A kind of Ice Age spreading, filling valleys…
you can walk in it
Live in it, drive through it
then it melts away
For whatever spaces
After the age of
Gary Snyder, Mountains & Rivers Without End
Richard Skelton published Limnology two years ago, almost to this day. Limnology is an 86-page book accompanied by a 28 minute torrent of Skelton’s layered violins, cymbal splashes and sundry string-buzz and vibrations. The text is comprised of over 1,000 words about inland waters, from a number of languages real and imagined; the dialects of Cumbria where Skelton currently lives and works serve as the headwaters on the page, with tributaries derived from German and Gaelic languages added as the texts wend and flow across the pages, cataracts of words and word fragments, landslips of ink.
Cumbria is a region in Northern England about 125 miles north of Liverpool; Skelton, along with his work and life partner Autumn Richardson, a poet and master gardener, run Corbel Stone Press, publishing their sound and text works, as well as curating work by writers with whom they share an affinity. This affinity connects works about place – landshapes, flora and fauna, animism and the folklore of provenance.
Look at what Skelton calls his text rivers awhile and you begin to appreciate their watercourse way – Welsh, Icelandic and other ancient water-words trickle, swell, eddy and pool. Like the rising and falling in the Limnology music, with its white-cap cymbals and cresting massed violins, Skelton’s riven texts carry the fluidity and frenzy of any river’s journey. The line is the most fundamental element, whether moving on the page or heard in Skelton’s characteristically sparse motivic string arrangements.
As I spent time with Limnology, I recalled a story told by the poet Gary Snyder, one amongst a wealth of anecdotes, about his epic Mountains & Rivers Without End, Snyder’s cycle of poems inspired by Chinese landscape scrolls. At a reading at St. Olaf celebrating the 1996 publication of Mountains & Rivers, a work Snyder began in 1956 at the age of 26, publishing sections in broadsides over the years, I heard the poet read a bit, then stop to present fascinating, discursive anecdotes about its unfolding in his life. He talked about a scroll entitled Endless Streams & Mountains, which he viewed at an Asian art museum when younger. At the end of the scroll, in the border at its edge, various Chinese scholars and anonymous viewers of the scroll would inscribe a few lines, sometimes with a seal – this went on for several centuries, the scroll accumulating the viewer’s responses, adding their own stream of consciousness to the work. I have read (but not confirmed) that Skelton worked on Limnology for six years, returning to its stream of sound to, presumably, affix the seal of whatever was happening in his life at the present time.
I have read too of the death of Skelton’s wife Louise a decade ago – the composer tells of entering into a concentrated practice of creating music in 2005, the wrack of grief and the heightened importance of people, places and things, worked out in his compositions.Like the Chinese painters Snyder discovered in those scrolls, much of Skelton’s work in the ensuing years has been taken up with hyper-attention to place – soil, flora, sky, the 10,000 things, and – right-sized as they are in traditional Chinese nature paintings – people.
In 2011, Skelton gathered the work of 2005-2011, released over those years on his small imprint Sustain-Release, into a 20-disc box entitled SKURA. A rill can flow awhile in a straight line, a river does not – in 2012, Skelton formed Corbel Stone Press with his new partner Autumn Richardson. Limnology springs from a new place (the pair moved to Cumbria and have dug in), but the flow of things seems less to these ears about new sounds (I have heard SKURA, a staggering collection), than it is about Skelton following the cataracts where they take him. Currently living and working in one of the most sparsely populated counties in the U.K., amid numberless waterways and the incredible Duddon estuary, Skelton, like Snyder, continues to be gripped by both provenance and the flux of time. The text rivers sent Skelton plumbing language glossaries as old as the hills; the Chinese scrolls sent Snyder, at age 26, into forty years of writing both a macro and highly personal history. Limnology is Skelton inscribing in the scroll, affixing his seal in the flow of things, writing on water.
Corbel Stone Press | 2014
Header painting – Boating Under The Red Cliff, from a Wen Zhengming scroll
Text pages from Limnology
Photo – Boat In The Duddon Estuary, Stuart Kirkland