‘Walking, observing, listening’: an interview with Nancy Gaffield and The DriftPosted: November 26, 2020
Earlier this month, Longbarrow Press published Wealden, a collaboration between poet Nancy Gaffield and The Drift (musicians Darren Pilcher, Rob Pursey and Amelia Fletcher), inspired by the marshes, woodlands and shingle of southern Kent. This interview (conducted by Longbarrow Press editor Brian Lewis) took place in November 2020.
BRIAN: Wealden is the first release from The Drift, and it also marks a new collaboration (with Nancy Gaffield). How did you become aware of each other’s work, and how did the collaboration come about?
ROB: Amelia, Darren and I had been making music together for a while as The Drift. It was an ongoing experiment, but it was always focussed on the local landscape for inspiration — metaphorically, and literally. Our experiences of the empty spaces of the marshes, the dense woodland and the deserted beaches were in our minds as we played. We thought of the deep loamy bass as the subsoil, the loops of abstract sound as the rugged flora, and the occasional higher-pitched elements — like the fiddle or the harmonium — as fleeting glimpses of wildlife, weather events, or other people. On a literal level, Darren was bringing bits and pieces of bracken and shingle into the rehearsal room as the ingredients of his sonic loops. (He should explain how that works!) Perhaps flippantly, we referred to the music as ‘Marsh Dub’. Original Dub Reggae has a spaciousness, and a repetitiveness, that becomes mesmerising and immersive. A lot of this music was made with very basic equipment, and sonic effects were created using analogue sources and very basic pre-digital reverbs and delays. That’s what we were doing too. We would improvise sections of music, play them and then throw them away. We weren’t too bothered with the idea of trying to make any of it permanent — like I say, it was an ongoing experiment. So, this was the strange little world that Nancy was introduced to! I had met Nancy because I was trying to find a way of getting US poet Stephanie Burt over to the UK for our Words and Music at the Skep festival — there was no way we could afford it on our own. Nancy was able to get the University of Kent at Canterbury (where she was a lecturer) to come on board — Stephanie would also give lectures at the University, and the costs were shared. This was great. But even better was the discovery that, as a poet, Nancy was exploring landscapes too, finding ways of expressing them — their ecologies and their histories — in poetic form. We decided it would be good to see what happened if she took a closer look at the landscapes we’d already been inspired by. And to see what happened if the two expressions — the verbal and the musical — were combined.
NANCY: Composer Matthew King, with whom I’ve worked on various music/poetry projects, introduced me to Rob Pursey. As Rob said, we met in the first instance to discuss how we might combine resources on a words and music festival in order to bring Steph Burt to Kent. We started talking about our respective interests and discovered we had so much in common. A few days after that meeting, Rob contacted me to ask about a possible collaboration. Of course, I said yes! I have worked with musicians previously, but not in this free-form way. What intrigued me about The Drift was that the music does not proceed from a written score, but begins with sound phenomena that are shaped into a composition in tandem with the words.
BRIAN: What was it about this particular landscape — or landscapes — that suggested a collaborative and creative response? Was there a sense of collective exploration and discovery as the project developed?
NANCY: Nearly everything I write is concerned with landscapes, from Tokaido Road (CB editions, 2011) to Continental Drift (Shearsman, 2014) to Meridian (Longbarrow, 2019). I had just finished Meridian, a poetic response to the landscape of eastern England where the Meridian line crosses (N/S) from Peacehaven in East Sussex to Sand le Mere in Yorkshire, and I was eager to explore more closely the area where I live (Kent). Despite having lived in Canterbury for 30 years, I had never explored Romney Marsh or Dungeness. When I heard that this area was described as ‘the only desert in western Europe’, I was sceptical, and yet there is something desert-like about this landscape. It has to do with the way the light bends and reflects, and the deceptiveness of distance. My recent writing concerns deep time and ecological matters, and it’s all there in that place: the strata — geological, cultural and historical — that have been laid down over the course of one brief millennium. The history of the Weald and the marshes is a microcosm of human history and of climate change. It was so exciting to share our discoveries as the project developed and to learn about the way a musician responds to landscape.
