Richard Higlett: Artist In Residence

6 years 8 months ago

As part of the developing APTELAN Artist In Residence Programme at the Elan Reservoir, I have had the opportunity to stay in a cottage near the Pen y Garreg Dam. Being located within the natural fabric of the valley, I was struck by how soon my understanding of time, and how I chose to spend it, changed.

Living in the city, I am used to living by mechanical, constructed time; the tick of the watch, the face of the clock or digital display dividing up my life. After just a few hours, nature’s time was evident and folded around me. I was lucky to be there to experience the lunar eclipse and experience what could be described as universal time, although still bound by the rotation of the earth. At totality, the soft grey river of stars that is the Milky Way became visible, the birds stopped singing and the only sound was the water flowing at the dam.

We are told in a few decades time wars will be fought over water and it is vital as a society we re-new our relationship with H2O. It is something a city dweller like myself had given little thought too, but being under the universe with the dam as the only sound, brought the value of water into sharp focus. 

On my first visit to the cottage I brought a digital recorder, portable keyboard and paints and paper to make notes during walks. As one of a group of artists invited to experience being embedded in the valley, I travelled with an open mind and a copy of Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker. In Stapledon’s novel, the narrator is able to think himself across the universe and encounters numerous alien civilisations, many similar to our own and in doing so highlights our own short comings as a species. My thinking was to use the text as a way of further displacing myself from my surrounding and treat the experience as akin to being on an alien planet.

For a person bounded by material objects this wasn't such a great leap of the imagination but enough to mean I could happily sit for an hour listening and digitally recording to grasshoppers calling to each other as I scaled the hill/mountain (I’m not sure) that the back of the cottage.

Further up the path, the sun on my back, I follow the path of the water as gravity guided it to the river below. As the water flow reduced, I became aware of tapping sound like a nail on the rim of a china cup; a refrain of 5 notes repeated to form a rhythm. Five stones had formed an ineffectual miniature dam across the stream, coming together over an unknown length of time. Water flowed in from two points and exited the junction from 4; bouncing off conflicting stone surfaces and producing a rhythm; a rhythm of life. Listening back recordings a complex music could be heard 'just below the surface'. Repeated listening established a patterns in the chaos. These recording inform by second visit to the cottage as I  spend 5 days there alone with a fiddle looking at how these drops of water can become dots of music and how a musical narrative can be a direct response to the stones on the brook. 

In October, a dozen artists, Welsh Water and the Arts Council of Wales met to discuss the pilot residency programme. To illustrate the rock recordings, I asked my auntie to make some rock cakes for the meeting. Living in Kings Heath, she has drunk Elan water her whole life and we adapted the rock cake recipe to included 4 tablespoons of tap water. By eating them at Elan it felt like they the water has made a return journey. 

When walking the trails, I was struck by the diversity of bird song. Throughout my childhood, my mother and father, on their allotment, would stop and call out the names of the birds that heard, but other than a thrush or a blackbird (which I can mix up) I am not someone who has grasped the subtitles of bird song. As a consequence my notes include sketches of birds with attachments such as “the one that sounds like a bomb falling from a plane!” I like the idea that experience is in competition with knowledge. Experience is within the individual, while knowledge can be collective and also misleading.The experience of the cottage and direct engagement with the valley is unique in everyone, while we always bring our life history along with us too. 

My next visit is in January; for this I am looking at the nature of solitude and acts of stillness. Ive have recently been reading of the experience of John Francis, a man described as a ‘Planet Walker’ who simply stopped speaking, through choice, for 17 years. A small gesture in comparison but I intend to remain silent for the week, not listening to the radio or recorded music, only using the fiddle as a voice within the space. 

What is special about the APTElan opportunity is the offer the environment you are in gives you. The opportunity to think beyond your immediate self and like Stapledon’s narrator in Star Maker, see things that you thought were right in front of you, for the first time.

See Richard's birds in full