Hawksmoor by HawksmoorRelease date: November 30, 2017
Label: Environmental Studies
Leaning into the mist and darkness Hawksmoor wraps itself tightly in a heavy cloak of London mystery and twisted lore. The occult cartology of Nicholas Hawkmoor’s churches in Iain Sinclair’s ‘Lud Heat’ played out on the Moog and through decaying ‘Basinski’ loops. It proffered a heady soup of psychogeography, hauntology and hammer horror. It even self described as an ‘imaginary soundtrack’, surely we’d all left that sort of nonsense behind at the turn of the century? I suspected, even as I picked it up, that I was making a mistake but the dark magnetism of the sources was too strong – how could it but fail? How could I resist investigating further? I felt compelled to go on.
If, as the old joke goes – writing about music is like dancing about architecture, how then to write, or dance, when faced with music about architecture? How indeed, but this music is made not simply in response to the physical presence of the actual buildings but their positioning, ideas they may or may not enshrine, and an ongoing body of literature and arcane philosophy concerning their significance. A rich intermingling of truth and fiction winding through the hidden history of the city.
As such this is but another footnote to a sprawling mythos. Hawksmoor was called ‘The Devil’s Architect’ for his Freemasonry and fondness for using pyramids and obelisks in his churches, seen as undercutting or mocking the architectural conventions of the Christian church. Sinclair’s ‘Lud Heat’ explores the possibility that the layout of the six churches form an Egyptian heiroglyph deliberately created for magical purpose. In turn it inspired that other great chronicler of the capital Peter Ackroyd to write ‘Hawksmoor’ a further blend of fact and myth around a detective story of ritual killings and both weigh upon Alan Moore’s remarkable ‘From Hell’ a telling of the Ripper murders around Hawksmoor’s Christchurch in Spitalfields. It’s all worth reading and at very least there’s a diverting hour or three searching the internet if this is all new to you but how much does it matter? Accordint to a statement “The music has been composed as an ‘imaginary soundtrack’ that could be used or experienced as an immersive enhancement to an occult psychogeography of London.” While there’s no reason to doubt the inspiration or the sincerity of the exercise, what you get as a listener is a series of evocative and atmospheric mood pieces. In that sense there is no more reason to be aware of, or engaged with, the source than if this were a suite composed in response to a landscape you never had chance to visit.
What we have here in other terms is an organ record about churches although it largely avoids any clichés that might evoke, the spectral choir makes but one, well handled, appearance. There is a track a piece for each of the six churches bookended by ‘Anno Domini 1736’ (the year of Hawksmoor’s death) and the snappily entitled opener ‘Act for the building of fifty new churches in the cities of London and Westminster 1711’. Its first few notes are a slow, ringing, descending piano line that set a familiarly icy mood. I eventually trace this down to ‘Myer’s House’ from John Carpenter’s ‘Hallowe’en’ soundtrack. It’s so small a nod it could be coincidence but if we consider it a deliberate quote, and given the nature of the project and its subject there’s no reason we shouldn’t, it’s an extraordinarily smart and subtle one. What follows is not the kind of neon lit Carpenter pastiche currently so in vogue but it does occasionally tip its hat to him. The first church ‘St Alfege Greenwich 1712-18’ begins in the clatter and roar of construction before rising up majestically into the light. It would appear that each track represents a personal response to the buildings and in that they are quite distinct, common threads and running motifs are obscured or avoided. ‘Christchurch Spitalfields 1714 – 29’ seems to buzz with an electric pulse as if its spire were a radio tower, it signals slowly washing away against the lapping waves of the Thames. The darkness and dread of ‘St Anne’s Limehouse 1714-30’ contrasts with the bright mood and chiming xylophone sounds of ‘St George in the East 1714 – 29’. When you think you’ve got it pinned as an album of slowly shifting textures and synths becoming ever more atomised along comes the most percussive and urgent moment ‘St Mary Woolnorth 1716-23’ which has a loping rhythm and strong Kosmiche feel.
The closing ‘Anno Domini 1736’ returns to moog textures and some particularly beautiful string washes before fading out to a steady pulse and static clicks. It’s followed by a hidden track of unexpected finger picked guitar and gently sighing beauty. The idea of it as a soundtrack actually works very well, there’s a sense of an episodic story arc concluded in this sweet coda. I’ve no doubt listening to it while visiting the actual sites or making the walk between them could enhance your experience despite the obviously impracticality. More than that it would be incredible to see it performed in a church at some point. I’ve not done that, and I may well never, but there’s plenty to enjoy here regardless. Close listening reveals its careful construction and attention to detail. Like the churches themselves it’s a treasure that will reward you if you sit quietly with it.