AMELIA: When Rob and I moved to the edge of the Weald around 7 years ago, from central London, we started to explore our new surroundings, and were genuinely bewitched by the landscape, and its history and geology. A few examples: how the entire shape of the land changed with the great storm of 1287; how much of the land sits behind a sea wall, threatened by rising sea levels; the beautiful concrete sound mirrors, tributes to ambitious failure; the nuclear power station at Dungeness, lasting beyond its expected life, framed by sea, sky and shingle; Fairfield Church, standing alone on the Marsh, the village that once sat alongside it now long gone. Nancy writes about these, and more, in Wealden, and I think we have all deepened our connection with this place. Even Darren, who was brought up here! Rob and I have been in bands for years, but we have been more used to writing songs than creating ambient textures. For this piece, we did experiment with a few different approaches, but the music we have developed just seems true to the place.
BRIAN: Wealden was first performed in May 2019, and the studio recordings were completed in March of this year, shortly before the first lockdown. How did the work evolve and change over this period — from the initial discussions, drafts, and rehearsals?
DARREN: Initially we shaped the music very quickly. It was an instinctive, very human process. Nancy’s words brought structure and we soon created musical parameters in which to improvise and expand. Much remains in flux. The journeys are fixed but within every track / poem are scenes left open for improvisation with the scenario of each performance space influencing our choices. I have a bank of existing audio samples from the landscape that are at my disposal throughout; these can be manipulated and executed in infinite ways, informed by the mood in the room, audience or occasion. Textures and ambience, unique to each performance, are also added live. Recording and looping a mix of organic percussion, foraged natural materials and traditional folk instruments on-the-fly adds new layers. Instrumental expression from Amy and Rob circulates fresh variation on melody. All of these factors see Wealden continue to evolve and change through each performance.
AMELIA: It’s true. As a semi-improvised work, it is slightly odd to have a particular version now preserved in aspic, via the recording, when it was just the variant we happened to play that day. I’m very glad we managed to do it just before lockdown though! I also really enjoyed the process of developing the piece, with such great lyrical ideas to react to musically. I don’t think I’ve ever previously listened and thought so hard while creating music.
BRIAN: Nancy, you’ve adapted existing work for musical settings, including reworking your Tokaido Road as the libretto to Nicola LeFanu’s chamber opera. Could you say a little about the experience of starting from a ‘blank page’ with this project?
NANCY: That’s an interesting question. Adapting an existing work to fit the requirements of an opera was a real challenge. Although there are some similarities between poem and libretto (emotion, compression, sharp imagery), there are more differences. In Wealden, I am writing primarily in the lyric mode, my natural mode. There was no requirement for the words to be set to the music. For the libretto, narrative and dramatic modes were also required, for example, characters acting in powerful scenes along a narrative arc. Essentially the libretto exists to inspire the composer, with the poet being in a secondary role. I was very fortunate to work with Nicola LeFanu, as she is very experienced. I learned a lot, but I do prefer to start with a blank page. Wealden started with walking, observing, listening, opening up all the senses to this landscape, then noting down impressions, creating a word bank, pages and pages of notes and phrases, reading about the area (its history, geology, flora and fauna), talking to people, more walking and exploring, determining a form, and then beginning. I arrived at our first session with the seven poems of Part I, but the other two parts evolved more organically in line with the music.
BRIAN: Amelia and Rob, your interest in — and engagement with — poetry, and its intersections with music, closely informed the programming of last year’s Words and Music at the Skep. Is this kind of collaboration (between poets and musicians) a new experience for you? Were you conscious of any precedents (and/or anything you wanted to avoid)?
