On the cover of A Pocket of Wind Resistance Karine Polwart’s profile merges with images of the natural world: birds, trees, leaves seem to be a part of her just like brain, blood and bone. Together with Pippa Murphy’s spellbinding soundscapes she has produced a hymn to motherhood, nature, life and death. A companion piece to her one woman theatre show Wind Resistance, to call this work an ‘album’ barely scratches the surface of the ambition of its songs, stories, poetry and politics. This is a piece of compelling conceptual art.
The album starts with birdsong, the echo of percussion and the story of ‘a bonnie lass, skipping barfit through the heather.’ This might be an old folk song but it doesn’t sound it, with the added element of storytelling woven into the fabric of the music. The contrast between the beautiful vocals and Karine’s distinctive speaking voice are eerily evocative. We are introduced to two of the narratives on this album: Karine’s own experiences alongside the historical tale of Will and Roberta. Folk music’s archival purpose may appear dry on paper but the music keeps the past’s heart beating.
The Moor Speaks is nature reaching out to us to remind us we all began in the same primordial goo. You were all bog born, echoes through the song. Nature helps us too, the sphagnum from the bog was used for many purposes, such as its ability to absorb. The whispers of the natural world in the music feel like we too are outside, hearing the wind and the birdsong.
Lark In The Clear Air continues the story of Will and Roberta’s love, who marry despite her parents’ disapproval. Polwart’s singing voice is pure poetry, as clear as any ‘sweet lark.’ Labouring and Resting is a euphoric sweep, music sounding like birds flying in the wind. Here we are back in the present day, watching geese migrate over her back garden. They fly together, with every goose taking a turn leading the flock. These are ‘sky born socialists’ where no bird has to bear the brunt. Together a team can do things that even brilliant individuals can’t.
Tyrannical Man’s Dominion is partly Robert Burns’ Westlin Winds and then a commentary on his words. He understood what man did to the natural world. Time moves on but nothing changes, things just get worse. Burns reminds us of the ‘charms o’ nature‘ and why we shouldn’t use ‘slaughtering guns’. There is a subtle condemnation of the grouse shooters and those who oppose using wind power (these themes are not as evident as in the stage production).
Place to Rest and Mend begins with whispering, as though the land is telling us its secrets and magic. The march of drums echoes the oncoming tragedy of Will and Roberta’s life. Not the worst sound he’d hear in his life. Then Small Consolation tells of a spilled nest of baby birds, another omen. The fledglings needed protection but now they are broken. Such is the fragility of life. A child’s fate can never be predicted. All you can do is build a nest, hope to offer protection and shelter for the future. We are holding on to nothing but dirt and dust, she sings, every day the fault lines are showing.
White Old Woman Woman of the Night tells Karine’s own slightly terrifying maternity story. Giving birth is precarious, even now in the modern world. She follows this with Queen Jane’s song, reminding us of how many women died giving birth in the past. Folk music keeps these stories alive, helping us to understand our history.
Lullaby for a Lost Mother is the heartbreaking story of a lost child, a simple harp accompaniment underlining the poignancy. Remember the Geese, flies us into the air again. This is a tribute to unity and teamwork. We’re not going to make it on our own, she reminds us, honouring the hospital who delivered her child safely.
In the end not everyone survives. Roberta dies in childbirth. It was just one of those things. Some make it and some don’t. A child is left behind, a shadow of the mother. This child becomes Polwart’s friend and the song is a moving tribute to her parents and the eternal circle of life.
‘A Pocket of Wind Resistance’ is an astonishingly ambitious album, even if it does only offer a ‘pocket’ of the power of the theatrical piece. Perhaps it is impossible to recreate exactly something designed to be seen and not just heard. It does feel like some of the more overtly personal, political and Scottish references have been deliberately omitted (in particular I missed the football analogy). However I do understand the need to condense the work and make it more universal. Therefore to truly understand this piece you must also see it live or read the play script, which has now been published by Faber. The full show will also be performed next year in Dublin and Perth so if you haven’t seen it then book now.: