As the album begins with the sound of an old music box, one immediately knows that one is in nostalgia territory. But this is far better than nostalgia ~ this is history, specific and evocative. The story begins with the discovery of an old wax cylinder recording from 1906. Headmaster William Barber is reading from Shakespeare and Robert Burns and introducing a musical performance. The sound is scratchy, but the words are discernible, rippling across a century. With confident dulcet intonations, Barber reveals a love of teaching, of art, of song.
Who was this man? Hibernate’s Jonathan Lees decided to find out. Barber (1872-1910) was not only a teacher and headmaster, but an author of school books, a cellist, the vice president of the Halifax Choral Society and the president of its Shakespearean Society. In short, he was like many of us, long before we were born. The story of the wax cylinder (converted to digital form) caught the ear of Harry Towell (Spheruleus), who along with Lees formed a Hibernate supergroup for this album, including Christoph Berg (Field Rotation), Fraser McGowan (Caught in the Wake Forever), Isnaj Dui and Antonymes. By adding field recordings from the school and a variety of kind instruments, Spheruleus and Friends constructed a tribute not only to a man, but to a period of time and a way of life.
One wonders if a hundred years from now, recordings from this time period will have the same impact. Will degraded tapes and corrupted files produce a similar patina, or will the sound be so pristine that no nostalgia will be evoked? The photos in the slideshow are clear yet abraded, and betray a common practice of the time: not smiling. We have become so accustomed to saying “Cheese!” that we have forgotten it was not always this way. Yet certainly people smiled in real life; the tennis rackets indicate that some fun must have been had, and Barber’s voice indicates rapture in the presence of high art. The album itself has the feel of a slide show: look here, now here, now here. Wood creaks, birds chirp; the students are at their studies. Cello and woodwinds are joined by flourishes of light electronics (not yet invented), creating a sonic blur. Occasional crackle and even a snippet of radio connect the time periods, smoothing the distance between the years. The past leaks through the sieve of the present.
As “Upper Wharfdale” loops and swirls, one thinks briefly of hauntology, but William Barber is like the anti-hauntology, a reminder that the spirits of the past may no longer be around, nor need they be; their best legacy is that of a life well-lived. One imagines Barber rising from his desk not to frighten, but to teach: to provide for orphans and other students a new window through which to see the world, perhaps to transcend their circumstances. If only time travel were possible, one can imagine William Barber (the album) being sent back a hundred years, and perhaps being appreciated as a reassuring telegraph: we have not yet forgotten all you have taught. (Richard Allen)