The universe is making music all the time

Chosen One: The Cloisters

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Interview with Michael Tanner, The Cloisters.

“I vaguely recall wanting to invent a raft of bands for my label that didn’t actually exist…I love myth-making in music. But I suppose The Cloisters really festered away there at the back of my mind and this – 14 years later – is that album (sort of).”

—Michael Tanner

Words: Mark Carry, Illustration: Craig Carry


The Cloisters is the latest music project of Dorset-based musician Michael Tanner. The debut album was released late last year on the wonderful independent label, Second Language. Across four tracks and 41 minutes in length, the self-titled release is gorgeously layered ambient music with delicate etchings of divine folk. For those already familiar with Michael Tanner’s diverse body of work, a terrific sense of nostalgia and mystery is embedded in the masterfully crafted songs. The Cloisters’ intricate arrangements and gorgeous instrumentation allows the listener to be immersed in an insular world of forgotten dreams. This album has served as my headphone listening for many a winter’s evening, forever shining light onto the night’s sky. The musicians on this collaborative project display their peerless musicianship. The sounds and textures are intricately woven together forming abstract landscapes of an English countryside and fantasy filled dreams. The album features Áine O’ Dwyer (United Bible Studies) on harp, Daniel Merrill (Dead Rat Orchestra) on viola, Aaron Martin on cello, and Hanna Tuulikki on church harmonium. The tracks were recorded in some of the places Michael Tanner grew up in, including Symonds Yat, in Herefordshire and a few Welsh border towns. In this way, the music evokes childhood memories and vivid nostalgia across the tapestry of sound. The material was heavily influenced by re-reading Susan Cooper’s ‘Dark Is Rising’ series of pagan children’s books, with their tales of billowing mists rolling down Welsh mountains. My favourite piece is ‘A Pelagic Recital’, written by Áine O’ Dwyer and Michael Tanner. Delicate notes of O’ Dwyer’s harp are the first sounds you hear, before a wave of church harmonium and strings provide a spectrum of ambient flourishes. The harp as the lead instrument is simply mesmerizing, as it meanders like a river flowing out to sea. Sublime indeed.

It is a real joy to see a music label like Second Language deliver such artistic gems, especially in this modern age of digital music. The independent label releases collectible new music by a wonderful international roster of hand-chosen artists (including Heather Woods Broderick, Piano Magic, Plinth, Mark Fry And The A. Lords) and not to mention their awe-inspiring compilations. The releases are often very limited editions with such time and dedication taken for every detail of the particular work of art to be realized. Each album is unique and holds a special significance that represents a specific space and time, far removed from the commercial mainstream. It is a fitting testament to Michael Tanner’s artistry that sees a wide range of his works home to this prestigious label. Plinth, The A. Lords are just a couple. The Cloisters represents the latest chapter. As mentioned above, it was through Mark Fry And The A. Lords that I was first introduced to Michael Tanner and one very beautiful album entitled ‘I Lived In Trees’. The vinyl album was released a couple of years ago on Second Language.

‘I Lived In Trees’ was an album that came some 39 years after the release of his cult-classic ‘Dreaming With Alice’ in the early 70’s. The album is a collaboration between Mark Fry and The A. Lords. This wonderfully named musical entity is Michael Tanner and Nicholas Palmer. ‘I Lived In Trees’ was given its wings when the pair would send Mark Fry (while at home in Normandy, France) some instrumental pieces they had recorded in Dorset. In the words of Mark Fry: “I very quickly heard how beautifully constructed it was, and what unusual arrangements they had-they ached of a lost England, beautiful and evocative pastoral landscapes-I soon became hooked.” The album itself is a true work of art and the songs have been a daily soundtrack for me since first purchasing the vinyl in my local record store a couple of years ago. Songs so beautiful and so true and touching. It’s not often that albums like this come around, breathing such meaning and truth. I know I will be revisiting ‘I Lived In Trees’ for the next 39 years and more.

It is amazing to look into the discography of Michael Tanner. The myriad of aliases and side-projects are staggering but it’s the high level of artistic quality attached to this output is what’s most endearing. These sonic ventures include Plinth, as part of the duo The A. Lords, United Bible Studies, Directorsound, and Taskerlands. I have yet to delve into some of these projects but I soon will. Music is an endless exploration and the songbook of Mr Tanner is precisely just that.

‘The Cloisters’ by The Cloisters is out now on Second Language Music.



Michael Tanner Interview. 

