Chime: Acid house as folk music

…’Chime’ started as a big riff from me playing this joyous Detroit-y chord progression that mirrored my mood — it was a sunny day and I was off to meet girls down the pub” – Paul Hartnoll, Orbital

Whenever Paul Hartnoll indulges in the memory of composing what Simon Reynolds called ‘the British ‘Strings Of Life’’, the same image emerges – a sun-tinged summer’s day, where everything feels just right. If we think of it as the British ‘Strings Of Life’, then it is worth thinking about its Britishness not as an incidental detail to where it was created, but what about Britain defines the sound of the song. Derrick May’s ‘Strings Of Life’, christened by Frankie Knuckles, connects with the American tradition of the dancefloor as an alternative spiritual space, for those from religious stock but barred from church membership on the grounds of their sexuality, where the combination of music, dancing, and drugs work towards a transcendent experience. ‘Chime’, on the other hand, takes some influences away from the dancefloor and closer to the ground usually claimed by folk music.

Bob Dylan was labelled as a Judas for talking folk electric. So what does that make you when you take folk electronic? Folktronica is well-established as a genre, even if it exists at the cross-section of artists experimenting along their own paths rather than being borne from a common location or identity group. Still, the aesthetic is vaguely definable, with a set of vaguely recognisable signifiers: the wonky guitar cut-ups of The Books, the dancefloor lullabies of Four Tet, or a more conceptual intersection of folk with technological environments, cf. Everyday Robots and Momus, a trailblazer in the field (pun intended), who sings about web coders and cassettes with the emotional resonance of seafaring heroes and battlefield roses.

‘Chime’ is folkic in a more abstract way. It is an amateur product, the result of a musician picking up an instrument without formal training and creating a sound on their own terms. A key feature of folk music is geographical specificity, and this seems to be a hole for such an interpretation to fall down: how can geographical specificity work with electronic dance music, powered by machines that have the same configuration in Germany, Japan, England, and Brazil? ‘Chime’ is a lesson as to how. No one would deny that local takes on house music have different sounds, but it would take a braver soul to argue that this new technology, instead of ripping up the rulebook with cybertechnic ideas, connects with older folk images, sounds, sensations, thoughts, reflections, and colours. It’s a particularly English type of cultural conservatism which might deter us from doing so.

The situation Paul Hartnoll was in while jamming ‘Chime’ is a scene which crops up repeatedly in British (or more specifically, English) art through the ages: a summer day drawing in, a particular interpretation of the pastoral mode which in music, drove Vaughan Williams and Delius at the beginning of the 20th century. It seems as if the unpredictable weather inherent to the UK ensures that such moments stick long in the memory and capture a large portion of our collective consciousness. Its place in literature is long-standing too; the titular ‘Chime’ recalls the opening of Thomas Gray’s ‘Elegy Written In A Country Churchyard’. The feeling of seasons turning in, of golden ages dissolving, of the flower of youth wilting, of death approaching, all of it heralded by the ringing of a bell at the end of the day:

The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,

The lowing herd wind slowly o’er the lea,

The plowman homeward plods his weary way,

And leaves the world to darkness and to me.

Now fades the glimm’ring landscape on the sight,

   And all the air a solemn stillness holds,

Save where the beetle wheels his droning flight,

       And drowsy tinklings lull the distant folds…

The curfew bell, used in English towns since the Norman Conquest, is the initial aural impetus behind the poet’s ruminations on death and fame. There is also Keats’ ‘Ode To a Nightingale’:

Forlorn! The very word is like a bell

To toll me back from thee to my sole self

The bell here is the vehicle rather than the tenor of a simile, but its sound is still placed against the nightingale which ‘singest of summer’. For a more authentically ‘folk’ example, there’s a ballad called ‘The Old Church Bell’, taken from a collection of 19th century broadsides. It comes in differing versions – with a darker tinge on occasion, but this is one which encapsulates how the bells of ‘Chime’ and their association with coming down from a trip to the rational, real world is in the same vein as Romantic flights of fancy, with the bell as a sonic marker of that:  

Oh! A mournful sound has the old church bell,

That swings in the belfry old;

How many a sad and merry knell

Has he rung from his turret bold!

