On Making Music Tangible

by Thomas Brett

“How physical is music?” asks Clive Bell at the outset of a recent article in Wire magazine on the English musician Richard Skelton.  Part of what makes Skelton unique is his approach to trying to make music making a more physical thing than its evanescent sounds might suggest.  Thus, the composer-musician embraces a unique recording process: he brings his instruments (violin, guitar, mandolin) out to the remote countryside of Northern England and records instrumental sounds in situ, capturing both instrumental sonics as well the grain of the natural environment (wind, water, goats, etc.).  On the production end, Skelton self-publishes his music on the Sustain-Release label in the form of one-of-a- kind artifacts–CDs housed in hand-wrapped slip covers, or polished wood boxes with 100-page booklets (personalized with the purchaser’s name on them), sometimes even including a twig or vial of water from the landscape in which the music was recorded.

Sounds quirky and over the top you say?  Perhaps.  But Skelton is looking for a high level of integration between music and our physical lives.  Here he is on his rationale for recording outside in the field:

“I’d take my instruments answer myself up there.  I’d make a recording in one of the [bridge] arches and then play it back in the other one.  Record it, so you get the reverberation.  But the important thing for me was coming and playing here, and the recordings themselves weren’t the objective.  It was a document.  I was trying to get the idea of the music becoming part of the landscape” (Wire, April 2011, p.46).

Skelton also weighs in on the importance of music as a recorded object (CD, LP, tape):

“There will be a whole generation of people who consume music as a series of noughts and ones.  But for me, part of the process of consuming music was about the physical object” (48).

So, back to Clive Bell’s question about the physicality of music. Yes, music is a most immaterial thing–in both live performance and recorded playback.  But many of us listeners like stuff we can put our hands on and touch, and so we can understand where Skelton is coming from.