Richard King lends his ears to Modern Nature’s latest record; an evocation of a Shakespearean isle.
Modern Nature, the group led by Jack Cooper and featuring long term collaborators Jim Wallis and Jeff Tobias, share their name with the book Derek Jarman wrote towards the end of his remarkable life: a gardening-filmmaking- HIV treatment diary-cum-memoir, published two years before his death of an AIDS-related illness in 1994. Modern Nature is a book no one other than Jarman could have written. One of its most revealing passages is a description of the author, now in regular, physically depleting treatment for his condition, throwing himself, with the help of two friends, into the thorough cleaning of his home, Prospect Cottage in Dungeness. Jarman describes a daylong torrent of frenzied activity, of brushing, beating and tidying, which results in the calm and quietude of bright, coastal sunlight being reflected on his newly polished and oiled furniture.
Modern Nature demonstrated its author had as refined an eye for detail and knowledge of the natural world, in particular plant species, as anyone writing with similar interests, but few people have ever demonstrated as intense a work ethic as Jarman’s. In the same year as the publication of Modern Nature, he would begin work on two feature films while continuing to receive regular treatment for his condition. Between these commitments, in one week alone, Jarman exhibited a series of paintings inspired by the tabloid reaction to AIDS at the City Art Gallery in Manchester and provided a visual accompaniment to a performance by his friends and colleagues the Pet Shop Boys at the city’s Haçienda club.
When republished in 2019 Modern Nature was made Radio 4’s Book of the Week, a tribute unthinkable at the time of its original appearance, when the author had a reputation as a provocateur and activist thorn in both the media and the establishment’s side. Such a perception inevitably overlooked Jarman’s talents, especially his gifts as a director. Jarman’s third feature was an adaptation of The Tempest, its most memorable scene occurs as the film draws to its conclusion, during the masque Prospero and Ariel have created using magic, as a 75-year-old Elizabeth Welch sings ‘Stormy Weather’ in the presence of a troupe of relaxed and convivial sailors. Like many moments in Jarman’s oeuvre, the scene is lit in a way that suggests the heightened sense of clarity that occurs during a dream.
Recorded during 2020, Island of Noise is an album directly inspired by The Tempest, like Prospero’s masque it is also an ensemble piece, with the core Modern Nature members joined by musicians as dexterous and talented as Evan Parker, John Butcher and Alison Cotton. Island of Noise begins with ‘Tempest’, an instrumental piece that introduces the theme of the album and its closely recorded, almost intimate sound design. The saxophones of Parker and Tobias evoke meteorological disturbance while the other musicians play slow, ominous chords. It is easy to overstate the significance of this album being made in the virus year, but there is an energy and subtlety to the group’s performance that suggests it is derived from a celebration of the ability to play together again. For each piece Cooper scored and wrote out the charts for the musicians to follow. This is a style of music informed by elements of jazz that on Island of Noise is created by people who, crucially, have made their living and reputations by playing such music. The sense of its participants listening closely to one other is also a feature of the record and provides Island of Noise with one of its greatest strengths: its sense of space.
This dynamic is captured during the first half of the album in the loose, elegant rhythm of ‘Dunes’ and ‘Performances’. The middle section of the record uses a more reflective pace. On these pieces: ‘Bluster’, ‘Ariel’ and the instrumental ‘Symmetry’ the texture of the 2” tape onto which the album was recorded is used to its fullest, to allow the listener to hear fingers touching the strings on the double bass, brushes on drums and the grain of the bow drawn across a viola; this is music that is at once pastoral, mediative, hypnotic but never self-conscious. An Island of Noise as literal as its title. On the album’s final piece ‘Build’ the musicians play one note repeatedly. The result is a collective monophony and a demonstration of the alchemy achieved by people joining together with a hitherto unknown energy.
Island of Noise might also be described as a work of the Anthropocene. In evoking the atmosphere of the album’s imaginary landmass, Cooper’s lyrics regularly examine our inadequate response to the climate emergency. In ‘Masque’ he sings of
Heatwave(s) on the air
Forecast as a quiet prayer
Rivers on the rise;
These sentiments are made even more authoritative delivered in Cooper’s becalmed voice.
Much about this record feels unique. Island of Noise is a hybrid release and is presented in a box that includes Island of Silence, an instrumental interpretation of the album, which might best be described as ante-chamber music. Both records were cut directly from 2” tape to vinyl and contain all the richness and detail that is captured by that process. The box also includes an accompanying booklet of illustrations, diagrams and poems. The contributors include the illustrators Sophy Hollington and Frances Castle, the Booker-nominated poet Robin Robertson, and the mycologist Merlin Sheldrake. (I have also written a piece for the booklet. The first occasion I listened Island of Noise was a little over a year ago, travelling back from the earliest post-lockdown yoga class I was able to attend. To hear this record, having participated once again in what felt like unfamiliar group activity, while journeying along a quiet country road at dusk, was a highlight of 2020). It is worthy of note that all the materials used in the production of the box, the accompanying booklet and vinyl has been manufactured using recycled and sustainable resources.
In its attempt to create its own world Island of Noise is a complete and highly successful piece of work. Of more significance is the fact that in sounding like only themselves, Modern Nature have achieved a rare, almost impossible feat. This is a mysterious and contemplative album. It also has a flickering alertness contained within its boundaries, which are the aural equivalent of a depth of field; one illuminated by the energy of Prospero’s ‘secret studies’ of magic and the brilliance of the sunlight on Jarman’s Prospect Cottage furniture.
Originally intended to have been released today, ‘Island of Noise’ will now be out on 3 December. The album’s accompanying film is to be screened at Friendly Records, Bristol, tomorrow, followed by a Q&A between Jack Cooper and Richard King, and in Hebden Bridge on Saturday 27 November. More information and tickets available here.