Jumble Hole Clough – Three Bags Of Madder (ambient)

self released, 2012, DD album, 41m 46s

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Relating music to place can be a tricky business: music, after all, is a non-denotational language, or if it denotes anything, it denotes itself. Of course there are specific associations related to recognisable phrases or sounds, and music often involves verbal elements which can point our aural responses in a desired direction, but the sounds themselves, for all the linguistically structured processes that shape them, impinge on our consciousness sensationally, not semantically. The strong association between certain words and particular musical articulations promotes a pathetic fallacy, to the effect that emotional ‘content’ can be read out of musemes in the way that paraphrasable significations can be read out of graphemes, but the meanings of sounds are affective, and as such can never be separated from the aurality that stands for them. The medium is the message, as Marshall McLuhan puts it. How then can music be said to describe a place or a landscape?

I would argue that landscape operates in a similar way to music, perceptually. It is full of signs that elicit a linguistic response; we are conditioned to interpret it, to read out its history, its geology, its biology, in just the same way that we note the associations of style, texture, lyric and so forth, in music. However, the emotional response it elicits is never reducible to the affective sum of all those interpretations; place is not like a novel, which might be full of passion and drama, and might make us feel all kinds of things that we didn’t know we could feel, but which always operates at an interpretative remove, its emotional impact deriving from our multiply mediated understanding of its narrative. The affective power of place is always specific: it speaks itself, as the body speaks itself in dance or singing; what it means, emotionally, is the experience of experiencing it. Those who love a particular landscape will tell you emphatically that its value is not to be found in any other place, but that it is irreducibly unique to that single location. So music, with its irreducible self-embodiment, seems the ideal language in which to respond to landscape; not to represent it, in the manner of visual art, but to approach some sense of affective equivalence. It would be naïve in the extreme to suppose that the emotional impact of a particular landscape could be literally reproduced in a piece of music – after all, much of the specificity of both sound and place lies in the diversity of individual responses to them; but it can certainly be a fruitful endeavour for the creative musician to seek inspiration in their responses to a particular topography.

There is no literalism in Jumble Hole Clough’s Three Bags Of Madder: it doesn’t attempt to ‘sound like’ its subject, or to represent its characteristics in any straightforward sense. Indeed, there is no guarantee of what its subject might be, and for all I know the titling of the project might be a deliberate subterfuge to throw us off the scent. It is worth noting, however, that Jumble Hole Clough is a valley near the Hebden Bridge, Yorkshire home of this album’s sole author, Colin Robinson of Big Block 454. It’s a place that used to be the site of much agricultural and industrial activity, including several mills; the largest of these was a dye-works, which may explain the title of the album, as madder is a plant-based dye, three bags of which appear on the arms of the Worshipful Company Of Dyers. This is all speculation, however, and as I’ve never been to Jumble Hole Clough I will have to leave its specific characteristics out of my discussion of Jumble Hole Clough’s music; if we want to consider this music as being ‘about’ something, then it’s about Colin Robinson, and his own aesthetic experiences. All he tells us on the web is that the music is ‘influenced’ by the landscape around his home.

The most obvious way in which Three Bags Of Madder evokes location rather than narrative, is in its handling of rhythm, and the marking out of time. Although it has linear phrasing, its phrases tend to be employed cyclically, and it generally avoids any repetitive, percussive insistence on the directionality of its time (or ‘beat’, as we doctors call it). Gestures are grammatically disjunct, and don’t usually seem to ‘go’ anywhere, in the way that musical phrases are usually harnessed to an argument or narrative; they don’t say ‘if x then y’ or ‘you feel calm, now you feel excited, now you feel really excited, now you feel a bit different (take it to the bridge), now you feel really excited again, the end.’ Instead they circumlocute a particular mote of sensation, or they drop a motif into space, trailing off into silence in a way that invites us to hear the sound as a static glyph; simply by virtue of the measured and unhurried way in which the sounds unfold, and their ambiguous syntactical relations, the listener is led towards an understanding of these sounds as environmental rather than discursive.

The majority of sounds on this record came out of an electric guitar. There are also some bass sounds, some electronic noises (probably both synthesised and derived from processing said guitar), and even a little percussion (on ‘The instructions consisted of a series of enigmatic cartoons’) and field recording or found sound (on ‘Becoming cyclonic’). The use of effects is subtle and sophisticated, developing a sense of space through many more techniques than the obvious delays and long-tail reverbs; attacks are elided (by what sounds like an EBow), and decays disintegrate gently into particles of noise. The melodic materials are almost exclusively consonant, and although there is a little tension and astringency, they are also predominantly affirmative, resolving comfortably within the short span of the small motifs from which Three Bags Of Madder is largely constructed. The music is also surprisingly musicianly; this is ostensibly a conceptual, abstract work, and although many of Colin Robinson’s other recordings feature some nice playing, he is always clearly unattached to any particular practice, treating the work of performance as a means to a creative end. The practice he adopts for Jumble Hole Clough results in much more of a guitarist’s record than might be supposed from the preceding discussion. He seems to have set out to see what results he could get with his instrument and some effects, and the recording as released is as pleasing in the articulation as the conception. All forty-odd minutes of music consist of emotionally committed, highly accomplished, instrumental performance.

I’m accustomed to humour and absurdity in Robinson’s work, and a certain critical distance which that implies; although it is never insincere, conscious sincerity, as a positive intention, is rarely something I would associate with it. He always seems very aware of the artifice involved in his creative practice, and knows how to exploit and elaborate on that awareness. His recordings are usually structurally straightforward and semantically complex. I wouldn’t say that those poles are reversed here, by any means, but there is a definite shift in emphasis; here the structure is ambiguous, and the meanings are complex only in that they are slightly unconventional in their delivery. Even the most unadventurous listener should appreciate the compositional aesthetic and the technical skill in a lovely piece like ‘Yeadon Aerodrome on a summer’s afternoon, 1969’. The only hard questions that these pieces ask of the listener are related to their willingness to give their attention over wholly to the music. Three Bags Of Madder is an album of sensation and experience, a collation of just such feelings as might be elicited by landscape, although I would hesitate to identify any intrinsic relationship to a specific locality; rather, I would suggest, these sounds offer a gateway to the listener, a perspective from which they can observe their own inner and outer landscapes. This record is as intelligent as anything its author has released, but it is more felt than thought, and it is an achievement of exceptional beauty.

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