Articles, Track By Track

TRACK BY TRACK | Matt Phillips’ “The Calderstones”: exploring cultural identity and folk history through cello, improvisation, and druidic stones

“If there wasn’t a regional folk tradition for me to tie my musical identity to, then fine — I was going to invent my own.” -Matt Phillips

Matt Phillips is a British cellist, composer, and performer. Born in Liverpool, he is currently studying cello performance at Royal Birmingham Conservatoire with Ulrich Heinen, having previously studied with Alex Costello and Gethyn Jones. Matt is passionate about improvised performance and new music, and has premiered chamber works by Catherine Mole, Julia Cadman, Charlotte Kedge, Yasmin Baker, and Si Paton.

In the first edition of “Track by Track”, we asked Matt to guide us through the conception of his latest record The Calderstones — released in April 2022 — and the pieces he performed and composed as part of the record, as well as his collaborative processes with improviser Nick Branton and composer James McIlwrath.

Photo credit: Mark Phillips

The Concept

When I arrived at uni in 2018, I had to reckon with my cultural identity. Birmingham has a wonderful folk scene, through which I met many incredible musicians from all over the world, but they all seemed to have one thing that I didn’t, and subsequently craved: a musical heritage directly tied to the part of the world that they came from, a musical-geographical bond.

Despite my strong scouse identity, the music I was making had basically no ties to Merseyside. Liverpool has a lively folk scene also, but in its port city melting-pot way — no regional folk tradition to speak of.

If there wasn’t a regional folk tradition for me to tie my musical identity to, then fine — I was going to invent my own.

During my childhood, a trip to Calderstones Park was incomplete without an attempt to peer through the keyhole of the greenhouse that housed the six sandstone megaliths, from which the park draws its name. This is where they had been since 1954, having been moved to protect them from the elements, although they got moved to a swanky exhibition at the visitor centre in 2019. They once formed the entrance passage to a dolmen that was probably constructed about 5000 years ago, and the remains and urns found at the site demonstrate about 800 years of use. The earliest records of it date to around 1500, but by the 19th century it was mostly destroyed, and the stones were rearranged by Joseph Need-Walker, who owned the land where the park is now, into a more aesthetically-pleasing “druidic” circle, as expected from a colonial douche.

The Calderstones

The Calderstones explores the idea of using physical objects as a means to empathise with humans that inhabited the earth hundreds of generations ago, told as a semi-biographical/imagined-folk-history of the Calder Stones in six movements. Broadly speaking, the piece can be divided into two characters: a solo voice, representing the stones directly, and collective, representing the human interaction with the stones both past and present. The names of the movements are fairly self-explanatory, but I felt like it was important to not lean too heavily on a straight chronology, so there is a fair bit of symbolic revisiting of material — themes, and melodies throughout the work that I hope mythologises it in the same way that oral folk history does.

my pillow is made of pebbles (composed by James McIlwrath)

I approached James with a vague proposal to work on something together for this project, as I really love his work with objects — I played cello for Oliver’s Object-Orientated Opera last year and the OOO stuff has been bobbing round in my head since. After explaining the premise for the album, and a little bit about the other pieces, he came up with the idea of using flint tools in some way, so he bought a bag of them on ebay. They are legit (we think!), and likely about 5000-6000 years old, probably used as little scrapers or arrowheads. We got together and had a session where we recorded some improvisations using the stones and found that pressing the stone edge-on to the viola/cello string could produce two pitches at once – one where the stone was touching the string, and an undertone where the string was stopped.

James prepared a score for me, with instructions to firstly prepare a meal or complete a DIY project with the tools I’d been given, and to “meditate on the impact of agricultural development since these rocks were last potentially used for this purpose”. Then I’m instructed to perform the graphic score and an accompaniment, having mediated on the temporality — “A human lifespan is probably experienced by these rocks like we experience an hour” — the gaps in knowledge, the history, and my relationship to the rocks.

Olivine / 3 Feet / Corundum / Mourning (improvisations with Nick Branton)

Nick and I have known each other and been playing together occasionally for about 5 years, and Nick was actually the first musician I met up and played with following the 2020 lockdown — in a meadow overlooking the river mersey, no less — so it felt quite right to work together on this project with it’s links to the outdoors. What I love about Nick’s playing is his sensitive approach to atmosphere and creating textures, it’s so satisfying to play with him.

We used some sketches of the neolithic carvings on the Calder Stones, made by J. L. Forde-Johnston in the 50s, as graphic scores to base our short improvisations on. Rather than read from them in real time, we studied each graphic for a short while before playing for a few minutes. The carvings found on the stones are quite distinct, and identical markings have been found at passage graves in Bryn Celli Ddu and Barclodiad Y Gawres in Anglesey, as well as a few sites in the Boyne Valley, so there is evidence of a common religious practice all along the Irish Sea.

Stream and download The Calderstones at the link below:

Follow more of Matt Phillips’ work at:

Follow Nick Branton and James McIlwrath:

Track by Track is a brand new segment on PRXLUDES, and our first foray into music coverage outside of our traditional interview format. If you’d like to see more content like this, or more content besides our in-depth composer interviews, let us know – leave a comment or get in touch!

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