a closer listen

Richard Skelton ~ Towards a Frontier

Towards a Frontier is a multidisciplinary work: a CD (with bonus material for early purchasers), two films and a book of photos and other art.  As with most of Richard Skelton‘s work, the music is secondary to the message.  The artist has just wrapped up a five-year, multi-chapter residency in East Iceland as part of the Frontiers in Retreat program.  The current project is meant to highlight the intersection between natural resources and their usage, with an emphasis on the dangers of unchecked industry.

Skelton’s photos are enough to give one pause.  Many are lovely, in the manner of Páll Stefánsson, reflecting the landscape in all its sullen and stunning beauty.  Close-ups reveal ordinary objects out of place: a chair, the body of a rotting sheep.  Many highlight the line between snow and land, a subtle reminder of global warming.  The films (“In Pursuit of the Eleventh Measure” and “No Frontier”) explore the hydroelectric industry and the sense of isolation one can feel in such an unevenly populated nation, where 90% of the populace lives in a single city.  Ironically, the largest problem facing Iceland today is success-based; the tourist industry has boomed, causing a ripple effect on the environment, both directly and through the increased emphasis on industry.

How does this translate to the music?  The album is indeed lonesome, although it reflects solitude in the midst of an attractive vastness.  The sprawling 66-minute Towards a Frontier expands like water from a melting glacier, moving toward an undefined horizon.  One wonders what this frontier may be: the new frontier of industry or the pure frontier of environmental harmony.  The first is physical and dangerous, the second spiritual and safe.  Drone is a fitting approach, as it simultaneously suggests comfort and foreboding, in this instance reminding the listener that nature often rebels, reclaiming its own.  The undulation of sine waves, paired with the increase in volume, adds a sense of urgency to the composition.  Whatever is happening is happening now and needs to be addressed before it worsens.

But what if one didn’t read the liner notes?  It would be possible to miss the environmental message and to glean a sense of wonder rather than foreboding.  It doesn’t take a trip to Iceland to understand its allure: the wide-open spaces, the volcanos and glaciers, the never-ending days in the summer, the eternal sunsets and sunrises during the interstitial months.  Skelton has always excelled at reflecting his environment, but he seems newly inspired by the fjords, the moss, the Northern Lights, and most especially by the history: a treasure trove of legends and etymologies.  It’s safe to say that of all the instrumental artists we’ve encountered, Skelton is the one most fascinated by words, but words are inadequate to reflect such grandeur.  To listen is to imagine the feeling of hiking the cliffs of Gerpir or visiting the Seven Summits.  When one feels disconnected from one’s environment, such experiences can make one feel awfully small.  Yet when one views one’s self as part of the environment, one feels part of something greater, and no longer solitary.  The artist hopes that this gift of empowerment will inspire not just appreciation, but activity.  (Richard Allen)