Soulseeking
A Snapshot – July 15th 2003



soulseeking isn’t just about downloading or being worn out by the weight of so much music that needs to be heard… it’s about how we consume music, about why we consume music. About loving music.

One of my favourite things is arranging moments of musical solipsism, planning a stroll in beautiful surroundings with a walkman or portable minidisc or iPod (delete as appropriate), choosing the music in advance and soaking it in, trying to find a way into the sublime. I’ve got little time for drugs and the nightclubs near me aren’t the kind of places where you can worship beats at the pulpit of the DJ, lose yourself in an acid bassline and find God in a filtersweep, so I have to get my kicks a different way. I think it’s a natural instinct to want to feel overwhelmed, to feel the presence of something greater than yourself, and if you have no truck with God or Allah or any of the innumerable pantheon of deities that some choose to worship, then music and nature together are as good a way as any that I have found.

As such I’m keen on walking windswept cliff tops with billowing, windswept music in my ears (Witness’ Before The Calm, perhaps), or rigging up a playlist of “epic” music (Sigur Ros, early Verve, Cocteau Twins, “North Hanging Rock” by British Sea Power, you know the kind of thing) and heading for Dartmoor. Although after a morning’s rambling to Radiohead, after traversing a tor or two to Talk Talk, the desolate vistas can sometimes make music seem extraneous and irrelevant, meaning the headphones get folded up and put in the rucksack, songs superseded by the sound of wind against grass and the slow ruminations of grazing livestock.

But probably my most common musical walk is the one that starts not with a car journey to a moor or a forest, but with stepping out of my front door and heading for the beach. Although sometimes, I must admit, when time and light are short and I have a definite purpose in mind, I do drive there, for my sins.

The following was originally posted on my blog some two years ago and more.

‘I almost feel guilty because it’s one of the most indulgent, solipsistic things you can do, and I already do enough indulgent, solipsistic things, but I enjoyed it, and really, if there’s a better thing to do on a hot July evening, especially when you live where I live, I haven’t come across it yet. Part of me wonders, for a brief second, about authenticity, whether what I did this evening loses some of its charm and magic and power because it was pre-planned and not at all spontaneous, but what the hell’s authenticity anyway? Gavin’s been mulling it over for weeks (note to Gav; smoke less weed, man) but as ever I think I stand with Heidegger. It’s not about being real or natural or anything like that; it’s just about knowing what you’re doing, engaging with the world, being aware, aroused from the everyday world by angst (yeah, right), understand the existential structure of your life, etcetera ad infinitum. And there’s no doubt that I fully understood the ontology, the significance, the beauty, the preparedness of this evening. Hell, I’d been thinking about it all day. Do I stay in and work on my CV so I can apply for that job? Do I make notes on that David Sylvian record so I can review it? Or do I go to the beach with my walkman and skim stones across the mirrored surface of the river? Fuck me, it’s not a hard choice. And if I’ve got to set Pause recording onto minidisc while I have my tea so I can listen to what I believe to be the perfect accompaniment to the evening’s festivities, then so be it. That’s not fake, is it? I may have thought about it, planned it before it happened, but for the time I was doing it I actually was doing it.

Dawlish Warren is a sandbar that spits out from a big lump of sandstone at the end of Dawlish beach called Red Rock into the mouth of the river Exe. The Exe estuary is a haven for wildlife and seabirds, and while the seaward side of the Warren may be a tourist beach, the riverside is a nature reserve and members-only golf course. At the far end of the Warren is the Point, at which you’re closer to Exmouth than Dawlish by about two miles, which is strange, because to drive to Exmouth you have to traverse the river Exe as far as Exeter before driving down the other side, and the trip takes about 2 hours there and back. From Warren Point you can throw a stone and, if your technique is hot, hit Exmouth beach. On misty autumn mornings you can stand on the seaward side of the sandbar and see neither Dawlish nor Exmouth nor anything at all further than 20 yards away, and at those times you could be the only person in existence. On the riverside of the Warren the sandbar curves back in on itself in the river like a shepherds crook, and forms what at low tide is a wading-bird-friendly mud plain, and at high tide is a beautiful, calm, freshwater bay that faces onto Cockwood harbour and Starcross pier. It is, as far as I know, the perfect place in the world to go skimming flat pebbles across the water.