The old grey-beard, and the peasant boy

Have listen’d to his chime,

As he chang’d his note from death to joy,

With the clanging hours of time;

Tolling on, with mournful knell,

A warning voice has the Old Church Bell.

Oh! His voice is clear as he gaily peals,

On a happy bridal morn,

But it mournfully to the fun’ral steals,

Ere the fading day is gone;

Impartial he makes his summons ring,

Unlike the courtier’s plan,

For he’ll wail no louder the death of a King,

Than he would of a poor old man;

Tolling on, with solemn knell,

A mournful sound has the Old Church Bell.

He has seen the sire, and has seen the son

To the village church yard bend;

And the deep fond welcome shall still ring on,

Till time himself shall end,

And his loud old tongue, like a lonely bird,

Chimes with a sacred spell;

For the sweetest music earth e’er heard,

Must yield to the Old Church Bell.

Tolling on, with solemn knell,

A mournful sound has the Old Church Bell.

Look at the final lines of the last stanza – ‘For the sweetest music earth e’er heard,/Must yield to the Old Church Bell’. That is the thematic progression of Orbital’s ‘Chime’, summed up in verse in a 19th century broadside. The bell may be used to ring in weddings, but its sound always leads in a downwards direction, as all things must, towards the grave.

Deliberately obtuse comparisons with poetry are one thing, but conjecturing sensory experiences are quite another – still, that’s what I’m going to do. Church bells were used as samples in other tracks of the acid house era, though more so from chillout – the two best examples being 808 State’s ‘Pacific State’ and The Orb’s ‘A Huge Ever Growing Pulsating Brain That Rules From The Centre Of The Ultraworld’. Both songs are peppered with naturalistic samples like crickets, birds, and New Age, melismatic vocals. These might be mere signifiers in isolation, but the bells which tie those songs with ‘Chime’ imply at least a recognition of sounds which might be heard as the sun goes down or comes up on a rave, like chattering birds or insects. ‘Ultraworld’ and its parent album The Orb’s Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld are like an aural patchwork of an English midsummer’s day from dawn to twilight, as the album commences with a sample of John Waite intoning: “Over the past few years to the traditional sounds of an English summer, the droning of lawnmowers, the smack of leather on willow, has been added a new noise…”. In essence, the outdoor experience of the rave, and the accompanying MDMA’s shamanistic effect on making the user feel more connected with nature, contrive to give the music an added sensitivity to the sounds of the natural world which might accompany wandering back from a field, coming down, in the early hours of summer. Is it really too much to think that this is an addition to a long-standing English tradition? Was ecstasy not to acid house in the 1980s what opium was to Romantic verse in the early 19th century?

What’s more, English folk songs are usually irreverently anti-establishment: think of the Lincolnshire Poacher, who goes from serving his master to trapping hares on his land, or the Old Church Bell from earlier which chimed for both the ‘King’ and the ‘poor old man’. Raves were (and still are, though in greatly reduced numbers since the 1994 Criminal Justice Act) hosted on unclaimed or unused land, often with placards protesting for the right to freedom of assembly. Following the Second Summer of Love, the music scene and the squatting/hippie community combined with mutual interests, coming to a head at the Spiral Tribe-organised Castlemorton Common Festival. Spiral Tribe in particular drew on a medieval, folkic tradition for their parties, with sound systems that had ‘Circus’ in their name, drug sellers peddling their wares in what Simon Reynolds compared to a bazaar, and ‘terra-technic’ music. This music is not removed from folk because it’s made from machines, quite the opposite: the cheapness and availability of those machines emancipated musicians from needing lessons, a recording studio, producer, engineer – it could be made from the proverbial bedroom. ‘Chime’ was knocked up in a cupboard under the stairs which was converted to Paul Hartnoll’s studio space. As a sound and as a phenomenon in its infancy, acid house recaptured that sense of figuring tunes out, of getting to grips with tools needed to produce melodic, danceable sounds.

