Do you like mysteries?
Deep in the Sussex Downs lays the white outline of a figure. Expressionless, the figure clasps a pole in each hand and “looks naked toward the shires” (Kipling, 1902).
Taller than the Statue of Liberty, no-one knows exactly how old the figure is, or even who created it, and just who or what the figure represents has been cause for discussion for hundreds of years.
What is the mystery of the Long Man of Wilmington?
Originally cut into the smooth turf on the hillside, the Giant is located on a curiously flat area of hillside, at an angle that seldom catches direct sunlight.
It bears many similarities to the Cerne Abbas Giant (though is much larger than his Dorset cousin), though its age is far more questionable. Is it a Roman signpost, an Anglo-Saxon representation of Beowulf or, slightly more sinister, a site of human sacrifice? Interestingly, little folklore exists today about the figure. The earliest sketch of it only dates to 1710 though it is widely accepted as being significantly older. Around the figure’s head are prehistoric tumuli and an impressive long barrow, said to be the burial chamber of the giant itself.
“And the great Long Man of Wilmington gleams white against the green of whale-backed hills that stretch and bend with the marshes in between, and the winds are singing stories of a long-forgotten day, when the Downs were red at Senlac where the Saxon leader lay”. G. D. Martineau, 1924.
What is the Giant’s relevance today?
What interests me is the way in which we, in the 21st Century, relate to such an archaeological phenomenon. It is clear that the figure still means a great deal to us today, from the Pagan and archaeological communities, to the local population, and the many tourists who visit him each year. He has inspired numerous artists and poets over the years, but there is a distinct lack of musical responses.
Photo: Members of the Kibbo Kift on Windover Hill in 1929.
What am I writing?
I am writing a major new piece of music for chamber choir, soloist, and instrumental ensemble, which will explore the Wilmington Giant through a variety of historical and contemporary texts.
You will notice that I am purposefully not calling the giant a ‘he’. The figure lacks the manhood which graces the Cerne Giant and has therefore inspired debate about which sex it is. With gender-politics increasingly significant in our society, I am keen to include the debate in my music and will therefore score the soloist for the range of either a counter-tenor (male) or alto (female) voice. This goes some length to neutralise the obvious difference between male and female voice ranges and allows the performers to choose the type of soloist themselves. It will also affect the audience’s experience of the music while highlighting the question of the Giant’s sex.
The soloist will sing texts written predominantly from the 20th and 21st Century that link directly with the South Downs, Sussex, and the Long Man of Wilmington. They should represent contemporary feelings towards the Giant and the significance in which we hold it.
The choir will sing texts that explore the Giant’s place in history, set him in his landscape, and present some of the myths that may explain his creation. The accompanying 16 instrumentalists (in the style of a chamber orchestra), will be the glue that binds the choir with the soloist.
“We half ran, half walked in a sort of staggery way down the front, the very front, of the Long Man. I went down his left leg and my sister went down his right one, but we never trod on his face part. There wasn’t a face really, just the outline, but it felt rather rotten to do that”. Dirk Bogarde, Great Meadow, 1930.
How can you help?
While composing, I am also raising the profile of the project through social media (Twitter & Instagram) and raising money to help pay for the completion of the work, the printing of performers' scores, and the first performance. I already have offers from choirs and musicians who are asking to perform it, but I would like to be able to facilitate the first performance(s) so there is no cost to the musicians involved.
Specifically, I am looking to fund:
· My writing and editing process
· Printing/publishing of vocal and orchestral scores
· Venue hire for the first, and maybe second, performance
· Financing an orchestra of 16 musicians
· The printing of the concert programme
· A marketing campaign, including posters/flyers, local advertising, social media boosts.
What will be your reward?
I have collated a variety of attractive rewards for financial backers of my project which I hope will interest you; from souvenir hand-stamped copper tokens, to signed extracts of the score; from specially commissioned postcards, to having your own piece of music commissioned!
The greatest reward, however, has to be the knowledge that you are supporting the arts and, more significantly, the work of a contemporary composer who is creating a brand new piece of music, based on a local theme which has deep meaning to so many people, that will be rehearsed, performed, and enjoyed by choirs and audiences for years to come.
What else has happened so far?
· My twitter and instagram accounts for the project has been inundated with interest from all over the world and have already hosted many discussions regarding the role of the Long Man
· In early February 2019, I was featured by BBC Sussex & Surrey on their Sunday breakfast programme, discussing this project
· A logo for the project has been professionally designed by Studio Polpetto which is already being used as a core part of the project’s branding
· This project has been featured on Carolyn Trant’s art blog
· A venue has already been chosen for the first performance in Sussex, and a local Chamber Choir has agreed to programme the piece in a concert of Frank Bridge and Ruth Gipps (fellow Sussex composers).
· A limited-edition postcard has been specially commissioned by a local Sussex artist of the Wilmington Giant. Copies of this will be given as a reward to financial backers of the project.
Author of ‘The Wilmington Giant; The Quest For a Lost Myth’ (Turnstone Press, 2012), Rodney Castledon, has also been a positive influence to my research, as have the people and products of the nearby Long Man Brewery (Director, Duncan Ellis). Assistance has also come from across the archaeological and artistic community, including Martin Brown, Lisa Westcott Wilkins, Justin Hopper (author of ‘The Old Weird Albion’, Penned in the Margins, 2017), Carolyn Trant (former artist in residence on the Downs), Diane Nevill (estate of folksinger, Maria Cunningham), Chris Hilton (Britten-Pears Foundation), Amy Bebbington, Stuart White, the Royal College of Music, and The Keep Archives.
"Practise Trio from 9.30 - 11.30. We all picnic at Wilmington at David (giant) for lunch". Extract from Benjamin Britten's diary, 23rd July, 1932 describing a picnic with fellow composer, Frank Bridge (pictured below).
What are the specific aims of the project?
· Inspire creative and artistic interpretation of an archaeological phenomenon
· Evoke relationships with the Wilmington Giant through examining its place in our social history
· Contribute to the genre of contemporary classical music with a piece of music promoting strong themes of time and place
· Explore the role of myth in explaining the Wilmington Giant through music
· Draw on current social themes by considering the sex of the Wilmington Giant through the musical setting of texts
· Enhance the reputation of the Wilmington Giant beyond those in its locality and the archaeological community
· Educate audiences through the setting of a wide variety of ancient and contemporary texts
· Contribute to the artistic responses of the Wilmington Giant.
Why will this project be a success?
My own experiences as a choral composer ensure that I have the ability to create a beautifully original piece of music that engages with an audience. Previous works of mine have featured at the Edinburgh Fringe, London’s Royal Festival Hall, and in churches and cathedrals across the UK and Europe. This unique project has already caught the imagination of many and is inspiring discussion and debate, which is entirely my intention. With your help and support, this exciting project could expand and develop further. The possibilities for creative tie-ins and collaborations are endless.
“A fascinating and tremendously worthwhile project”. Rodney Castledon, author of ‘The Wilmington Giant’, Turnstone Press, 2012.
Please take the time to support this project if you can, and please follow @OnWindoverHill on both twitter and instagram to join in the debates and engage with my fascinating and unique research. Thank you!