Last August, I arrived with my family on Ascension Island. Ascension is a small island, roughly the size of Benbecula, sitting alone in the middle of the South Atlantic Ocean. Its nearest neighbour, St Helena, is about 800 miles away to the south east while the coasts of Brazil and west Africa lie over 1,400 and 1,000 miles away respectively
The story of how we as a family ended up here can be found in issue 99 of Piping Today, along with an introduction to the book, Ascension Method that I’m writing whilst here. Ascension Method is an approach to understanding and playing my Lindsay System Scottish smallpipe chanter, the open-source plans for which can be found in issue 97 of the same magazine, and I’m planning for it to be completed by July 2021.
This blog, the first of three for BagpipeNews, will follow the progress of my son, Ryall and me as we work on Mars Bay, an album of original music, written and recorded on Ascension and inspired in parts by the island and its story. The title refers to a bay on the southern coast of the island, which is named for the work carried out there by the Scottish Victorian astronomers, David and Isobel Gill. The Gills spent six months camped out amongst the jagged volcanic clinker at Mars Bay in 1877, making pioneering use of a heliometer to obtain an accurate measurement of the distance between the earth and Mars. Isobel’s account of the adventure, Six Months in Ascension, an Unscientific Account of a Scientific Expedition, is one of the books we read and enjoyed as we prepared ourselves for the trip to the island last summer, and one of the few books of any kind that describe life here. As you’d expect though, nothing really prepares you for this kind of experience.
Known to many in the armed forces, including friends of ours who briefed us about it before we left, Ascension is widely reputed to be a bleak, dry, recently volcanic desert island. One early explorer described it as, “The Abomination of Desolation”. At least one castaway is known to have died here in the 1700s without any hope of rescue, leading one of the island’s beautiful coral-sand beaches to bear the sinister title of Deadman’s Beach. Parts of the island’s landscape have been compared to the surface of Mars, others to the surface of the moon, and despite a recent greening of the island (mainly brought about by the introduction of Mesquite trees in the 1960s) the reasons for these comparisons are still easy to see in many places.
By contrast, the central peak of Green Mountain is cloaked in tropical forest, much of it planted during the mid to late 1800s in an experiment devised by botanist Joseph Hooker, encouraged by Charles Darwin who visited the island on the second Beagle voyage in 1836. ‘Letterbox’ walks (the island’s mini equivalent of Scotland’s Munro bagging) traverse the mountain, taking the walker from stands of Norfolk Pines or Evergreen Oaks through groves of ginger, guava and banana, and under great ficus trees with strange dangling aerial roots, to the bamboo forest around the Dew Pond at the peak of the mountain. A 100 yard walk in any direction on the mountain can appear to transport you to a different island altogether, while a different species of walk (also on the Letterbox list) wind their way through the weird lunar desert of the Devil’s Riding School or across the red mars-like slopes of Sister’s Peak, both only a five-minute drive from the mountain, and which could easily pass for the surface of an alien world.
There are two small villages on the island, Georgetown by the coast, and Two Boats, which is at the foot of Green Mountain. Both house around 200 people, and by avoiding these and the military installations it’s possible for the piper to enjoy a free blow on the highland pipes more or less anywhere else without fear of disturbing ears unfamiliar to the instrument. The only catch is the heat – not really a problem between August when we arrived and November, during which time the climate was more or less like the better parts of a very warm Scottish summer, but increasingly impossible as the Ascension summer began in December, with temperatures rising daily above 35˚C, and a merciless tropical sun beating down on the piper’s head and shoulders. Thankfully, on January 25th – and with the newly arrived RAF base commander, John ‘Kano’ Kane and his new chief of staff, Graham Tyre both being Scots – my services were sought for piping in the haggis. In exchange, I was granted the use of an air-conditioned unit on the ‘Airhead’, where regular practice on the big pipes is now able to continue throughout the southern summer in relative comfort.
In addition to finding safe haven from the relentless sun, our challenges in preparing to record Mars Bay here include finding appropriate ‘studios’ for recording the smallpipes, which will be the lead instrument for most of the tracks on the album. Our equipment list is relatively short in sound engineering terms, including two good quality microphones, a TASCAM DR-100 for field recordings, Ryall’s PC with FL Studio installed, and our instruments – my 3D-printed Lindsay System smallpipes and Qwistles, and Ryall’s Roland TD-25 drum kit, electric bass and guitar. Only the smallpipes and whistles will need recorded via microphone. Measures can probably be taken to ensure a ‘dry’ recording in the house. However, for a bit more fun, interesting sounds could be had from the 19th century powder magazines beneath Fort Hayes, Fort Thornton, and the guns on Cross Hill, as well as within ‘lava tubes’ including Command Cave, Bat Cave (although this is difficult to access) and Bird Cave. We’ll also try recording in the open air, and there are plenty of deserted places on the island suitable for this, providing we can screen out wind noise from the ever-present trade winds.
Wildlife, particularly the Wideawake birds which are nesting in their tens of thousands on the southern slopes of the island (many around the path that leads down to Mars Bay), have already provided an influence on the music we’re composing, so we’ll be looking for the best way to record their calls in the wild without disturbing them or venturing too near their nests, where we’d be likely get pecked to bits in a scene worthy of Alfred Hitchcock, before landing ourselves in a heap of trouble with the conservation team.
While we refine our recording techniques, we’ll also be making a thorough exploration of some of the wilder and less easily accessible parts of the island. We’ve set ourselves a challenge to walk all 43 Letterbox walks by July, in preparation for an attempt on Scotland’s West Highland Way in August, and as we do we’re planning to play and improvise a bit in some of these remote spots. These improvisations will shape the content of the finished album, and where we can we’ll be recording snippets of them, which will be posted to our social media pages (search ‘Donald WG Lindsay & Ryall Lindsay’ on Facebook and Twitter if you’d like to keep up with this). We’ll be inviting some of the other musicians who’ll be involved in the album to contribute and respond to these improvisations, and hope in this way for the album to come together in a more ‘sociable’ way than you might have thought possible when working in such a remote location!
Unfortunately, the age of high-speed low cost broadband seems to be passing Ascension by. The Internet is best used between the hours of midnight and 06:00, when bandwidth is free (although still very slow and unreliable), while daytime use is limited to a paltry 4GB monthly allowance. Dropbox uploads can take some time, and video in particular can take all night! Videos will therefore be very short, most likely between 10 to no more than about 25 seconds. The ideas shared in these snippets will be short and mostly abstract, and replies to any comments you make might take a day or two to arrive!
Despite its short history, there are plenty more stories to relate about Ascension. One or two will certainly find their way into future blogs and articles. For readers looking to learn more about this fascinating and unique place, we’d recommend the following books:
• Ascension – the Story of a South Atlantic Island (Duff Hart-Davis);
• St Helena and Ascension – a Natural History (Philip and Myrtle Ashmole);
• Wideawake Island – the Story of the B.O.U. Centenary Expedition to Ascension (Dr Bernard Stonehouse);
• Six Months in Ascension, an Unscientific Account of a Scientific Expedition (Isobel Gill);
• The Devils Ashpit and other Tales of Ascension Island (Dan Kovalchik);
• Island Base–- Ascension Island in the Falklands War (Captain Bob McQueen).