What can we learn about history by writing and recording songs about it? What can we learn about the creative process of songwriting by writing songs about history?
Darren Hayman, Performing and Recording Artist
Joad Raymond, Professor of Renaissance Studies, QMUL
Seventeenth-century prophets and visionaries: exploring the relationship between history, songwriting, and field music.
The project explored these interrelations by bringing together an academic with a musician whose discography includes conceptual and historical projects. The initial plan was collaboratively to produce a cycle of six songs about C17th British prophets and visionaries, men and women who rejected the established church, conventional norms of politics and conduct, even rejected private property.
Rather than producing historical music in the historical musicological sense, reproducing C17th music or sounds we sought to make fully contemporary songs that reimagine the period as one that was lived in. A crucial part of this lived-in-ness was be the exploration of architecture, landscape and ambient sound through the use of on-location recordings. One of the things that music brings is presence: history cannot be understood without a sense of its immanence. Engagement with places and their sounds was a way of focussing this immanence and capturing it through historical-artistic collaboration. Some of the collaborative processes were documented on film.
The project both snowballed and ran into unexpected obstacles. Modern land ownership prevented us from recording in some places: ironically, given our subject matter. But we also discovered by serendipity other physical locations that were deeply sympathetic to the subjects of the songs – the river along which John Pordage walked to work, the port from which Anna Trapnel was taken, a prisoner, to London. It appeared that the geography was informing the creative research, as well as the acoustic textures of the songs.
We brought on board two other local musicians for some of the initial songs – Robert Rotifer, guitarist and Viennese political journalist, and Ian Button, multi-instrumentalist and producer, plus my sister Gwenifer Raymond, who improvised an extraordinary banjo track which backs a spoken account of the project.
After these six songs were recorded, I was asked by the London label Where It’s At Is Where You Are (WIAIWYA) to contribute to their series of seven albums with 77 minute tracks. I wrote some more songs, and with Ian Button dissolved what were now 11 songs, plus various ‘found’ recordings, into a single track of exactly 77 minutes. The full track listing and credits appear below. Ultimately twelve musicians appear on the album, three of whom were aged three, three and eight when they sang backing vocals into phones.
The series has now been pre-released (a 77 second radio edit can be heard at: https://wiaiwya.bandcamp.com/album/seven-at-77-2019); my album, Songs for the Prophets will be pre-released (digitally) on 31 May, and then the physical, official release will be on 8 July. All proceeds go to Médecins Sans Frontières.
We also made a 22-minute video documenting the project and the thinking behind it: this will go online – here and elsewhere – on 31 May. Three shorter videos of individual songs will go online on 3 June, 4 June and 8 July.
I am presently writing an account of what happened, the ideas, the experiences, reflections on sound and history; this will be released as a book and/or exhibition, together with art by sculptor Rochelle Fry, who speaks the words of Margaret Fell on the song ‘Women’s Speaking Justified’. Live performances of the album will follow.
Joad Raymond 21 May 2019