Sphinx by David Lindsay, Sphinx by Cyril Scott

Sphinx by David Lindsay (cover)I was doing some research into David Lindsay’s third novel, Sphinx (published in 1923) — whose title refers to a fictional piece of piano music composed by a fictional composer, Lore Jensen, that’s played early on in the book — when I found that there actually was a piano piece of that name, published in 1908, fifteen years before Lindsay’s novel, and so quite possibly still in circulation at the time the book was written. I’m certainly not going to make the case that Lindsay must have known about it, or that it might have played some part in inspiring his novel (in which the fictional piano piece is mostly there to spark off a conversation about the book’s themes), but it’s fun to explore the possibility, largely because of one further coincidence I’ll come to in a moment.

The real-life 1908 “Sphinx” was composed by Cyril Scott (1879–1970), who was considered by some to be ‘in the forefront of modern British composers’ in ‘the first quarter of the last century’ (the quote is from this 2005 article), though after the Second World War he seems to have drifted from favour. One speculation is that Scott, being continentally-educated and more modernistically-inclined, didn’t fit in with the emerging idea that English music should be about English-educated composers reworking native folk themes.

Cover to score for Cyril Scott's SphinxAnother possibility is Scott’s interest (like many artists and writers of the early 20th Century, such as Yeats, Algernon Blackwood, Arthur Conan Doyle) in the occult and supernatural. Some of his works, such as his 1917 opera The Alchemist, and his 1932 ballet based on Poe’s Masque of the Red Death, reveal this interest, and he also wrote books on these (and other) subjects. This is something that fell out of fashion in post-WWII culture, and may have had a distancing effect on the critical elite.

Scott’s interest in metaphysics was sparked by the pianist Evelyn Suart, who was a Christian Scientist, and who championed his work, premiering many of his pieces, and who introduced him to his publisher. (Scott published a lot of miniature pieces for piano, of the sort that people at the time bought as, later in the century, they’d buy singles. His producing what might have been seen as populist, commercial work is cited as another potential reason for his disfavour in the post-WWII years.)

But here’s that other interesting coincidence I promised (though I’m sure it is just a coincidence). In Lindsay’s novel, the fictional piano piece “Sphinx” is played by a young woman called Evelyn Sturt — one letter different from Scott’s friend, the real-life pianist Evelyn Suart. (Thanks to Séan Martin for pointing out my previous error in calling her Evelyn Stuart.)

In Lindsay’s novel, the short piano piece is described as follows:

‘It was what used to be called a “tone-poem,” a work built round a single central idea. Evelyn evidently found its freshness attractive, for she played it with far greater sympathy and feeling than either of the Chopin pieces. Despite her protestation, she made no obvious blunders. It was quite short, in length a mere trifle, but after the first minute Nicholas grew interested and impressed. The opening was calm, measured and drowsy. One could almost see the burning sand of the desert and feel the enervating sunshine. By degrees the theme became more troubled and passionate, quietly in the beginning, but with a gradually rising storm—not physical, but of emotion—until everything was like an unsteady sea of menace and terror. Towards the end, crashing dissonances appeared, but just when he was expecting the conventional climax to come, all the theme-threads united in a sudden quietening, which almost at once took shape as an indubitable question. It could then be seen that all that had gone before had been leading the way to this question, and that what had appeared simple and understandable had been really nothing of the sort, but, on the contrary, something very mysterious and profound. . . . Half a dozen tranquil and beautiful bars brought the little piece to a conclusion. . . .’

Opening bars to Sphinx by Cyril Scott

Cyril Scott’s “Sphinx” (Opus 63) is similar in many ways. It’s reasonably short, as classical music goes (4 minutes, 27 seconds in Michael Schäfer’s recording, available digitally from Amazon UK and US), it opens quietly — in a way that immediately reminded me of the opening of one of my favourite pieces of creepy film music, Christopher Young’s spine-tingling end theme to Hellraiser — gradually rises in both intensity and dissonance (‘Mysteriously, and sustained’, the score says), then lapses back to its initial quietude.