Congratulations Michael on your latest project, The Cloisters-a gorgeous collage of pastoral folk and cinematic soundscapes. It’s great to ask you a few questions about your music. Thanks for your time.

Thanks Mark. It’s had four years of lurking on various hard drives and shifting shapes prior to last November’s release.


What was the pre-cursor that led to the formation of The Cloisters?

There was no formation as such – the name merely reflects a more collaborative nature in the material, which is usually whittled away in private. When I first started my tape/CDr label in the late 90s, we listed a forthcoming release by The Cloisters, which promised to be modern classical quintet. I hadn’t recorded any material in that vein nor was I capable of doing so with just a primitive sampler, guitar and total lack of ability, so I don’t know what I was thinking. I vaguely recall wanting to invent a raft of bands for my label that didn’t actually exist…I love myth-making in music. But I suppose The Cloisters really festered away there at the back of my mind and this – 14 years later – is that album (sort of).


Please tell me about the beautiful artwork that graces the album’s sleeve?

Like most of my artwork, the images were sourced at various Dorset car boot sales. They were a series of slides found in a large mouldy box that housed over 30 years of images of a certain family taking various European holidays…mostly round the Alps and Germany.
I was pretty staggered to find them there, and the thought process that can go into letting a generation of your family history become a box of junk, yours for £2 or less if you fancy haggling.


The pieces of music were recorded and mixed between 2008 and 2012. Please give me an insight into this process and the ensemble of musicians that feature on the release? 

It just took a really long time and kept changing shape. It just happens sometimes. I wasn’t really sure what I wanted the album to be, which was a first for me. The contributions from Aine O’Dwyer (harp), Dan Merrill (Viola) Aaron Martin (Cello) and Hanna Tuulikki (harmonium) really helped shape it into a cohesive whole and define a much-needed structure to proceedings.


Is there a central theme that ties the pieces of music together?

As I mentioned this is the first record I’ve worked on without any strictly wound concept, something I normally have to enforce on myself to focus, otherwise my mind tends to uncontrollably wander. Two significant moments are the album’s opening – my cat Michu with several contact mics over her, purring away – and the outro, again, Michu coming down stairs to let out a plaintive mew after the final note on the record is played. That scheduling, if you will, happened unplanned. I liked that it bookended the record, gave it a consistent whole. She died unexpectedly as the album was being mastered and since then it’s been a tough listen for me, but as stupid as this sounds, I’ve had these crazy revisionist thoughts about the album. Hearing her content in that opening minute prior to a wall of bowed strings rising up…it sounds like death to me. Not in a goth-y/black hat kind of way, just the beginning of a journey, an afterlife. It makes her final meow at the end of the record take on this weird cyclical, metaphysical importance. I realise this makes me sound completely insane, but I can live with that.


I love the opening piece ‘Riverchrist’. There seems to be several sections within the composition itself. Can you talk through the construction of ‘Riverchrist’ please?

Normally I find dissecting the music making process either robs some of the magic from the playback or is only of interest to musos, so anyone reading this should feel free to skip this section! (But for the rest of you…)

The opening 8 or so minutes of Riverchrist were the first to be recorded. I remember it being a freezing March evening and I was toying around with bowing my 12 string guitar through a loop pedal. I was re-reading ‘Over Sea and Under Stone’ by Susan Cooper, and found myself switching between reading the chapters of the book on the couch and layering the next sound, with the previously recorded loop ringing out of the amp in the meanwhile. This slowed the whole music-making process down in a really interesting way, meaning that the next sound I overdubbed was very considered and couldn’t be too obtrusive. This bowed section gives way to Hanna, in Lullington church, playing the tiny harmonium. You can hear my wristwatch ticking as I’m holding the recorder, and again as I record the seagulls on the window ledges of the Brighton hotel I stayed in that evening. There’s a larger, disorientating section after this with strings, gongs and water-bowls prior to Dan’s wonderful Viola arrangements. He’d initially recorded these as an overdub for the opening 8 minutes of bowed guitar, but they were so evocative and bold that I wanted them to be heard without my ‘busy’ undertow. So I chopped them up, did some re-arranging and incorporated them into the larger body of the piece. I think his contributions gave a wonderful finality to proceedings.


You have an endless array of collaborations and projects ongoing from the likes of Plinth and United Bible Studies to The A. Lords, amongst many others.
What’s fascinating is the quality of this musical output. How do you maintain both the high quality and quantity of your music?

That’s a tricky one. For my involvement in those projects, I just have to feel like I’m excited and going into an insular little world. There has to be atmosphere. Each new project should have something novel or unique about it, rather than copying the moves of earlier releases. Normally it then needs to sit with me and my headphones for several months, and if it still sounds worthwhile after that litmus test, it gets released.


