Back on a Thursday in February, when there was still snow on the ground, I took the train to Settle to conduct an experiment. Let me set the scene. It’s early morning at Leeds station and the train for Carlisle is filling up with ladies and gentlemen of retirement age tempted by an amazing ticket offer to travel the famous Settle to Carlisle railway, one of the most beautiful train journeys in the UK. I’m sitting there beginning to feel a little uncomfortable. Perhaps it is the notion that as a composer retirement and that freedom to wake up in the morning and not to have go to work is unlikely to be something I’ll ever experience. A composer I studied with in the late 60s is 102 and still composing! But that aside, I’m looking forward so much to this day out, a walk to Attermire Scar on the outskirts of Settle.
Further up the line I’m joined by my companion and photographer for the day. She’s standing on the station platform suitably dressed for walking in the snow. We both have our walking poles and stout boots and as the train ascends into the Yorkshire Dales we gaze out onto snow covered fields and hills as they begin to sparkle in the sunshine.
In less than an hour from Leeds we leave the train at Settle’s beautifully managed little station and walk into the town centre to acquire the requisite chocolate brownies to top up the lunch box. Then in a few minutes we are on the steep path to Attermire Scar. There’s a sun dog! The first I’ve ever seen in the UK. There I’ll stop, because the rest of this lovely day I’ve captured in images, poetry, music and some lively ideas for woven tapestry. All these that form the backdrop to a book I really want to discuss. It’s called Lines: a brief history, by social anthropologist Tim Ingold.
I mentioned I was reading this book in my blog of 8 November. Its content has preoccupied me variously since then. It was only last week as my work on this Attermire Scar ‘experiment’ came to a particular juncture that I began to see how Professor Ingold’s book intersected so wonderfully with my ‘experiment’. It was now the right time to write about Lines. Let me describe the experiment before I start on the book.
It’s about what I’m currently calling diary-based-structure. This term comes from my study of the work of tapestry artist Jilly Edwards, whose forthcoming installation Sense of Place I am creating a musical score. Sense of Place opens at High Cross House on the Dartington Estate on 2 May.
Recently I have had the privilege to experience Jilly’s work at first hand through visits to her studio and long discussions about the why and the how of her tapestry creations. On this circular walk above Settle I planned to do what I think Jilly achieves in her striking tapestries based on journeys near and far. I decide to select five locations that bring together in visual sequence the essence of my journey. I couldn’t of course decide on these locations until I got back to my studio and tried to relive the experience as a totality. So memory was going to be important here. I needed to observe and remember like never before. As it turned out this wasn’t difficult as I was blessed with a walking companion whose acute and sensitive observation had been formed from a previous life in wildlife conservation.
I did my sketches as a sequence of images made to fill 3cm x 3cm squares, a similar size to a series painted in watercolour I’d observed in Jilly’s studio. I then wrote five haiku-like poems followed by a series of miniature movements for piano trio (I’d been listening to a week of broadcasts by the Florestan Piano Trio).
As I looked at the poems I suddenly began to see their potential as texts for a vocal work I was preparing for an extraordinary chamber choir from Sweden called Voces Nordicae (Northern Voices). Any setting of these tiny poems would have to involve using repetition, and fragmentation and reordering of words in a way that was not my usual practice in choral writing. After just a few minutes of playful experiment I realised the words I had written held all sorts possibilities as a legitimate choral text.
The art of what is known as polyphonic choral composition goes back into the 14C with settings in Latin of religious texts. In making choral settings of the Mass, the psalms, the antiphons of the Daily Rite of the Roman Church composers took fragments of text and extended them in time through melisma, repetition and even reordering. Composers were quick to realise that music as a vehicle of prayer was most effective if the text was reduced down to the absolute minimum: when you sing you pray twice – wrote William Byrd. It could then be arranged so that by repetitions and reorderings an incantatory, even an hypnotic quality could be achieved. Twitter has nothing on the skills composers brought to finding the essence of a text and then skilfully using all kinds of musical devices to make the music float prayerfully over time for the listener.
The part book shown above is from Lincoln Cathedral and just shows just one voice’s part from a vocal composition. In earlier times singers rarely ever sang from what we call vocal full scores, scores that show all the parts.
To illustrate, here are the first four lines of my opening poem:
On the upward path
Our careful steps
Now here is the text laid out for 4 voices (Soprano, Alto, Tenor, Bass)
Easy to see there’s a powerful visual design developing . . . and it gets more and more intricate as the choral setting develops. Just suppose I was to assign patterns or colours instead of words. How would I show silence?
Now I know this blog is supposed to be about weaving, but the compositional technique here has all kinds resonances with textile design and the linkage between word, speech, song, threads, traces, surfaces, and maps. So now, finally, it’s time to talk about Professor Ingold’s Lines. And why? Because in this book all these items I list above come together in his riveting text.
