Arun Sood – Searching Erskine

In the last few years, the music that’s resonated with me the most has tended to have a connection to Scotland: Andrew Wasylyk’s Eastern Scotland trilogy, Erland Cooper’s Orkney triptych, Letters From Mouse’s Tarbolton Bachelors Club, Emeka Ogboh’s Song Of The Union and Simon Kirby / Tommy Perman / Rob St. John’s Concrete Antenna.

Scotland is in my blood and an important facet of my everyday life. My mother was both in Stirling’s Royal Infirmary and lived in Scotland until she was twenty-five years old. Every year of my childhood we’d travel up to see relatives near Falkirk. I was aware, appreciative and proud of my family tree and my connection to Scotland. Great aunts, cousins, friends of the family that were positioned as relatives yet weren’t – all of these figures, and their myriad accents and pasts appeared prominently in my childhood and left me with an unbreakable fondness for a country that, though I have never lived there, feels like where I am from. We took our two teenage daughters to Scotland for the first time in 2020, during a period of heightened awareness of mortality and the value of family bonds, and I attribute the way I have gravitated to these Scottish-related releases above others, in part, to that.

Unquestionably, to this can be added Arun Sood’s stirring Searching Erskine.

Sood is a Scottish-Indian academic and artist operating in the disciplines of sound art, music and writing. While Sood is currently based in Devon, the focus of Searching Erskine is some 700 miles away, namely the uninhabited small island of Vallay, just over a strand from North Uist in the Outer Hebrides. For Sood, this is not a romantic far-flung location upon which to base a project; this is where the Scottish side of his family’s history lies, and it has proven to be a source of creative inspiration for him since 2011.

Sood’s grandmother, Katie Maclellan, worked as a housekeeper on the island until she left in 1944. Her employer was one Erskine Beveridge, a wealthy linen manufacturer and archaeological historian who had erected a grand house, Taigh Mòr, on the island in 1905. Sood made field recordings while camping on Vallay in 2019, some of which were recorded in the ruins of Beveridge’s crumbling house. In his introductory essay to a book accompanying the twelve musical pieces, Sood recounts the moment he became very aware of the sounds of the island. “The geese, the gull shrieks, the grassy whispers,” he muses. “I began to wonder if my grandmother might have heard similar sonic tapestries to the ones I was hearing, only in a different time.” This question prompted Sood to explore the idea of sounds “triggering memories and re-imaginings of the past.”

Vallay’s remote location puts it on a direct collision course with climate change. It is already changed from when Sood’s grandmother walked across the strand at low tide to North Uist for the last time, and in truth it had already changed through successive ice ages, evidence of which was uncovered by Erskine Beveridge’s archaeological excavations. The fading island topography and the ruin of Beveridge’s house is an allegory for Sood’s personal history, and all of our personal histories. Disney’s Coco reminds us that departed people only live in so long as our memory preserves them. In this way, Searching Erskine can be viewed and heard as a poignant document of his own family lineage, made immortal so long as digital and physical media endure.

Searching Erskine begins with ‘Katie’, setting a verse delivered by Sood to a backdrop of delicate synths, sprinkles of piano and cello from Alice Allen, suffused with field recordings of his 2019 camping trip. His words are, in part, recollections from his grandmother, but also questions about whether the sounds surrounding him in 2019 might in fact be the long-range echoes of what his grandmother herself had heard. On ‘Land Seeps’, Sood recorded inside the remains of her cottage, setting his words to a bed of intense accordion drones, while Alice Allen’s cello gives the many-layered ‘Taigh Mòr’, prompted by recordings inside the sad ruin of the Beveridge house, a mournful, wistful tone.

This is not just Sood’s rumination on his own family connection to Vallay. His own ancestry is inextricably linked to the Beveridges, and their own histories appear vividly in some of the pieces here. ‘He Was Drowned’ and ‘The Cairn’ are responses to the story of George Beveridge, Erskine’s son, who drowned crossing the strand to North Uist, while ‘Vasa’ features spoken extracts from Erskine’s book North Uist: Its Archaeology And Topography read by his grand-nephew.

Crucial to the emotional impact that these pieces possess are Sood’s wonderful and evocative arrangements. In addition to his many field recordings and captured conversations with his family, these pieces are filled with strings, chanter, organs, guitars and delicate synths from his friend and collaborator Alastair Smith. Identifying individual instruments – with the possible exception of Allen’s austere cello – is virtually impossible thanks to looping and processing, all of which deliver the gauzy, sepia-tinged sonic personality that gives this body of work its personal and emotional impact.

Though it is possible to listen to Searching Erskine and get a measure of the narrative, the accompanying book is essential for unlocking its secrets. Alongside Sood’s wonderful, evocative introductory essay are visual responses to Vallay by photographer Emile Kees, artist and academic Rosalind Blake and Outer Hebrides-based visual artist Meg Rodger. Each of these artists draws something unique from the idea of Vallay. For Kees, his approach was to digitally process old photographs, including one of Sood’s great-grandfather, leaving visual ghosts and intentional obfuscation. Blake centred her attention on the the various impressions of the island’s tidal geography through vibrant colour schemes and repeated lines. For Rodger, the idea was to use abstract skyscapes to evoke the gulf between art (imagination) and archaeology (facts).

Most crucial are Sood’s own notes for the musical pieces, revealing the inspiration, intention and story behind each. It is always intriguing to peek inside an artist’s motivations, and Sood leaves no detail hidden. Through these descriptions we alight upon the intense personal connection he has to his family history, and to Vallay, including in the naming of his daughter, Vallya. “Our children are ancestors too,” he explains of ‘Crossing’. “They bind our future with what came before us.” Vallya’s heartbeat, recorded while still in the womb, is just audible in this piece, beneath a stirring translated version of the Gaelic song ‘Cailin Mo Ruinsa’, something that Sood’s uncle Colin – possibly the last to be born on Vallay – was to be heard singing after a wee drop of firewater every night.

Searching Erskine might be deeply, intentionally personal in nature, but its ultimate conceit is to make such a personal story relatable to anyone aware and appreciative of their own history. Our lineage may not be as interesting or storied as Sood’s, but his sensitive recognition of the importance of how we got here – and the legacy we bequeath to those who come after us – is what makes this release resonate so strongly, and Sood’s understated technique so powerful.

Searching Erskine by Arun Sood was released March 4 2000 by Blackford Hill.

Words: Mat Smith

(c) 2022 Further.