This doesn’t, of course, mean that Lindsay was thinking of Scott’s real piece when he was writing about Lore Jensen’s fictional one — his description, after all, is a pretty obvious structure for any piece of short, mysterious music — but reading Lindsay’s prose, and listening to Scott’s composition, it’s easy to imagine it leaving you with the sense of “an indubitable question”, even if the question is only, “Did David Lindsay know this music?”

The novels Lindsay published during his lifetime have been in the public domain since 2016. After thinking someone, surely, would bring the more obscure ones out as ebooks, I gave up waiting and this week published Sphinx on Kindle and other ebook formats. Hopefully this will help make the rest of Lindsay’s work, other than just his most famous work, A Voyage to Arcturus, accessible to a wider readership.

Spacewreck

I have updated my science fiction concept album Spacewreck, which I originally released in 2005. This is something I’ve been meaning to do for some time. The 2017 version features a few minor improvements, most notable of which is a different sound montage at the end of the track ‘Space Will Freeze Your Memories’ (which previously made liberal and, I’m sure, illegal use of film clips).

The album is now available from Bandcamp.

I’ve also put up a trailer on YouTube:

The title derives from Spacewreck: Ghosts and Derelicts of Space, a collection of science fiction art issued by the Terran Trade Authority back in 1979, and which I recall spending many hours poring over. You can learn more about this book at terrantradeauthority.com.

 

Electric Eden by Rob Young

ElectricEdenFolk rock flourished in Britain between 1969 and 1972, a period I’ve become increasingly fascinated by, mostly because of the YA fiction of the time (Penelope Lively’s, most recently), and the telefantasy that followed soon after (The Changes, Children of the Stones, Sky, and so on). All of these shared an interest in British landscape and British folklore. Rob Young’s Electric Eden traces the history of the ‘electric folk movement’ throughout the twentieth century, from the moment Cecil Sharp began seeking out and transcribing folk songs in 1903, to their adoption by the political left as the authentic voice of the working classes in the 50s and early 60s, and then to their more individualistic use among the hippie generation that bridged the 60s and 70s.

In fact, there are a few parallels to be drawn between the development of folk music and children’s fantasy literature in the 20th century. In From Alice to Harry Potter: Children’s Fantasy in England, Colin Manlove characterises the kids’ fantasy of the 50s and early 60s as being ‘social in tendency, in that the story involved either fitting in with a given collective, or, in the more secure and conformist 1960s, making friends with often very different people or creatures’ — which could be compared to the contemporaneous socially-minded use of folk music by the left — while, in the 1970s, ‘the problem of identity in these fantasies becomes much more acute’, alongside, in some writers at least, ‘a desire to reconnect with the past and traditional values that are now more distant’. And it’s the individualism of folk music in its brief 60s/70s flourish that comes to the fore in Electric Eden, with so many different musicians using the same basic materials — the songs, ballads, dances and music of the pre-World War working classes — in so many different ways.

What nailed this parallel for me, though, was when Young says:

‘A significant portion of Britain’s cultural identity is built on a succession of golden ages… The ‘Visionary Music’ invoked in this book’s title refers to any music that contributes to this sensation of travel between time zones, of retreat to a secret garden, in order to draw strength and inspiration for facing the future.’

Golden ages and secret gardens — this could be straight out of Humphrey Carpenter’s book about the ‘Arcadian’ writers of classic children’s fantasy, and their use of ‘travel between time zones’ and ‘retreat to a secret garden’ to reconnect with the ‘golden age’ of childhood.

Comus's First Utterance, one of the stranger (and darker) uses of folkishness

Comus’s First Utterance (1971), one of the stranger (and darker) uses of folkishness

Perhaps one key to why there was this sudden movement to rediscover (or remake) the traditions of the past at this time is down to the fact that the people doing the rediscovering/remaking were the children of the generation who’d lived through two World Wars. Perhaps there was a need to reach over the immediate, bloody past and mend the connection with whatever life had been like before those two horrific cataclysms, to find a way of dealing with a daily life in which you weren’t continually threatened by industrial levels of death. Folk music felt like a discovery to the rockers of the late 60s, something they could both participate in and make their own. (This could be a workable definition of what ‘folk’ music is — music that’s both participatory, and individually interpretable.) If nothing else, there was a lot more you could do if you were interested in folk music, as Electric Eden quotes folk musician Dave Arthur as saying:

‘So we were morris dancing, clog dancing, playing instrumental music, singing ballads and songs, researching, going off to manuscript collections and working on material, original stuff that nobody else was working on.’