All of this is fine, but what about the actual song? ‘Chime’ kicks off with an insistent one-note ostinato which is so bright, it just feels solar. Very precise synthesised string hits are layered with delay which give it a lingering effect like the sun’s rays over the horizon, and it anchors the song like a pulse. The bass line palpitates with a bravery which marks Orbital out from their peers: the second bar of the bass pattern has brief entrances into higher notes, but tinged with pathos when it comes back down, recognising the inevitability of a sober end. The song is in the key of E Flat Major, which makes it suited to the big-arena-hands-in-the-air mode; a key Beethoven, Holst, and Richard Strauss knew was well suited to heroics when they employed it in the Eroica symphony, the ‘Jupiter’ suite of The Planets, and the tone poem ‘A Hero’s Life’ respectively. Those are big, boisterous pieces of nationhood and ‘Chime’ wears its cultural heritage on its sleeve as well.

When the piano kicks in, the piece develops the style which will govern it for its duration: six elements cutting and fading in and out, with the delay on the melodic parts creating phantom patterns as notes play over and across each other. It sounds denser and more complex than it is, which helps feed the sense that the song is the product of a community, one that it is greater than the sum of its parts. That is the political edge of such a new type of folk music: encouraging togetherness and love in post-industrial, Thatcherite Britain where freedom is defined by the rolling back of the state and the liberalisation of markets to allow, in theory, a class of worker-entrepreneurs to flourish. As we now know though, this competition chips away at qualities like solidarity and community. Acid house music and its associated gatherings were therefore a political act to reclaim those qualities, an act made more strident when hosted in a privately owned space, as most of the United Kingdom is.

After 7 minutes the one-note pulse engages in call-and-response with the ‘chime’ sample which gives the song its title. This is a confrontational back-and-forth, between (almost perversely, given the machinery involved) the sun symbol at the heart of the song, and the clock which, as the literary examples showed us, is the more measured, artificial way of measuring time rather than rising and setting with nature. The 303 elements, shifting in pitch to get higher and higher towards the end increasingly resemble birdsong – the muddy birdsong you might actually hear from a chaffinch or swallow in an English tree or hedgerow, instead of the steely chirruping in ‘Pacific State’. The battle is won at this point of the song, but the war is lost by the end as the song fades out the the synthesised bells looping.  The song is an ongoing battle against life, against death, against ‘business’ and rationality – it has a Romantic heart, and a folk body.

A depiction of Elijah's ascent to heaven. I know that this picture still has the watermark on it, but it made me laugh so I'm keeping it.

Wordsworth’s Apocalypse

1903 walter crane illustrated edition, courtesy of uni of minnesota

This is a version of Wordsworth’s ‘Ode’, illustrated by Walter Crane in 1903. Notice how the scene has been transformed into something that would not look out of place in Greek myth. Credit: University of Minnesota

