A Quietus Live Report: Richard Skelton and the Elysian Quartet at St Luke’s, London (June 17th, 2014)

The lovely, intimate and acoustically-exquisite St Luke’s on Old Street could almost have been built with Richard Skelton in mind. His music shares some of the venue’s sparseness, and it is given extra dramatic potency as it fills the room, rebounding gracefully off the ceiling and walls.

Tonight’s show features three pieces inspired by Skelton’s residency at Snape Maltings in Suffolk last December. Throughout his stay in Snape, he explored the surrounding landscapes, drawing particular inspiration from the river Alde and the expansive marshlands surrounding it, which eventually lead to the sea. It’s a familiar approach from Skelton, whose numerous wonderful albums have all been imbued with a sense of location and landscape, often very specific ones. And rivers have long featured prominently in that equation, although perhaps not as much as at St Luke’s.

Most fascinating, perhaps, is the “recruitment” of the Elysian Quartet for the three pieces, which, before the actual show, seemed to be an attempt to flesh out Skelton’s music by adding a cello, viola and two violins. In fact -and this is testament to Richard Skelton’s talent as a composer- the addition of the Elysian Quartet takes his music much further than merely adding some instruments, and indeed, all three pieces are evocative of Skelton’s previous body of work, whilst also branching out into new territory.

The first piece, ‘EA’, sounds instantly familiar for any fan of Skelton, with low, mournful drones from all instruments, the man himself using a bowed bouzouki. “Ea” is an old Anglo-saxon word for “river”, and the slow-moving ebb and flow of the cello and bouzouki in particular sound like the effortless sea-wards drift of a body of water: patient, languid and eternal. As the piece progresses, one of the violinists starts a repeated series of short, almost pizzicato notes, as if we’re suddenly joined on this river journey by a fluttering bird. The bird theme returns on the second work, ‘Above/Below’, performed solely by the Elysian Quartet. The four players swirl and drift around one another, notes tumbling out in flurries or gracefully unfurled like opening flowers. Skelton’s intense relationship with nature is encapsulated on ‘Above/Below’, as he thoroughly researched the different species of bird he encountered whilst in Suffolk. The result is a piece that, whilst evidently performed on strings, manages to conjure up thoughts and images of birds in the mind’s eye. Even if he isn’t performing, Skelton’s alchemical touch is at the heart of this music.

Skelton returns for the final piece, ‘Mimesis’, which is by far the most dramatic of the three. Inspired by the flood warnings that dot the riverbanks of the Alde, Skelton has managed to crystallise the angst and distress of last winter’s dreadful floods in the west of the country by metastasizing them into a nightmare projection of a similar catastrophe hitting Suffolk. The drones are no longer mournful but angry and portentous, the instruments often pitched at odds with each other, tempo-wise. By the end of the piece, the strings of Skelton’s bow are hanging raggedly and a thrilled hush permeates the audience. This set transcends anything Richard Skelton has released on CD or record, and confirms him as a great modern composer with a rare talent for translating memories and dreams into musical reality.

A Liminal Review: Verse of Birds by Richard Skelton (July 5th, 2012)

Richard Skelton’s music occupies a world of its own that is both familiar and completely dreamlike, acting as a conduit for his deepest emotions, which he shares with his audience in a way that is affecting and musically elliptical at once, like an enigma the answer to which is only just out of reach. Many cite Arvo Part as a key influence, but the closest comparison I can think of would be William Basinski, another artist who has perfected the art of imparting intense feeling without going into overt sentimentalism.

Skelton’s Landings was one of the highlights of 2010, a desolate album overflowing with pathos and pain yet also one that was elegantly composed, with Skelton making exquisite use of violins and bowed guitar as, responding to his grief following the death of his wife, he embarked on a journey across the Lancastrian moorlands, recording on-location to better capture the mood of the landscape and of his own troubled soul. If the focus on Landings was possibly divided evenly between his emotional reflection and his musings on the woods, rivers and copses that surrounded him as he recorded, Verse of Birds seems to focus more closely on the inherent psychogeography of its creation, with every note feeling inhabited by the windy, barren Irish coastlines where it was recorded.

If that sounds bleak, then I’m doing the album (and Ireland!) a disservice. Although far from rapturous, Verse of Birds is traversed by a spirit of elation, the work of an artist rendered speechless by his surroundings but committed to translating this feeling in sound. Skelton’s talent lies in how he recaptures the land’s openness, and a sense of space and air dominates the album: it lies between the notes of his violin and guitar, it fills the musical mind-image he creates with thoughts of endless skies, rolling seas and uninhabited greenery. These images are palpable, but at the same time elusive, and what you’re left with is space. Not emptiness, just space. One to fill with emotions, sounds and thought, from a delicately-plucked acoustic guitar (a welcome addition to his sonic palette) to those heart-rending, airy drones he’s become a master of. In many ways, Richard Skelton is a descendent of the folk tradition of the sixties, a troubadour, of sorts, returning to the primordial geography and geology of Britain and Ireland and capturing the spirits there in music. On the other hand, his exquisite use of slacked violin strings and transformation of the electric guitar into a mournful generator of lamentations hint at a debt to the New York school of minimalism and drone.

Richard Skelton is more than a musician, however, and Verse of Birds should be seen as the musical companion to his collection of writings The Flowering Rock, which records his thoughts whilst wandering through The Burren, a remote and unpopulated stretch of land in County Clare, Ireland. As such, Verse of Birds feels more tangible than Landings, without losing its emotional resonance, merely tweaking it. His writings extrapolate on his experiences of places and scenery and, allied to the music, suggest a more introverted latter-day John Clare. It’s a process that allows his vision and composition to evolve organically, and he has noted in correspondence that recent recordings feature different interpretations of the same tracks, comparing them to the different takes in photography. It’s a fascinating approach, out of which his entire body of work becomes an immersive, endlessly engaging and evolving experience. As such, any similarities between his numerous works (even across different projects like A Broken Consort and *AR) are irrelevant, for each is a new chapter in an ongoing evocation of vistas and emotions that are at times damaged, ecstatic, wondrous or mournful, but -crucially- always beautiful.