One of the earliest things I remember of the COVID-19 pandemic was how quiet the skies became. We live on a corridor that runs out of Heathrow, less than fifty miles south of us, and the unmistakeable drone of jet engines or the graceful plumes of parallel contrails, slowly dissipating behind an airliner, were part of the sonic and visual focal points of our skies.
I find myself returning to this recollection again when listening to ‘Three Sisters’ from Neil Stringfellow’s new Audio Obscura album. In ‘Three Sisters’, Francisco Cantú reads a story about his own lockdown experiences. He too notices the quietened skies and the sudden drop of air traffic by up to 95% as he contemplates the failure of the crops he tries to grow during lockdown. Where his forebears might have known instinctively how to work the land, Cantú watches as each of his crops – each one an ancient species common to North America – fails. It seems to underline, in a detached, almost resigned way, how little we understand of so much of that which sustains us.
Love In The Time Of The Anthropocene’s focus is squarely placed upon the proven reality that humankind has created the singularly destructive destiny we are now living through; whereas, at other points in Earth’s history, nature has wrecked devastation on our planet, setting in motion massive evolutionary changes and sculpting the way our home looks, the Anthropocene is entirely manmade. Even pandemics like COVID-19 are singled out in the words written by Stringfellow’s chosen experts, pre-eminent authorities on the Anthropocene like Professors Simon L. Lewis and Mark A. Maslin, as symptoms of what we have wrought.
For Stringfellow, the motivation to produce this album came from parenthood. Like a lot of us, the introduction of children into your life gives you pause to think and reflect about the world that they will inherit. In Stringfellow’s case, this set in motion a three-year process of developing the album, seeking permission to use texts, gathering samples of the likes of Greta Thunberg and choosing narrators and collaborators. Its release on the eve of Halloween is appropriate, for this is likely the most unsettling, chilling thing you will experience this weekend.
Presented with an unflinching gaze upon the state of the world, how this came to be, and the tipping point we find ourselves at – or more than likely already beyond – Love In The Time Of The Anthropocene is a contemplative sequence of fifteen pieces. Skipping electronics, eerie birdsong, delicate strings are Stringfellow’s chosen backdrop for narrations by Cantú, Anders Harboe, Julia Blackburn, Simon Medley and others. Each piece is draped in either mournful texture or a sense of violence – fractured sounds, broken rhythms, cycles of abrasive dissonance. The effect, on pieces like ‘Welcome To The Anthropocene’ or the plaintive ‘Magpies’ is arresting; at times an aggressive tonality seems to shake you violently out of your complacency, quickening your pulse and giving genuine shivers.
It is the messages that are important here. Stringfellow’s role is thus that of the curator, creating the conditions for these messages to reach your ears, often in the most brutal and direct of ways. The album was concluded in lockdown, and we hear snippets of BBC broadcasts from the summer, when lockdown panic seemed to be receding and the forgotten – or, as is the actual case, linked – virus was further down the headlines; where the focus on ecological disaster once more became our focus. Wildfires ravaged vast tracts of land, another species lurched closer to extinction, and so depressingly on and on. Nothing had changed; we were just looking elsewhere, and that rather sums up our collective attitude to impending environmental doom.
Love In The Time Of The Anthropocene borrow its title from the classic novel by Gabriel García Márquez. Like the way that Márquez’s book peeled back the layers of life story of its protagonists, Stringfellow’s album does something similar with the Anthropocene, explaining its origins and painting an anguished picture of its irreversibility. Unlike Márquez’s book, however, there is no dark humour at play here; no one falls out of a tree trying to rescue a parrot. In Stringfellow’s case, the character saws down the tree, murders the parrot and thus proceeds to take a blowtorch to an ancient rainforest. It presents a damning indictment of humankind’s legacy, and the worst of all possible gifts to our children.
Love In The Time Of The Anthropocene by Audio Obscura was released October 30 2020.
Words: Mat Smith
(c) 2020 Further.