Saturday, October 25, 2008

An unlikely inspiration

OK, file this is under extra-literary. Last night, when the family sat down to dinner, I went scrolling through the iPod looking for some decent music to listen to while we ate. And I came across an old favorite, an album I have been listening to for ten years with absolute pleasure and have never gotten sick of, an album I find inspiring, amusing, and moving every time I hear it.

Obviously you want to know what it is. I must warn you, knowing is not likely to be of much help. It's called "Home And Abroad," and it's by Howard Skempton, a British avant-garde composer, and it consists of 32 pieces for solo accordion. It's not on Amazon, it's not anywhere (NOTE: I just noticed, there seems to be a used copy at I can barely find any evidence the thing exists. But I love the hell out of it.

In 1996, I was working at the Missoula Art Museum as a receptionist and, since there were only seven of us, I ended up hanging shows, doing lighting, and (one grueling month) stripping wood floors. That year, we commissioned a piece by Hamish Fulton, a self-described "walking artist" whose pieces consist of him taking a really long walk in the middle of nowhere, then returning several weeks later looking like a homeless man, and spending another week or so filling a gallery space with conceptual work based on his walk--mostly wall paintings, texts, sculptures, etc. His stuff is great, and we really hit it off, so well in fact that a couple of years later we hauled our then-one-year-old son Owen to Canterbury, England, to visit him and his wife.

Hamish and Nancy Fulton are great people, and their cottage outside of town has since served as a model for us on how to live our lives--a book- and art-filled house, idiosyncratically decorated, and filled with a lot of smart, funny conversation. In any event, they picked us up at the train station, and when we walked into their house, this album was playing.

It's hard to describe. Sometimes it sounds like folk music, sometimes modern classical, usually both. It's rhythmically odd, the melodies are sinuous; the playing is rife with good humor. Think...think....of Eric Satie crossed with Weird Al Yankovic. In any event, I immediately asked what it was, characterizing it as being like "an alcoholic circus," and Hamish promised that he would get me a copy.

Well. Our visit was wonderful, and we went home. Time went by. I thought about the album daily--I really wanted it. (This was before it was easy to rip CD's, let alone upload them to your ftp.) Eventually a package arrived from Hamish, but he mustn't have been able to find me a copy, because the one he sent had a little sticker attached to it that read "Fulton." He'd given me his own.

Is it a stretch to say this record has influenced my work? Maybe. More likely, it has served as a reminder of what I like in the world. Simplicity mixed with surprise. Mournful humor. Brevity. This music presumes nothing, and gives everything. It's weird and quietly powerful. Every time I listen to it, it's like listening for the first time. I don't think I can name a book that makes me feel that way.

Rhian will think I'm nuts for posting this, but I just love this album. It's one of the only things I've ever been able to write while listening to--instead of pushing my concentration away, it goes with the flow. It isn't just the music, either--it's the strange journey that I had to take to reach it, a journey that Hamish's walk was a part of. And I love the fact that things still exist that are hard to find.


Paul Schatz said...

I found it for order at Mode Records:
It sounds interesting enough that I think I will order a copy

jrlennon said...

Oh great! Glad you tracked one down.

Shauna said...

john, this is a super excellent post. i loved reading it. -ss