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Featured SWS23 21 Nov, 2023

Exploring Dark Histories through Folk Song and Field Recordings

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With Soundpaths: HeptonstallYonatan Collier, created an immersive, interactive musical work that uses audio augmented reality (AR) to blend performed music with soundscapes, in and around the village of Heptonstall in West Yorkshire.

This sound walk is one of the shortlisted pieces in the Sound Walk September Awards 2023, and comes after earlier work by Yonatan received an Honourable Mention with the SWS Awards 2019. Here, Yonatan discusses Soundpaths: Heptonstall, adapted from a paper presented at the Intangible Heritages Conference and from his forthcoming PhD thesis.

Over the last few years, I’ve been living in Amsterdam while remotely completing a PhD at Leeds Beckett University. I’ve been creating a series of location-specific immersive musical works for this project, and was looking for a location in Yorkshire, close to where my studies are based. One of my friends alerted me to the rich history of Heptonstall, a village of fewer than fifteen hundred people in the borough of Calderdale in West Yorkshire.

The History of Heptonstall

Heptonstall is a beautiful place, but the more I read about it, the more I discovered that much of its history had a dark edge to it. The village is probably most famous as the final resting place of the poet Sylvia Plath, who was buried in the New Graveyard in 1963 following her suicide. In the adjoining Old Graveyard lies ‘King’ David Hartley, leader of notorious local counterfeiting gang, the Cragg Vale Coiners. Hartley was hanged in York in 1770 for forgery and diminishing the coin, but retains a reputation as something of a folk hero in the area; people leave coins on his grave to this day. Legend has it that the Coiners were responsible for the torture and murder of labourer Abraham Ingham in The Cross Inn pub, just a few meters from the Old Graveyard. Ingham was supposedly burned alive in the fireplace of the pub, then known as The Union Cross, for threatening to implicate the Coiners in the murder of a local official. The fireplace in question was uncovered during the renovation of the pub in 2016. More recently, Hartley’s story has been brought wider attention through Shane Meadows’ TV drama, The Gallows Pole, based on Benjamin Myers’ novel.

The Heptonstall Old Graveyard alone is thought to contain more than one hundred thousand bodies; a remarkable number for such a small village. The numbers are so large as burials in the Upper Calder Valley could only take place in Halifax or Heptonstall until the 17th Century. The Old Graveyard is actually shared by two churches. St Thomas à Becket Church (more commonly known as Heptonstall Old Church), a striking ruin, dates back to the thirteenth century in places, while the newer Church of St Thomas the Apostle was completed in 1854.
The village also has a Methodist chapel; the oldest in existence to have been continually in use since its inauguration. The Methodist leader, John Wesley, laid the foundation stone of the chapel, which was completed in 1764 .

Lyke Wake Dirge

Given the history of the village, I was drawn to the idea of using a funereal folk song as the melodic basis for a composition that I would map over the village. Lyke Wake Dirge seemed like an extremely good fit. The song is written in an old form of Yorkshire dialect and is therefore thought to have origins in the area. In 1686, John Aubrey recorded accounts of the song being sung as far back as 1616, but it is likely to be much older than that. It is both a prayer for the dead, and an account of the soul’s journey to purgatory. The song is therefore thematically appropriate, and has at the very least been in existence for the majority of the historical period to which I aim to draw people’s attention. 

Mapping a Song to a Physical Location

The mapping of Lyke Wake Dirge to Heptonstall ties musical structure to real, physical locations. As participants wander through the village they are essentially ‘remixing’ the song in real time. In order to provide participants with an immersive experience, the mapping had to be done in such a way that the musical passages empathised with the physical locations they were mapped to.

Participants in Soundpaths: Heptonstall do not have to take a set route through the village. Instead, the work encourages a mode of discovery based on exploration. The work is designed in this way in order to make the experience more engaging. Allowing for unrestricted exploration results in a less linear experience, which in turn makes a work feel more interactive. 
In total, 41 audio passages were mapped over Heptonstall, covering the entirety of the oldest part of the village. A number of different compositional techniques were used in order to make the experience both musically cohesive and empathetic to its surroundings.

Marking Locations Through Instrumentation and Melody

The three graveyards in Heptonstall (the Old Graveyard, New Graveyard and the graveyard of the Methodist chapel) are important locations in the village and are also thematically significant to this work. They are the only three locations in the work where voices are used. This ties the locations to one another in the context of the work, while also acting as an echo of how performances of Lyke Wake Dirge would have once been enacted; sung over the body at a wake. 

Landmarks in the village are musically annotated in other ways too. The Cross Inn pub, the supposed site of Abraham Ingham’s murder, is marked with a particularly aggressive drone along with scraping atonal strings; perhaps more reminiscent of a folk horror film score than traditional folk music. The door to a cell, in use until the early 19th century and known as the ‘lock-up’ or ‘dungeon’, is also marked with sinister tones.
The ruins of St Thomas à Becket Church feel like a real focal point of the village, and for this reason I chose them to host the only rendition of Lyke Wake Dirge that features lyrics. They therefore become a focal point for this work in turn. As the church is entered, all instrumentation falls away and the song is taken up by a solo voice that is treated to sound as though it is reverberating through the ruins. Gradually the single voice is joined by others, along with a drone that helps to gradually build the song towards a climactic ending.

