Back when I was a faithful reader of The Wire one of the stories that piqued my interest was that of Richard Skelton and of his beginnings with his small run releases that were a tribute to and coming to terms with, the passing of his late wife Louise. The descriptions of the releases and the ephemera that came with them was one of the first times that I had come across such a personal backstory and one about releases that added a tactile element that was essential to gaining a deeper understanding of the works. Since those early days Skelton has moved geographically several times, most recently finding himself on the border of Scotland and England. In that decade and a half he has also produced a body of work that contains over twenty albums with his most recent “Border Ballads” being released on Corbel Stone Press in May.
“Richard Skelton has spent the last two years living on the rural northern edge of the Scotland-England border, a boundary demarcated by various water- courses – among them the Kershope Burn, the Liddel Water and the River Esk. This hinterland topography has informed a series of musical recordings which, in their brevity, stand in stark contrast to the long form compositions for which he is more usually known. Nevertheless, there is a sense that these twelve miniatures are fragments of a larger whole, such is their unity in tone and timbre.”
Borders are defined as “geographic boundaries of political entities or legal jurisdiction, such as governments, sovereign states, federated states and other sub-national entities.” They can also be non physical in the sense of mental, emotional or relationship boundaries in which people interact. With some of the music there is a direct link to the area where Skelton lives near such as the aforementioned “Kershope” which is a reference to the Kershope Burn that runs the entirety of the Scottish/English border.
Musically the album is a modern classical meets drone. There is a darkness in the central of the material as Skelton using cello, viola and piano to create pieces with a heightened emotional sensitivity. With the darkness, the music is also flowing and overlapping at a gentle pace. Occasionally we get glimpses of light filtering in through the pieces like the brilliantly mournful “Shake Hole” and subtle changes in the instrumentation, such as the delicate piano that emerges from drones such as the final track “Hobb”.
One characteristic that seems to run through the album is its pace. The music is fully extended and allowed to unfurl at its leisure which adds an extra element to the feel of it. Not knowing the physical environment of the area, you get this feeling of an almost ominous calm. The pace makes the music feel somewhat reverential as it slowly tells its story. With drone based string works you can get sense of melancholy that is embedded into the sound, but with “Border Ballads” it feels more like a mix of ghosts of the past mixed in with a tenseness in the weight of the strings. There is a cinematic feel to the music which is best observed in piano pieces such as “Kist and Ark” and the fluid strings and piano of “Roan” both show off a fragilic sensitivity.
Something that should be noted is the changes in tone throughout the album. The press release alludes to “a sense that these twelve miniatures are fragments of a larger whole, such is their unity in tone and timbre” and to a certain extent this is true, but on further investigation you can see where the music is more present and central and then there are other pieces like the ambient tinged “Dhu” where the music is more about creating an overlapping soundscape. A piece like “Yade” shows how, with a limited sound pallet of strings and piano, just how effective it can be. There is suspense that drips from the hanging and swirling drones and the reverberant piano that casts shadows and runs chills up the spine.
With “Border Ballads” Richard Skelton takes the listener on a journey to what feels like empty fields, buffeted by winds and surrounded by ancient walls demarcating territories. The music is composed, played and recorded in such a way that it makes the listener conjure up images of their own and visualize these alongside the pieces.