntairreachd, the mouth music used in the oral teaching of Pibroch, an astonishing virtuosity of voice and line, again relocated to an echo chamber as if the hard notes of some unknown archaic instrument were rising up from the burial chamber at Ball Gate on Brent Fore Hill, then falling, as Adorno wrote, stars down to earth.
Who will go Mad with Me (a question of post-alchemical objects), (2013)
David Toop: string/winds/analogue and digital electronics/objects
Alasdair Roberts: voice/guitar/hurdy-gurdy/objects
Sylvia Hallett: strings/hurdy-gurdy/objects
Luke Fowler: film/analogue electronics/objects
performed at Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, Bates Mill Loft, Huddersfield, 24 November, 2013.