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Walking the Ley Lines: Identity, Sonic Universes, and Liquid Architecture with Bethany Ley words by Ed Holland

Photo by Giulia Spadafora

'Sundial' is the forthcoming EP from Bristol-based producer, vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Bethany Ley, released via Lo Recordings on 24th May 2024. You can listen to the record here; When Bethany Ley and I first discuss ley lines we are watching one of the most beautiful sunsets I’ve ever seen. Bethany Ley: It's not that ley lines are solely magical themselves, but the more you walk them- the more they’ve been tread throughout history- the more magical they become. You can inform the magic of things through ritual, through pilgrimage. At that moment we are on our own pilgrimage, on a long hazy walk along the Cornish coast, as fading burnt orange sunlight reflects off of rock pools and glistening seaweed. The path we are walking is its own sort of ley line, a path trodden many times, imbued with its own magic and memories: A final trip to Bethany’s childhood roots in Polzeath before their family home is packed away. The end of an old era and the start of a new one. Nestled in the crags of Cornwall where rolling hills give way to lichen-covered rocks and vibrant seaweed filled pools, Bethany’s creativity finds its perfect heartland. Their music is deeply embedded and intertwined into the natural landscapes from which they draw inspiration. Within Ley’s sonic universe, lush synth and strings encrust one another– like strata of dense crushing rock at one moment, layers of verdant undergrowth at another. Amongst all this, Bethany’s voice emerges like a natural denizen. In harmony with the instruments rather than dictating and working through them.

Sunset by Polzeath Rockpools

It’s a perfect environment to discuss Ley’s path as an artist at a point of change. For years Ley has released their music under the moniker STANLÆY, a nebulous alter-ego that straddled numerous projects and identities, and manifested as a virtuosic 4-piece ensemble. The most recent project under that name, the full length album the_everything_inbetween, was released in 2022 and has been described as “completely bewitching”. Now Bethany has embraced their own identity under the name Bethany Ley. The first project released under the new name was Suite for Solo Violin and Software Abuse in 2023, an experimental neo-classical work. This year sees the release of a new EP, a new era, and the full inauguration of Bethany Ley the artist. Liquid Architecture It's an era hitherto marked by a distinct sense of collaboration, new horizons, and possibilities. Whilst the performances under the STANLÆY ensemble were marked by their tight execution, technical prowess, and perfectly coordinated textures, this new cycle is marked by a sense of fluidity and polymorphism.

Bethany Ley and Moral Fibre live at Strange Brew 2024

These new directions were on full display at Ley’s recent set at Bristol’s Strange Brew- a duet with Bristol-based sampler and modular artist Moral Fibre. As Bethany starts their set, amongst the glow of samples pads and synthesisers, samples and vocal melody leak into each other, making the distinction between the two at times near impossible. Ley’s harp chords are sensitively placed onto each track before swirling into eddies of sound under Moral Fibre’s expert manipulation. Sections of song grow out of each other, often unpredictably, like branching strands of a mycelium, no end or beginning, instead multiple expressive iterations. Ley’s is a sound that is constantly undergoing change- in every moment crystallising and melting and re-crystallising. A sound that is, like its creator, ever-moving. EH: Have you felt like the music now... is it more surprising what's coming out now that it can go in any direction? BL: Yes… It leaves more space for improvising. I think the STANLÆY thing was much more song focussed, more consistently structured. This is a different thing. For instance, I’ve been working less with drums, and starting with more electronic... I guess sound design. It's not even beats necessarily, it’s like rhythmic elements made of whatever: field recordings, voices, instruments, or samples that I’ve designed. Which can then govern the rhythmic part of things. I love drums and percussion, and what artists can do with them, but I think sometimes it adds so much to have something quite loose and soft. It's still rhythmic, but yeah, with softer edges. Bethany tells me that their latest work has been heavily inspired and informed by research into acousmatics: music based on sounds whose source we do not see- noise that is freed up from its context, whose density, texture, and frequency occur to the listener divorced from an acoustic origin. It’s an approach to songwriting that starts with the texture or material of sound, rather than instruments. An approach that invites and rewards deep listening and engaged participation from the listener. BL: I think the thought of a sound having its own spatial awareness or having its own gravitational pull, its own air density. The thought of a sound existing like that, is very exciting to me. That it doesn't really exist in this realm, it exists in its own realm. And I think by using my own samples and sound design I can try and make something like a physical structure out of those sounds. EH: Is that how you are composing nowadays? Thinking of it as resembling a spatially constructed setting where you can place sounds? BL: Interesting… have you heard the phrase that sound is liquid architecture? When I first heard that, I related to it alot because I like the thought of building something which has integrity, but also looks beautiful. Sounds that you can go and be inside of, but it doesn't exist as a solid structure. It’s time based but I like to play around with it also being spatial. Sundials It is this sense of structural composition, this liquid architecture, that has manifested in the upcoming Sundials EP. This new collection of 5 tracks builds on the tight, technical work of STANLÆY to explore sonic terrain that is all the more enigmatic, elusive, intrepid. A chimeric melding of worlds, wherein the sounds of ritual bells and bird calls bring to mind half-remembered pixelated landscapes, a sprawling, texture-mapped utopia.

