MEET: We chat with landscape artist and musician Richard Skelton ahead of his new album

Richard Skelton, photographed by Autumn Richardson

RICHARD SKELTON is an artist in the deepest sense of the word. He publishes intense poetry in lovingly designed editions with Corbel Stone Press; he also makes a very deep music with a fierce geographical, experiential focus – initially very much about the undervisited, bleak West Pennine Moors; and more recently, the Scottish borderlands.

Often the instrumentation employed was constructed and sourced from, or left to weather on,those self-same moors; what you heard was a fierce, unbridled, and primeval tonal language which sounded more like the land singing to itself, the other-place of the humans not really in evidence. 

Under his own name, and with such aliases as A Broken Consort, Clouwbeck, Riftmusic and others, he’s now released something like 50 albums all told – at least if a quick straw poll of Discogs may be believed.

It’s a music that’s often discomfiting, always immersive, absolutely of verity, and unafraid to reach as far in (and out) as possible.

He’s about to release his first album for new home Phantom Limb, These Charms May Be Sung Over A Wound, and has made the full leap across from the acoustic to the digital; although the earthy, organic musics you’ll find within sound like they’ve arisen from his chosen landscape of their own sonic volition. Read our review here.

A hugely interesting, erudite, perceptive man, we took some time to meet Richard and talk about the new album, his relationship with landscape and more. Read on.

Hello Richard. So, with These Charms May Be Sung Over A Wound, by most calculations, you’re way over the half-century of musical releases now. You’re getting on for a Sun Ra-sized oeuvre … how do you perceive your vast body of work from the vantage point of now?

I don’t find myself looking back at my own work that often. I’m usually obsessed with what I’m working on, or rather, what I want to work on next. The ideas increasingly pile up, and I find it incredibly frustrating that – as I get older – it seems to take longer and longer to make them manifest.

Nevertheless, when I do look back I see a sense of continuity and a commitment to certain ideas and compositional practices. Despite that, I think there’s quite a diversity of sound – “I Have Heard A Music And It Is Delirious” is very different from Black Swallow And Other Songs, for example, as is Stadial from The Oracle Bone.

And of course, as well as recording under your own name, there’s been all the releases as A Broken Consort, Clouwbeck, etc; is there a particular schemata at work when you shift between noms de musique?

I think I’ve mostly sloughed off the different names at this stage, but who knows what will happen in the future.

When I began, my original idea was to use a different pseudonym with each new recording, and to keep the name of the label – Sustain-Release – as the only constant. But some kind of oblique internal logic started to assert itself. Perhaps it’s the power of names themselves. They won’t let you go.

At the moment, apart from my partnership with Autumn Richardson as ‘*AR’, the only other pseudonym I use is ‘The Inward Circles’, the latter which signalled the beginnings of my experimentation with degrading sound sources, back in 2013. In many ways, These Charms … covers similar territory – things are beginning to merge and become indistinguishable even to me…

Many of your releases have been aesthetically beautiful and very limited – I’ve missed out on a few by not being quick enough out of the blocks. What drives the numbers you release in a physical format?

When I ran Sustain-Release between 2005 and 2011, each CDR was made to order and dedicated to the recipient. Every aspect of the packaging was obsessed over – it was a labour of love. But as I became more heavily involved with writing, my way of working had to change. I’m a slow writer, and there simply weren’t enough hours in the day.

These days I’m more pragmatic – at Corbel Stone Press we tend to have our CDs manufactured, which usually means a minimum of 100 copies. However, if the project warrants it, we’ll pull out all the stops and produce a special edition. So, for example, Towards A Frontier came in a clamshell box with a series of prints, an art book and a DVD. It’s a joy to produce these editions, but the materials are often expensive, and so they’re necessarily limited in number.

And These Charms … sees your first vinyl release in a decade or so – one of two re-emergent formats. What led to your return to vinyl, when a lot of more recherche artists are plumping for the chromium oxide?

