Richard Skelton

Live at LSO St Luke’s (with Elysian Quartet)

Richard Skelton doesn’t perform live often. He’s no stranger to installations and commissioned, site-specific pieces, but to see him play his music on stage is a rare opportunity. I have to admit to having had some degree of trepidation before taking advantage of that opportunity. Skelton’s music is so insular and so personal that it almost seems unsuited to live performance. Perhaps it’s a relief then that his concert at LSO St Luke’s isn’t exactly ‘Richard Skelton plays his greatest hits’, rather it’s the product of a residency in Snape, Suffolk last year in which Skelton worked with the Elysian Quartet to develop a series of works inspired by the local landscape.

Again, this brought with it some worries, mainly that working with other musicians would mean the loss of Skelton’s unique, fragile playing technique, wherein every scrape of bow on string, every squeal and shiver, every breath of player and instrument is given as much weight as the actual note being played. Fortunately, the Elysian Quartet does an excellent job of mimicking this style and any lingering doubts are brushed aside within moments of the performance beginning. It’s a new setting for Skelton, and the Quartet (and the project itself) naturally bring with them some differences – it’s a little more objective, for example, though no less affecting – but the music is still very much his.

The second of the night’s three pieces is in fact performed entirely by the quartet, as Skelton watches from the side of the stage. The piece, ‘Above/Below’, opens unexpectedly comically, with light, staccato notes bouncing between the musicians. The humour might be a surprise, but the human touch isn’t. The gestation of the piece began with Skelton making a “textual score” using the names of the wildlife of Snape and the river Alde, some of which was then interpreted by the Elysian Quartet. For all his music’s roots in nature, I’ve always felt the Skelton’s defining concern is finding where the human place in that is. Mapping is, after all, a very human act; animals have no need of maps. So, although the start of ‘Above/Below’ does delightfully conjure the hopping of birds or the flicker of insects, the human touch is always there. That touch has another humorous outing later as the unfortunate cellist struggles to tune her instrument, getting a few good-natured laughs for her trouble. The rest of ‘Above/Below’ develops in a varied, occasionally even tangential manner, appropriate to its diverse inspiration, eventually coalescing into a long, unbroken and strident drone.

The other two pieces – for which Skelton himself plays bouzouki, laid out flat and bowed so that it is often indistinguishable from the other four instruments – are more recognisable to someone familiar with Skelton’s recorded output. The evening closes with ‘Mimesis’, inspired by tidal surges during the residency and the ever-present threat of flooding. The early minutes of the piece are soft and enchanting, as a calm river can be, with barely a threat of the possible disaster. Five bows glide over strings unevenly, lingering notes lapping over each other in one dense, deeply layered movement, like ripples under the surface water, or like tectonic plates in miniature. I close my eyes for a while and when I open them the trees, visible in the grey evening light through the large church window above the performers, appear to be swaying in time with the music.

The harmony can’t last, though, and soon the flood promised in the programme notes arrives. The piece has a clearer narrative than either of the others, or at least a linear one. There is a gradual crescendo; all the rough edges that can be so endearing and intimate in Skelton’s music transform into something menacing. The change is slow, so that the resounding elemental violence with which it concludes arrives almost unnoticed at first, but proceeds to sweep the audience along in an impenetrable, churning cacophony. Skelton’s bow is in tatters by the end, hairs whirling in a cloud around it.

Despite this compelling finale, it’s ‘EA’, the opening piece of the concert, that is the highlight. It’s signature Skelton, both in sound and conception. Some of the playing, particularly from the two violinists, is so delicate and breathy that it sounds as if it could collapse at any minute, although it is remarkably clear in the precise and unshowy acoustics of the old church. And the piece grew out of Skelton’s time with the Alde. It’s hard to tell exactly how the river has inspired the music, but there’s a general sense of fluidity that is common to Skelton’s music, particularly to his long-form or more explicitly water-based works, like Limnology. With ‘EA’, languid drones blend into one another so completely that it really is impossible to tell who is doing what, but together they create a luscious sound that, whilst constantly drifting, remains completely together, one flowing body.

Somewhere in the middle of the piece the abstraction is broken by a steady, folky melody that is passed around the musicians. Rich vibrato gives it an almost vocal tone, and with its tinge of melancholy it coasts over the ambience. There’s a bliss that can only exist when tinted with sadness, like warmth that can only be achieved with the knowledge that outside its still freezing. Skelton seems to me to have always understood this. From this moment on, the musicians have the audience captivated (if they didn’t already). The music swells and ebbs, hovering in a place of natural, flawed beauty and a settled mournfulness. Images come to my mind, of water parting around a rock and coming together again on the other side, undisturbed, of the swaying grass of the flatlands around the river, although maybe that’s the trees through the window again, and given that I’ve never seen the Alde maybe these pictures are irrelevant anyway. It’s the sound that really matters, as it meanders to the corners of the large, square room and then around to immerse everyone in it. There’s no need for pictures when the sound is this expressive.

And then the music begins to recede. As the shivering of the cello fades into an ever more exquisite silence everyone and I stop breathing, and after the last scrapes disappear there’s a pause so complete that I imagine I can hear the sweep of the Thames or even the bubbling of the Alde whispering in my ears and I beg it never to end. Of course, it does, there’s two more pieces to get through after all. It probably only lasted for a few seconds, though it felt like a lot longer. But the impression it left lingered throughout the evening. So, even if the setting might have been new for Skelton, his music thrived in it, with the same beauty and the same moving power it’s always had.

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