A hallmark of criticism of William Wordsworth’s ‘Ode: Intimations of Immortality Based Upon Recollections of Early Childhood’ has been thinking about the primordial light which the poet believes predates our existence to be an implementation of Platonic thought, whereby the world is divided into Forms, with a cleavage between the physical and the ideal. According to this line of thinking, the poet describes how during life the soul is a prisoner inside the body, only free before birth and after death. Certainly, Platonism should be considered as part of the overall intellectual background Wordsworth is working from, but the language is steeped in specific Biblical cadence and terminology too. In a note he gave to Isabella Fenwick in 1843, Wordsworth says the inspiration for the poem was his ‘brooding’ over the Biblical stories of Elijah and Enoch as a child, sympathising with their imminent connection to a transcendent state. The Old Testament contains figures like Elijah who are abruptly whisked up to heaven from Earth on a chariot of fire. Wordsworth’s ode on the other hand is like being kicked out of the chariot, with birth as a gradual descent to earth before finally being rooted out of idealism by ‘earthly freight’. The thinking may be Platonic, but the language is shared with the Elijah story, and willingly draws on its connotations in order to reverse its narrative momentum. Another Biblical source it overlaps with is the Olivet Discourse or the ‘Little Apocalypse’ from Matthew 24, also described in Mark 13. Yet the Biblical archetypes in this poem have not really been traced in sufficient detail, and Wordsworth’s invocation of Elijah has not been appropriate judged in the context of the Revolutionary Europe he was a part of.

Writing a poem with millennial undertones in 1802-4 is not unusual; the French Revolution was widely interpreted by popular preachers and writers like Joseph Priestley to be an indication of the coming millennium, whether it meant the end of the world or an overturn, necessitating a complete change in discourse. In the early years of the Revolution Wordsworth was quite radical – his friendship circle with Coleridge and others was spied upon (though quite ineptly) at Nether Stowey by James Walsh on grounds of perceived radicalism, he wrote an apology for the Revolution in a Letter to the Bishop of Llandaff, and ‘Descriptive Sketches’ features a prophecy of the spread of revolutionary fervour:

                                      Liberty must raise

Red on the hills her beacon’s far-seen blaze;

Must bid the tocsin ring from tower to tower!–

Nearer and nearer comes the trying hour!

Rejoice, brave Land, though pride’s perverted ire

Rouse hell’s own aid, and wrap thy fields in fire:

Lo, from the flames a great and glorious birth;

As if a new-made heaven were hailing a new earth!

–All cannot be: the promise is too fair

For creatures doomed to breathe terrestrial air:

Yet not for this will sober reason frown

Upon that promise, nor the hope disown;

She knows that only from high aims ensue

Rich guerdons, and to them alone are due.

 Already here though is a sense of an inward turn; the disheartened change of tone at line 646 shows that Wordsworth cannot completely invest in the promise of an apocalypse, and shows a change in focus to ‘creatures doomed to breathe terrestrial air’ as the most important factor in his poetry.

James Gillray - Presages of the Millennium, produced in 1792, shows many of the contemporary fears of what the Revolution indicated. Credit: Fitzwilliam Museum

James Gillray – Presages of the Millennium, produced in 1792, shows many of the contemporary fears of what the Revolution indicated. Credit: Fitzwilliam Museum

The promise of revolution is completed via an interrogation of the self, not through external activities. This extract shows how militarism is introduced to the poem as an abrupt discursive shift, with the poet unwilling to combine his idealistic idea of freedom originating from the human heart with a more totemic shift in freedom achieved by violent ends, which connects the violence of the Revolution with the suddenness of Elijah’s elevation. The Revolution promises the phoenix-like ‘flames’ and ‘new-made heaven’ which greeted Elijah, but Wordsworth grounds the reality of ‘terrestrial air’ too firmly to allow transcendental escape to be a possibility, and starts to discuss the vagaries of the individual.

Elijah and the figures described in the Olivet Discourse fit quite easily into a narrative of the Revolution – those whose actions during it allow them to be transported to the new, transcendental state, leaving behind their peers who were incapable of doing so, or to interpret it from the other end of the spectrum, teleporting the virtuous away from the apocalyptic excesses of the Revolution. Even by 1798 Wordsworth’s partner Coleridge was comparing the events of the Revolution with the wind, fire and earthquake experienced by Elijah on Horeb in a letter to his brother, writing just as he and the Wordsworths were about to embark to Germany:

Of the French Revolution I can give my thoughts most adequately in the words of Scripture: “A great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake; and after the earthquake afire; and the Lord was not in the fire” and now (believing that no calamities are permitted but as the means of good) I wrap my face in my mantle and wait, with a subdued and patient thought, expecting to hear ” the still small voice” which is of God.

