by Adam Scovell.
In the archaic grounds of Cambridge’s Corpus Christi College lay a small table of eccentrically curated merchandise. This was a collection of related ephemera produced by speakers at the recent Alchemical Landscape symposium; an event designed to look at the more esoteric elements derived from the landscape within the arts, especially within music and literature. Whilst many things on the table looked appealing, mixing that sense of artefact with craft and “Occulture”, one object seemed to stand out from the rest. It was an album by New York born but Leicester bred singer and musician, Sharron Kraus, named Pilgrim Chants & Pastoral Trails. The imagery on the front, the name and the typography all seemed to enclose the perspective of the room as if looking at some sacred object that had a gravitational pull. The illusion was only broken by Kraus herself putting out a hand written note to sit next to it: “£10 per album”.
Pilgrim Chants was released in 2013 and is partly a documentation of Kraus’ time in Mid-Wales but in musical form. The areas around Aberystwyth, Rhayader and the Elan Valley all slowly fade through the album but more than simply an attempt to capture some sense of the varied landscape, it explicitly wants to show the elemental through its interaction with the walker; Kraus becomes an emotional anode for the valleys, the rivers and the hills. “There’s a slightly strange state of mind that’s involved in responding to something in this way – like meditation or opening your ears and your mind and then waiting for something to happen,” Kraus suggests . “When something happens that seems not just random, then you grab it by the tail and give chase.”
The album itself is in an intriguing form, hinting at a linear journey but actually built of fragmentation formed from individual events throughout her time in the landscape. Opening with Hiraeth, the tone is set for the album instrumentally; Kraus’ voice becomes a purely textural and instrumental element, blending together with the more traditional musicality of recorders, dulcimers and percussion. When asked about how she initially came to discover this landscape, Kraus is casual but also true to the relaxed musical forms. “It just happened really,” she suggests. “I was driving along and had this overwhelming sense of longing. I anticipated music would come flooding out of the place if I stayed there, so I did. It’s a part of Wales I’d spent time in long ago, so it was familiar in a dreamlike kind of way.” It is worth noting that the best translation for Hiraeth into English is “longing”.
From here, the album explores the hills through processions and pilgrimages, through musicality and expression until ending on a simple leaving of the space in Farewell; an acceptance of moving on but cathartic in the knowledge that the singer will return again to the space as well as the listener to the album. Throughout, the Welsh landscape’s sense of mystery has pervaded, especially in tracks such as Cadair Idris which charts a “slow climb up a magical mountain.” Indeed, the ideas surrounding myth and magic haunt the album, from its stunning photographic booklet packaging to the hums and chants of its various miscellany and mixture of music and field recordings.
Darker elements are also present to contrast with the lighter ones, for which Kraus’ reasoning seems straightforward: ” Well, there are some things that translated in quite obvious ways – the brooding aspects of the landscape led to ominous, brooding sounds, and the more serene aspects led to more gentle, harmonious sounds.” Several tracks remind of Geoffrey Burgon’s music for Lawrence Gordon Clark’s adaptation of M.R. James’ The Treasure Of Abbot Thomas; that sense of “evensong and bicycle chains” as Clark puts it, but alongside something more natural, more benevolently spiritual and personal.
The album’s sleeve notes also hint towards other more mythological tendencies derived from the landscape. Works such as Susan Cooper’s The Grey King, Alan Garner’s The Owl Service and the tales of The Mabinogion are all mentioned, perhaps suggesting that these realms of magic and the fantastical are very much tangible when explored through the very physical realm of the rural topography. The latter is most important, if only for its earnest acceptance of the landscape as the powerful gateway to the otherworldly. It also perhaps explains why Kraus’ soon-to-be-released album, Friends And Enemies; Lovers And Strangers, explores this pathway more specifically. In many ways, the two albums can be seen as a pair with one embodying the landscape as a natural, personal reaction and the other expressing an already formed reflection in itself to the other side of this gateway.
Friends And Enemies is a collection of songs influenced very specifically by the tales or branches of The Mabinogion and therefore sets off a chain of synchronized connections between the landscape of Pilgrim Chants and the narratives within such thematic foliage. A passage from Math Son Of Mathonwy, one of The Mabinogion’s branches, comes to mind in this context charting when Gwydion recites an englyn:
Grows an oak between two lakes,
Darkly shadowed sky and glen,
If I speak not falsely,
From Lleu’s Flowers this doth come.
The verse could equally be talking about Martin Masai Andersen’s photography for Pilgrim Chants’ inner pages and cover; the design that first caught and gravitated the eye on that table in Cambridge. Even more connections form when listening to the song on Friends And Enemies about this specific branch of The Mabinogion, named Blodeuwedd; after the women created from “flowers of oak and the flowers of the broom and the flowers of the meadowsweet” according to various translated texts. The name simply cannot separate itself from Garner’s evocation in particular and use of the myth in The Owl Service, another tale of unrequited love only the Hiraeth this time is to escape the valleys and their isolation before the myth can assert itself: “…and all about them a fragrance, and petals, flowers falling, broom, meadowsweet, falling, flowers of the oak.” as ends Garner’s novel. Kraus’ musical practice inverts this beautifully.
Asked about the coalescing of landscape and its mythology, Kraus highlights the weaving of such ideas: “For me the two are intertwined, and as I walk through the landscape I find myself thinking about some of the stories and myths set there, imagining them happening. With some places, the mythological aspects are really rich and that colours the way we experience them. That was definitely something I was enjoying whilst in Wales.” Pairing both Pilgrim Chants and Friends And Enemies together, this weaving of threads creates an overwhelming intimation of both the landscape and the fantastical that it can unleash within us as artists, as walkers and as people; all explorers of the tirwedd hudolus – the magical landscape and its endless myth.
Pilgrim Chants & Pastoral Trails is available digitally from Sharron’s Bandcamp page.
Friends And Enemies; Lovers And Strangers is released on 18 May and available for pre-order from Clay Pipe Music
Adam Scovell is a young filmmaker and critic with a deep interest in landscape and the like. He writes (fascinatingly) at celluloidwickerman.com