RE: Cr02 – I actually released my first tape last year, although it wasn’t a recherche move, I promise. The project, Till Fabrics, is focused on the attritional character of ice-age landscapes, and so I thought it would be fitting to release the music in a format that is also subject to physical wear and decay. I like the idea that each time the cassette is played, it wears out just a little…

As far as vinyl is concerned, although we’ve produced a few very limited lathe-cut editions over the past half-decade, vinyl has always been outside of our budget at Corbel Stone Press. So, when I was approached by James at Phantom Limb, and vinyl was suggested, I was of course delighted. Whilst I’m not a vinyl purist, there’s something alluring about the format. Given the ritual aspect to These Charms …, it seemed fitting that the music should be given this special treatment.

You’re regarded as an artist of a psychogeographical nature. Psychogeography can be applied lazily at times, to a whole range of approaches from the deep dive into the surroundings of Iain Sinclair and Tim Robinson, to the more situationist original fine art conception. Where do you see yourself within the discipline?

My default answer is to leave such questions to those with the proper – aerial – perspective. For me, it’s often difficult to see the greater cultural landscape when I’m immersed in my own particular niche. But I’m incredibly flattered to be discussed in the same context as Iain Sinclair and the late, much-missed Tim Robinson.

I know Iain began as a poet and filmmaker, and has worked in other disciplines, and likewise Tim began as a visual artist and continued this interest through cartography, so we perhaps each share a multivalent approach.

For me, working with sound, writing, photography and film allows me to access parallel and complementary phenomena. I have a difficult time with disciplinary boundaries and best like to work where there is the possibility of an overlap.

For me it’s an intensely personal process, but at the same time I see what I do as an attempt to become a conduit for something else. I like the analogy of dowsing – my actions are in consort with the subterranean, the hidden, and it’s a matter of trying to locate the point at which these sources are closest to the surface.

Much of your early work centred on the Anglezarke moors of West Lancashire, a bleak and under-visited landscape I know a little, but nowhere near your level. What was it about this area that seized you in both your writing and your music, and kept a hold of you?

The simple answer is that Anglezarke Moor was visible – on the distant horizon – from the kitchen window of the house in which I spent most of my young life. It therefore came to represent a threshold – a signifier of the beyond.

My father had a particular interest in the area through the writing of Phoebe Hesketh, and so we made several family visits over the course of my childhood. In 2004, returning to it after an absence of a decade or more, it was – poignantly – like meeting my younger self. It felt somehow ancestral.

Of course, at the same time I came to understand it as a landscape of ruins – due to the scattered remnants of farms long deserted and demolished. From there I became interested in the way archives and cartographic records enshrine or erase collective memory; in ideas of embodiment, and the physicality of sound.

Now you’re based in the Scottish borders; an area that Graham Robb’s recent book The Debatable Lands details as not really belonging to anyone for a long period; lawless, shifting. Is this what intrigued you enough to make you move there? How much does sifting of history inform your perception and thus your work; do you seek this kinda information out, or do you prefer to approach a landscape on its own, immediate terms?

Moving to the Borders accidentally coincided with the commencement of my PhD, in which I’ve been looking into the deep late-glacial past of northern Britain. This work has been fairly all-consuming, and so I’ve not been able to look into the more recent history of the Borders themselves.

I do have Graham’s book and look forward to reading it, and there’s a sense that its contentious history is palpable – the landscape itself is somehow steeped in it. We live in a village that is only a couple of miles from the Kershope Burn, which marks the border with Cumbria, and I’ve found myself repeatedly drawn to the river and the surrounding landscape. It feels freighted with mystery.

Undoubtedly there is much to draw upon in terms of local history and folklore, but recently I’ve been more focused on personal and intimate responses to place. Our move to the Borders came after a number of years of fairly itinerant existence, and so my 2019 album Border Ballads is, I think, more concerned with a personal sense of dwelling and anchoring in a new landscape – albeit a landscape that is itself quite unanchored … .

How has lockdown and 2020 been in your life?

In all honesty I’m quite uncomfortable discussing these kind of questions. There are families who have been torn apart by the pandemic, and it seems trivial for an artist to comment on how their life has been affected – either negatively or positively. It is what it is. Each of us, we make the best of what we’re given.

What was your musical discovery of lockdown; and also, what was your rediscovery?

