The SS Deutschland set off from Bremerhaven, Germany, on 4 December 1875. Headed for New York via Southampton, it ran aground in a blizzard on the Kentish Knock, a shoal situated about 30 miles east of the Thames estuary. 78 of its passengers died when the ship broke up in the storm, including five Franciscan nuns who were fleeing Germany after the passing of the anti-Catholic Falk laws (the graves of four of those can be found in Leytonstone cemetery, only a few miles from the parish in which I currently sit). The English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins (who lived in Hampstead, a couple of miles in the other direction), wrote a poem on the subject almost immediately after its sinking. Hopkins’s biography is a fascinating one; he converted to Catholicism seemingly as an extreme response to his own homosexual impulses. On conversion he burned all of his previous work, and stopped writing for seven years before he was moved to write The Wreck Of The Deutschland. The poem is famous for its innovations in metre and rhythm, but the content is equally startling. It takes him 12 stanzas to even mention the boat (yes yes, I’ll get to the album soon), never mind the nuns; the entire first part being a celebration of Christian faith. The work is dedicated to “the happy memory of five Francisan nuns”; Hopkins’ faith meaning that the drowning of the nuns is in some way as much to be celebrated as the survival of so many others (actually, their fates are deemed barely worthy of a mention). So here we have an innovative work with themes of religion, death, rebirth, joy, sorrow, and, of course, water. Enter Philip Jeck.
Jeck’s new album an Ark For The Listener is a response to Hopkins’s poem, its title being derived from stanza 33 (“With a mercy that outrides/The all of water, an ark/For the listener; for the lingerer with a love glides/Lower than death and the dark”). That Jeck has produced a work based on a poem is nothing new; indeed his last studio album, the masterly Sand, was inspired by Emily Dickinson’s The Chariot. That Jeck has produced an album based on this watery subject matter is also not a surprise, his involvement with a new version of Gavin Bryars’s The Sinking Of The Titanic resulted in the definitive reading, creating an emotional archive, memories and artefacts pasted into an aural scrapbook. Jeck’s best work seems to come about when he restricts his scope in some manner, focusing in depth on a subject, or indeed a particular source material (see also the recent set I saw him perform at the North Sea Jazz Festival, when he limited himself to using jazz records). On An Ark For the Listener, the majority of sounds are sourced from recordings of bells.
Bells have been a recurring theme of his work for a number of years now. The track “Chime, Chime”, a version of which appears as a coda on the end of this album (as “Chime, Chime (Rerung)”) was included on his Suite: Live In Liverpool set, recorded in 2006. The extensive use of bells is a simple, yet extremely fulfilling idea. Even without the application of Jeck’s trademark layers of crackle and distortion, bells can evoke feelings of joy and sorrow, ringing out to celebrate a birth, or to mark a passing; most usually, they just denote the passing of time. Of course, by the time that Philip Jeck has finished with them, they end up sounding like a shipwreck. These vinyl-derived sound sources are supplemented by a variety of additional material, from classical music loops to Jeck’s own keyboards and bass guitar, to produce a deep, dark, and incredibly haunting piece of work.
The opening track “Pilot/A Dark Blue Night” is a Jeck classic, one of the richest pieces he has created. It begins with a distant tolling, proceeding at a rapid rate of knots to ominous drones, voices whispering in the hold. Harsh vinyl loops toss the piece in the wind, before there is a moment of calm, and of near-joy: a swoon of a heart, a rush of strings, some classical music building. Intriguingly (and in somewhat Catholic fashion), Jeck denies us the climax, skipping round the crescendo and re-emerging on the gentle downslope. I’ve already said that this is a haunting record, but nothing haunts me more than that missing section; in that sudden slice, a whole other world is excised, whole lives even. It is a jump-cut Godard would be proud of. It gets darker from then on; by “Twentyninth” the bells are ringing in alarm, and on “Dark Rehearsal” the sound mix is beyond rescue, the flood of the wave filling the space. The shattering “The All Of Water” takes it all down, lashing it, gnashing on it, and submerging it, ringing bells and elegiac melodies fighting for breath amongst an oceanic groan. The death and the dark, right there, on that shoal.
Most of the album thus far was recorded at a concert in Kings Place in February, 2010. It doesn’t finish there though. There is a two song coda on the end, one which, despite all that has gone before, seems to hint at the possibility of redemption. The aforementioned “Chime, Chime (Rerung)” twinkles, wafting through starlight, gentle metallic ripple standing in stark contrast to the anvil-ding of the album’s opening. In context, it makes perfect sense. And context is so important with this record. It is one thing to hear this record, but another to really listen to it, to reach down through the patina of crackle to what Jeck is trying to achieve. The title, An Ark For The Listener isn’t just a reference to the poem, although I’d like to think that Gerard Manley Hopkins would hear a kindred innovator in these grooves.