Gwenno Le Kov

[Heavenly; 2018]

Styles: Armoricofuturism
Others: The Belbury Poly, Cate Le Bon, Broadcast, Susan Cooper, Super Furry Animals

And the ringing wires resound;
And the unearthly lovely weep,
In lament of the music they make
In the sullen courts of sleep…

On that note, let us whistle for Lyonesse. But first, a little history: Armorica was a fifth- and sixth-century society that spanned Western England (including Wales and Cornwall), modern-day Brittany, and Galicia. This, or somewhere under the waves surrounding it, is the location of former Pipette Gwenno Saunder’s Le Kov, the “place of memory,” a drowned city both utopia and apocalypse — where, as on her titular album, Cornish is the lingua franca.

In Brexit Britain, the borders of colonies are once again becoming vital matters, and the UK government withdrew funding for Cornish language in 2016. While Saunders is not Cornish born, her father is a Cornish language poet, and she grew up speaking the language (along with Welsh, the tongue of her last album, Y Dydd Olaf).

In this context, place has become a subject of exploration by British artists from Forest Swords to Paul Kingsnorth. And they have a vexed relationship to nationalism: Kingsnorth (founder of the Dark Mountain radical environmentalist project) is also a Leaver, and an author whose 2014 novel The Wake reworked language in a nativist anticolonialism with a long memory — one that begins with rejection of the Normans.

Saunders is more cosmopolitan in her nostalgia and has a lighter touch, less sonically anguished though treating matters of equal importance. And they are matters of importance — Brexit has inspired both fantasies of flight and fears that the nation state is no longer safe (for those who reject nativist politics and for non-citizens finding themselves spiralling into the realm of the excluded abject).

Here, Le Kov (sister to Lyonesse, to Ys) is both a city of refuge as well as a Noah’s Flood (where the Ark holds two of each cheese), a Sodom and Gomorrah fantasy of destruction:

A land of old upheaven from the abyss
By fire, to sink into the abyss again;
Where fragments of forgotten peoples dwelt.

That is to say, there’s a vexation here between creation and destruction, the urge to rebuild and the urge to break — one that mirrors the tension between the anti-colonialist nationalisms of Scotland, Ireland, Wales, or Cornwall, and the nationalism of Imperialist powers. As Saunders puts it, “If you’re from a dominant culture, nationalism means something very different than if you’re from a dominated culture.” She’s making space for the stories of those who didn’t win, for different stories (“Hy a skoellyas lyf a dhagrow,” by way of Aphex Twin). These smaller nationalisms are a kind of anticolonialism après la lettre, a way to understand how a white history and culture can be a source of resistance and subversion of hegemony.

It’s a kind of Leftist seasteading, an Anglo-d Drexciya sent back across the Atlantic (where the waves weep with the echoes of the Triangular Trade), a pirate utopia for the Pirates of Penzance. An Atlantis where, as the historiographers of nationalism did, “you gotta make something out of nothing.”

Meanwhile, in the “real world” (such as it is, and such as its reality is), imperialist nationalism looks to the imagined past — to a merrie olde England “without immigrants,” to a populism that combines Keynesian government with cultural homogeneity. In this lens, the future looks a lot like the past, only with computers. Indeed, “Jynn-amontya,” a love(-hate) ode to the computer, evokes this ambivalent relationship with futurity.

But Le Kov breaks the surface to reveal a utopia that is anti-consumeristic (“Den heb Taves”) and anti-monocultural, where children can sleep without fear (“Hunros”). If linguistic nationalism had escaped its exclusionary shadow side, if cultural exchange had not been conditional upon the geographic distribution of economic inequality, this would be the future.

Feminism, always an important theme for Saunders, is also a utopian concern, and here Saunders is both the Lady of the Lake — emerging from the water as she does on the album’s cover — and Lady Lyonesse (Lioness) herself, willing to flout the repressive conventions of the era.

For Cornwall is Camelot territory. But this is a Gernsback Continuum Camelot. Arthur, “the once and future king” (the retrofuturistic king) rules over a “Lyonesse that still can be.”

Fittingly, then, the album combines Ghost Box psychedelia with synthpop and motorik, sounds quarried from the Ding Dong Mines. “Tir ha Mor” is a highlight, the sound of pale British sun shimmering on broken glass. The song is inspired by Peter Lanyon, Cornish painter of abstract landscapes, who died in a gliding accident. It’s a tale of the land viewed from above, as the technology of flight first allowed — a melding of the organic and technological in experience, fraught with its own perils — a kind of rural J. G. Ballard (namechecked as an influence on “Den heb Taves”), which is a dystopian paradox in and of itself. Elsewhere, the loping rhythms of “Daromres y’n Howl” mimic the crawling cars of a Cornwall tourist summer, conjuring a Jetsons traffic jam alongside the childhood smell of hot vinyl seats and the prickle of pebbly beaches.

Le Kov is not as cold as Y Dydd Olaf (which was based on a decades-old Welsh sci fi novel) — it’s less machinic and more organic, less 80s and more 70s. As such, it wavers a little, particularly in its second half, where the feel is a little too warmly indistinct, too hazy. The coldness here is the absence of God flagged in Sylvia Plath’s “Lyonesse” — an absence that resounds through modernity, where it is replaced by the religion of nationalism and postmodernity, where the Catherine-wheeling iterations of the fragmented self (including, of course, ethnic identities) become the prime locus of meaning.

Le Kov, then, is A. S. Byatt’s Possession in album form — a postmodern rumination on authenticity, desire, and landscape intertwined with the myths and reality of Brittany.

Of course, such utopias are always fantasies — “there’ll be no accusations, just friendly crustaceans” — precisely as Arthur himself is a fantasy, as the drowned city is a fantasy. We’re told we can hear the bells at low tide, but we never quite make them out. In the era of climate change, with water constantly lapping at our heels, being overtaken by the sea may well be our fate (at least, those of us outside of the elites), life under the sea our only possibility. As the Dark Mountaineers realized, we’re in an impossible predicament.

Yet in Saunders’s Aremorika, the impossible is always close by. “A man could fall down a well and find himself in a summer land of apples. Or catch a fish-hook on the bell tower of a drowned church in another country.”

Here we are, at Land’s End, our tour guide Gwenno as droll teller. Will we wet our toes in the waves?

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