Caught by the River

Chalk Hill Blue – reviewed

Richard King | 22nd March 2019

Will Burns & Hannah Peel’s Chalk Hill Blue — a record of electronic ruralism — is released today on our Rivertones label. Richard King lends it his ears…

The British Library Sound Archive is located in the building’s seemingly infinite basement, where the lack of daylight and the endless rows of unmarked racks — containing over six million artefacts, instruments and recordings made on every conceivable recording format — suggest to the visitor they are in the presence of either buried treasure or a barely contained expanse of musical obsession.

Among the Archive’s most arresting items is a row of neatly arranged cassettes. Each shelf on the row contains a collection of home-made tapes, often colour-coded with faded dot stickers and indexed and annotated in elegant handwriting. Collected together the tapes form a near-definitive archive of bird song and other field recordings of British wildlife. The recordings date from the 1950s and 1960s and are the work of amateur enthusiasts, almost entirely men, often retired from military service, which the Sound Archive has received as donations from surviving family members. These immaculately kept tapes are the legacy of a father or grandfather who had felt comfortable in their own company, deep within the landscape; individuals who had taken up their pastime in pursuit of solitude as much as birdsong.

The character of a field recordist is introduced in ‘Out of Doors’, the opening piece of Chalk Hill Blue, a collaboration between electronic composer Hannah Peel, Caught by the River Poet in Residence Will Burns and the record’s producer Erland Cooper:

‘Later, emptying his house,
I found the tape machine.
Hit the play button and watched
the acetate spool through the rollers,
the ribbon taut against the tape heads,
the capstans still running,
still keeping perfect time.

… He cannot grasp what it is
I have played to him,
how the report of birdsong
swells into the spaces
left between us, sitting here
in this, his last and lighted room.’

Chalk Hill Blue is ostensibly a record derived from explorations Peel, Burns and Cooper made of the countryside around Burns’ rural Buckinghamshire home. The presence of this dying field recordist alerts the listener, along with other characters such as ‘Two sisters agreeing under the apple tree’, that despite its provenance, this collaboration is not a biographical record of its three creators, or their journeying together in nature. Instead, it is a record that explores space: the space of bare horizons, the space between people in various sates of consciousness and the space of an empty head. These emotional conditions are rendered in a series of mutually created atmospheres by Peel, Cooper and Burns with a rare and subtle poignancy.

Rather than a collaboration, Chalk Hill Blue might more usefully be considered a record of shared practice. Burns introduces his poems by their titles, as if at a reading. Peel’s compositions and treatments have an ability to complement both Burns’ subjects and voice, before detaching themselves from the mood they have established to follow a separate, instinctual course. Cooper’s production is alert to the risks of the recorded spoken word. Throughout the album Cooper positions Burns’ voice as part of the overall soundscape. On the final piece, ‘February 11′, Burns is heard alone. Such is the detail in the sonic environment established in the preceding tracks, the gaps of silence in his delivery of this final poem sound almost like an accompaniment.

Alcohol is an undeniable presence throughout Burns’ verse. There are frequent allusions to its effects on ‘hard mornings’ experienced by people ‘smashed and alone and falling asleep’, and Peel creates a suitable backdrop for the inexorable emotional stasis of a two-day hangover. On ‘Change’, a long unsettling drone that recalls the bucolic day-terrors of Eno’s On Land, Peel establishes an atmosphere for Burns’ reflections on ‘unseasonal cold weather…a man on his worn out, empty way.’

‘Spring Dawn on Mad Mile’ opens with a motif suggestive of the birdsong that, according to Burns ‘appears to be everywhere’. Later in the piece these melodic flourishes turn inwards and give way to the sound of a different spring. Dawn is now a lambent dusk, Peel’s textures suggest — the kind witnessed by lambs shivering in the winds of a March evening.

‘Change’ is one of two longer pieces that form the centerpiece of Chalk Hill Blue. The other is the title track, an instrumental that evokes an entirely separate landscape to the now familiar woods, rivers and guesthouses of Buckinghamshire. The track glistens in sequenced arpeggios with a bright, light, pioneer optimism, as if Laurie Spiegel had received a commission to mark the construction of the first geodesic domes at Drop City in the Colorado Desert. It sounds perfect within the context of this record, more a set of psychological field notes than a studio project, which captures perfectly the condition of detachment in an isolated environment; the kind in which a lonely amateur sound recordist, or the curious listener, might immediately feel secure.


Chalk Hill Blue is out now and available to buy and/or stream here.

Richard King’s next book The Lark Ascending, due out in June with Faber, is available for preorder here. He will joining us at this year’s Port Eliot Festival, where he will appear in conversation about the book with Emma Warren. You can see the whole lineup for our stage here.