Glenn Gould's Hands
Fourier, Transduction and Alien Composers.

George Butterworth: Morris and Memory

Thanks Eric and Diana, we were out for a dinner a few weeks ago and spent the night watching Morris dance videos.  (Eric's blog is always worth a read...).  We watched The Way of Morris, I drank a bit of Johnny Walker Red label, and then Eric pulled out a collection of ancient film.  It was like the Hallows unveiled.  I don't remember anything of what I saw, except a granulated fragment filmed of George Butterworth dancing.

(As an aside, before this goes to far, I do need to reference A LIfe With Bells, and hope you all will watch).

Thanks to the InterWeb, which I have installed on my computer since 1994, I’ve been able to determine that what he danced was a Molly Oxford.  Here’s a still photo (again , thanks to Eric who forwarded this to me)


The image is an artifact from beyond time, recorded without sound, granular, fragmentary.  It is like memory extracted from the brain - from wherever memory resides - made real.  

Butterworth went off to the trenches and died at the battle of the Somme, age 31. 

His compositions accumulated memory.  British folk was isolated, it is hard to recall before Richard Thompson and Ashley Hutchins, a victim of the growing urbanization of the country. Butterworth  uses folk music in his orchestral pieces as a skeleton. a framework.  Morris  is the Jungian alchemical chalice.  

The romantic musical language around it is the framing, the current mind.  Music, as much as memory,  requires context.  The craft of composition is to place the memory so that it will be heard by others with the same resonance as the composer.  A simple idea, a Morris dance, now also evokes Butterworth and all related thoughts for me.  If I were to set a Morris dance, I would want you  to hear it through that filter.  The idea prima facie  exists within an aura of the original hearing.  Listen to Berio giving Mahler the treatment...Berio's music is the arc holding that experience.  In the same way Mahler treats his memory of street music. 

I never set a Morris dance, but I did write a song cycle with text by A.E Houseman.  That may not be true, I might have used a Morris dance in a piano trio I wrote, but the  piece has vanished into obscurity. Butterworth also wrote a song cycle with text by Housemann, The Shropshire Lad.  When I watch the video of Butterworth dancing the Molly Oxford, I am also seeing the memory of my own writing.  We both set With Rue My Heart is Laden ( I will try to dig out the cassette ).

Morris becomes an object in memory, as it has done for ages.  The twee dancers on the village cricket field, the scholars reading Cecil  Sharp reconstructions, the medieval Morris fornicating  fertility on the fields.  The dance is the object of memory.  In psychogeographic terms, it is a Quidd, a measurable unit of meaning placed upon the physical timestream.

Nabokov has Van and Ada speak of this, as children

“Ada had worked out her own little system. Hardly a week had elapsed since Van’s arrival when he was found worthy of being initiated in her web of wisdom. An individual’s life consisted of certain classified things: "real things" which were unfrequent and priceless, simply "things" which formed the routine stuff of life; and "ghost things," also called "fogs," such as fever, toothache, dreadful disappointments, and death. Three or more things occurring at the same time formed a "tower," or, if they came in immediate succession, they made a "bridge." "Real towers" and "real bridges" were the joys of life, and when the towers came in a series, one experienced supreme rapture; it almost never happened, though. In some circumstances, in a certain light, a neutral "thing" might look or even actually become "real" or else, conversely, it might coagulate into a fetid "fog." When the joy and the joyless happened to be intermixed, simultaneously or along the ramp of duration, one was confronted with "ruined towers" and "broken bridges.” 

Morris has it’s darkness, it is not all hankies, sticks and swords and can be broken bridges as surely as it can be real.  So to see an image of Butterworth, moving images, dancing.  Extraordinary.  All the more so when you see this selection of photographs taken while our fond protagonists were studying Morris themselves.  Click thumbnail for full slide show: