So, yesterdays events then… Around midday I set off for Kent, and to be precise a fold of beech trees deep in a forest, near a town I’ve never been to before in a county I have only ever been through on a train, my only guidance a brief descriptive text message of where I was heading to. Since I changed car a few months back I have enjoyed driving long distances a little more again, and with Radio 4 playing on the radio and a pile of snacks sat on the passenger seat the three hour drive over was quite enjoyable. On arrival at the carpark on the edge of the Kings Wood Forest near Ashford, devoid of any phone signal I set off following signs deep into the wood, eventually arriving about fifteen minutes later at the concert site, where I found the four musicians Angharad Davies, (violin) Matt Davis, (trumpet and megaphone) Lee Patterson (field recordings, dissolving chalk in water and burning stuff) and Patrick Farmer (snare drum and assorted bits of forest) preparing to rehearse Patterson’s score for the event, named Fold, alongside the ubiquitous Simon Reynell, who was about to record it. As the four musicians sat at the four points of the compass I sat on a set of haybales placed between them for the audience that would arrive later. At this point it began to rain, for the first time since the musicians began working here a day earlier. At this point the rain passed by quite soon, and there was enough time for one run through the quite beautiful piece of music and a subsequent short improvisation.
A PA had been set up, powered, quite remarkably in my opinion, by a set of four solar panels that not only gathered enough energy to drive the large speakers, a sizeable mixing desk and all of Patterson’s equipment, but also stored enough to do the same later in the evening, as well as light several spotlights, all long after the sun had gone for the day.Â The piece, which lasted thirty-seven minutes saw Davies, Davis and Farmer perform within time windows alongside a collage of field recordings made on other occasions by Patterson in the wood. While the field recordings drifted between recordings of insects, birdsong, metal fences and squirrels alongside the wind and passing aircraft, the musicians played sparingly and with great subtlety , their sounds quiet but present just enough to be heard clearly if you sat centrally between them. Besides the obvious fact that the combination of field recordings and instrumental sounds worked beautifully well, with Farmer tapping at stones and pinecones and rustling sticks, Davis hissing and purring away, sometimes with the added rough amplification of the megaphone, and Davies allowing thin slithers of tones to pierce it all, the most remarkable, confusing and decentering element of listening to the piece was the way that it became impossible to tell what sounds were coming from Patterson’s field recordings and which existed in real time. Insects would buzz through the recording and I would feel like they were by my head- aircraft passing could have been on the recording, or could have been above us there and then, the wind in the trees above us could be heard, and seemed to blend in to the field recordings- the sensation was a strange, unsettling, and yet very beautiful one, the like of which I have never experienced before. In a concert space, with quiet music, external sounds often impact upon the listening experience, but its usually easy to tell them apart from the performed music. Here, given the quality of the recordings and the playback system it really became impossible to tell the sounds apart, so allowing the performance to really become part of the forest.
The scored work was followed immediately by an improvisation that saw Matt davis get up and disappear into the forest with his trumpet and megaphone, so that soft rasps and occasional bird-like calls seemed to come out of nowhere. Davies walked around a little, and Patterson dropped some chunks of dry chalk he had found locally into a bucket of water sunk into the ground, with the hiss and crackle of the dissolving natural substance captured brilliantly with a hydrophone. Â While I have no idea how this portion of the day might have come out on the recordings, it was great to sit and witness live, with things evolving all around, still amongst the wind ravaged trees, with birds calling from all directions, and Davis way out of sight, more likely improvising directly with the forest as he probably couldn’t hear what the others were doing. I was really lucky to be able to witness this rehearsal of the performance and subsequent improv piece, and I am very grateful to the musicians for allowing me to sit in. My good fortune at arriving on time for this was later amplified even further when, for the performance proper, as around fifty people collected on the hay bales, the heavens opened and it absolutely hammered down with rain.
Its a thoroughly absurd, and yet somehow incredibly uplifting experience to sit with others in thunderous rain, in the black of night, listening to field recordings and some doggedly determined, rain soaked musicians make quiet, gentle sounds that were all but drowned out by the roar of rain hitting the thick leaves above and then several dozen umbrellas grouped around me. While it was a fantastically exciting, liberating and joyous experience to stop caring about how wet you were getting and just revel in the moment, outwardly laughing mid-set at the absurdity of the whole thing, I didn’t hear very much for he music being performed. The instrumentalists played louder so as to be heard better, but still many of the quieter moments were inaudible over the umbrella cacophony and the roar of the wind. I also found myself fearing for the equipment, watching electric sockets we had covered roughly with plastic bags, speakers hidden under bin liners. At one point in the performance, fortunately out of my view or I’d have worried even more, a structure of golfing umbrellas set up to protect Patterson’s laptop and mixer blew over, not only exposing the equipment to the elements but also depositing half a pint of collected rainwater directly onto the keyboard. Somehow it all kept going though, and the piece came to the end as the audience, most of whom, having arrived together in a minibus and so having little choice but to sit it out, broke into applause having otherwise remained silent.
Later, as the rain gradually began to die away to coincide with the end of the performance we cleared up the equipment which had begun to sink into the now swamp-like ground, using the headlights of Simon’s car to see by, which then promptly drained his battery, so adding a further layer of drama to the evening’s events. A walk back through the wet, pitch black forest then followed, fortunately not alone, and a hot coffee and chance to dry off a bit at the first service station up the motorway was greatly appreciated before the drive home. This was an event that I won’t forget in a hurry. The music in the afternoon was beautiful, and its placement back in the forest that gave inspiration to it was a wonderful thing. The music could only have worked played in the forest, and I am very pleased I got to hear it properly once through. The evening concert was equally fantastic for other reasons. The simple Â shared experience of it all was something quite special. As it happens, it also seemed to be that the recording Simon Reynell made, complete with heavy rainstorms could be rather good indeed, so perhaps what seemed like a difficult aural experience from where I was sat was completely different when captured by several carefully placed, wind and rain protected microphones. Whether a commercially available recording of it all ever appears anywhere is another matter again, but for me just attending this event was something special in itself. Many congratulations are due to Lee, the three musicians and Simon for their sterling efforts to produce something so wonderful in the face of the elements.