Dave Arthur was married to Toni Arthur, later a presenter on Play School and Play Away, and the pair recorded several folk albums, including Hearken to the Witches Rune in 1970/1971, a collection of witchy-themed folk songs (including ‘Alison Gross’ — about the ‘ugliest witch in the north country’ — ‘The Standing Stones’, and ‘The Fairy Child’), which had an excerpt from the Wiccan ‘Witch’s Chant’ printed on the sleeve.

There seems to have been a strong connection between folk music and something darker, or at least weirder. When Cecil Sharp first saw morris dancing in 1899, Rob Young says, the:

‘…sheer otherness of the display entranced him — it seemed to appear from the darkest, least conspicuous corners of English provincial life, and to be innately understood by the people who practised it.’

As Young says:

‘Even to dip a toe into the world of folklore is to unearth an Other Britain, one composed of mysterious fragments and survivals…’

Meanwhile, back in the early 70s, folk horror had its own brief efflorescence, with Play For Today Robin Redbreast showing on 10th December 1970, Blood on Satan’s Claw out in cinemas in 1971, and of course the folk-horror-musical The Wicker Man in 1973.

DoctorWho_Daemons

Jon Pertwee’s Doctor captured by sinister morris dancers (are there any other sort?), in The Daemons (1971)

And then it all ended. 1972 was a ‘reckoning year… a time of structural adjustment in the rock economy’:

‘The inescapable truth was that if you were still making Albion-centric, historically resonant folk-rock after 1974, then the zeitgeist had deserted you.’

Why did it end? Was the search for a new identity successful, were all problems resolved? Or was this particular solution limited to the one post-War generation’s brief coming of age? Young puts forward the idea that Thatcher’s government deliberately set out to provide a new, more modern self-image for Britain, taking it away from dreams of the countryside to something more solidly urban and suburban, but he says a similar thing about Harold Wilson’s speech to the Labour Party Conference in 1963, too:

‘…the speech signalled a new British self-consciousness as a metropolitan society whose successful destiny lay in skewering the balance towards its urban population and industrial prowess.’

fotheringay

Sandy Denny’s post-Fairport Convention band’s first (1970) album

On the other hand, perhaps it was simply that the connection to a more peaceful, pre-war ‘golden age’ just couldn’t work in the late 1970s and 80s, or indeed in any globally-connected age, where it was impossible to ignore wars in other countries, terrorism, industrial unrest, rising unemployment, and the renewed threat of nuclear war. The world-warding barriers around one’s country retreat were too thin.

But the visionary ‘golden age’ aspect of folk music didn’t entirely disappear. Young traces its spirit in the work of a number of artists in the following years (culminating in the very un-folky electronica of the Ghost Box label in the 2010s). Perhaps, then, it’s similar to what happened to the ghost story, as presented in Julia Briggs’ study, Night Visitors, and the real oddity is not why folk rock’s popularity so suddenly waned, as why a minority interest, deeply meaningful to only a few, flared up into such brief but bright cultural relevance, and became, for even so short a period, as popular as it did.

Hawkwind 1976-1979: The Calvert Years

Astounding Sounds, Amazing MusicAfter Warrior on the Edge of Time, Hawkwind shed its psychedelically-scaled skin. Lemmy, the Doom Lord of Bass, was jettisoned; Stacia, the Dream Lady of Dance — shock! — got married; the band changed management and switched record company (to the Charisma label — an appropriate name, considering this era was so much about Robert Calvert’s highly theatrical presence). After their next album, the wonderfully-titled Astounding Sounds, Amazing Music (so wonderfully titled, the band members sometimes have trouble remembering it), Nik Turner was ejected like a roller-skated shooting star honking saxophonic free jazz (he went on to play flute in the Great Pyramids of Egypt), and this beast of a band morphed — or perhaps burst from its previous incarnation’s chest to slide squealing through the blood-spattered remains of the sixties love-feast — into a very different entity. A community-binding collective of tribal shamans no more, Hawkwind became, for the next three studio albums, something like a normal band.

