A Pocket of Wind Resistance by Karine Polwart and Pippa Murphy
If I were to describe elements of a musical work that would tick my particular boxes of interest, this album would fulfill almost all of them. It has bird song and natural sounds, sung and spoken Gaelic, a compelling and moving story (actually, several of them, linked through time and place), references to the First World War, the benefits of caring for one another in our community, and even some very sound scientific information about the migration of swallows and the aerodynamics of bird flight. It couldn’t be more up my street if it lived next door and took in my missed deliveries for me.
I understand that the album grew out of a theatre show performed at the Edinburgh Festival, which makes perfect sense, as there is a very strong vein of storytelling through it. We follow the lives and labours of women throughout time, all brought together by a particular environment: the peatbog around Fala Flow in Scotland. It weaves together the cycles of nature and the cycles of people’s lives, and our need to help, care and support one another.
The layering of sounds is so beautiful on this album. Pippa Murphy — a sound designer — creates an incredibly evocative and moving soundscape of bird song, heartbeats, trickling water and wind. It is subtle and gorgeous, and every time I listen to the album I notice something else. It is the perfect underscoring for Karine’s lovely voice and spoken words, weaving in and out of the rhythms she makes with words.
There’s a song relating Karine’s own experience of labour which is titled ‘White Old Woman of the Night’ — a reference to the Gaelic name for the barn owl. In it, Karine speaks the following lines repeatedly, changing the order as she goes which generates an eerie, tense atmosphere which fits perfectly with the mood of the song:
There were hawks in the hallway
White coats and stethoscopes
Muttering muttering muttering
Dinnae push lass, dinnae push
It is a very moving album in lots of ways. I’ve listened to it many times now, and every time it brings a lump to my throat or tears to my eyes, but not always in the same places. There are overtly sad stories about childbirth and loss, but also other places where the convergence of words, music and sound suddenly catch at me and take me by surprise. For example, there’s a passage about how the swallow is a bird of consolation, relating the legend about swallows consoling Christ on the cross with their cries. Later in the album, the same tone as these consoling cries is used when Karine’s son calls out a greeting “Molly! Molly!” to the elderly Molly Sime who is in hospital. I can’t even explain to myself — let alone you — why I find that confluence of ideas and sound so moving, but I do. There’s also a beautiful passage in ‘Place to Rest and Mend’ where the Latin names of sphagnum moss species are chanted softly like a benediction, and this is wrapped up in both the science and folklore of using sphagnum moss to dress wounds and heal.
If it isn’t already blindingly obvious, I love this album deeply, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. It isn’t a Christmas album by any stretch of the imagination, but it is timeless and moving, and it will help connect you back to nature in these dark midwinter days.