The Cantre’r Gwaelod project

The story of Cantre’r Gwaelod is another Welsh legend I enjoy telling. Last year I was awarded a small grant by the Arts Council of Wales to develop my work. I wanted to create a piece of music about the story of Cantre’r Gwaelod giving it contemporary relevance as a warning about climate change and rising sea levels. My late grandmother would also often recite the famous poem Clychau Cantre’r Gwaelod by JJ Williams. I made a recording of her saying the poem and this provides much of the inspiration for the piece. More information about the poem can be found here:

How I composed the music-

At first I began listening to the recorded recital of the poem over and over to get a real feel for the sound. This was to continue throughout the project and to be a land mark that I continually returned to. However, I also edited the recording by chopping it up, rearranging it, piecing it together and adding effects to it using music software. The reasoning behind this was twofold. First of all it was driven by aesthetics and the desire to make the recording submerge with the other sounds in the music, or indeed re-emerge above them. Secondly, I wanted to express through this editing the idea of a land mass being changed and even consumed by the sea.

At the same time I began to imagine what timbres would compliment the recording of my grandmother’s voice and honour the story, and the messages I wished to convey. Initially, I wanted to use a harp for the following reasons; its timbres would match the sounds of the sea, it is sonically versatile and because it is perhaps quintessentially Welsh.

The next job was to record sounds of the sea. For this I wanted to actually record sounds from a place where Cantre’r Gwaelod was supposed to be. In other words from the coast of Cerdigion. Therefore I went on a trip to Ceredigion, staying in a campsite near the beach at Mwnt for two nights. During my stay I walked the coastal path, visited local beaches and took a boat trip around Cardigan Bay. All the time I was recording my experiences on an audio recorder. This includes sounds of the sea that were used in all edits of the music and in the final recording.

During the boat trip I was able to experience the dramatic coastline and the nearby islands at close quarters. There was an undeniable feeling of melancholy and wildness out at sea. It was easy to imagine a lost land beneath the waves as physical evidence of it rose up above the waters in the shape of the cliffs, rocks, islands and coves. This experience convinced me to search for a more fitting instrument to accompany the poetry recital and sea sounds. Therefore when I returned to Cardiff I decided to replace the idea of using the harp with the cello. There were many reasons why I thought the cello would be more appropriate. It is the orchestral instrument that most mirrors the range of the human voice. It has a wonderful ability to convey sadness and longing. This allows it to express the cry for help both from humanity and the Earth itself. Its dry timbre also contrasts perfectly with the sounds of the sea and my grandmother’s voice.

The poetry recital definitely has a sense of pitch, rhythm and tempo. After listening to the recording repeatedly I found the tempo that was most appropriate. My grandmother’s pace is remarkably consistent and this meant that it was easier to blend the cello with the poetry. I set a metronome at the pace that I felt most matched the tempo of my grandmother’s recital for the cello recording. The setting was one hundred beats per minute. There are also times when my grandmother’s voice virtually sings certain words at a specific pitch. These pitches inevitably had an influence on the composition of the cello’s melodies.

I composed different melodies for the cello in response to different ideas I had about the moods of the poem and the directions I wanted the music to travel. There are numerous cells of melody that accompany the sadness of the poem and then the sadness of the warnings about environmental change caused by humans. Some of the other melodic cells describe both the anger of the sea and the rage caused by our apparent inability to react to environmental change before it is too late. At times the dissonance of some of the melodies chimes awkwardly as if stumbling, this reflects the ugliness of apathy.

Working with Kathryn Harris the professional cellist was a wonderful experience. We had two days to record all the music. During this time I encouraged her to interpret the notation of the musical cells using adjectives to describe the moods I wanted her to portray. This also involved using various bowing techniques especially when a more aggressive timbre was required.

I deliberately chose recordings of warnings about environmental change to be made in an American accent. This accent is perhaps the one most associated in the west with the “News Flash” and with consumerism. There are obvious parallels between the unforgiving consumption of the land by the sea and our reckless consumption of the earth’s natural resources driven by consumerism.

I wanted to highlight how environmental change is a global problem and to also display the new multi-cultural landscape of Wales. Therefore I invited two Hare Krishna devotees to record mantra chanting and percussion playing for the music. I wanted drums and bells to be recorded for various reasons. Drums are associated with warnings, dance and altered states. All three of these themes are relevant for the messages in the music.

It also seemed fitting that the Hindu bells were to become the new bells of Cantre’r Gwaelod. They give a sense of warning because of the constant repetition, but they are also associated with dance and praise. This points to our possible escape route from the despair of climate change. I also used music software to alter parts of my grandmother’s recital to give the impression of repetitive chimes. The inclusion of the gong and singing bowl mean that the music is full of ringing bells.

The words of wisdom in the recording come from Deepak Chopra. He has written extensively on Buddhism and his message is that all living things are connected, including our planet. He preaches the importance of love. He says; “everything is a projection.” Using this viewpoint I wanted to show how the earth will be sick if mankind is sick. The way to heal is through love. I wanted this piece of music to support the truth of how love can bring us salvation. This is the message of Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and indeed all the major religions. Love is also how I remember my grandmother.

Recently, I have completed courses on Sound Therapy that use drums, singing bowls, gongs and mantra. I wanted to include as many of these healing sounds as possible in the music. The aim was to use the instruments not only to create timbres that would compliment the aesthetic and mood of the piece, but to also provide references to healing and therapeutic vibrations.

The gongs and singing bows were recorded last of all and edited into the music after I had begun to mix the other recorded sounds. This was because they were to add seasoning rather than be the main flavour of the music. I also wanted to ensure their particular bell like qualities could be heard above the other waves of sound. During further mixing I felt that there was a danger that too many sounds were being included and that this would make the texture too thick for the effect that I wanted. Therefore I decided to omit the mantra chanting from the final edit. The omission of the mantra chanting also helps to ensure that the music is not considered to be influenced by eastern traditions anymore than it is by western traditions.

There are many reasons why I feel that a minimalist style was most appropriate for this piece of music. I wanted each sound to be valued and heard. The repetition in the music also alludes to various genres from popular to eastern. This allows the music to be a hybrid of styles that mirrors the melting pot of cultures that exist in Wales today.

All of these sounds wash over each other to produce ever changing textures. I deliberately use changing dynamics and electronic effects to produce an unsettled atmosphere that aims to portray both the sea and the warning about climate change.

Here is an early edit of the music:Cantre’r Gwaelod the music 2

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