From folk to installation art: Helen Ottaway talks about about her multi-dimensional journey in music as she chooses the discs she can’t live without
Frome-based composer Helen Ottaway is a sound installation artist and founder-director of Artmusic, which creates collaborative, participatory, and site-specific art. Among her many musical interests she loves folk music, and has been described as a folk minimalist.
She has two audio installations at this month’s Inside Out Dorset Festival. The first, Lachrymae, was created through Artmusic in 1999. In the original installation, the movement of people around the space triggered the sounds. Helen collaborated with visual artist Rowena Pierce, who made the wonderful teardrop hangings (lachrymae is Latin for tears). Visitors could walk through the wood, see the amber drops of the sculptures in the trees, and hear the music.
The second installation, Saeflod, is a walking requiem.
‘It started in 2017,’ says Helen. ‘My mother had died, and I went on an artist residency in Sri Lanka. I had always thought that her death would be when I would feel like writing a requiem – and I did. I started sketching in Sri Lanka, by the sea. I’ve carried on, supported by Artmusic and Inside Out Dorset Festival, and it’s come to fruition this year. Again, this is an installation that includes music and some visual elements – you discover it in the woods. There’ll be interactive elements and a choir, which performs at particular times.
A life in music
And so to Helen’s eight music choices, in no particular order, along with how and why they have stuck in her life:
Love’s Old Sweet Song
This is a song that my mother used to sing to me and my sister at bath time and bedtime. I’ve got really clear memories as a little girl sitting on her lap, wrapped in a towel, hearing her sing this song. Both of my parents were very musical – my father sang in the Oxford Bach Choir. My mother had been a really good pianist at school and often played in assembly. She never took it much further, but she was always playing. And we had inherited a lovely Blüthner grand piano from one of my father’s aunts, ‘musical aunt Lucy’. So I grew up surrounded by music.
My father was a vicar, and my parents met on stage – they were both in the amateur dramatics society, and they played opposite each other, that was the beginning of their relationship! There was always music, and my mother was always singing and humming.
Monteverdi: Vespers of 1610 Duo Seraphim,
The King’s Consort Choir under Robert King.
I took a little while to really love classical music, although it was it was in my blood and I played a lot. I don’t remember many concerts until this one. I had an inspirational school music teacher who brought music to life in a brilliant way – he took the class to Coventry Cathedral for a performance of Monteverdi Vespers. It was around the time when John Eliot Gardiner had started the Monteverdi Singers and it may actually have been them. It was just beautiful. And the one piece that I really love is where the voices of the baritone and countertenor dance with each other. It just stayed with me, this beautiful environment, the beautiful music – and then I found this particular version of it.
The baritone is James Gilchrist, and later on in my career I was lucky enough to have James perform my music. I wrote a choral piece called the Echoing Green, it was the opening concert of Salisbury Festival, in the cathedral, in 2003 – and James Gilchrist was the soloist.
Bring Him Back Home
I went to college in London, and it was a politically tortured time really. There was Margaret Thatcher coming to power, the National Front were marching through South London, there was the New Cross fire, the Brixton riots … And through all of this, people were trying to get Nelson Mandela freed from prison.
Hugh Masekala had correspond-ed with him when Mandela was in prison. He wrote this song about freeing Mandela and London in the late 70s. Throughout the 80s London was a really interesting place to be – I saw lots of first performances of major works, and lots of touring bands. And I managed to see Hugh Masekela play on a couple of occasions. He and his band made a really exciting sound. And it had this backstory as well, it was revolutionary, a political protest.
Excerpt from Inlets
John Cage was an amazing person, not only a great philosophical thinker, a conceptual artist and a musician, but he was also just a lovely man. I was really fortunate to meet him twice – once when I just left college. He and his collaborating partner, choreographer Merce Cunningham, came to Goldsmiths, where I had just finished. We musicians had a week with John Cage, and the dancers had a week with Cunningham. They performed for us and we performed for them. His ideas are just very liberating. The way he thinks … it gives you permission to allow chance to take a part in your work – it’s been something that I’ve incorporated ever since. So in the case of the original Lachrymae installation in the woods in Inside Out Dorset, people walked around and triggered the sounds by their movement. It meant that the arrangement of sound couldn’t ever be predicted. It was different every time.
And this is really critical to the way John Cage used to work. This piece I’ve chosen, Inlets, is also a really beautiful thing to watch. He plays a conch shell, and he fills it with water. And in front of the microphone, he manipulates the conch shell, moves it around and it makes lovely musical gurgling sounds – but the performer can’t control it. It’s really chance, what happens, because you can’t see the inside of the conch shell, you can’t see where the walls and curves are. And so it’s totally unexpected.
The Third Dream
Jeremy Peyton Jones
Regular Music was a band formed by me, Jeremy Peyton Jones and Andrew Poppy in 1980. We’d just finished Goldsmith – the three of us had been on the music course together. They were both composing, and I was mostly playing other people’s music at that time – often one of theirs! Regular Music was an example of the kind of avant-garde, contemporary art rock band that was around at that time. We toured and played in London for more than ten years. Jeremy became quite involved in experimental theatre and was regularly asked to write for cutting-edge companies’ shows. The Third Dream, the piece that that I’ve chosen, was from a theatre piece called Lulu Unchained, which was an Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) commission, written by the American writer Kathy Acker and directed by Pete Brooks. It was on for three or four weeks – something totally unheard of now. We were the stage band, I was the pianist for that production and we played this work every night. It was great! The other thing that happened was as a result of working in theatre at the ICA, I met my partner Steve, who was at the time the finance controller at the Institute of Contemporary Arts. The ICA was really, really important to all of us.
