There’s a Canadian film from a few years back about a competition to discover the saddest music in the world. I’ve thought many times that if that competition truly existed, we’d soon enough find the English composer Richard Skelton trudging down from the hills to ask politely for an entry form. To hear his music is to stumble upon the secret sounds of an ancient forest. It is sparse, built on bowed strings, guitar and the occasional hint of a piano. If you listen closely, you’ll hear the sound of birds, of leaves drawn against wire, of the mud of the English moors underfoot. It is music to turn up, in an empty house, and be transported in your bodily entirety to worlds long lost, but perhaps to come again.

For many years, Richard was a mysterious musical figure to me. His music was never released under his own name, rather under a series of pseudonyms, such as ‘A Broken Consort’, ‘Clouwbeck’ and ‘Riftmusic’. He only began to seriously release music in 2005, following the passing of his wife Louise, a mixed-media artist who left behind a legacy of artwork in sketchbooks and folders. In tribute, and as a way of working through his grief, Richard began a private press called Sustain-Release, which would issue limited handmade editions of his music, accompanied by her work. These beautiful packages are gifts that reach out across the world, not just with hand-pressed CDs and notes but with fragments and found objects from the land itself.

Sadness is not an end. It is part of a cycle, as with the seasons of nature. While he continues to issue his own work, Richard has also been championed by some of the most innovative record labels I’ve come across, such as Australia’s Preservation Records, New York’s Tompkins Square and the pioneering British label Type. His most deeply personal project, Landings, was created over four years of meticulous archaeology on the Anglezarke moors of his youth, documenting and calling out to the things that once existed but are now lost.

Last year, Richard married again. He and his wife Autumn have spent almost two years on a stunning new work called Wolf Notes (released under the name *AR), which took them to an entirely different landscape.

Our conversations began with a handmade copy of that album received in the post, and continued over cross-world Skype and subsequent emails. Throughout, Richard’s kindness and deep sense of giving continued to astound me. He’s far from home now, living quietly with Autumn on the west coast of Ireland, surrounded not by endless countryside, but by roadworks and traffic lights.

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PATRICK PITTMAN: What brought you out to the west coast of Ireland?

RICHARD SKELTON:
I don’t know if you’ve heard of place called the Burren? I think it means ‘stony place’ or ‘rocky place’ in Irish. It’s an area of exposed limestone with beautiful hills that are grey and skeletal. It’s an absolutely spectacular landscape to witness. Autumn and I had been here quite a few times before we met, and one of the things that we initially bonded over was our experience of this landscape. We met in England and our relationship flourished there, but after we got married last March, we both decided that we’d like to visit the Burren and experience it together.

You’ve just release a collaborative album with Autumn—tell me about the landscape that inspired that.

Wolf Notes took about 18 months to make, six of which we spent living in the environment that it was written about, which is the uplands of Cumbria in northern England. It’s about the landscape around Ulpha, which is an old Norse word that I think originally meant ‘wolf hill’ or ‘wolf grave-mound’.

During our time there—and through our research—we slowly came to appreciate the loss of the landscape; the loss of flora and fauna; the loss of wolves, foxes, deer and all kinds of other animals and plant life. At the time that the Norse people would have called it Ulpha, there would have been a lot more trees, but the landscape now appears quite barren. It’s still a beautiful landscape, and it’s really rich in a different way—rich with grasses and a different ecosystem—but we were interested in what had gone before, and maybe what will come again in another thousand years. Wolf Notes is about looking into the lifecycle of an environment and seeing how it’s changed, to memorialise it and to express sadness about the loss of certain things, but also to hint at a possibility that these things will come again—that it’s part of a cycle.

That’s something I’ve found in your music. Ideas of loss and change and decay are very clear themes, but it’s never hopeless, there’s always a sense of renewal in your compositions.

