by Luke Healey
A year or so ago, me and my now-wife were listening to a Friday night Tom Ravenscroft broadcast on BBC 6 Music. Rob St. John – the latterly Edinburgh-based singer-songwriter, whose justifiably acclaimed debut album Weald I was yet to unwrap at that point – was providing the show’s weekly guest mix. Just before the mix (the highlight of which was a gorgeous Bonnie Dobson track from 1969) got underway, St. John piped up to announce that he was working with Folklore Tapes’ David Chatton-Barker on a compilation based around the Pendle Witch Trials, whose 400th anniversary “celebrations” were held across Lancashire throughout 2012.
What struck me at the time, and what continues to strike me months after the release of ‘Lancashire Folklore Tapes Volume 1: Pendle, 1612’, was that this compilation made perfect sense. We immediately began planning a trip up Pendle Hill with Demdike Stare on the stereo – another established Lancashire (well, Manchester) act who take the first half of their moniker from one of the two elderly matriarchs at the centre of the 1612 scandal.
From Demdike Stare it’s easy enough to trace a line to a whole formation of similarly-minded acts: somehow, a connection has been forged in a corner of the cultural imaginary which associates pagan occultism (and its filtering through old Horror B-Movies) with experimental music in general, and with restorations of early synthesiser technology in particular. Demdike Stare are stylistically indebted to electro-pioneers like the BBC Radiophonic Workshop’s Daphne Oram (Modern Love, the record label with which Demdike are intimately associated, have re-pressed Oram compilations on sister imprint Young Americans and run a second sister imprint called Daphne) and give their tracks names like ‘Forest of Evil’. In the cinema tent at the 2011 Green Man festival, British label Ghost Box showcased creaking old documentaries from the 1960s and ‘70s on English folk traditions, back-to-back with films from the same era dedicating to explaining innovations in music and sound design. The Focus Group, one of Ghost Box’s founding acts, recorded an album with Broadcast in 2009 which set out to ‘Investigate Witch Cults of the Radio Age’. Last year, Broadcast released their soundtrack for Peter Strickland’s ‘Berberian Sound Studio’, a paean to tape electronics and a horror-movie-about-a-horror-movie-about-witches. Over in the US there was briefly a thing called ‘Witch House’, but I don’t have room to go into that here.
Then Maxine Peake got involved. Her collaboration with Sheffield-based analogue enthusiasts The Eccentronic Research Council, performed throughout the Autumn at venues across Lancashire and released by Finders Keepers imprint Bird under the title ‘1612 Underture’, appeared on shelves in August. The staple elements are there – Oram-esque sounds, a certain ‘60s-institutional look to the design, ideas of witchiness placed at the foreground. Only now those ideas are grasped as an object rather than treated as a simple means or aesthetic. ‘1612 Underture’ is in actual fact a rather political album, drawing contemporary parallels from the situation faced by Elizabeth Device, Alizon Device, Anne Whittle, Anne Redferne, Jane Bulcock, Alice Nutter, Katherine Hewitt, Jennet Preston, Alice Grey and Elizabeth Southerns – the so-called Pendle Witches. Or as Peake describes them in the album’s opening track,
Those uneducated, mostly very poor, sometimes a bit daft (but aren’t we all) women who were, by and large, unjustly hung by cretinous agenda filled judges and their potty reformation obsessed word editors on the order of their bully Kings.
There’s an interesting dynamic at play here – The Eccentronic Research Council put on the garb of witchiness while at the same time seeking to unravel its politico-legal foundations and criticise its etching into history. Peake’s recital of Anne Sexton’s poem ‘Her Kind’ on the album’s fourth track brings this tension to the forefront. And it’s a dynamic I found very much intact when, a few weeks after purchasing ‘1612 Underture’, my copy of ‘Pendle, 1612’ arrived. It arrived in the form of a cassette, presented in a screen ‘printed heritage library buckram box’ and accompanied by a ‘map, photographs, an essay by the curators, and a dried nettle in glassvine envelope’ (Boomkat’s description). The compilation, which features a new track by St. John alongside contributions by Tom Western, Magpahi, Earth’s Dylan Carson and others, veers around the folk-drone territory explored by St. John on Weald. It would be perfect mood music for, say, a contemplative drive through the misty Bowland Fells (and superior in this respect to 1612 Underture), but the extras folded into the buckram box provide the project with a discursive aspect. As St. John notes in his written contribution to the project,
People tend to forget that these were real people, caught up in a web of persecution, superstition and fear.
It’s a kind of forgetting that permeates just about every trip to the site of these historic executions (and presumably many more sites beside): in venturing up Pendle Hill with Demdike Stare on the stereo, I would be choosing atmosphere over discourse, iconographic fulfillment over real memory. ‘How do we market the loss and the hanging of women like us’, asks Peake in ‘Curious Morbids’, ‘but with coasters, tea towels and Demdike hoovers’. Would my hypothetical trip be just another manifestation of tourism’s ‘funny old foxtrot in Pendle town’? And how, if at all, can an artistic project redress this balance? To tackle (but by no means solve) this puzzle, I approached St. John and Chatton-Barker, who kindly gave up their time to answer these questions.