English Idyll No.1
This was a really hard choice! I’m sometimes described as a folk minimalist, and I’ve often talked about the influence of people like Michael Nyman and Gavin Bryars. Also the American minimalists like Philip Glass and Steve Reich.
But folk music is somehow in my blood. I think there is such a thing as an English composer. I think we’ve all got a bit of that English pastoral in us. Vaughan Williams used a particular mode – I think it was mixolydian – and, as a result, his music is pretty unmistakable. It was really hard to choose one English composer influenced by folk music – it could have been Vaughan Williams, it could have been Cecil Sharp or Percy Grainger, whose music I absolutely love.
But in the end I chose Butter-worth, because we don’t get enough of Butterworth! He went off to the First World War and was killed in battle, and that was the end of Butterworth’s music. It’s debatable whether he was going to carry on writing when he came back from the war. But before he went, he collected folk songs, in Sussex mainly. I have a long connection with Sussex – we always went to Sussex in the summer because as a vicar, my father didn’t own the vicarage. So my parents had a house in Sussex and we would go there once or twice a year. I found that these folk songs that Butterworth collected really spoke to me. This piece, the first of the English Idylls, has three folk songs in it. They’re Dabbling in the Dew, Just as the Tide Was Flowing, and Henry Martin. Those last two, Butterworth collected himself, and you can hear them – the folk songs are very evident in the piece of music.
It’s just a beautiful thing that our folk tradition comes bubbling up through the work of newer composers and it’s been preserved in that way.
I don’t collect folk songs – I don’t know if there’s anybody still singing the old folk songs actually in the vernacular. But people sometimes say that the tunes I write are like folk songs.
Blow The Wind/Pie Jesu
Kathleen Ferrier was my mother’s favourite singer – again it comes back to my mother. This piece, ‘Blow the Wind / Pie Jesu’ by Jocelyn Pook uses words from the requiem. Joc took a sample from Kathleen Ferrier singing Blow the Wind Southerly and mixed it with the voice of Melanie Pappenheim, who we both (Jocelyn and I) have worked with over many years.
So in this piece you have the blend of the original Kathleen Ferrier song and Jocelyn’s new material sung by Melanie.
Take Me To The River
I don’t know if it’s come through or not, but I’m obsessed with water! Everything I write has got something to do with water – the very first piano and viola piece I wrote was called I Hear Water. And it keeps coming back. The walking requiem, Saeflod, is all about flooding.
It’s a requiem not just for our personal losses, like mine of my mother, but also the environmental loss that we’re currently suffering, with climate change and species loss and loss of environment. And of course the fact that the seas are rising.
When I started doing a local radio show, I decided to play only music that was related to water in some way – it could have been the title, the kind of material, it could even be the picture on the album cover. For my theme tune, I chose Al Green’s Take Me to the River. I started by using just his version, but then I found lots of other people had covered it. There’s a great one by Annie Lennox, there’s a wonderful cover by Talking Heads. And this one appears in the film, The Commitments – it’s a really lovely, exuberant version.
But the reason I knew the song in the first place was back when I was living in London. Before I really put all my energy into writing music I worked as a picture researcher for Grove Dictionary of Music – a lot of the people working there were musicians as well as editors, copywriters or researchers. One day, we had a Grove Dictionary company party on one of those party river boats. And Antony, my friend, said “why don’t we be the band? We can play Take Me to the River!”
So I was the bass part on my keyboard, and he played all the other parts on his keyboard. And there was a lovely singer, who worked in the post room. And that was my introduction to the song – and I’ve always loved it.
By the way, if I had more choices, you’d have a lot more pop – it was really hard to choose!
I have one book that I always say is my favourite – and it’s back to water again! It’s Waterlog by Roger Deakin, and it’s about what people now call wild swimming which in the old days, we just called swimming!
He did a tour of the UK, and found wonderful places to swim, high up tarns in Yorkshire, lovely waterfalls in Wales, his own moat (because he used to live in a moated house in Suffolk).
He was a journalist, and he came to see an installation piece I did with Jocelyn Pook and Melanie Pappenheim. We did this piece that was all about the sunken bells off the coast of Suffolk at Dunwich – there are apparently 55 churches underwater in the North Sea. And in certain circumstances, you can hear the bells ringing.
It inspired a trilogy of works that we created. Roger Deakin was really interested in it and he wrote about our work; if he had lived longer, we hoped that we would make a film with him about the sunken bells.
So this is what I have of him, this wonderful book Waterlog, signed by him. And on my Dorset island, I guess I would be looking for places to swim other than the sea (obviously, I’d swim in the sea).
A luxury item
I would like a grand piano – a Blüthner if possible. But a Blüthner with a treated soundboard so that it wouldn’t crack in the heat. I have just come back from a festival in Spain, where my latest piano piece was premiered. The festival is all outside, and the piano is sitting under the oak trees. Two years ago, when they had the first festival, the piano warped – but it has recovered! It’s the same piano that’s there this year. So I have faith that a piano can survive on a Dorset island!
- Inside Out Dorset returns 15th to 24th September 2023. Experience thought-provoking installations at Moors Valley Country Park & Forest (including both of Helen’s pieces, Lachrymae and Saeflod).
Gather at the rewilding spot in Bere Regis for food, stories and performances. Capture the imaginations of little ones at family-friendly circus shows in Poole and Wimborne. And see Weymouth come to life at night with giant singing dolls and expert drummers.
See more at inside-out-dorset/