That’s important. Even if you’re creating something that is filled with despair, you’re still creating something, so you’re being positive in making that creative statement, even if it’s one that’s completely desperate. But that’s not been my desire. I’ve not been wanting to despair, I’ve been wanting to acknowledge pain and loss, but very much to connect that with a larger process of renewal, within seasonal changes, and to align my own experiences with those of the natural world.

That’s been my process over the past couple of years, to try to connect with something that’s larger than myself, so I could come to terms with my very small changes and my very small experiences of loss and bereavement. I’m glad you picked up on that, because it’s really important to me.

That process, of connecting yourself and what you’ve been through to the larger stories of the land, is most apparent in the Landings project—you spent four years working on what became a book and an album. What drew you to spend so long, deep in the Anglezarke landscape, one you’ve previously said just doesn’t look that interesting?

It started out with me visiting the landscape around my hometown, which is situated not far from the foothills of the West Pennines in northern England. It was the process of coming home and trying to reconnect with a landscape that I’d left behind. Not that I’d gone very far, certainly not as far as you’ve gone, but I had the sensation of revisiting a landscape, seeing it with fresh eyes, and trying to connect with my former self as well. So I started writing at the same time as making music. The book is elliptical and oblique in a way, it’s not a straightforward ‘this is what I did and this is why I did it’. It’s a series of diary entries, and some of them are quite personal, and some of them are more impressionistic. Sometimes I would just make lists of words that resonated somehow, or fragmentary observations about the landscape and its natural inhabitants. One of the things that is perhaps not apparent in the music, is that I connected with the landscape through discovering that it isn’t a wilderness. The moors bear the scars of humanity over centuries. It’s quite a sullied landscape in many respects. There are these vast reservoirs that were built to service the growing populations of towns like Liverpool and Manchester, but in building them they flooded valleys and in many cases it resulted in the expulsion of the people who had previously lived there. People were urged to move out of a farming way of life and to go and live in the towns and cities instead.

So Landings, in a way, is my own personal story, but it’s also the story of a rural exodus, the depopulation of this landscape over the past couple of centuries. What’s left behind are the crumbling ruins of farmhouses that you find dotted across the moor, and it’s really quite an overpowering sensation when you come across these places.

There’s such a sense of pathos about them. That’s one of the things I immediately connected with. Partly because when I visited them, I was deep in the throes of grief, so when you find something that seems to symbolise that loss, you’re strongly magnetised by it.

There’s a song on Landings called ‘Scar Tissue’, which was recorded in one such ruined farmhouse, with my guitar and a portable recording device. In the book I say “to pour sound between wood and stone, like rain on an April morning”. I wanted to express the idea of trying to fill this place with life. I see music as life affirming and life-giving. It’s energy, but somehow it’s viscous and physical. Just by simply plucking a string, you can generate that energy, so I would feel a real sense of meaning in these simple gestures—by going and sitting in one of these ruined dwellings, really early in the morning, and playing music. In ‘Scar Tissue’, you can hear the sound of curlews—they’re the birds that come and nest on the moors in March and April—and they weren’t too happy about me going in there. You can hear them in the background, wailing, saying “who’s this intruder?”

Shut up! Stop drawing out history with your strings!

Exactly! Just leave us alone so we can do our thing. So that’s another undercurrent in the book—feeling in some respects like an intruder in some of these places, feeling like I’m actually upsetting a really delicate balance.

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There was a line I really liked in a review describing what you did as a “collaboration” with the land, which I suppose is a different way to look at that.

Definitely. It didn’t feel one-way. In many respects, I felt that I was a receiver —that I was giving the landscape an opportunity to be heard. Simple gestures can be quite powerful. It could just be a case of picking up something like a loose bit of wood, a stone or feather, and integrating that in some way into the music. You can use it as a plectrum, you can rest it on the strings, or create different sounds in the way that it interacts with an instrument. More generally, the place itself is going to impress itself on the recording—even if it’s very subtle, it’s going to leave an acoustic trace. The whole process was about trying to find a meaningful connection with the landscape—so, ultimately, even if those actions weren’t audible, they were meaningful gestures for me. It was about trying to create meaning through action, and discovering the redemptive qualities of private gestures.

