Looking at the pursuit of abundance in dairy farming, the story-threads we’re tracing in Cowgirl Parlour go way back…. The image with raised arms/horns ending in stars that you see on the Cowgirl Parlour website is from a clay palette over 5,000 years old, showing a celestial Cow Mother. Last week, we were visiting locations for our first five dates in July and two of the sites have their own links to old stories about milk and abundance. Both Skenfrith in Monmouthshire and Bridstow in Herefordshire are linked to Sant Ffraid /Saint Brigit, who had special care of cattle and the dairy – and earlier still to the great goddess Brigid, Braint, honoured as the source of abundance and fertility. As we explore the practical application of genetic modern dairy genetics and other procedures to maximise milk yield we are in some ways discovering an ancient song in a new guise.
n.b. Cowgirl Parlour installation will be open every day of Ledbury Poetry Festival 3-12th July – we plan to be out and about at sites in Garway, Skenfrith, Bridstow and Canon Frome for the first five days of the Festival, and in Ledbury town centre from 8th-12th. Full details will be published online and in the printed Festival programme in the Spring.
As January came to a chilly close we were out doing some field recordings – or barn recordings, as the cows are still in their winter quarters. In past years musicians have been called in to play to cows in various investigative projects aiming to increase milk yield. There is a particularly arresting photo of an all-woman vaudeville band in the 1930’s playing trombones to the herd in a dairy barn in Wisonsin. But Sianed Jones, the composer on CowGirl Parlour, wanted to see for herself not only how cows responded to her singing and playing, but to listen in turn for the rhythms of their breathing, chewing, the sounds of miking and the strange beats and melodies of cattle… Below are some of Sianed’s notes on the day.
“There are two hand-milked cows, Peggy and her daughter Snowdrop, at Canon Frome Court, which was our first stop. Normally the morning milkers Erica and Ann would have been chatting away non-stop about this and that but because of the presence of the microphone there were some silences whilst we recorded the rhythm of the milk going into the bucket and the sound of them chewing the cud, breathing and snorting. The cows were taken back to the barn and given a barrow load of freshly picked greens which they attacked with enthusiasm, great crunching noises and ripping of leaves.
I chose to play a bass viol da gamba because I thought the cows might be more responsive to lower tonalities especially the bass notes and drone- like sounds. I tried a few high vocal sounds but it did not feel quite right to be fast or to be high. I tried some plucking riffs on the bass and some slow melodies almost blues like.
I had a little camping chair I placed in different places. Snowdrop was more curious than her mother, and watched and listened at the fence for a good while before eventually turning away…
Later that day we moved on to Cropthorne Farm, which has a herd of 120 dairy cows. Perched on an upturned breezeblock, I played the viol again, and sang. A few of the younger cows wandered up to get a closer look, scratching themselves on the gate or sniffing around the wall but also listening. One even had a ‘moo’ almost the same pitch as my bottom string. We moved further inside the shed to where there were younger cows and a magnificent red and white bull who I had a lovely duet with at one point with the cows all lined up by the fence to see what was going on.
Once the cows are back out in the pasture in the spring I will be able to try out my calling songs and learn some calling sounds. I’m sure that the sounds that come to me outdoors will be completely different to the ones from inside the cowshed. I’m looking forward to hearing the recordings so far.” Sianed Jones, Composer, CowGirl Parlour.
I spent the last few months of 2014 researching in fields, milking parlours, cowsheds, libraries and beside mountain lakes where magical herds have appeared and disappeared. I’ve mulled over the details of rotary and herringbone parlours, semen catalogues, auroch skeletons and milk vestiges on 6,000 year old pots. It has been a truly fascinating process, and I feel I could carry on indefinitely – but now it’s all systems go to bring our CowGirl Parlour project from research to manifest reality!
It’s certainly a challenge. There is a script to be finished for the live performance as well as for the sound installation, there is music to compose, there are cows, farmers, vets, artists and scientists to record, and there is a 1972 Carlight Casalette caravan to transform into a performance installation/library/gallery/pop-up ice cream parlour. All needing to be ready for a first meeting with the public at Ledbury Poetry Festival in July…. So, please watch this space. Between now and July there will be regular updates as we progress, so you can meet the project team and find out how we’re getting on.
Christine Watkins, Project Initiator and Lead Artist.