After discovering an old wax cylinder recording in a local school, William Barber began to take shape. Like an apparition, the recording, dating from 1906, included the voice of the old headmaster, William Barber, reciting poetry and introducing a musical performance. Inside the music, you can see frail, white-chalked claws that still mark the blackboard. You can smell the history. William Barber is a collaborative album from Spheruleus and Friends. The ambient musician is joined by Isnaj Dui, Antonymes, Fraser McGowan (Caught in the Wake Forever), Christoph Berg (Field Rotation) and Hibernate label head Jonathan Lees. With that impressive line-up, what could easily have become a case of too many cooks spoiling the broth turns out to be a restrained, yet colourful ambient excursion that drifts perfectly between the centuries. Nobody gets a detention. An old, musty fragrance permeates the music, and not even a bottle of Febreze air freshener can erase it. Lose the atmosphere, and you lose the soul of the music.
The dusty atmosphere is more than just nostalgia. It coats the music and it gives it substance. The tracks blur together, but the ambient music is heavy. A colourful chord progression rocks the music from side to side. The headmaster sits in front of the row of wooden desks. Pupils play outside and shiny black shoes pound the grey gravel. Black sunshine pours in through the window. The light obscures faces and casts shadows. The Victorian tinkle of a music box leaves a thick layer of dust on top of the music. Consequently, the rest of the record drags its slow notes through the dust and through the ill-lit confines of the old classroom.
Field recordings were taken from around the school, adding to the vintage vibe. A heavy thud that could be a footstep leaves its trace behind. ‘Broken Stones’ are strewn over the grey playground. ‘Virtue Is Its Own Reward’ loops gently and calms the tempo. Like a pot of black ink, the notes drip and coalesce on the page. On William Barber, the past leaks into the present. The headmaster is here – instead of documenting him, he is a part of the record. The music, at times, hangs from a voice, stranded on a cobweb of light interference. Strings play out in the fields, but they’re soon called back inside. They fade and ghost into an ordinary building, ready for their next lesson. The bricks have a sickly pallor, left pale by the years. Antiquated pianos play out their dry, sullen notes and paint the air thick. Warbling tones that have somehow survived try to lift off, but you can hear the decay in their creaking bones. Their musical shapes – the age-old notation of quavers and crotchets – bend and crumble as they play on. In the music, as well as in life, the scent of the past is always present.