Lines is not really a book to take to bed or read after tea. It’s serious stuff that repays multiple readings and time given to taking notes. Not to put you off it is worth browsing initially just to examine the wealth of images, pictures and diagrams. It is written simply; not too many words you have to go for the dictionary for, and it’s quite funny in places. The ideas and observations Ingold discusses are challenging, and even now I find I need to test my understanding by reviewing the knowledge he presents.
I’m only going to mention the first three chapters of this book. In Chapter 1 the material deals with language (speaking, reading and writing), music and music notation (my academic research area). In Chapter it is all about threads, stitch and weaving. In Chapter 3 the content includes maps, journeys and how we describe them . Of all these, the idea of wayfaring, which Ingold describes as finding a way in the landscape of memory, seems most significant. So curious this: my first ambition as a 10 year old was to become a cartographer, my second as a teenager a musician and composer, my third as a fifty-something a textile artist.
Ingold tells us that originally music was the ‘mouthpiece of the word’. Instrumental music is a relatively recent phenomenon, and for many centuries it held a very lowly status. He reminds us that words are sounds, not things or meanings conveyed. Music ‘swallows’ words he claims. When music began to be written down as a mnemonic notation it assumed a very different role to a written script. Reading music notation is all about acting out inscribed instructions for a performance. Reading a written script is an inward reflective instance of cognition. If then writing speaks, then to read is to listen, and to read is also to remember. Ingold thinks that reading a text is like a journey made rather than an object found. Furthermore, he suggests that speech has continuous fluid movement, whereas song is intervallic and stands still. And so on . . . it makes your head spin on a first reading, but such ideas, as presented above, nag at you until you work them out . . . and I’m still working some of them out!!
In Chapter 2 Ingold turns to asking just what is a line? He begins by discussing traces and threads, and how lines occur on surfaces – such the crease. He devises and identifies in a most convincing way terminology and definitions that can only enhance an artist’s cognitive reasoning about what he or she might be thinking and doing. I particularly liked his two kinds of traces: the additive (drawn), reductive (scratched). As the good anthropologist he is, Ingold shows how non-western cultures can reveal aspects of making and reasoning with thread that I have found subsequently so inspiring and thought-provoking. One of his most intriguing statements for me has been the connection he affords between weaving and writing. When I first read this I had been hearing all about the process of ‘weaving with small stones’ in the making of Sue Lawty’s vast piece Calculus for the Taking Time show. My response had been to write a prose poem called The Scribe of Small Stones. This focuses on one of Lawty’s many assistants employed on the project whose job was to select and manoeuvre often really tiny stones on to an imaginary line: to weave stones. The prose poem actually quotes a paragraph from Lines. Curious? You can download the text and its photographs as a PDF here.
Chapter 3 calls on experience gained from Ingold’s original doctoral field study in Lapland. There he became aware of how individuals had their own personal paths between frequently visited locations. They owned their own lines. This is where wayfaring and journeying are closely discussed, and although his sources of reference are comprehensive I was surprised Ingold didn’t refer to Jonathan Raban’s beautiful (and eventually heart-breaking) book A Passage to Juneau. One of Raban’s descriptions, culled from many historical sources, explain how the Indians of the North West Passage navigated by sensory readings of the waters under their canoes is engrossing. Ingold does however mention the lines made by sculptor Richard Long, lines made by walking repeatedly over a surface.
I hope you’ll realise that the examples I’ve talked about here are but a glimmer of what Lines contains. If you’ve read and enjoyed Richard Sennett’s The Craftsman, this is definitely the next challenging text for any weaver or textile artist . . . and if you love music and walking as well then it is definitely for you . . . and there’s more besides.
My recently published composition for chamber choir in its realisation as a score, as a script, as images from a journey, as an experience of wayfaring (we didn’t follow the map but our intuition mediated against time and the weather), is a kind of celebration of what Lines reveals. It was also, for me, a very successful experiment in making a musical work from the technique and practice of a tapestry weaver. There’s an ambitious web presentation of this new work by Phil Legard that includes making real-time use of Google Maps.
I’m now going full-circle and making experiments with the patterning of the text as brought together in the musical score. Rather than abstract the original sketched images in the manner of Jilly Edwards, I intend to bypass that process and construct a woven design from the formal arrangement of words, aligning each sung phrase to discrete patterns and/or colours. Here’s a page from my notebook that shows where such thinking is currently going.
Under Attermire Scar is also a record of an unforgettable day out. You can look at Phil Legard’s inventive web presentation and download a score here. I thoroughly recommend the walk and The Copper Kettle in Settle for a good tea before you take the train home.
Reminder: Less than a month left of the Anni Albers exhibition of prints and drawings at the Alan Cristea Gallery in Cork Street. Albers remains for me the artist responsible for my adult fascination in woven textiles – I saw her work in New York as a student in the early 70s. What I didn’t know, but do now, is that by then she had given up weaving completely – even sold her looms – and focused on print making until her death in 1994. Here below is one of her earliest images – a 2-colour zinc plate and stone lithograph.