You talk about the recordings bringing that sense of the land in, but it seems to work both ways. When you play in those spaces, there’s something of the music that goes into that land, and perhaps there’s something of the music and of the space that work on you?

Often I would make a recording somewhere, and then the next time I would go out and visit a place I would take the recording with me and ‘return it’ to the land. In the book I talk about a place called Noon Hill Wood, and replaying the music I recorded there, so that the wood can listen to itself. It’s about reactivating a moment within a particular place, and creating a bridge between the past and present. Going back to the farmhouses, one of the things that creates that sense of pathos is their isolation. These dwellings are out there on the moors and there’s no sense of connection with anything else. No sense of community. So I would make a recording in one particular ruin and play that recording in another ruin, a mile away. All the while I would be able to see the first ruin, just on the brow of a hill, and by hearing the sounds that I’d made there, I would feel a sense of connection between the two.

In a sense, Landings was about trying to reconnect all of these places that had once been connected by footsteps. People would walk between one farmhouse and another and there would be a sense of community that now is completely lost, so it was about trying to create a web of connections through these simple gestures. I would sometimes simply pick up a stone from one ruin and walk across to another and deposit it there, and then take another stone back across to the first, so that those two places were then connected in my mind.

To anyone else they’re still the same, but for me they’re now completely different places—two places that are joined together. It’s gestures and rituals like these that are important for me in trying to overcome a sense of isolation, not only a personal one, but also one that I see in the world.

I wanted to talk about how the musical expression came about. You’re quite self-deprecating about your own musical ability, but has it always been a natural instinct to need to play that music in these spaces, or is that something that’s developed later?

I think it’s something that has developed, slowly, over the past half-decade. Sustain-Release began as a way of commemorating the passing of my wife, Louise, and of celebrating her own life and creativity. She was a mixed-media artist, and we worked on something together which became Heidika—a limited edition of music and artwork, in 2000, or 2001. We sent it to John Peel, the Radio One DJ, who played it on his show. We put about a hundred packages together with a little three-inch CD, and we’d give them away to anyone who wanted them. Within six hours of him playing it, we’d had two or three hundred emails. We sent them all out, and that was that. Louise died in 2004, and I returned home to live with my parents and tried to come to terms with what had happened. A year later, I decided that the best way I could honour her memory was to continue what we had started, and to take it onwards in a meaningful way. She’d left me lots of artwork in various sketchbooks and folders, so I began a process of looking through them, and making music again.

The first release was under the same name, Heidika. I made 50 copies and I sent it out, and that was the beginning of Sustain-Release. Now, just as we’re speaking, I’m putting together a 20-CD box set of my complete recordings.

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The works that you’ve put out on Sustain-Release over the years continue to be a collaboration with Louise, don’t they?

That was the whole point of it. I get asked quite a lot why I use pseudonyms and not my own name, and it’s quite difficult to explain. When I started Sustain-Release, I very much wanted to give equal importance to the artwork, so one of the ways I thought of doing that was to use a pseudonym—something that could refer to more than one person. I didn’t want it to just be about me. I also wanted the name to somehow encapsulate the music and artwork. So why not change it, if it felt right, with each new work? Similarly, at one stage I actually made a unique print of Louise’s work for every customer—each one was subtly different. It was incredibly time-consuming and ultimately unsustainable, but it felt like a meaningful thing to do.

But when you did come to release stuff under your own name, on the amazing Australian label Preservation, was that your decision, or their encouragement?