Back cover to Astounding SoundsAt its core were the Morecambe & Wise of Space Rock, Dave Brock and Robert Calvert. (They didn’t so much bring you sunshine as send you hurtling towards the heart of the nearest star, Nova Drive blazing.) But it’s Calvert who really defines this era of Hawkwind’s output. He’d been in the band before, as poet and sometimes singer during the Space Ritual tour, but had left to produce some quirky concept albums (consisting of Hawkwind-ish rock, musical pastiches, and mostly unfunny comedy routines). Now he became what Hawkwind hadn’t till this point had — a front man. I mean, you need a manic depressive in charge of your spaceship, don’t you?

Quark, Strangeness and CharmI can’t speak for Calvert’s attitude towards, or involvement with, the sort of community-oriented feel of Hawkwind’s early years, but his artistic attitude is very much about the individual — the blazing individual, reaching for the heights and gleefully crashing into the wreckage of its own manic drive. Calvert’s lyrics are all about freedom, flight, falling and flame. Icarus gets name-checked in “The Only Ones”, along with the other “daredevil angels” of the sky, but Calvert’s songs are full of people achieving freedom only through a death-risking plummet (“Free Fall”: “You’ve cut the puppet’s strings/In free fall”; or the more coercive need for freedom from the “human zoo” in “High Rise”: “Well somebody said that he jumped/But we know he was pushed”) or the earth-bound alternative in the vehicular crash-and-burn of “Death Trap”‘s “fiery crucifixion”, and “Damnation Alley”‘s “Diving through the burning hoop of doom”. There are more subtle means of gleeful self-destruction bubbling inside the misanthropic, self-consuming “Steppenwolf” (Calvert’s finest moment, for me), the Cold-War Kid (“In a town by the wall the machine gunners wait/To type out the orders that seal his fate”), or the anonymous sky-diver in “Free Fall” (“While destiny is on your case/the gods look up your file”). So much fate, doom and destiny, too.

Robert CalvertCalvert didn’t just sing about these heroes, he became them. In this era, Hawkwind, still trying to create the full experience for its listeners, switched from its earlier attempts at a sort of trance-and-psychosis-led initiation, to something more theatrical, more something to be watched than actively participated in. Calvert dressed up like a WWII pilot or Lawrence of Arabia. He wielded a starter pistol and a sword. (At one point, he tried to attack one of his fellow band members with that sword, on stage. At another, he chased his frightened band-mates through a Paris traffic jam, wearing jodhpurs and a pistol belt; they were so scared they ordered their driver to mount the pavement to escape.)

Calvert could do vitriolic satire (in “Uncle Sam’s On Mars”, which takes its form and feel from Gil-Scott Heron’s “Whitey on the Moon”), and silly humour (“Quark, Strangeness and Charm”, with its frankly inaccurate portrayal of Einstein’s love-life), but his most mordant diatribes were reserved for that monotone set of non-individuals who least embodied his ideal — the mediocrities, the button-pushers, the “tiny creeps”, the clones, drones and “insect men”, from the “good morning machine” of “Robot”, to the archetypal “Micro-Man” “who sees the detail but never the plan”.

PXR5Despite this being, to my ears, the most musically successful era of the band’s output, Hawkwind itself seemed to be suffering some sort of psychosis, unsure of its identity (masquerading at times as its split-personalities the Sonic Assassins and the Hawklords), releasing albums in the wrong order (PXR5, recorded after Quark, Strangeness and Charm, was released after the Hawklords album, 25 Years On) before the band made a suicide attempt when, after a US tour, Dave Brock sold his guitar to a fan and decided to give up on Hawkwind altogether. (And Dave Brock giving up on Hawkwind means no Hawkwind.)

Of course, this wasn’t the end. But, for the rest of its life, Hawkwind would continue to switch freely between two identities — the straight-ahead rock band, and the community-binding musical shamans, in an almost polarised division in the next era’s alternations between straight-ahead guitar riffery (thanks to the fabulous Huw Lloyd-Langton) and electronic trippyness.