Newcastle-born Richard Moult gets around a bit. As well as being a long-term member of protean Irish free-folk collective United Bible Studies, he is a prolific solo artist, composer, poet and collaborator, having worked with David Colohan, Far Black Furlong and Susan Matthews among others. His latest piece is typically experimental, blurring the lines between composition, site specific art, social history and weird folk music.
Sjóraust is a neologism coined by Moult. It combines elements of two Norse words, and literally means ‘sea-voice’. It provides the first clue to the album’s content, and also to the nature of its creation: Moult currently lives on a remote Hebridean island, so it is no surprise to learn that the voice that he hears most often – the voice that perhaps even permeates his dreams – is that of the Atlantic Ocean. His original remit was to produce a recording that responded to the island landscape, but the sea took over, and the result is a suite of compositions that is universal and elemental, but also extremely personal.
It is perhaps best not to approach Sjóraust as an album in the traditional sense. Rather it is a piece of work informed by contemporary art, geography, the passage of time and the human relationship to landscape, seascape and solitude. There is a symbiosis between Moult’s recording techniques and a sense of place. Each of Sjóraust‘s tracks is numbered rather than named – Sjóraust I through to Sjóraust VI – and all of them were recorded on various Scottish islands. The mood is contemplative. Seabirds and the sound of waves inhabit the first track, and their presence feels as natural as the slowly plucked strings and keening violin. But there is a human element too – a spoken excerpt from the Carmina Gadelica, a Gaelic-language collection of ancient prayers, hymns, proverbs and incantations.
Sjóraust II begins with a simple piano refrain, slower than the onset of an ice age, which is once again joined by the weeping of bowed strings. The third piece is the first of two longer tracks – both somewhere around the quarter of an hour mark. The piano is still there – in fact it underpins much of the album – but this time its melody is less structured, almost improvised, perhaps replicating the invisible, random action of the sea. And again there is a human element, this time a wordless choir that enters half-way through, giving the track a ritualistic feel, as if the sea had trance-inducing capabilities.
The second side takes the same structure as the first (a symmetry that mirrors the pattern of the tides?) with two short pieces and one much longer one. More field recordings of seabirds (Kittiwakes, if my ears do not deceive me) begin the short, graceful IV, while V‘s luminous string section is the closest Moult gets to classical composition, though the silence in between the bright stabs of sound is as important here as the music itself. The final long piece incorporates a traditional Gaelic song, as well as wordless but somehow melancholic female vocals, layered on top of the trademark string and piano. Then there is the odd flash of what sounds like a harpsichord, inserting a sliver of human intervention in an otherwise elemental track.
Despite its occasional musical references to folk history and mythology Sjóraust bears little resemblance to what we might term folk music. The story it tells is not a cutely packaged narrative. There is no moral. The sea is cruel, benign or ambiguous, and Moult’s music reflects all of those states. Taken as a whole, the album is an exhaustively beautiful paean to place and time. There is little in the way of structure, and what structure there is is drawn straight from the mathematics of nature. Instead, we should perhaps listen to it in the same way that Moult conceived and recorded it: in stillness and solitude, with our minds at sea.
Out now via Second Language.
Order it here: www.secondlanguagemusic.com