ROB: Since Amelia and I moved out to Kent I’ve been very aware that we have enough space here to invite people in — for social events, to work on creative projects, or to hear musicians and poets perform. We are quite a long way from London, and there is a lack of live music, or theatre in the area. At the time, we were also looking after Amelia’s elderly mother, as well as our two kids — so if we wanted to watch or participate in anything, it needed to be very local. I was impressed that the folk musicians down the road in Tenterden kept up their culture in a local pub once a month — they were people who just got together to sing on a regular basis. Not really my kind of music (though I am getting keener on it), but it was inspiring to see that all they needed was a half-decent venue. Me and Darren converted an old barn at the bottom of our garden (now known as ‘The Skep’) into a scruffy, rugged venue. We put in a decent PA, Darren created a bar and a stage out of old wood, and acquired stage curtains that were being chucked out of a nearby village hall. He’s got a really good eye, and the Skep is a lovely place to be. One of the benefits of being in the middle of nowhere rather than in a city is that local people will come and see things out of curiosity. They don’t see themselves as members of an exclusive cultural tribe — liking only this kind of music, or only that kind of art. If something is happening, it’s worth checking out. So, the ambition with ‘Words and Music’ was to bring together musicians and poets, but with a view to entertaining locals as well as any poetry and indie aficionados who might turn up. And that’s how it turned out — we had a nice mix of people. Some people heard poetry performed live for the first time in their lives. Meanwhile, some poets got to taste the excellent local beer for the first time in their lives. In terms of mixing pop music and poetry, I’ve always been equally keen on both. The former sometimes suffers from dismissiveness: it’s not seen as proper Art. The latter suffers from perceptions of aloofness, difficulty and exclusivity. Both attitudes are absurd, but very entrenched. At Words and Music we got the musicians to play quietly, so their lyrics were audible — and appreciated. The poets performed in the same relatively informal space as the musicians: I like to think that this helped the audience feel at ease with an unfamiliar art form. And this was the environment where we performed Wealden for the first time. Amelia, Darren and I had not ever worked with a poet before, and I think it’s safe to say we were nervous when we had to perform Wealden live. Was this combination of elements going to work? Would the audience be confused? Would Darren be able to create his sound loops under pressure in the live environment? There was a lot to be anxious about. Anyway, it worked. Maybe it was the influence of the local beer, but the audience really liked it. And perhaps most pleasing of all, some local people, for whom the topographical references in Wealden were very familiar indeed, really loved it. I felt that we had succeeded in making a song about their landscape, and it rang true for them.
AMELIA: We should mention that we do hope to hold Words and Music at the Skep again. We had booked a festival for May this year, with a really amazing line-up of poets and musicians, but of course it had to be cancelled. The performers kindly recorded short performances on video, so we could hold a mini online version. Which was great, but not the same.
BRIAN: Finally, how have the landscapes of Wealden changed for you as a result of creating this work?
NANCY: If anything, I am even more excited by this landscape than I was before. Each time I visit, I find something new. Also, the season, the weather, the time of day, events in the wider world, all of these affect the way you view it. I am not finished with this landscape yet.
ROB: During the second lockdown I went back to the marshes and to Dungeness and shot some material to create a film that accompanies the poetry and soundscape. (Making the film was a way of compensating for the fact that we can’t currently perform live.) Down there on my own with a camera, I think this was the occasion I really fell in love with the place — I was looking at it more clearly, with our music and Nancy’s words ringing in my ears. I felt immersed in it.
All photographs by Rob Pursey.
You can read a further interview with Amelia and Rob of The Drift (conducted by Glenn Francis Griffith) here. All four Wealden collaborators — Nancy, Darren, Amelia and Rob — discuss their relationship to this corner of England in an interview conducted by Marie-Claire Wood for the Alternative Stories and Fake Realities podcast series. Click here to listen to the podcast.
Join Nancy Gaffield and The Drift for an online film screening of Wealden, followed by a Q&A, on Thursday 3 December (6pm – 7.30pm). The event is free, and booking is essential: click here to book (via Eventbrite).