LH: I suppose we should start at the beginning for those who haven’t had a chance to delve into the compilation and the essays that accompany it: when do you first remember hearing about the Pendle Witch Trials? What was your image of them at that stage, and how has that image changed over time? What made dealing artistically with the Trials on their 400th anniversary seem urgent?
RSJ: I grew up in a village on the side of Pendle Hill and spent most of my early life exploring the area and being told various spinnings of the Pendle Witch story. I suppose that as I became older, it became more evident that the story was more of persecution and unfairness than of supernatural evil. Last year was important because I felt that many of the ‘celebrations’ and events planned to mark the 400th anniversary were trite and meaningless – Guinness World Record for the number of people dressed as witches on a hill, for example – and rarely discussed the state and religious persecution of the poor, marginalised and uneducated that underpins the Trials.
DCB: The Pendle Witch Trials for me have only become clearer since working on the project, very much like the rest of the Folklore Tapes projects, its in the undertaking that throws me into the deep end with regards to research and further understanding. I have been aware of the Trials for a long time but only as an event concerning witchcraft, a subject like many that appealed to the supernatural side of my interests but one that only recently has slowly unraveled to reveal serious truths. I knew the 400th anniversary was on the cards and though I don’t necessarily think anniversaries should be the time to act upon such matters, there is a more focused spotlight on the situation that makes projects like this that little more noticed. Regardless of the anniversary it seemed the perfect time for this project to occur as a collaboration and extension of the folklore tapes output. Plus it certainly goes some way to diffusing the trite celebrations happening at the time.
LH: What differences stood out for you between your treatment of the subject and that found on the Eccentronic Research Council’s ‘1612 Underture’?
RSJ: Pendle, 1612 was a compilation of ten different voices interpreting the context, case and legacy of the Trials. The contributors were drawn from people we’d worked with in the past and who had a connection with the area and/or the Trials. We gave all the contributors some background information on the Trials, but weren’t prescriptive in how this should be interpreted. It’s interesting how these interpretations vary sonically and thematically around the theme, but often gravitated back to the subtle political underpinning of the project.
DCB: Rob sums the differences perfectly. The Eccentronic Research Council’s album offers a very contemporary perspective on the trials, weaving in current zeitgeists and terminology to hold up the trials like a mirror to today’s current issues, and using a strong female voice who is very much part of our theatre and screens — making it a very pop-minded record.
LH: One of the interesting things that jumped out to me about your project as much as the Eccentronic Research Council’s, even before I had had the opportunity to listen to either, was that it made perfect sense aesthetically. I think that the image of British pagan mysticism, occultism, call it what you like, has become wedded to a particular kind of ‘hauntological‘ sound in the last few years. Perhaps this applies more to the Eccentronic Research Council, since their insistence on analogue seems entirely of a piece with, say, Belbury Poly or Demdike Stare, who repeatedly make this link between witchiness and outmoded synthesiser sounds (a link which I find is as much affectively affirmed by the listener as it is artificially created by the acts, their labels and their graphic designers). In your case, Rob, the Folklore Tapes project’s “huh, that figures”-effect was maybe primarily down to the fact that your music is often said to owe a debt to the atmospheres of the actual places in which the Trials unfolded. But then the fact that Pendle, 1612 is a cassette, with that wobbly analogue sound means it also files neatly alongside the analogue-centric acts I just mentioned. Were you aware of this articulation? Do you feel that it opened any doors up to you that might not otherwise have been open? Do you feel it is productive, or just a passing fad?
RSJ: Most of what I do with music and art is very place-centric, so it made sense to spend time delving between layers of history and conflicting narratives in an area I know well. I think the ideas that might be seen to align the Pendle project with hauntology – the supernatural, memory, nostalgia for the past – all crop up in music everywhere, regardless of the tag attached to it. I’m more interested in the value of the object, rather than a simple nostalgia for wobbly old analogue equipment (though of course, these often make the most exciting and interesting objects). I think the tape worked well for this project, perhaps adding a level of ceremony to the listening process, mostly borne out of trying to find a working tape deck!
DCB: Pendle, 1612 was curated like a mini-museum show – the contributors, inserts and ordering was carefully hand assembled, each edition differing from the last in small significant ways. I think with this project as well as the rest of folklore tapes output this handmade element is crucial. The elements involved are all part of the whole. There are many field recordings on the record made in and around the area’s concerned in the Trials as well as the photograph included – which was taken in Pendle Woods and individually hand processed. This along with the hand-picked nettles all adds to the projects important sense of place, I feel.