Walking across sand dunes is one of the most energy-sapping things you can do, each footfall absorbed into the sand, kinetic energy stolen by the drift of nature’s most luxurious shag pile, equal parts joy and frustration as grains both caress and irritate your feet. Marram grass absorbs any wind, leaving the dunes stultifyingly hot and bereft of breeze, whilst stinging nettles and thorn fronds scrabble for your bare shins and ankles. Signs warn against the dermatological nightmare of brown-tailed moth caterpillars, eager to leave 3mm long spikes dripping with mild poison embedded in your flesh. Dune-flies and rock pippets leap from bushes as you approach, the tiny brown birds flapping their wings two, three times before drawing them into their puffed chests and falling out of the sheer joy of descent before splaying wings and rising into the air again. Thin trails of ants traverse the dune-paths like conveyor belts, convinced no more humans will disturb their unified foraging now the sun has risen, peaked, and begun to descend again. By the edge of the sea strange, malevolent-looking flea-like flies jump and skip and hop and avoid the lapping, rolling water as people invade their territory with rippled paddling.

Kieran Hebdon’s Pause is one of my very favourite records, a beatific document of the pastoral idyll made with the very latest technology, the perfect synthesis of man, machine, and the world we live in. Take Heidegger’s notion of authenticity over any other and it is one of the most real and honest records I’ve heard. It is fireflies, breaking waves, balmed branches, loquacious nature. I love it. In many ways it’s like the environment of the dunes; seemingly arid and windswept at first but actually teeming with life and vibrant colour once you take a closer look and immerse yourself in it.

Leaving my little red automobile at the far end of the car park I put on my walkman and strolled the beach, hurriedly passing the tourists and early-evening sun seekers until I was safe on the uninhabited area of shore past the third groyne. From then on I filled my pockets with flat pebbles, five, ten, a dozen-and-a-half, each more potentially perfect than the last, until my shorts were so burdened with car keys and walkmans and pebbles that I had to pause and tie a knot in the waist cord to keep them from slipping down, all the while harps and clicks and broken beats and electronic bliss heightening my consciousness, the breaking waves of “Twenty Three” mixing with the breaking waves of the actual sea five yards to my right. And in the midst of this I hesitate a second and think two things: one; that the people on the beach are looking at me filling my pockets with flat pebbles and listening to my walkman and they are thinking I am mad (a good pair of headphones does wonders for your ability to not give a fuck), and two; that I don’t know whether the music is accentuating my appreciation of the world or if the world is accentuating my appreciation of the music… Art, life. Life, art. By the time the twitching melody of “Everything Is Alright” rolls around I neither know nor care.

Skimming stones requires a canny touch over brute force, a flick of the wrist and finger more important than a powerful swing of the arm. It’s all about surface tension, rotation, momentum, and gravity. Even a round stone will skim if its momentum and the surface tension of the water outweigh the pull of gravity upon it. Large stones, the size of the palm of your hand, are best if your technique is good, their surface area helping them skip the undulating surface better than smaller, lighter pebbles. Paddling through the freshwater bay hidden behind the sandbar of the Warren, listening to Four Tet and flicking stones across the water, dead crabs and live crayfish, my old, old trainers, Superstars with orange trim that I’ve had since I was 19, so far past warranting keeping dry that I willingly wear them in the water because they deserve the sensation more than I do, not a person in sight, a long-sunken boat’s mast thrusting at a drunken perpendicular through the water, shags and herons and myriad other wading birds adding their coos and chirps as layers of melody to the music bound only for my ears, the ripple of the water as it gently tides into the beach behind me adding rhythm… At best I managed 18 bounces across the flowing pond. Champion. There really is no better thing to do.

As I walked back along the beach, my feet lapped at by the microcosmic surf, I switched the minidisc to a copy of Hex by Bark Psychosis. Over the dunes to my right the sun was beginning to set, caught behind clouds, golden drafts of light searching upwards in a comically perfect sunset like the word of God in some 50s Biblical epic. The lurid pre-twilight turned the sea vanilla and the far sky pink. I sat on a desiccated tree trunk, long washed up onto the shore as driftwood, and listened to “Absent Friend.” What else is there?’


By: Nick Southall
Published on: 2005-10-18
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