Though to an extent they already do, don’t they? A good book might take you into another world; but on closing a great book, this world should look a little different. Every time I read one of Salinger’s short stories about the Glass family, I feel my affection for humanity has expanded a little bit. But that’s maybe not precisely what I’m talking about. Firstly let me recommend some stories and sounds to you:
-Folk music super-entity The Nest Collective celebrated Earth Day yesterday by live-broadcasting the songs of nightingales to the accompaniment of specially recorded music and poetry. It was lovely and can be re-watched here. Musicians included This is the Kit and Karine Polwart, and they’ll be doing a similar Dawn Chorus event on 1st May. You don’t have to like granola to like this.
–Orpheus in the Record Shop by rapper/playwright Testament is on BBC iPlayer. I got to see him perform a piece years ago about the poetry of William Blake impacting a hip hop-shaped creative consciousness. Testament is in the Guinness Book of World Records for beatboxing – but he’s at least as soulful as he is skilful, so I’m glad there’ll be a wider audience for this.
-Pretend your home’s a cinema: Criterion are putting out a series of handsome reissues on DVD/blu-ray. The batch that coincides with my birthday includes pretension-fest Mirror (actual take: haunting, ambitious) and absurdathon Bringing up Baby (hilarious after 80ish years). It may be quite telling that I consider this kismet; perhaps more telling that the last film I actually watched was Palm Springs.
-Yay, something you can listen to while working! I love the fingerstyle playing of guitarist Yasmin Williams, and her new record is on Bandcamp now. Entirely instrumental, warmly melodic, and if you follow the link above, the featured song is hypnotic.
Song Stories: Purple Emperor
Have you listened to this one yet? It’s really good! It makes me get up and dance! (My preferred moves at the moment resemble those of Soupdragon from The Clangers.) I noticed while making Flora & Fauna – Side A that it had something of a narrative flow, but the overall tempo wasn’t high enough to get my groove-muscle twitching. There was a song I wanted to fit in here after ‘The New Direction’, led by a guest vocalist, but it wasn’t to materialise. Partly a consequence of the pandemic. So in late summer 2020, I was faced with a gap.
A perk of my existence is that even when pandemics close stuff down, even then I have a guest vocalist in my house. So why not write a song for Emma? In the course of my writing all 14 songs on F&F, we’ve moved from being friends to being husband and wife – as some of the Side B lyrics address this, why not place a signpost in introverted Side A to where things are going? “Sorry to interrupt your reverie”, she says, not at all sorry to be taking me by the hand and showing me the garden of the world.
It’s positioned in the lyric as an intervention. One which most of us have required in the past year, if only in the form of a thought in our own heads – as each walk has been, at best, a capsule of nature-derived wellbeing, as whatever patch of green there is near our homes has drawn us out and drawn our attention more closely. Look at how the light lands, now that you’re here at 6pm rather than lunchtime – the low sun elongates your shadow, unreally distending it like a Giacometti figure. Look, the pond you found full of frogspawn is now alive with dark creatures with legs. Listen,
the forest is full of noises. I knocked branches on bark, sticks on stone; drew a thick twig across a fallen tree, and recorded its sound passing from right to left like I’d brought my ear down close to a glockenspiel. (You can hear that at 0:52-53. Indeed, all the percussion before this chorus is made from plants.) These recordings were some of the last things I collected in Bristol, and once we’d moved to the south Devon coast, a song was brewing. In the slightly less bucolic atmosphere of Aldi, I forgot about groceries for a sec and made a voice memo. Uptempo – brightly pentatonic. (While ‘Purple Emperor’ is really in F#major, the chorus melody only uses 5 of the 7 permitted notes in that scale – they just happen to be all the black notes on the piano, if you fancy playing along.)
Now I had a tune, some chords, and in the lyric an invitation. Just inviting the addressee to be a spectator upon nature didn’t seem like enough, though – and once again I have to thank my friend Stephen, who by linking me to a podcast gave me a key by which to proceed. This episode of the ‘On Being’ podcast featured botanist and author Robin Wall Kimmerer. The language she uses around interacting with nature is inspiring:
Host (Krista Tippett): It seems to me that this view that you have of the natural world and our place in it, it’s a way to think about biodiversity and us as part of that, but reciprocity, again, takes that a step farther, right?
Kimmerer: Yes. The idea of reciprocity, of recognizing that we humans do have gifts that we can give in return for all that has been given to us is, I think, a really generative and creative way to be a human in the world. Some of our oldest teachings are saying, what does it mean to be an educated person? It means that you know what your gift is and how to give it on behalf of the land and of the people, just like every single species has its own gift. And if one of those species and the gifts that it carries is missing in biodiversity, the ecosystem is depauperate, the ecosystem is too simple. It doesn’t work as well when that gift is missing.
Tippett: Here’s something you wrote. You talked about goldenrods and asters a minute ago, and you said, “When I am in their presence, their beauty asks me for reciprocity, to be the complementary colour, to make something beautiful in response.”
Kimmerer: Yes. And I think of my writing very tangibly as my way of entering into reciprocity with the living world. It’s that which I can give and it comes from my years as a scientist, of deep paying attention to the living world, and not only to their names, but to their songs. And having heard those songs, I feel a deep responsibility to share them, and to see if, in some way, stories could help people fall in love with the world again.
An early lyric draft had tentative references to endangered creatures like rhinoceri, but the optimistic surge of the music didn’t sit well with ruminations on what’s been lost. It felt on-theme to limit my scope to things visible from here in the UK, too, so I thought an observation was enough: “there were more [tortoiseshell butterflies] when I was a child”. What I view isn’t there for my viewing pleasure: “A world that’s going about its own thing”. But the pleasure given should elicit a response from the viewer, as Kimmerer urged me: “What are the gifts you’re giving to everything living?”
- A recognition of the autonomy of the creature
- Gestures of protection from humans
- Causing other humans to give these gifts
These things seen, from cyclamen to crickets (whose metallic chirp undergirds the whole track, as I recorded them in a hedgerow in Land’s End) can be quite commonplace encounters. Much rarer and still visible on UK soil, outranking even the Red Admiral, is the butterfly from my song’s title. So no that’s not a Prince reference. A sighting of a male Purple Emperor is a much sought-after experience – it’s large, deep indigo, elusive and brash – some human responses to it have ranged from the acquisitive (collecting) to the ridiculous (stories of Victorian eccentrics are found in His Imperial Majesty, Matthew Oates’ book on the creature). I wanted to juxtapose the purple-clad rock stars of the natural world with its everyday visitors, each being equally worthy of wonder.
Though it manages to pack in sampled trumpets and clips of Donata Greco’s flute doing their best 1967 impression, the song is quite fleeting too – it’s under half the length of that one about kingfishers – how does it strike you? Does it rate highly as a song of reenchantment?
Finally, progress report on Side B – it’s so groove-laden I feel I have to issue a warning. Honestly, it might show Side A up. Partly responsible for this is a drummer I’ve been able to involve named Iajhi Hampden, who’s brought a lot of energy to one of my songs. More on him and the other Side B musicians soon, but the feel is different somehow – if Side A was spring, this one is summer. So let’s try and get this thing made in summer 2021! This time next week, Side A should be on streaming platforms and shortly afterwards I’ll have launched the Kickstarter for the finished, combined album. It’s getting rather real.