Up until that point, everything that I’d done, I’d more or less had a different name for every release. It was a way of trying to keep an inner ethic to the work, and to stay true to an idea, and I wanted to preserve that and keep it going with the material I published through Sustain-Release. So when Preservation contacted me, it felt right to do something different. I could have come up with another name, but it seemed appropriate to use my own. I think it was something Preservation wanted as well. I can understand it from their point of view—they saw my name as the connecting thread throughout my previous work, so it would make sense for them to put something out that had a history to it. By that point it was late 2007, early 2008, and my own name, whether I liked it or not, was becoming more well-known and more associated with just the music. Preservation also had their own very strong visual identity—and so they provided the artwork and packaging design of the release. In a sense, therefore, I was standing on my own for the first time, and it seemed appropriate to use my own name. Back with Sustain-Release, I’ve carried on using the various guises, and it’s only really with Landings that I’ve used my own name again. I think the only reason I did that was because it’s such personal recording. The Landings book is my own reflections on the landscape, so it made sense to put the music out under my own name too. Since then, I’ve reverted to using pseudonyms again.

Quite a few people have thought that *AR is our initials, Autumn and Richard. I think it’s nice that it could be interpreted that way, but it’s actually a really old place-name element that you find in certain river names. That hits to the heart of what Wolf Notes is about, which is place-names, and the way that different communities and different peoples have connected with landscape through the power of the name-giving gesture, and how those names have become a legacy, and how we still use them even though we often have lost the meaning behind them. They just become signifiers of nothing.

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With Wolf Notes and generally with the work you’re doing now, how have you found that bringing a collaboration with Autumn into your musical work is changing or growing what you do?

I’ve not really collaborated with anyone before. I’ve done a remix or two, and I’ve contributed some material that Rutger Zuydervelt of Machinefabriek turned into a piece. They were as collaborative as it’s possible to be, these days. It’s often a postal thing—you send off your bits and pieces and somebody else does something with them. It’s great that somebody would take the time and effort to do something with your material, but Autumn and I collaborated by actually going and living in a landscape for six months. We collaborated by living together, experiencing and writing about that shared time. I’ve never been able to do that before, so it’s been something of a revelation to me.

Up until that point I’d been very much working on my own, and you have to get used to trusting your own judgements. Let’s face it, we all make dubious decisions on our own, from time to time. So working with somebody else whose opinion I really value is good because we can discuss and refine ideas, we can reject them, we can be completely brutal in one respect and say “this doesn’t work”. The great thing is that there’s a complete lack of ego in all of this. When collaborating with somebody who you don’t really know, you might have a certain guardedness, a sense of self-protection and even competitiveness, because you’re working with somebody else and you want to do as well as you can. But with the work that Autumn and I do together, it’s not about that.

It’s about putting personality and ego completely out of the frame and just letting the inspiration take centrestage, to try and be the best possible conduit for the landscape to speak through.

When we’ve got all this creative material in front of us, it’s then a case of whittling it down to what we feel works the best, and then it’s not a case of “I did this bit and you did that bit, and this bit’s better than that bit”, it’s just a case of what works and what doesn’t. Musically it’s been completely different, it’s been an education, because it’s about learning to be sensitive to somebody else’s creativity and the way that they create music and express themselves. Before we worked on Wolf Notes together, we worked on Autumn’s record, which is called Stray Birds. It’s a collection of her songs that she’d written over the space of quite a few years and honed them and got them to a state where they were pretty much perfect as far as I could see it. She asked me to add some arrangements to them, and, if it were up to me, I would have just left them, like Nick Drake’s Pink Moon. It would have just been voice and guitar. But she wanted me to contribute, so it was a case of listening to them for a long time, finding my way into them, almost like a landscape, trying to find a path that was not in any way treading over what was already there before, and to accentuate and bring out the beauty in it. I learnt a lot musically, because I was working with songs, not compositions. Most of my compositions are quite linear, in a musical fashion, there’re no great key changes or chord changes, it’s very much about building layers of discrete musical figures and themes, to create a sound world, whereas with songs, you have to start paying attention to the lyrics, the phrasing, the changes and the tempo. It’s something completely different and I honestly didn’t think I was equal to it. It took quite a few months of coming up with a new musical vocabulary.

