Driving home late one night, I was listening to Radio 4 when the shipping forecast came on. This evocative broadcast, which I had not heard for many years, immediately transported me back to the times when I would listen to the radio in bed at night, my insomnia soothed by the reassuring, quintessentially English tones of the BBC announcers. In those days, the nightly reading of the shipping forecast was preceded by an appropriately nautical tune, ‘Sailing By’, the playing of which acted as an aid to locating the station on the radio dial. The forecast itself sounded, and still sounds, like a strange litany or code. The mysterious names of the shipping regions – Malin Head, Rockall, German Bight – are followed by warnings of gales and cyclones, all numbered to indicate their severity. Intoned with impeccable Establishment gravitas, the shipping forecast outdoes the legendary ‘numbers stations’ broadcasts for sheer brooding atmosphere. It also recalls the isolated lives of its intended audience, the crews of ocean-going vessels on the high seas, as they huddle around the ship’s radio to await news of frequently treacherous weather conditions.
The decline and fall of one such vessel is evoked with glacial power on Salt Marie Celeste. The album is an expansion of an earlier piece, ‘Salt’, which was included on a limited edition CD released to accompany Steven Stapleton (who, for the uninitiated, is Nurse With Wound) and David Tibet’s art exhibition at the Horse Hospital gallery in London. This fully realised, hour-long version is one of NWW’s most radically minimalist pieces. It consists largely of a single, looming electronic figure, repeated endlessly like the motion of the waves. This incredibly dark and doom-laden sound is punctuated by regular bursts of eerie effects – first a lonely foghorn, then the breathing and creaking of wood, and finally the constant advance of water. Energised by relentless stereo panning, the piece describes a shipwreck as a giant arc of progression and descent.
There are distinct similarities with Gavin Bryars’ epochal The Sinking of the Titanic, although the differences are also clear. Bryars’ ’70s masterpiece takes as its starting point the poignant testimony of several Titanic survivors that the ship’s band continued to play as the ship went down, heroically refusing to abandon their positions and thereby providing the tragedy with a fitting soundtrack. The Titanic itself, meanwhile, was a mass of lively activity in the first days of its doomed maiden voyage, while its sinking was a monument to human folly and hubris. Stapleton’s ship cradles no such vitality, and its sinking tells of no heroism or ambition. This music speaks only of darkness, of isolation and of watery death.
(Originally published in The Sound Projector 12, 2004)