Grey Ladies. SYBELLA PERRY
(Porta / Hideous Replica 2014)
Review by Chris Whitehead
In a field known as Nine Stones Close on Harthill moor, Derbyshire, stands the Bronze Age stone circle known as Grey Ladies. It is the tallest circle in the county, and in 1780 Rooke recorded six erect stones, although today only four remain. A fifth stone seems to have been set into a dry stone wall close by. According to Rooke “if we may judge by the eye, there were formally nine”. In 1936 two of these required re-erection and were set in concrete. The stones vary in height from 1.2 to 2.1 metres.
Standing in the circle and looking toward the south west, the major southern moon can be seen setting between the irregular and imposing crags that form Robin Hood’s Stride. This may account for the siting of the Grey Ladies in such an evocative location.
Research into the acoustic properties of stone circles and tombs has shown that they were constructed with the transmission of sound being an architectural concern. Studies by Aaron Watson and Dave Keating on the Easter Aquorthies circle in Aberdeenshire, Scotland has shown that the recumbent altar stone acts as a stage. Music played there will reflect from the surfaces of the other stones into the centre of the circle.
It would also seem that chambered tombs can be made to resonate by playing certain tones into them. Most tombs are tuned to 110Hz – 112Hz, which is the baritone range of the human voice. There is evidence that aspects of the interiors of these chambers were purposefully altered and modified to create this effect, and that it could be achieved by simply singing the correct note is surely significant.
On two of the least inclement days of February, Bella Perry and her team of stone resonators entered Nine Stones Close and pointed their equipment at these huge, unforgiving rocks. In the case of vocalist Samuel Ayre he sang into the mineral surface in the hope that a chain reaction of vibrating crystals would mirror his keening.
Part scientific investigation, part artwork and yet a kind of communing with the lost distances of human ancestry, the whole endeavour comes across as a shamanistic ritual drilling sound holes through time. The concentration required was intense. Speaking to Bella she makes the point that when they were getting close in their quest for this frequency connection, they’d push too far too soon and have to go back to the beginning and start all over again. In her words: ” There seemed to be something very fitting about working in this way, that perhaps in the past groups of people also spent long periods with focused concentration trying to resonate these stones. That it was a kind of meditative bonding activity, not something that would occur instantaneously, but that it almost had to be willed into action.”
The disc comes with several visual representations of the undertaking, these include an A3 poster in blue and black depicting equipment, stones and people. On the other side is a single large photograph of the back of a person’s head in front of one of the inscrutable Grey Ladies. Interestingly, also included is a see-through acetate overlay printed with an image of the whole circle and its adjacent tree. I say interestingly because this transparency mirrors a legend associated with the monuments: In the 19th century a farm labourer found a clay pipe in the circle. He smoked it and the ground beneath his feet became suddenly transparent and through it he witnessed a hidden realm inhabited by fairy folk.
The first sound after the CD has disappeared into the player comes as something of a shock. A raw, deep, guttural male voice sings an extended tone. Possibly Samuel Ayre is standing in the same place and creating the same sound as a Bronze Age singer might have done, his wordless vocalisation at once earthy and naked. There is no artifice of any kind and a quiet breeze blows and the grass moves slightly and the stones are immobile sentinels.
Starting at the aforementioned 110Hz and then varying the pitch to chase this elusive spectre of concurrence, electronic tones in the form of sine waves are beamed at the circle. The entire composition is augmented by the uncertainty of success, to the point where the issue of whether stones actually resonated is less important than the collective working towards a commonality of purpose.
What we have is an intimate document of an experiment, but it plays like a ritual. It plays like a meditation, an attempt to form a conduit between different states of matter and between civilisations separated in time. It takes the form of a summoning prayer for hidden phenomena. When listened to in the dark with those winds lashing the windows and the rain throwing nails at the roof, thinking about the megaliths still out on the moors, enduring as they always have done, that’s what resonates. I can vouch for that.