Robert Macfarlane on Orford Ness in Suffolk

When Cambridge academic and writer Dr Robert Macfarlane was asked to write a libretto for a performance celebrating the extraordinary landscape of Orford Ness, he turned his back on the world and let the voices of the landscape speak for themselves.

We drank hot wine from Thermoses and cooked up a hung-over breakfast of whiting in one of the abandoned buildings.

Dr Robert Macfarlane

Orford Ness is a 12-mile shingle spit, formed by time and tide, that lies like a tapering tail of pebbles against the soft shoreline of Suffolk. Separated from the fields and farms of the mainland by the fast-flowing water of the River Ore, it is home to wild flowers and sea birds, a scattering of sheds and a red-and-white lighthouse. It is most remarkable for the sinister-looking skeletons of buildings where, in the 1950s and 196Os, teams of scientists from the Ministry of Defence developed and tested a new generation of lethal weapons and eavesdropped on the crackling and trembling of enemy airwaves as the Cold War escalated.

This landscape, with its bleak beauty, wide skies and squat buildings, is the setting for Untrue Island, an experimental performance of words and music commissioned by Commissions East and the National Trust (which now owns the Ness). Performed for the first time last weekend and due to be performed again this weekend for local residents, Untrue Island weaves together a libretto by Cambridge academic and author Robert Macfarlane and a score – part-improvised, part pre-composed - by jazz musician Arnie Somogyi, all played out against a recorded backdrop of live sounds from the Ness, the swishing rhythm of sea breaking on shore, the calls of herring gulls.

The monolithic structures left behind by the Ministry of Defence are some of Britain’s newest ruins, massive structures gently mouldering as the weather creeps into the concrete, rain makes the pipes rust and paint peels snake-like from the walls. Devised to take place under the concrete canopy of the bunker-like ‘New Armoury’, Untrue Island invites the audience to empty their minds and let the outside in – to listen as the merging and shifting voices of the Ness tell their stories.  "Listen to the Ness," whispers the first voice, "it speaks gull, it speaks wave, it speaks rust, it speaks lichen."

Somogyi’s score is played by three musicians – percussionist Jim Hart, trumpeter Neil Yates and Somogyi himself on double bass. The libretto is spoken and sung by Polly Gibbons whose voice has an elemental quality that lends itself perfectly to the shimmering and echoing of Macfarlane’s narrative. To research their performance, Macfarlane and composer Somogyi spent long hours on the Ness, tuning into its secret and subliminal messages, past and present, natural and man-made.Being there was vital to producing words and music that are spatial, soaring and weather-washed.

One night writer and composer fished off the nose of the Ness till 3 am. “We drank hot wine from Thermoses and cooked up a hung-over breakfast of whiting in one of the abandoned buildings,” said Macfarlane. “The next day Arnie lugged his double bass over to the New Armoury, and we tried out the verses that I'd written the night before, with a call-and-answer relation between spoken text and musical response. The acoustics of the Armoury were booming and uncanny.”

The libretto (it’s Macfarlane’s first and he’s still not sure that libretto is the right word) is a distillation of ideas and images, some of it richly rap-like with repetitions, some of it psalm-like and elegiac in its luminosity, as he and Somogyi play with the hypnotic sounds of the elements, with place names (Sudbourne Beach, Lantern Marsh, Cobra Mist, Shingle Street) and bird names, with the ebb and flow of the tides, the arrival and departure of flotsam and jetsam.

Untrue Island allows Macfarlane to explore his fascination with words, their sounds and meanings, subtleties and associations, drawing from a repertoire that includes Dylan Thomas’s lyrical drama Under Milk Wood and Benjamin Britten’s opera Peter Grimes. Words are picked up like pebbles on a beach, assembled, jumbled and reassembled in a way that evokes the turning of the world, the layers and colours of light that make up sea and sky, shore and shingle, and at night the rotating beams of the lighthouse spinning out on the ink-black water.

"Main light, high light, sector light bright," runs a refrain-line that zings with energy, "main light, high light, sector light blaze."

Untrue Island will be performed this weekend for local Orford residents. To hear an extract of the performance go to The performance will be studio-recorded in the autumn and released on CD.

Dr Robert Macfarlane is a Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of English and Fellow of Emmanuel College. His latest book The Old Ways was published in May.


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