Underpinning with Drones

The work is underpinned with musical drones – a common feature of folk music, and so appropriate in this setting. Importantly, drones also provide a constant bed out of which different melodic elements can emerge and disappear. This was a useful compositional tool; the drones sustain in between various melodic passages – passages that were often tied to landmarks. As participants approach these landmarks, the corresponding melodic element will begin playback, and as they leave, these elements sink back into the underlying drones. The audience are thus subtly fed information regarding where they should focus their attention. 

Harmonic Variation

In order to sustain interest in the experience, I felt that some harmonic variation would be desirable. Two different chord sequences were therefore composed to accompany the Lyke Wake Dirge melody. The first of these chord sequences (A.) is mapped to the southern part of the village, while the second (B.) is mapped to the northern part. The idea is to further embed the song structure into the geography of Heptonstall; as participants move into a new part of the village, the music takes on a different feel. The mapping of these chord sequences can be seen below.

The two chord sequences were written in different keys. This provides a more obvious and dramatic musical change than if both would have been written in the same key. However, this posed a problem as they needed to be underpinned by drones of different keys and if these drones overlapped, the result would be dissonant. A ‘transition zone’ was therefore created in which no drones are featured. The music featured in this area was designed to work harmonically with both chord sequences so that the transition zone could overlap with both. Seamless playback of musical material was thus maintained.

Intro/Outro Sections

A further opportunity for musical development lies in the way that the Lyke Wake Dirge melody is introduced to participants. A decision was made to mark the two main entrance points into the village with intro/outro passages. These two passages tease fragments of the Lyke Wake Dirge melody; hinting at it and introducing it gradually. If entering the village along the main road from either east or west, one of these passages will therefore act as the introduction section of the work. If leaving the village along the main road, then one of these sections will act as an outro, before fading into a drone that itself fades away as the village is left behind. Of course, it is impossible to know exactly where participants will start their walks; they may well press play for the first time in the middle of the village. Nonetheless, it still seems to make sense to mark the physical boundaries of the work in this way; whenever a participant leaves the area marked out by the work, there should be a satisfying musical conclusion. If they re-enter, they will hear the melody and chords gradually coalesce around the edges of the village, before coming together at the centre of Heptonstall.

Use of Field Recordings

Alongside traditional folk instrumentation, numerous field recordings – gathered from Heptonstall and the surrounding moors –  have been incorporated into this work. Some of these recordings are played back unprocessed, while some have been manipulated into drones or melodic motifs that, in their timbre, still recall local soundscapes. Examples of this are the two drones that have been created from the sounds of crows in the Old Graveyard, sinister rumbles generated from the sound of grouse on the moor, the sound of the bells from the Church of St Thomas the Apostle that have been woven into the music that surrounds it, or synthetic bass tones that have been shaped using bird calls captured at the edges of the village. 

The intention is that these sounds add an organic quality to the music. The sounds recorded in the village appear to be embedded in the soundscape of the location; rising out of it and creating moments of interplay with the sounds of the real world. The sounds recorded on the moors evoke older, wilder times and themes of nature, death and rebirth.

Conclusion

Soundpaths: Heptonstall draws attention to specific moments in the history of the village by annotating landmarks with sound, but the aim of the work is not necessarily to draw attention only to a few notable historic events. The nature of the experience dictates that only the bare minimum of detail surrounding these events can be imparted to participants in any case. Instead, the intention of the work is to encourage a meditative exploration of this intriguing place. An opportunity to be immersed in a piece of music and contemplate the meaning of this specific song in this specific location. 

The duration of the experience is dependent on the participant, but to explore all of the material provided by the app would take half an hour or more. This is a sustained period of time to explore Heptonstall, during which the participants are encouraged to contemplate the history of the village from a certain perspective. It is hoped that through the provision of an immersive experience that makes use of AR and placed sound, a deeper engagement with the location is fostered; one that will lead to further research into Heptonstall and its history once the experience is over.

Soundpaths: Heptonstall can be experienced through either the Echoes or Soundpaths apps.


The winners and honourable mentions of the SWS Awards 2023 will be announced in January 2024.

APA style reference

Collier, Y. (2023). Exploring Dark Histories through Folk Song and Field Recordings. walk · listen · create. https://walklistencreate.org/2023/11/21/exploring-dark-histories-through-folk-song-and-field-recordings/

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noctambulate

If you sleepwalk, or just like to stroll about after dark, you have a tendency to noctambulate, or walk around at night. Credits to Mark Peters.

Added by Geert Vermeire

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