A Guidonian hand is a Medieval mnemonic device that utilizes the hexachord to teach people how to sing, assigning different notes to different parts of the hand. While Richard Skelton certainly needs no Guidonian hand, his assignment of notes has always followed a mysterious process that may well trace back to the Middle Ages. Furthering this thought, the track titles of Skelton’s new album are all quotes from Thomas Browne (1605-1682), whose diverse body of work addresses everything from nature and science to religion and human behavior. As Skelton knits and scrapes his way through various chordal structures, incorporating violin, woodwinds, bowed cymbal and piano, one can’t help but wonder if the 21st century polymath has extended his own hand to history.
Parts of the album arrive in waves, especially “in the altar burnt offerings” and “a longilaterall figure,” vestigial limbs from Skelton’s electronic foray. The majority embrace the mulched drone for which he has become famous, albeit in restrained fashion. These works nudge against song structures without toppling into song. “in ancient fabrics” seems one thing until it is another, a distorted surge accompanying a rise in volume. The eight-minute length allows it time to unfurl. “and instruments of incision” adds hints of organ, a way out of the morass; the clear violin line serves as the labyrinth thread. Deep in the album, “nature is become a point of art” exercises a laudable stillness, reverberant cymbal the primary sound at beginning and end. If the center is more exploratory, the edges still hold: a sonic reflection of Browne’s quest for knowledge.
“the late affecting fire” is perhaps the most morose of Skelton’s compositions, less in sound than in inspiration; Browne’s quote concerns the death of children whose bodies were not burned because they were “too tender a morsel for fire.” Should we call Skelton’s rising drone a “surge,” we might compare it to the results of inaction: unnecessary suffering and death, a pandemic that might have been contained had we the humility to look to our ancestors for wisdom. Centuries of knowledge are still available to us; will we honor the past to stave off a disastrous future? (Richard Allen)