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October 2020 : Album of the Month : Jenny Sturgeon : The Living Mountain


Nan Shepherd's celebrated book The Living Mountain gives name and inspiration to Jenny Sturgeon's second solo album.

The book, written in the 1940s, but resting unpublished in a drawer until thirty years later, is a short but powerful tome - dense, poetic and ultimately magical in the way it illuminates Shepherd's connection to landscape and nature - conveying a profound depth of being forged in the Cairngorms' wildness.

Recording at Clashnettie Arts Centre in the Cairngorms National Park, Sturgeon used empathetic music, ambient sound and a deep lyrical gift to illuminate her own related connections; deftly playing guitar, piano, harmonium, dulcimer, whistle and synth in the studio, and singing with far-reaching affect throughout.

To add texture and colour to the music, exquisite work from Grant Anderson (vocals, bass), Andy Bell (synth, percussion, vocals), Mairi Campbell (viola, vocals) and Su-a Lee (cello) has been sparingly woven into the mix. The final recordings have a radiance in keeping with the magnificence of their inspiration - whether Shepherd’s writing or the mountain range that animated it.

Raised in Aberdeen, Jenny Sturgeon is now Shetland based (she organises the Shetland Songwriting Festival), and is an artist, musician and member of alt-folk wonders, Salt House.

Her new album is a meditative and finely-grained work - to listen properly each piece warrants finding the same stillness of soul that an art gallery might afford for the appraisal of an old master, or a lonely dawn to a dedicated walker who wants to view a landscape.

The twelve songs (with ten self-penned lyrics and two based on the author's poetry) unfurl slowly, each mapped sequentially to a chapter in Shepherd's book.

There is glint, space and elemental alchemy in each composition.

The Plateau opens; a rising, delicately-toned song about finding freedom in a raw landscape. It is followed by The Recesses, a short breath of symbolic mountain grace.

The music continues to drift by majestically, as clouds skim a high granite crest.

Sublime and evocative, The Group is a beautiful flow of flickering guitar and strings, Water is a supernatural hymn adapted from Shepherd's poem Singing Burn, and Frost & Snow an icy, metronomically rhythmed paean to winter in the Cairngorms' arctic-alpine environment.

If you want to distil only one highlight from the album, Air and Light is surely it; a slow twist of emotion with a beatific vocal evoking the freedom of map, compass and isolation high in the mountains.

The Plants singles out the Cairngorm's rooted fauna, and their botanical life-cycles, for acclamation, whilst Birds, Animals, Insects does the same for untethered life-forms. In contrast, Man takes its words from Shepherd's poem Fires to celebrate the spiritual warmth of fire - in a hearth, in the cosmos and suppressed in the heart of man.

Fittingly, the final three pieces are definitely sung from a free, unquelled heart.

Sleep finds the music to express the joy of a night sleeping in the landscape; The Senses, lifted by Su-a Lee's cello, captures the spirit of a golden summer day and Being, a seven minute mesmeric and spiritual expression of wildness, closes the album, its opening lines framing the meaning of the rest of the lyric,

living through the senses
as we search
to find out what's real

The chorus then describing a rightful journey,

with a careful step we go
from earth's gracious soil we tread
being, we find out who we are

Before a long lead-out field recording of bird song, caught, as all the ambient sounds on the album were, at one map grid point in the Cairngorm National Park.

In the album's sleeve notes Jenny Sturgeon states,

"I hope this record captures the special quality of the Cairngorms and Nan's defining energy."

It does. In his introduction to the most recent edition of Nan Shepherd's book, Robert Macfarlane turns to a quote from Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh to define the essence of the text,

"To know fully even one field or one land is a lifetime's experience. In the world of poetic experience it is depth that counts, not width. A gap in a hedge, a smooth rock surfacing a narrow lane, a view of a woody meadow, the stream at the junction of four small fields - these are as much as a man can fully experience."

As Kavanagh suggested, Jenny Sturgeon has found and in turn expressed natural beauty from the observation of its intimate detail. As an album, The Living Mountain is a bewitching work of wisdom and light, and, for the truth it expresses, the most important record you will listen to this year. We are human, and part of nature - there is solace, and maybe still a future, in recognising and revelling in that.