Khora: the voice and the Essex shore

I went down to the Shorelines literary festival, held at Leigh-on-Sea in Essex, over the weekend. Leigh is the next town along the A13 from the town I grew up in and in which my family still live, Hadleigh; Leigh is where I worked for 2 years, and where my friend Ed lived, whose house, the Vicarage by St Clement’s church, was the rehearsal base for our band Tortoisehead, and the launching-place (and often late-night video watching) for our Friday and Saturday night nights out at a sequence of Leigh pubs (The Olde Smack Inn and latterly the Crooked Billet in Old Leigh; but mainly the Grand Hotel, the favourite watering-hole of the Feelgood’s singer Lee Brilleaux).

One of the sessions had a particularly poignant moment for myself and old friend Simon, who had also come down from elsewhere to sample the festival’s events. This was a group walk around Leigh in the company of Justin Hopper, whose poem sequence Public Record: Estuary memorialises the disasters and loss of life that regularly occurred in the Thames, crowded as it then was with shipping going up and down to London, barges and lighters traversing the coastline, and the Leigh fishing fleet. The first point of call was St Clement’s church, where a poem, ‘The Terror of Saint Clement’, was read, which commemorated the loss of the anchor of the Arctic exploration vessel the HMS Terror in the Thames mud, whose 1845 expedition, commanded by Sir John Franklin, ended in disaster when the ship became trapped in the ice, resulting in the death of over 100 men.

The churchyard is on a high point, the bluffs leading down steeply to the sea (now marked by houses on Leigh Hill, including the Vicarage); from there, you can look down over the Ray and (to the right) Two Tree Island and Canvey Island, and beyond, over the grey Thames, the lights of the Isle of Grain and the north Kent coast. The poem was engaging, in the fading afternoon light, but my own attention was split; for, over the wall of the churchyard, we could see the Vicarage, and the low outbuilding that had been our rehearsal space in the late 1980s and early 1990s. I could almost hear the sound of the band rehearsing, transmitted across the decades, signals picked up through my association with that place.

The connection between sound and place is one that has occupied my thinking over the last few weeks. I presented a short paper at a Lancaster conference on the Tour de France and Kraftwerk, and the relationship between the bicycle, mobility and modernity as transmitted through the electronic cadences of their music. In ‘Tour de France’, Kraftwerk also use the human breath as an aural punctuation, part of the rhythm of the track (the 2003 remaster, unlike the original 1983 track, begins with the breath, the human pump of heart and lungs preceding the sound of the machine, the sequenced rhythms of drum machine and synthesizers).  

The connection between electronic music, modernity and place has also been something I’ve been turning over, from the Ghost Box label to Box Springs Audio to the writings of Simon Reynolds, in particular Retromania. In that book (you can find it anticipated in some entries in his blog Reynold Retro), Reynolds suggests that the Ghost Box artists, and others like Pye Corner Audio, revisit a particular post-war British sensibility, a utopianism to do with popularizations of avant-garde practice (such as the BBC Radiophonic Workshop), progressive mass education (the new universities of the 60s, such as the one I work at, the Open University, and so on) and also a lingering adherence to Modernism in architecture.

The music of Pye Corner Audio, or Ghost Box artists such as Belbury Poly, uses electronic rhythms and synthesized textures that echo those of Kraftwerk (in particular Radio-Activity, 1975); it proved an illuminating connection, then, that Justin Hopper’s Public Record: Estuary readings had themselves been recorded and accompanied by Scanner, the recording name of Robin Rimbaud, a highly-prolific electronic musician and performer whose work, as the name suggests, is concerned with transmissions, electronic and white noise, shifting ambiences, fugitive pulses. It is ideal for putting Public Record: Estuary in place, of locating it, if not with the clich├ęd sound-set of waves, the tonking of rigging on metal masts, or even folk idioms. (Though it must be said that the ‘Intro’ track does feature something resembling a concertina.) Often, Scanner augments ambient washes and synth pads with choral voices, as well as the readers (Hopper and others, Essex voices) speaking the poems.

The connection between place and sound is expressed by Reynolds in his appropriation of the term ‘hauntology’, derived from Jacques Derrida’s Specters of Marx. ‘Hauntology’ derives from the aural proximity, in French of ‘ontology’ (the philosophical investigation of being) and ‘hantology’ (‘ghost-ology’, from the French verb for haunting, ‘hanter’).(Not to be confused with the even more pregnant French word for ghost, ‘revenant’.) Derrida suggests, through the idea of hauntology, that being is never full, complete, present; it is always ‘haunted’, somehow spectral. Reynolds took this idea in the mid-Noughties to characterise the work of recording artists like Belbury Poly or The Advisory Circle, ‘nostalgic for the future’, the future that has been foreclosed by late capitalism.

It’s a provocative idea, and one that certainly can be applied – carefully – to works like Public Record: Estuary, in its recorded form. In particular, Scanner’s use of voice – the choral – relates directly to articulations of place. The etymology of ‘choral’ goes back to the Greek ‘chorus’ (well-known from Greek tragedy), or khoros, which means a group that sings or recites poetry. Proximate to this is khora, described in Plato’s Timaeus, which means a space or receptacle, but which has connotations of being a space between, an interval, neither being nor non-being. Derrida takes this word to name an otherness which remains other; Julian Wolfreys takes up the idea of ‘chorography’ an Elizabethan word that denoted antiquarian approaches to mapping (cartography). Wolfreys, in an online article, relates this to the work of Iain Sinclair. In no coincidence, Sinclair, Macgillivray and Jem Finer performed to a ‘remix’ of Andrew Kotting’s film Swandown at Shorelines on Saturday night, in which Kotting’s work was re-worked as a meditation on space, the sea, the beach, and the voice.

The shoreline, the space between land and sea, manifested in Justin Hopper’s response to Leigh-on-Sea and its history in Public Record: Estuary, is the space in which to explore khoros/ khora, the relation between poetry and place, voice and landscape. My response to standing in St Clement’s churchyard is one that opened up, for me, my personal history in which space is articulated or mediated or transmitted through music, a missing point of triangulation in my own thinking until now. As well as being stimulating in many ways, Shorelines returned me to myself, as much as it returned me to Essex.

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