Last September I visited what is speculatively considered to be the oldest standing roofed structure in northern Europe,  Bharpa Langais, a Neolithic chambered cairn on a heather hillside in the heart of North Uist. Among our party was the Welsh harpist/artist Rhodri Davies, a gentle soul whose curiosity for sound continually guides him toward new possibilities of playing and performance.

In way that makes no claims to vague mysticism, the different procedures by which Rhodri sounds his harp represent a series of contemporary rites – burning the instrument, blowing on it, adapting it through the interventions of  bolts and screws, resonating with electric fans; rarely touching, or if he does, tickling, rubbing, strumming.

Rhodri Davies, Bharpa Langais, 2011
photograph by Paul Edgerley

At Langais Rhodri allowed the breeze, fresh from the Atlantic seaboard, to perform wind-harp.

wind-harp, Rhodri Davies, Bharpa Langais, 2011
filmed by Andy Mackinnon

More recently he has created a wind-harp installation for ARPIA, a festival in Herzele, Belgium, from Aug-Oct 2011.

Rhodri Davies, wind-harp, 2011
photograph, Rhodri Davies, 2011  

Rhodri Davies, wind-harp, 2011
photograph, Rhodri Davies, 2011

wood- wind song

wood- wind song 
Ian Hamilton Finlay, with Sue Finlay, lettercarving by Maxwell Allan
photograph by Robin Gillanders, 2002

Such improvisatory approaches seem distant from the classicism of my father's work, where nature is seen as something that must be redeemed by culture, in order to make a safe home for our dwelling.

An early and defining feature at Stonypath, was the placing of this ‘poem’, ‘wood- wind song’, which my father set in the far corner of the garden, saying that this was where he 'first heard the wind'. He and my mother Sue had planted the pines there, and so they too, in their way, represent a kind of barrier harp. From those early beginnings this poem, or sound-corner, has continued to define a physical and symbolic foundation for the entire garden project.

I call it a ‘poem’ as growing up I was used to such inscribed stones were referred to in that way. My childhood impressions were less for the words themselves, as for the feeling of shade and shelter – the rippled surface of the slate, the way rain shadows caught in the incised lettering, and the sound of the breeze shushing in the young pines.

At an older age, I had to grasp how, despite the spare minimalism of the words, this poem did indeed belong in its carefully composed corner, with the pine needles swept neatly around the base of each trunk. The world of poetry was traditionally mapped onto books placed on shelves, and yet this text had a natural setting, the sounds of which translated the abstracted procedure of language back into a specific location.

The wires of Rhodri’s harp become here the angled branches and ten thousand needles of the pines. Anyone who has lain down in one of the brown needled runnels of a forestry plantation knows that particular eerie rushing sound, as the wind is diverted into a thousand thousand streams, intensified by the unnatural tightness of the lines of arrayed trees. Another form of instrument then, these agri-woods, their sound so different to the softer broader rhythm that broadcasts from the canopy of a 'natural' wood.


photograph by Alexander Maris, 2008

sound spreads
in an ex-

panding spherical

There is no denying that windmill turbines belong among the same band of eerie wind-songs; they sough, click, skirl, circle, howl, roar or banshee, depending on form and materials, blade dimensions and height, contours of the land and velocity of wind.

this windmill swings whoo-
shing in an arc

this windmill howls
like a banshee

this windmill rattles and judders
like the mast of a schooner under sail

this windmill soughs
like waves on a pebble beach

this windmill
is silent

One aspect of this eeriness arises from the intersection – the constant passing through – of the natural and artificial, waves or jets of air and metal harp strings, turbine blades, even the close-planted sitka spruce has a constructed aspect.

sitka spruce plantation, Langais Community Woodland
photograph by Ken Cockburn

the three
sounds the
winds eerie

There is chaos in nature, more than our consciousness cares to admit. We cannot afford to let it enter, for its register would overwhelm us.

In his book, Connemara, Tim Robinson meditates on the essential sound, the hum layered just above silence, that defines such wild places:

            such vast, complex sounds
            produced by fluid generalities

            impacting on intricate
            concrete particulars

Our perception, it seems, is tuned to fix constants within any state, layering experience into defined entities, the sea and tide, a wind from the east, a field of barley, are complex interweavings our ear simplifies. If we really saw or heard atoms and their flux, the vivid velocity and vibration of our microtonal world, then our comprehension of the view before us would be ripped from us.

Scots pine needle
Alexander Maris, 2008
The honeycomb of our consciousness manages the world for us, settling vast vibrating fields of energy into known and reassuring patterns. These we can name, a ‘light wind’, a ‘rising swell’, and in so defining them we set them aside, to do whatever daily acts that require to be done. As Robonson says, disengaging and analysising the elements that we require to know from out of this aural pandemonium. 

One of the largely unacknowledged but fascinating aspects of renewable energy is the manner in which is it returning our attention to the elements themselves: for what is this wind that blows, what are these waves that flow, from which we can derive power? 

Alec Finlay, circle poem, 2007

It seems no coincidence that artists and poets have pioneered ways of re-attuning consciousness to these elements, from the young LaMonte Young tuning into the howling of the telegraph wires, to Rhodri Davies holding his harp outstretched by Bharpa Langais, or Ian Hamilton Finlay & Sue Finlay's grove of pines to sound the wind at Stonypath.

One idea I sketched out recently, based on these themes, is this hollowed boat – recognizably the lemon curve of an Orkney Yole – strung with harp wires. Partly inspired by my experiences with Rhodri at Langais, this proposal envisages a monumental wind-harp for The Pierhead, Stromness, Orkney. Its breeze-jaloused jangling being occasionally blended together with the daily blare of the ferry's horn.

sketch for a wind-harp: Stromness Orkney
Alec Finlay, 2011

To represent this aural aspect of wind energy I commissioned Susan Maris to make these field-recordings of windmill turbines in 2010, produced as a limited edition 12" record, the spinning of which stirs a memory of these three-stringed wind-harps.

Susan Maris, 2010


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