In this particular letter the identification with Elijah is a move away from Revolution, and the same letter details an important turn in Coleridge’s thinking, as he decides to abandon ‘consideration of immediate causes’  which are ‘infinitely complex and uncertain’, preferring to

elevate the imagination and set the affections in right tune by the beauty of the inanimate impregnated as with a living soul by the presence of life

One should always be wary of linking Coleridge and Wordsworth too closely together, but in this case the former provides the most adequate summary of their poetry’s inward turn following the excesses of the Revolution, appealing to the potential of the human heart rather than impelling a contingent audience, ready to make revolution a reality. Thus, with the two men in such close company, it is not unforeseeable to think that Wordsworth may have absorbed something of the Elijah story, not to mention that he probably had a very good knowledge of it himself anyway. Compared to Coleridge, Wordsworth is much less willing to describe an orthodox Christian God, so while Coleridge is lifted up, Wordsworth comes down in the ‘Ode’. Coleridge’s identification with Elijah is a wish to ride out the worst of the Revolution and become a prophet who can detune from such excesses and follow the moral instruction of God. Wordsworth’s thematic and linguistic similarity with the tale is a reconfiguration of such escapist impulses, asking whether humanity actually is something we should celebrate, rather than wish to depart from. Moreover, Wordsworth does not wait for the imminence of an interventionist God that confirms who is elect and who is reprobate, but affirms a common human heart which ensures his religion is always more muted than Coleridge’s.

In the best tradition of Biblical typology, many aspects of Elijah’s ascent are mirrored in the Olivet Discourse, and hence its influence should also be considered upon Wordsworth’s poem.

Took this from the website of esteemed eschatologist Don K. Preston. He used this picture of Revelation to illuminate the Olivet Discourse, showing its most common typological interpretation.

Took this from the website of esteemed eschatologist Don K. Preston. He used this picture of Revelation to illuminate the Olivet Discourse, showing its most common typological interpretation.

Jesus’ speech begins with the prophecy of a temple being destroyed, symbolic of abandoning earthly walls and fetters when the Second Coming arrives. Yet in Wordsworth the emphasis is upon life as a gradual realisation of the walls coming in, of the physicality of the ‘prison-house’ or ‘humorous stage’. In the Fenwick Notes to the poem Wordsworth describes the collapse of a childhood ‘abyss of idealism’, whereby one loses the sensation of feeling inextricably connected to the matter of all things. Freedom is something we lose, not something granted to us in miraculous salvation. With such a narrative in place, revolution and apocalypse is not what we’re waiting for; such manifestations at best maintain the tactility of life on earth.

Matthew 24: 16-19 emphasises the importance of abandoning worldly goods when the apocalypse arrives, and while Wordsworth would probably agree with rejecting materialism, his concentration on the ‘meanest flower’ shows another departure of his from the Bible, as he is so dedicated to the miracles of the everyday, especially those tokened by nature. Wordsworth’s idea of redemption comes about after a communion with the common elements of the world that surround him, not through a mystical revelation that pierces through all earthly matter. This is why line 25 is so important, as ‘trumpets’ harmonise the cataracts with the angelic trumpets that are harbringers of the apocalypse in the Book of Revelation. But in the context of the poem, they announce the May-morning festival which Wordsworth is re-joining, unable to join in the spirit of the occasion in the same manner as the children, but able to take an uplifting moral from observing them, remembering his own enjoyment of it and satisfied that it will continue in the future. They are not a sign of the end, but a sign of another start.

The May-morning festival is not only disjunctive because it has pagan origins, but because it is annual. It is a festival whose celebration returns consistently and predictably, yet as has been shown thus far the language overlaps with the prediction of the most totemic event possible – the Second Coming, or the end of history. This shows both Wordsworth’s optimism in a common human spirit, passing on through generations (rather than thinking about his own salvation, which as Coleridge showed, could manifest itself in terms of how to navigate a Revolutionary Europe), as well as a promotion of the miraculous nature of ‘regular’ life. To wit, his depictions of the Old Cumberland Beggar, the Discharged Soldier (in fact, nearly all of the people he encounters in the autobiographical Prelude), and the old man in ‘Animal Tranquillity and Decay’ are deeply linked to descriptions of pilgrims, but their destination is not as important as the journey, and their continued existence.  At this point in his career Wordsworth is not interested in creating a narrative arc towards an inscribed end point as Coleridge hinted at. He prefers to take the framework of such events and concentrate on the human interactions that happen amidst them.

One of the central passages in the Olivet Discourse is the fig tree analogy, used to indicate omens that the apocalypse is arriving. A symbolic parallel arrives jarringly in line 52 of Wordsworth’s poem, confirming the potency of the tree within the poem as it arrives with an abrupt change of pace. Once again the emphasis changes from harbingers of things to come in favour of things that have passed away – Wordsworth’s tree is a rooted constant in his life, one which he knows he perceived differently as a child and is confronted with it as an adult knowing the perceptual shift he has undergone since then. Wordsworth’s symbols are brought forward from subjective memory, not implemented ab extra.

Looking at Matthew 24: 36 in closer detail can elaborate this lack of faith in omens – whereas the Bible indicates that foreknowledge of the Apocalypse is only in the hands of God, the overarching structure of Wordsworth’s poem, and indeed in nearly all of his great works, is that revelation is a self-driven phenomenon, one that is only accountable to an individual, the experiences they have gone through, and the memories they have formed. The Bible tells us that ‘knoweth no man’ when Judgement will arrive. Wordsworth tells us the opposite; it is only the deeply ingrained experiences which only we know and remember which validate our existence.

Looking at the Ode through the lens of Biblical passages and millennialism facilitates greater consideration of the context of the Europe that Wordsworth inhabited, with a real sense that seismic historical changes were taking place, perhaps even the end of history. Written after the early promise of the Revolution had ebbed away into tyranny and military aggression, Wordsworth turns even further inward, to reinterpret the discourse of apocalypse and end times into a more humanistic renewal, not engaging with external portents but instead bringing forward memories and engagement with nature in order to achieve this. As with much Romantic verse, the emphasis on seemingly trivial subject matter is in fact a demonstration of how Wordsworth is keenly engaged with his political and historical context – but one has to work voraciously in order to trace it. The feeling of imminent historical changes can sometimes be met from the bottom-up, by concentrating on the very verisimilitude of human existence.

 Postscript, or, what’s the point?

 This is something new for me, but I think it’s a helpful exercise. I don’t think art should ever be judged by its immediate political relevance, but I’m going to add these little codas to some of my pieces from now on in order to give some personal ideas as to how and why the preceding essay is at all relevant to the time we live in.

 Any student of history will tell you that disillusionment with Revolution is predictable, but given how drastically bad the situation in the Middle East and North Africa has become following the ‘Arab Spring’, I feel sick to my stomach. That these world events should be presided over by Barack Obama, the world’s first hipster head of state, only adds another twist of the knife. Any chance of idealism has been completely exposed by the nuances of geopolitics and reaction by fundamentalist believers. I watched, with some close friends, events unfold in Tahrir Square in 2011 from some school computers, thinking: wow. We were born after the fall of the Berlin Wall, but perhaps this is it, the first global news event that we have been old enough to appreciate, that might indicate a new dawn for the world. Events since have proven that thinking in such Cold War binaries is no longer possible. In that respect, Wordsworth’s scrabbling attempt to find something to hold on to following the disintegration of a Revolution in his own time presents us with a good model to go back to the drawing board and reconsider how we interact with the world. Wordsworth is a man who has seen how grand narratives of history and the best will in the world can implode.