I’m very careful with the whole aesthetic of the Folklore Tapes output, attempting to maintain a timeless look whilst incorporating relevant signifiers but without over-hamming it, as is so easily done when dealing with this subject matter. The use of cassette with the Folklore Tapes came from its origins in home recording but has since developed into its own concept that has become a vital part in the whole project — the use of two sides of linear traversed audio opens up an interesting area when it comes to curating and putting together releases. Thoughts of the supernatural, memory and nostalgia are so embedded in our contemporary output now that one has to approach these themes with a noted attention not to be overly pseudo-intellectual. There is an educational angle to the Folklore Tapes but this is more mildly informative, as this is what we have discovered and are sharing through re-interpretation, much like folklore always has been. Its easy to rely on the 1970s for all these inspirations (aesthetics, instruments etc) though I’d say I’m trying to look back further, focusing on the era in which the subject matter originated. We cannot help but tap the past for its resources but it’s worth remembering that the past’s inspiration to the future is far greater than we generally give it credit for.
LH: So did your own fixed ideas about the events shift or morph at all over the course of the research? Do you feel any different now from when you started? Did any of the collaborative work throw up unanticipated approaches to the subject matter?
DCB: Absolutely, I began this project ‘less aware’ than Rob of the overall context of the Trials. So for me it was a very organic progression through research, sound and aesthetics that all worked collectively. Each folklore project develops my understanding through the research element and looking into and immersing myself in the Trials has had a lasting effect.
LH: There are discursive aspects both to your tape and to 1612 Underture which try to address the “smokescreen” (Maxine Peake likes this word) of maleficium charges as historic injustices – but isn’t there something unusually delicious about the atmosphere of these injustices? That seems to me to be the difficulty in dealing with the Trials – we want to revel in the image of misty Pennine moors swirling with occult energies – but to do so is to speak the language of the episode’s oppressors! You (Rob, in the essay which accompanies the compiltion) talk about the received, Romanticised version of the Trials being a ‘victor’s history, perhaps’. In fact, both projects are forthright about the few material details we can use to peer past this version – the contemporary climate of paranoia and religious reprisals, the grinding poverty of the women questioned – but at the same time both albums evoke a sense of Pendle as a place of arcane mystery. Do you agree that this is a tension in the projects? If so, what do you make of this tension?
RSJ: Again, perhaps this comes back to Pendle, 1612 as a compilation of different voices. My song on the record, ‘The Mandrake’ is a reworking of a Victorian poem by the Manchester author William Harrison Ainsworth. I’m particularly interested in the legacy of the trials, of how the stories we tell about them have shifted and stuck through time. ‘The Mandrake’ is interesting because it marks a time when wider attitudes towards the trials appeared to slowly shift from that of latent fear and unease to curious, often-romanticised mythmaking. I think there’s a lot of parallels here with the “Balmoralisation” of the post-Clearances Scottish Highlands, where the art and writing of Landseer, Scott and the rest remade empty, overgrazed mountains and glens into romantic, desolate wildernesses for those in the city to fetishise. So, at least, in my song, any sonic mystery is intended to be wrapped up in the context of this period of reinterpretation.
The idea of ‘arcane mystery’ in the music perhaps tracks back to the ideas of hauntology, and the resulting ideas and values the listener may attach to largely instrumental pieces of music that you mentioned. Does a piece of music (especially an instrumental piece) ever really evoke a place, landscape, occurance (whatever) without the attendant (perhaps subconscious) contextual information that you place around it? I would argue that it doesn’t, and as such, I think that one of the key ideas behind the Pendle project was to assemble a constellation of information (sound, writing, photographs, maps) for the listener to draw lines between and assemble some semblance of their own meaning and conclusions, without being overly prescriptive. I think that’s why the box set was so important to the project, and why it wouldn’t have worked as a download or CD release.
D: I think Rob’s nailed it here, we offered a set of information that goes towards honoring and informing the events that occurred to the best of our knowledge and research. The museum analogy comes back in this case, a museum show with its own accompanying soundtrack – each drawing upon the other. The different interpretations were always going to form an overall collective voice and we selected the contributors based on a combination of their own interests and our creative connections with them.
I think of these sound interpretations as soundtracks to unmade films (certainly with regards to my own output), this perhaps applies more to the instrumental tracks on the record, but either way, given the time we are reflecting on it’s no surprise things end up sometimes sounding often like a supernatural horror score, it’s part of our process for trying to understanding the time… and it was a difficult and unpleasant time, this much we know.
Cassette copies of Pendle, 1612 have now sold out but you can listen to excerpts from the compilation here. Folklore Tapes have since released a second Lancashire compilation, which is also sold out. Rob St. John will be performing at two Folklore Tapes shows in Glasgow and Edinburgh on the 24th and 25th of April respectively. The Eccentronic Research Council’s 1612 Underture is available on LP, CD, MP3 and FLAC here.