Friday, 26 October 2012

Field Study's Man in E17 is a dedicated stalker of passion

Is this the Coppermill Bridge under which the chronicler of the Marshes, Gareth Rees, lay down to sleep, exhausted by the intensity of his (unrequited?) love for those crackling steel maidens, the towering electricity pylons, having followed their course accross the marsh? It was at the Union Chapel on Saturday (20/10/2012) that Gareth Rees and Jetsam performed 'A Dream Life of Hackney Marshes', a plaintive and resonant tale of love in the 'hole' that is the edgy union of Hackney and Walthamstow Marshes - a hole in the east of London that swallows up the city's time. 'A Dream Life....' was performed as part of 'Daylight Music' - a programme of free events presented on Saturdays (12-2pm) by the Union Chapel in association with 'Arctic Circle'.

My scribbled notes made during the performance comprise,

elegiac/doleful/desolate/slow/morbid/dirge/love story/ghost story/wasteland/edgeland/
love affair/song/ode/sweetly sung/poetic/cellos mourning/guitars/piano/flute/synths/
carefully arranged/gizmo/resonance/reverb/microphone
melodramatic/what sort of place can inspire love for a pylon/what sort of love?/wall of noise/prose/landscape writing/romantics/crescendo/sweet rendezvous/hazardous liaisons/stained glass/timbre/musicality of voices/spoken word/acoustics/cries of children/rumbles/static/charged/dreams/synaptic

It was my first visit to the Union Chapel. The cool light of an overcast day outside tunneled in via the chapel's stained glass windows into the chapels high voluminous gloom. The gloom was soon dispelled by the gathering warmth of an audience and the appetizing smells of sweet and savory refreshments on sale far below.

Before 'A Dream Life.....' came a gnomish Paddy Steer  from Manchester (via the M6), with his peculiar assemblage of electronic sound making gizmos and percussive instrumentation (tin can included). It was a kit akin to a flight deck, imbued with a DIY aesthetic and played to explore the latent and inner acoustics of the space with ultra low notes electronically synthesized to disturbing visceral effect. Cosmic.
Perhaps more easy and melodic than the music of Sun Ra (an artist Steer covered during the set), Steer's frequently twiddled and oft adjusted higher notes danced and grooved about entertainingly on the heaviness and booming solidity of his drones and reverberations. The octagonal space of the chapel vibrated rhythmically while heads nodded and bobbed along appreciatively in the pews.
A mysterious shrouded or veiled, patchwork cloaked visitor from another plane of up there, introduced as Alabaster DePlume, joined in with alien (to me) squelchy speak  and saxophone toots before going solo and gracing the space with  his unveiled slightly over hung and weary of-this-world poetry, followed by highly wrought songs sweetly sung. Kiddies in the audience chirped, laughed and called out to add a sort of homeliness and dreaminess to the occasion. As DePlume's final song, buoyed by applause, ascended into Cubitt's great wooden ceiling the stage was set for a musical ensemble of 'Marshman Chronicles' inspired enchantment.

'A Dream Life of Hackney Marshes'

Gareth Rees and Jetsam (a 6 piece musical ensemble) sat in a semi-circle in front of a huge black curtain and the imposing presence of the pulpit to perform, 'A Dream Life of Hackney Marshes'. It was an appropriately sombre setting for the slow, elegiacal rendition of the chronicles, in particular, the Marshman's story of his love of the towering National Grid electricity pylons which traverse the east London marshes.
Jetsam's music and sounds were saturated with a bleakness that complimented the desolate and sepulchral impressions of the marshes, spoken lucidly, if perhaps a little severely, by Gareth as the narrator - "a heron scans the water in a flooded bomb crater" was articulated as sharply and lean as that bird. I wondered if Gareth could have played more with the cadence and inflections of his oration - using the microphone and amplification to relish the musicality of the prose - like say, Nick Cave in, 'And the Ass Saw the Angel'.
In the marsh dream cum nightmare, the Lea, flowing through the marsh, is a 'sick green canal' with only memories of kingfishers - those shy birds that, when seen, disappear as flitting electric blue flashes over glinting clean flowing streams, not the dank over-spill of the effluvia of metropolitan dreams. I recognized many of the images in the story Gareth told from his blog, The Marshman Chronicles. 'A Dream Life ....' seemed to be a lyrical distillation of that personal reinvention of the area and it was enjoyable to see, hear and feel through the chapel's incredible ambient acoustics such a carefully and richly composed interpretation. The mood of the whole piece reminded me of the 'Tindersticks' soundtrack for the film, 'Trouble Everyday', coupled with the synthesized intricacy and dissonances of Brian Eno's, On Land  There were however a few occasions when I struggled to keep in touch with the text or libretto, perhaps losing the story, such was the interplay of the sounds in and of the space.

In the enlightening study of British folk music, Electric Eden (Rob Young) - a book which features a pylon in the cover illustration - much attention is given to collaborations and other connections between writers and musicians/composers - most notably in this context, the collaboration between Gustav Holst and Thomas Hardy, 'Egdon Heath' - the fictional terrain from 'The Return of the Native' that, according to Young, Holst evoked via eerie atmospheres and hallucinatory acoustics .
From what I gathered of, 'A Dream Life of Hackney Marshes', a story of the love in and of the marsh-scape, there was no reciprocation between Marshman and the crackling towers. The fantasy played out in an extended song sung by Jetsam's, Sam Mumford (vocals and guitar) and following this, the Marshman walked until 'the hole' absorbed him in sleep and his high wire dream. In the recollection of the dream all the conflicting forces of the natural and unnatural expressed by that area of the Lower Lea Valley were embraced to become a place of bitter sweet retreat and lament.

In 'Edgelands', Paul Farley and Michael Symmons say of pylons, 'only in the edgelands do these giants look at home, with their sagging skipping ropes and the ominous crackle and hum as you approach them'. They cite Simon Denison and Philip Gross as an artist and a poet who have explored some of the allure of pylons and their place in the dynamism and indeterminancy of edgelands - places which play with the collective mind, on a pysche seeking refuge from modernity, of which pylons are a potent symbol. For some the promise of tranquility is disturbed by their presence and association with energy, driven power, combustion - the latter, said by WG Sebald, in, The Rings of Saturn, to be 'the hidden principle behind every artefact we create'; a legacy of many mythological thefts of fire.

I left the Union Chapel unsure of what I heard and have tried to remake it up in my mind, to figure out how the various fragments might come together to form a coherent and sensible opinion about 'A Dream Life of Hackney Marshes'. Perhaps no such impression was intended. Anyway on the same day of that show I happened to cross the marshes late in the night and pass through the place where I imagine Marshman set himself down to sleep. It was there during a dark drenching downpour that I came across the oozing larval light - a genuine trace or impression perhaps of Gareth Rees' and Jetsam's, 'A Dream Life of Hackney Marshes'.




  1. Replies
    1. Hi Adrian, thank you for visiting and commenting. I think the Hackney Marsh pylons are spoken for.

  2. Thanks for such a detailed review and for your continued support, Julian! We're working on another piece to put into the suite then trying another outing at the Vortex, Dalston (pencilled in date, 24th January). My aim with the libretto was to write it as a fragmented dream that added textures and ideas to the music, rather than a coherent story, so I think (hope) our first outing made the intended impact. Cheers! Gareth.

    1. Hi Gareth, thank you for reading the review. I'll try and get along to the next outing. All the best and good luck with the publication of your book.