Bull Hill to Saplin Brae

Bull Hill to Saplin Brae

Music by Haworth Hodgkinson

High Moss HM 020 (64:47) • Released 27 December 2018

All music composed, performed and recorded by Haworth Hodgkinson in 2018

Cover from a photograph by Haworth Hodgkinson

Album © Haworth Hodgkinson 2018

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Bull Hill to Saplin Brae

These five pieces, along with two conceptual pieces called Dawn Postlude and Music for a Southerly Destination, form the bulk of my composing output for 2018. The two conceptual pieces will have albums to themselves, one already available and the other to follow early in 2019. The remaining five, though not consciously related other than by proximity of composition date, seem to go well together, sharing certain preoccupations and techniques that I have been working through during the year.

Choosing the order of the pieces on the album was not easy, and in fact I changed the order only a few days before releasing the album, so the listener should feel free to listen to the tracks in whatever order they choose. In my chosen order the two longer pieces related to specific places, one familiar from childhood and one I visit regularly now, are surrounded by shorter more occasional pieces. And it occurs to me that the two longer pieces would be just the right length to put on opposite sides of one of those unwieldy and crackly black plastic discs that seem to be oddly fashionable at the moment, should anyone wish to do so.

Merge in Turn (2018)

A few years ago the Philharmonia Orchestra made available a large collection of orchestral samples, inviting musicians to use them as they pleased. I used some of the percussion sounds in this piece, which is not meant to be taken particularly seriously, although it does try out a couple of ideas that I intend to explore further in future compositions.

The title may be taken as an oblique reference to the Aberdeen Western Peripheral Route, a new dual carriageway linking Ellon to the north of Aberdeen with Stonehaven to the south, most of which has been completed and opened in stages over the course of 2018.

The Fragmentation of Ellen Strange (2018)

As a child and teenager I spent a lot of time wandering on Holcombe Moor on the West Pennine borderlands between Lancashire and Greater Manchester. Nowadays it's a triple border with the unitary authority of Blackburn with Darwen getting in on the act too, but when I grew up there Blackburn was still part of Lancashire. Amongst the landmarks on the largely featureless moor I remember a monument called the Pilgrims' Cross even though it didn't look anything like a cross, as well as the flagpoles delineating the local army firing range – to be avoided when red flags were flying – and a stone and cairn to the memory of Ellen Strange near Bull Hill, the highest point of the moor. Ellen Strange was a figure of local folk mythology and many different versions of her story exist. A poem by John Fawcett Skelton published in 1872 popularised the story of how she was murdered by a lover when she met him unchaperoned on the moor. An 1878 account by the historian Henry Stephenson tells how the pair had met at Haslingden Fair. In some versions the lover is called Billy and was possessed by the devil, his clogs "striking fire" as he made his escape. Stephenson reports that the murderer was gibbeted on Bull Hill and that some people then living could remember seeing the remains of the post and chains. A tradition began of local folk adding stones to a memorial cairn on the site of the murder. In 1978 Bob Frith staged a theatrical ceremony on the moor at the site, and a stone was carved and placed alongside the existing cairn. Proliferating versions of the story were published in the 1980s, leading John Simpson to conduct some research, and his findings, published in 1989, reveal that the true story differed in many respects from the legends. Ellen Strange was, it seems, murdered not by a lover but by her husband John Broadley. They had a troubled relationship and on a night in January 1761 she was attempting to cross the moor to escape his abuse and return to her parents' farm, but he pursued her, caught up with her and killed her. He then raised the alarm, trying to deflect the guilt, but he was indicted and tried by the splendidly named Sir Bullface Doublefees, only to be acquitted due to lack of witnesses to the murder.

In recent times the Ellen Strange cairn has become the destination of an annual memorial walk to raise awareness of domestic abuse issues with the claim that it is probably the world's oldest monument to a victim of domestic violence.

The Ellen Strange story – or stories – has featured several times in my music, poetry and an unfinished play. I'm fascinated by the contradictions between the different versions and the degrees of uncertainty involved. There are bizarre throwaway details too – it is reported for example that in the early 20th century a party of schoolboys moved the cairn "some distance" across the moor. That must have been quite an undertaking, and we are not told why they moved it, but perhaps this means the commemorative events have not been at the actual site of the murder after all.

In The Fragmentation of Ellen Strange I use two main sound sources. One is a recording of my own voice reading a poem called Fragmentation that I wrote in 2002 remembering my time spent on the moors. Two complete readings of the poem proceed in parallel during the piece, one slowed down and the other treated with a ring modulator, so that the text is not recognisable in either. The second source is a bell sound. Unlike the distant gentle bells that sometimes feature in my music, these bells are loud and violent, huge chunks of metal sent into deformative oscillations by being bludgeoned with heavy hammers, and I use filters to splinter off some of the higher partials. These splintered bell partials have a singing quality, and the ring modulated voice often sounds bell-like, so the two very different sounds each take on some of the other's characteristics. In addition to the two main sources I add two supplementary sounds: a synthesiser producing high voice-like sounds shadows the speaking voice, and the bells are occasionally joined by something that in my composition sketches I called a "broken bell".

The literal-minded listener may hear the screams of Ellen Strange in the high synthesised voices or Billy's clogs "striking fire" in some of the metallic sounds. I prefer to think in terms of a more abstract ritual, trying to find some essence common to all the different stories.

Frustrations (2018)

Frustrations was composed and recorded in a single day, as relief from work on another piece that was going painfully slowly. The other piece remains unfinished and is probably destined to remain so.

Solo (2018)

The Pitfour Estate near my home in Central Buchan is a favourite place for walking and thinking. The estate has been broken up in recent years, with parts sold off for housing and forestry developments, but there have been improvements to the access routes and pathways to encourage visitors. The area around the Pitfour Lake, which is home to many swans, ducks and geese, has become very popular with locals. On several visits this year I noticed that one solitary swan seemed to have taken a liking for the isolation of a much smaller body of water near a low wooded hill called Saplin Brae further west. I felt a certain empathy for this lone swan – the cover of this album was my attempt to photograph it in low evening light and Solo is my response in music.

I chose a deliberately abstract title for the piece, which begins with a wall of slowly shifting harmonies, from which a keyboard solo emerges, repeatedly varying a single phrase that cannot and must not resolve. Eventually the keyboard stops to reveal a short and mysterious coda.

Safety Check (2018)

This piece is built entirely out of samples, recorded by Colin Edwards, of a bowed psaltery – not just the sound of the bow on the strings but also tapping and knocking on the wooden body of the instrument. Colin and I play in the ensemble Intuitive Music Aberdeen, and on one occasion we had to cancel a rehearsal because Colin had to supervise a safety check on a gas installation, so I started this piece in the afternoon that was freed up. Mandy Macdonald, the other regular member of Intuitive Music Aberdeen, described the fierce sound of the bowed psaltery as "rebarbative", and for a while I considered making a reference to "barbed psaltery" in the title of the piece, but in the end I settled on Safety Check.

Notes © Haworth Hodgkinson 2018

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