Richard J Birkin – The Last Outpost of Empire

Richard J Birkin - Last Outpost of Empire, image of artist manipulated to look as if he was underwater.

290 miles west of Scotland, only 70 feet high and about 100 yards in circumference, Rockall is a speck in the Atlantic Ocean. Its ant-like size, along with its steep corners of rock and the threat of an unpredictable, swelling sea, only helps to heighten the music in “The Last Outpost of Empire”, the soundtrack to a podcast called A Lonely Isle. Written by Matthew Sheret and with music by Richard J Birkin, this mini-album isn’t so much about an island itself but the personal stories of those who have been there.

The six pieces of music (or episodes) float on white-tipped waves of arpeggiated piano. Sensitive, calm strings mirror the relative calm of the islet’s skirting seas – but this can change in the blink of an eye, as is the case with ‘Impact (1904)’. The chord sequence in the main theme was written using the navigational method of ‘dead reckoning’, deciding where to go next based only on the last point, and as a result the arpeggios sit uneasily.

Rockall ‘exists in opposition to everything around it’, standing up strong and rising like a trident, pushing up and out of the sea, alone and isolated while resolutely standing its ground. Yes, the islet’s very presence is remarkable, but its features are anything but, so Birkin’s music has to rise out of a blank-faced sea, adding features through sound with surges of quiet power, and that helps in providing a memorable image of its understated and modest appearance.

The island is described through its instrumentation as well as its personal accounts. While narratives recount the experiences of those who have been there, through music, we are able to go there, too. The music is a splash of colour, bringing light to monochromatic syllables, making it real and graspable even as it hooks into the Atlantic.

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Richard J Birkin
A Lonely Isle project website

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