Discuss the A. Lords please – your wonderful collaboration with Nicholas Palmer, and the strong musical connection you both share?

Nick and I both spent our teenage years here in Dorset, frustrated by the lack of any local scene. I think I met him when he was 18/19 in a local indie nightclub. I was wearing a Palace Brothers T-shirt and I think he might have been sporting a mauve Labradford number, which sealed the deal. We exchanged tapes and got to become closer friends on his return from studying in London. I played various things in live incarnations of Directorsound for a few years and he made some wonderful additions to early Plinth music, so The A.Lords just seemed a natural extension of hanging out and music making. I think our early cassette material was really lo-fi, very abstract…at least until we saw the re-release of Wicker Man (2001?) which had a profound effect on both of us defining a folkier path ahead. We were already experimenting with recording outside, having miked up the roof of Nick’s parents bungalow to record overpassing planes. I think we were averaging a song a year until the self-titled album’s eventual release in 2011 – not a great batting average – but I think it’s a very personal record, one that’ll stay with us.


Can you discuss the concept behind ‘Music For Smalls Lighthouse’ please. This is an exceptional album and one of my favourite Plinth releases.

Thank you. It was just a story that evoked an almost overwhelming sense of atmosphere, and ticked all of my dark fetish boxes…The stench of death astride the abyssal sea – who could not love a story like that? When I was 10 I went on a trip to the Yorvik Viking Centre in the north of England – memorable for being my one school trip that didn’t end in near-death/disaster. The ‘Vikings’ were barely convincing models with balding beards made of thatch-y material and the whole experience would have been a naff write-off were it not for a sequestered tape machine looping insane environment sounds alongside the smells of ‘battle’ and ‘farming’. Aurally, It was completely overpowering in the presence of relatively poor mannequins. That over-compensation of sound really stayed with me and in hindsight, sowed the whole conceptual seeds of playing with a historical story and littering it with heavy thuds, thunder, heavy rainfall etc…I can still recall the waxworks with a shudder.


I would love to learn more about your musical background. What instruments did you begin to play first? 

I was a really late bloomer. I’m still not particularly adept at any one thing…I just hammer away at instruments and objects until they fit through the holes in my head. The sound source for the first Plinth recording was a sewage line that was running outside a friend’s house. I had a guitar in my house from the age of 15 but didn’t learn to tune it until I was almost 20. I’m ok with my inept playing style. I used to beat myself up about it, but equally there are aspects of astonishing acts of musical virtuosity that make me feel uncomfortable. And jealous. But mostly uncomfortable.


In what way does the English countryside influence your unique blend of music?

Well I’ve been chained by the ankle to it since birth, so there’s no way it could not effect not just my music, but certain attitudes and traits that are hard to beat out of myself. It’s a bit of a jaded love affair, to be honest. I vacillate between craving the culture and faces of city life and longing for the solitude the country offers. I’m told there’s an English-ness to my output, and I get that. It feels like a dirty word sometimes. I think it all stems from an intense craving for something/someplace that doesn’t really exist.


What albums are you listening to most these days?

I tend to go through phases whereby I get obsessed with one particular album and live inside it for a while. Most recently that’s been side A of ‘Sir John A Lot’ by John Renbourn, but before that it was a collection of Lassus’ psalms by the Hilliard Ensemble. Virginia Astley EPs. I like a Tame Impala song I heard on the internet. I also have an ongoing, slightly-debilitating and completely unhealthy obsession with the entire recorded output of England’s greatest dark knight, Mike Oldfield.


What is next for you Michael?

I have no idea. Musically, I feel everything needs to change but I’m not sure how. I’m becoming very suspicious of what is loosely termed ‘ambient/experimental’ music. I have an album of Vangelis synth-inspired pieces due on my friend Paul’s Fort Evil Fruit cassette label early in 2013 which should be quite different to my usual output. I’m recording the new Noa Babayof album at my home studio in Dorset over Christmas. Locally, I’m attempting to form the Bournemouth Improvisers Orchestra to get some of my latent live performing frustrations out for when I’m not playing with United Bible Studies. Other than that, the usual bollocks. Chart domination.


The self-titled album by The Cloisters is out now on Second Language Music.


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  1. […] – While I’m delving into interviews, there’s nice one with experimental/drone/folk musician Michael Tanner, of Plinth, United Bible Studies, The Cloisters and other projects here. […]

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