Saturday, July 11, 2020

The Lost Words: Spell Songs

Bluebell, snow hare, heather, owl, otter, acorn, conker, dandelion, kingfisher, wren...

Words contain images, history, stories. When words become names, that is even more so.

Artist Jackie Morris learned that a number of words were to be dropped from a popular children’s dictionary in the UK, where she lives. Most of those words had to do with nature and wilderness.

An award winning illustrator and author, Morris decided to create book with images from a selection of these words. She contacted well known nature writer Robert Macfarlane to see if he would write a forward to the book. He came back with another idea: what if he wrote spells, incantations so to speak, calling the words and what they named back to life -- back into imagination? Morris and Macfarlane created such a book, called The Lost Words.

The idea caught fire. Children and adults responded to the book. Two of those who were inspired were Adam and Caroline Slough of Folk by the Oak, who often commission music projects. The Lost Words: Spell Songs became their next endeavour.

Karine Polwart, Julie Fowlis, Seckou Keita, Kris Drever, Kerry Andrew, Rachel Newton, Beth Pos addressed and connected with nature, place, and wild lands in their work. Among them, their work has touched a range of genres, spanned a number of instruments, included Scots, Mandinka, and Gaelic languages. It seemed they would make fine collaborators to create music that would, in essence, sing these bits of nature back to life,

That is true. The work they created is called The Lost Words: Spell Songs.

Each artist brings a distinct physical voice as well and distinctive musical skills, points of view, and backgrounds to the work. After an initial meeting and a time of mulling over each on his or her own whilst involved in other projects, the eight gathered for a week of residency, a time of collaboration to write and record what became the fourteen tracks on Spell Songs.

As with the illustrations by Jackie Morris, there is both intricacy and directness in the music they have created.

As with the spells of Robert Macfarlane’s words, there is pattern and breaking of pattern.

With all these, there is mystery and clarity, discovery and recognition, sorrow and hope.

The music is grounded in Celtic tradition and draws in elements of many other traditions. Classical music and music of Seckou Keita’s Senegalese griot background are among those which appear. Gaelic song, which is very often grounded in place,is present, as is Scots tradition of rhythm in service of story come in; four of the artists, Polwart, Fowlis, Newton, and Drever, are from Scotland.

As to the lyrics, some come directly from Macfarlane’s writing, some use phrases or words from his work, some are inspired by what’s written rather than speaking directly from it. Some, too, draw inspiration from the art by Morris, or the interplay between art and words.

It’s a recording that bears listening far more than once. As with a kaleidoscope, different colours and patterns and intersections come to the fore with each listening, and different stories resonate and connect with each other as these change. Producer Andy Bell has woven sounds of the natural world in with a light touch, too.

There is Heartwood, with Karine Polwart taking the lead voice in the song of a tree speaking to those who would -- those who will -- cut it down. It’s not a plea so much as a a story, a request, a knowledge that both tree and cutter exist in a shared space of time.

Time is an element that threads through all the stories, in varying ways: the Kingfisher darts and flashes in and out of landscape as Julie Fowlis sings lead and others’ voices come in. Fowlis, who comes from the Western Isles, has long had interest in folklore of the seal people, so it’s right hat she also takes lead on the story of the Selkie as he goes through his own changes in time, place, and being, finding his home with his water borne kin. The Snow Hare’s life is embedded in and connected to the change of seasons, which are themselves changing with climate change, a story told in haunting unison singing by Polwart and Fowlis.

Sadness and hope are both present. In Little Astronaut Jim Molyneux seeks seeks solace in looking to hear agin the song of the wren, and in Bethany Porter’s graceful Charm On Goldfinch, there is the lively joy of present birdsong and questioning of what may come. With the story of Scatterseed, ‘fallen hero of the football field,’ Kris Drever frames the story of the lost names of the dandelion.

Mystical aspects of the Heron are illuminated in intertwining songlines by Rachel Newton and Seckou Keita; their harp and kora, respectively, twine as do their voices and languages. The Ghost Owl haunts in melody and sound. There’s a bright snap of humour in the story of Conker. Newton brings light and image to Macfarlane’s words with her take on Acorn. Fowlis and Keita connect languages in Papa Keyba, which takes inspiration from the ideas the book rather than drawing directly from its word and image.

Drawing the recording to a close is The Blessing. Images, ideas, and characters from the songs and the book make a story, a journey if you will. which includes bright flashes of hope and darker threads of sorrow, and perhaps, a hint of warning, too.

What, after all, would the woods and waters, birds and animals have to tell us about our times now? How would we speak in that conversation? Spell Songs may be that answer.

Good places to purchase Spell Songs and to find out more about the project are at the Lost Words site and at the Folk by the Oak shop. The music comes with a book, as well. Though I’ve heard the music in several contexts I’ve not had opportunity to see the book, but I understand it includes lyrics and further written material, as well as artwork Morris created during the residency that conneets musicians and their instruments with nature.

You will also find tour posters for sale with art work from Morris, as well as a no cost download on the project for educators. There’s also a fine gallery of photographs by Elly Lucas from the residency where the music was created and recorded, and from several of the live concerts which followed.

You may also want to know: word is that there will be a volume two of Spell Songs, perhaps to be released in the autumn.

--> Speaking of concerts, Folk by the Oak is taking their summer festival online this year. .The Spell Songs collaborative as well as several of the individual artists are set to take part. This all happens on 19 July, and there’s further information at the Folk by the Oak link in the sentence just above.

You may also wish to see
A story about Alterum from Julie Fowlis
A story about Laws of Motion from Karine Polwart
A story about another nature related recording: The Woods, from Hamish Napier
Journeys through Landscape in Music, part of the Music for Shifting Times series at Wandering Educators

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