With Wolf Notes, we discovered a little holiday cottage high on the fells, situated right in the middle of the landscape that fascinated us. We simply thought that it was meant to be, and we scraped together all the money that we could and went to stay there. We took all our recording equipment and instruments and spent a good while just working together. It was a case of pooling our resources, seeing what melodies and ideas came. Autumn said to me, “my voice, in this context, is an instrument, and it should be like an instrument.” The human voice in many respects is the most expressive instrument you can have. Her voice appears very much like one of the violin melodies in Landings, it’s a repeated refrain that is woven throughout the composition. In that way it’s consistent with what I’ve been doing before musically, but I think listening to it is a completely different experience, because the human voice does have that power to magnetise us, and to draw us in, in a way that purely instrumental music can’t. I talk about Wolf Notes trying to give voice to the landscape, to give voice to what we feel has been lost in the land, so in a sense that’s what Autumn’s voice is doing in there, it’s hopefully quite a powerful thing.

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Receiving music from you in the post is such an exquisite experience, walking down to the post box and opening up a beautiful, hand-made, loved artefact. You’re using the CD, a dying medium, and reaching across the world to generate an emotional connection. It seems to me like you’ve never so much been reaching out and pushing your work as offering it.

I think people do respond to a physical object, but the connection is fading. There will be a generation of people who don’t consume music as an object, who don’t respond to a physical, tactile thing. I can remember, and I’m sure you can as well, that you’d go down the local record shop, you’d almost choose a record by the cover, because you would be attracted to the album artwork, especially if it was a gatefold. I can remember getting the first Godspeed You! Black Emperor album, and just being completely blown away by it. I can remember similar experiences with Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation. In the mainstream there’s apparently a real decline in people consuming physical formats, but I think there’s also a groundswell of deep attachment to physical objects. There are people who are almost doing things in a militant way, they’re trying to stick it to iTunes by continuing to release vinyl and cassettes. I’m not really trying to engage with that whole debate. For me, going back to the reasons why I started Sustain-Release, it’s about continuing a collaboration.

The physical thing is actually important. When you lose something, when you experience bereavement, you experience the loss of the physical, you experience a loss of touch, so for me to create an object that celebrated a person’s life was a very profound thing to do. For me it was so important that it was Louise’s artwork that carved out a physical presence for my music. In a sense, the loss of her physically was counterbalanced by her artwork giving form to my music. The packaging gives the music a landscape which it can inhabit. When you used to get an LP, you’d put the record on, you’d hold the cover and you’d read the liner notes. There would be a sense of connection with the artist or the music through a sense of touch, as well as through listening. That’s why I continue to make what I hope are beautiful artefacts, to continually make that gesture, to give music a space in reality.

You mention ‘offering’ and it feels like that, in the sense of trying to make a connection through a ‘gift’. If someone has taken the time and effort to get in contact with me to buy something, then the least I can do is put their name on the artwork as a dedication. With Wolf Notes we made an edition of 44 initially, each with the recipient’s name, and we wanted to make it a beautiful package, so we made hand-sewn chapbooks of poetry, wrapped in cloth, and we made a little glass vial of incense. So the idea was that when the person received the package, they could listen to the music, read the poetry and maybe light the incense. It would be almost like a ritual.

Do people share their responses to these packages with you?

Yes, indeed—it’s like a conversation. Ultimately, I suppose, we’re selling a product to someone and it’s a financial transaction. There’s no getting away from that. But nevertheless, people do respond to the gesture of personalising the artwork, and they respond to the love and effort that has gone into the creation of something. It took us nearly two months to put together 44 copies of Wolf Notes. We were working from pretty much eight in the morning until eight o’clock at night at the cutting board! So it is lovely to receive feedback. Some people will actually write to us, and we have a shelf here that’s brimming with things that kind people have sent us—artwork, music, and poetry. It feels like an exchange, that there’s a little community of people, many of whom have become friends. It’s definitely been for me a really beautiful experience, and it’s one of the reasons why I continue to do the things that I do—to make these handmade releases and to send them out into the world. It’s been proof to me that there isn’t simply a corporate paradigm for how you have to do things, that you can do things on a small scale and make a meaningful connection with people.

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