Lucy Railton - Cello
Kit Downes - Organ
All music by Lucy Railton and Kit Downes.
Edited by Lucy Railton and Kit Downes.
Mixed by Lucy Railton and Alex Bonney.
Recorded by Alex Bonney at Skálholtsdómkirkja, Iceland, September, 2017.
Front cover artwork by Maya Rochat, ‘Time Gate’ from the series LIVING IN A PAINTING 2019.
Cut by Graeme Durham.
© + ℗ 2021 SN Variations.
Photograph © Alex Bonney, taken at Skálholtsdómkirkja.
Liner notes for ‘Subaerial’ written by Sophie Fetokaki, Cyprus, April 21st 2021.
The white-watered Hvítá runs by Skálholt Cathedral, carrying its heavy load of fine glacial sediment. It also carries, in its body, knowledge about time, about materiality and speed. If we asked it, the Hvítá could tell us how its velocity changes at different parts of its course, and that its course changes over time. It could tell us that sediment is carried where its waters flow fast, and deposited where they are slow. It could tell us what it knows about riverbeds, about the layer upon layer of sediment that is compacted and cemented until it forms new solid ground. It could tell us how this process is a result of repetition, and the variation of fast and slow that brings the soil and basalt from the headwaters down to the plains.
What could it tell us about music, about improvisation? On the surface, improvisation appears to be a form of spontaneous creativity, but all improvisers know it’s a long process of exploration, repetition and discovery. Perhaps one reason for this discrepancy is our tendency to focus on the object resulting from the actions, rather than the actions themselves. What’s improvised, what emerges spontaneously, is the music. But, like the riverbed, the act of improvising is always in the process of making itself. It's a practice, built from layers of deeply sedimented techniques that have built up over time. The notion that it is spontaneous is a result of the separation between the object and the activity that produced it - itself part of a wider tendency, at least within certain spheres of Western musical production, to privilege the sound over the body, the text over the practice, and the abstract over the material and the fleshly. What are the alternatives to this mode of thought?
We could think of our body as a river, as matter that is constantly reshaping itself. What happens during improvisation is that our consciousness sinks down into those deeply sedimented places we have made and remade. We sink down to where we are not calculating, not executing, and move from there. From our sedimented practice of playing together, of expanding the boundaries of our material bodies by attending to the soft places that let the outside flow in, and the inside out. This idea of a kind of underwater operating is borne out by recent neuroscientific research into musical creativity, which shows that improvisation is marked by a deactivation in the areas of the brain controlling executive function, and that altered states of consciousness such as dreaming, meditation, and hypnosis show similar deactivation.
Our river friends could also tell us that because of gradual slopes and wider channels, older rivers have a slower velocity, and consequently deposit greater amounts of sediment. In other words, by the repeated transporting and depositing of sediment, they have been increasingly shaped to favour more processes of sedimentation. This can be said of a body (a river, or a human) just as it can be said of the relations between bodies. A good practice is like the slow, old river, which has shaped itself into a regenerator of its own process. What you step into, when you sit at your cello, or your organ, when you sit with your practice partners, is a solid ground of attunement to one another and to the technical knowledge that gives form to that attunement, so that something – of the moment, but not spontaneous – can rise to the surface and meet the world.
The metaphor of the sedimentation of technique is from the work of Ben Spatz. The neuroscientific research referred to is from the work of Mónica López-González and Charles J. Limb, among others.