I haven’t been listening to much music. Weirdly, I’ve rediscovered Radio 4. My daily ritual has involved listening to the Today programme, World At One and PM. I suppose it helps to combat the sense of isolation – to listen to other voices, to get a sense of what is happening elsewhere.

Your releases: are they a diarising, a capture of a moment, a period that you seek?

For a while – with Landings, for example – I became interested in the idea of creating a auditory layering of different places and temporalities. So I saw the multi-track facility of recording technology as a way of making connections between discrete localities. The act of layering music recorded in different places was an attempt to bridge isolation, to bind those places together into a larger assemblage.

More recently I’ve been interested in how sound can enact the processes at work within the greater landscape – attrition, decay, renewal. The recording – or even better, the series – is a way of communicating continual change; landscapes aren’t static, they’re continually evolving.

And you write so deeply for Corbel Stone Press, which you run with Autumn. You’re very lyrical; intensely musical. Do you foresee a deeper entwining of the two?

I see writing and music-making as aspects of a broader practice which is engaged with landscape as living and full of agency. Each creative medium has its own character and methodologies, but I think they can ‘accompany’ each other. I try not to force the connection. I do observe a to-and-fro between the practice of sound-making and writing. Poetry especially is rhythmical and musical, and so the texts that I produce undoubtedly draw upon my musical activities.

Increasingly I hear not just William Basinski, but also elements of Tim Hecker, Thomas Köner coming into play with your work. What is it you love about that decay, that imperfection in sound?

I see Basinski’s Disintegration Loops very much as artworks, in that they engage with the societal context of the 9/11 attacks; they work with and against ideas of destruction and eradication.

At about the same time, I was concerned with an entirely different project – sound as a ‘viscous, healing liquid’, as a means of trying halt what I saw as the erosive passage of time. But even as I was engaged in this practice, I noted that each individual sound ‘falls into decay and eventual silence’, and so there was a paradox at its heart. During this time I would leave small instruments in various places on the West Pennine Moors and retrieve them later. It was my belief that the landscape would impart something of its agency to the instrument itself, and that this would in turn be released in the act of playing. Something akin to the principle of contagious magic. But the longer I left the instruments exposed, the more degraded they would become, and so there was a trade-off.

At about this time, I stumbled across PV Glob’s book on bog bodies in a bookshop in Settle, and something switched, and I became interested in sound-making as a way of trying to enact edaphological and taphonomic processes. So, although there may be a similarity in texture between my work and the artists you mention, the route that I came to this sound is, I think, unique to myself.

This is why I don’t describe myself as a musician, but as an artist. I’m less concerned with aesthetics and more with concepts and processes.

You’ve finally moved across to a wholly electronic sonic process, which retains a hugely organic element. You can smell the earth. This can’t be easy to achieve?

It’s interesting. I produced a recording last year called Front Variations, that was composed entirely from sine waves, feedback and ring modulation. It begins with quite an unadulterated electronic sound, but as it begins to feedback and distort, it almost becomes self-aware and self-controlling. It morphs and shifts quite radically, which I find exciting. With These Charms… there’s a healthy amount of distortion, which, when carefully applied can soften electronic sounds, making them feel more organic.

And now you’re into the electronic sphere, do you see more work that needs to be done? Has the area of analogue music, as it were, been done with for now?

For years I would only use the instruments that I had at my disposal – it was an ethos. But once I began to experiment with degrading and transforming those acoustic sources, the line between organic and electronic seemed to blur.

For These Charms… the challenge I set myself was to begin only with the simplest electronic sound sources – sine, square and saw waves. So, in a way, in applying various effects to them I’ve been building my own electronic instruments.

I still have a lot of exploring to do, but I haven’t abandoned acoustic instruments either. In fact, I’ve currently working on a series of recordings that are entirely composed of sounds from a home-made string instrument constructed from wood and bits of metal.

Richard, thank you so much.

Richard Skelton’s These Charms May Be Sung Over A Wound will be released by Phantom Limb on digital and double vinyl formats on September 25th; it’s available to pre-order now at the label’s Bandcamp page.

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1 Comment

  1. Duncan Edwards
    November 20, 2020

    An informative, intriguing, interview with just the right amount of reference to other artists.

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