came home a swan: a review of william wright’s 'Salt Mass: A Hookland Suite'

If one checks out the assorted works of william wright, they would notice a theme. Senryu, his longest standing act, founded in 2000, had a digital presence housed at a website named senryumagic.com. Weird Miracle and Family Psychic have a kind of spooky esoterica that pervades the essence of each act and transcends the genres that wright’s career has fanned out across. LiL iFFy is woven through the wizarding world that Harry Potter resides in. Even Peak Physique has a strange, erotic magic at the core where wright and his most prominent collaborator, Matt Honkonen, often dress alike and work diligently to be seen as one entity suspended in fog and bright lights. 

Consequently, it is not difficult to imagine that, despite what feels like a heavy pivot away from the melange of styles and vehicles for these toward an unlikely weighty and cerebral neoclassical composition, wright would still hold that overarching theme as his guiding principle. Salt Mass: A Hookland Suite explores the psychogeography of Hookland, an alternate history and culture created by David Southwell. He pulls from an emotional topography steeped in English folk magic, the scars the land contain, and a look into the wild imagination run through the wood chipper of 70’s era childhood memories the island and its steep and craggy cliffs hold for Southwell, and, in turn, wright who translates these out to the listener.

Here, we find wright in his element, as he said in an interview with KMW. “From my earliest memories, I’ve always been drawn to ghostly folklore, and Hookland is drenched in it. The commitment to giving the landscapes and townships center stage, while still weaving in this dark, mystical web of legends and rituals just immediately set my heart on fire. Salt Mass is my love letter to the shadowy, bruised coast of Hookland. I love ghosts, I love the ocean, and I love storytelling.” wright’s love letter starts with the sensation of salt water and the feeling of place on “The Black Windmill” and the gossamer glide of ghostly keys played through the rocky coast of violins, the whole of the first movement shrouded in a light gray and ever dismal overcast sky. 

As the journey with Southwell and wright continues, the listener is introduced to a reimagining of “Ave Maris Stella,” or the “Hymn to the Star of the Sea” which manages to capture the ethereal beauty and haunting voices within the text without sliding into a rote recitation of this prayer from sailors for safe passage to the Patroness of the Ocean, St. Bridget. “The Blessing of the Boats” becomes more hopeful and the busy actions of individuals getting ready for a celebration is heard here with serious undertones where the sacred and holy weave in and out of the joyful through tempo and the dialogue of various keys and strings. The end of the track has the listener poised to stand along the docks and hear the benediction of the Salt Mass itself.

The final two movements, “Swans Coming Ashore” and “The Wedding of the Fathom Brides” pay homage to the mythos of Spitstone whereby the souls of dead sailors and fishermen are transformed into swans, which are plentiful in the port town and held in high esteem, much like the cows of Hindu India. The meatiest and most striking part of the suite is “The Wedding of the Fathom Brides” which takes place on June 29th. It is no mistake that wright and Gezellig Records, his label, released the Suites on the eve of this event. wright commented of these movements, “You’re on your way to sour ground that I stir into my Twinnings. You’re heading out into Ghost Soil where I robbed my own watery grave, and came home a Swan. Being dead or alive isn’t of consequence. It’s about being home.” The sense of place hits like a wave breaking on shore for the pair of girls being paraded through an anticipatory and heavy salt air, only to be left waiting in wedding dresses, waiting for their yearly marriage to the King-Under-the-Sea. 

Despite the solitary nature of composition, in a peculiar twist, wright has “open[ed] the door to far more collaboration than anything I’ve done before, at the point of execution. There’s room for all the familiar characters, but also room for all my other musical friends who made no sense in my other paths of action.” The simpatico between Southwell and wright was part of what drove the work to be as vibrant and hold as much space for the locale to unfurl in the mind’s eye of the listener. Other collaborators who have started to shine through in this new exploratory phase for wright may sound familiar to the fans of his iFFy project - Jordan Noel and Jacob Dean - but new arenas such as Theatre Knoxville, where wright will be a composer in residence this upcoming season, and the Scruffy City Music and Film Festival have appeared as venue for this songwriter and storyteller.

He recommends that to truly understand the piece, one should engage the Hookland work, but it’s “Impossible to say what order is best.  I think it’s different for everybody.  But I definitely think a stroll through the county is important. And a visit to Spitstone, the cold little port of my heart, especially.” Salt Mass: A Hookland Suite reveals that at every twist and turn. Somehow, in the magic of another man’s envisioning of his native soil, haunted by the shadow of tide and time, wright has, after excavating his own watery grave, found a way home.

“I know my heart is in every note and decision, so whatever folks hear in it is me, now.  Even if it’s a treacherous path back to me, then.”

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