Sundial cover art by Bethany Ley & Alfie Dwyer

Where the songs of Ley’s previous works like the_everything_inbetween dazzled and blanketed the listener in layers of fluorescence, this new EP instead invites the listener inside, beckons them to explore a world that unfolds and reveals itself only if we are willing to explore it. BL: The whole EP actually stems from something I made that was 20 tracks long and it was an OST [original soundtrack] for a non-physical environment. It was a soundtrack for an imagined video game landscape that you could navigate.The direct concept was to make an audible construction of a world which you will never quite see all of. I played a lot of games as a kid. I still love that. The exploring of worlds. I love that moment in a game where you're just wandering around in an environment, the music is playing, and you don't really quite have an objective yet. There’s a million ways you could go, and a million things you could do, but they are yet to reveal themselves. Again, it's a very visual mode of thinking, it's an entire landscape you're building. Some of my favourite directors, Charlie Kaufman and Yorgos Lanthimos–they have such a clear aesthetic language and I relate to that. I find it inspiring and maybe deep down wish I was a director. I have directed but imagine making something of that scale, imagine having set design-I love the whole big picture of it. So I guess starting with a video game OST was my way of doing that in a way that I could right now. And then afterwards the concepts have changed to become like–I don't want to say spiritual, but of spirit-of something bigger than I can be. A trip around North India in 2023 brought a fresh set of influences to the project which materialised in the conceptual language that is spoken through Sundials: cycles, ritual, the phases of the day or seasons, pilgrimage and journey. Interspersing the EP are sounds from India: the chimes of ritual ceremonies, the songs of birds, the sounds of singing, all serving to pull the listener further into an existing, almost-tangible territory. It is these that welcome the listener into the environment of Sundials on the opening track Cycles Renew. BL: That song in particular holds a lot of poignancy. It’s right there in the title, the feeling of a new cycle beginning. The samples in that track have a lot to do with cycles and the rituals in India and I think I really connected with that. The sun ceremonies that happen every evening in Rishikesh- there are hundreds of ceremonies by the ganges. Some are really small, it might be one man who owns a shop who goes down on his own. Some are really big national ones. But they're very very ubiquitous between all of the people there. For first time listeners, the track is the perfect welcome into Ley’s artistic universe. Bethany’s unmistakable fluid singing voice is at all times in perfect balance with delicate harp playing and an immersive scape of field recordings. The result is a perfect sonority; a cooling, calming lacuna to rest in before progressing through the following tracks. As Cycles Renew closes, I find myself wanting to stay longer in the environment it conjures, to explore the glittering artefacts and denizens that populate the space. BL: The next track is called Back to Body. The visual space that this one explores is quite strong. Keeping with the gaming landscape metaphor-The main sample at the beginning is like barren purpley-grey mountainous landscape where you’re stumbling across crystals or minerals. That was the visual environment, and conceptually the song was about going back to your body–hence the name–but also heavily informed by Internal Family Systems and trying to bring everything back together; consolidating all of the different fragments and parts of ourselves. So I guess those two have kind of informed each other. I was writing about a movement of everything back to a centre. Where Cycles Renew invites us to rest, to take in the calm surroundings before moving on, Back to Body is a provocation to run or soar through Ley’s world. A pulsing, driving track thatwhen played live, fills the room. Here Bethany’s otherworldly sound design is on full display. Gamelan-like chimes pulse and ring with flittering, glitching harp. Bethany’s vocals are subsumed into the crackling, pounding beat and spit back out in fragments. It’s a track that–as the name entails–resounds throughout your whole body.

Sunset ceremony in India 2024 - Rishikesh

Stanhopea The Internal Family Systems Bethany is referring to is a psychological concept of self-work and self-understanding. The concept infers that within each of us there are many different parts, different selves. As these parts become more fragmented, more disparate and off-balance, we can start to feel less whole, less connected with our core identity. The goal of internal family systems is to try to re-connect these different parts of ourselves, to invite them back to a centreback to our body- in order to feel realigned and connected. It's a process that is perhaps synecdochical of the moment Bethany Ley is in right now. A return to self, a reforming and reclaiming of identity, a realigning of previously disparate parts. As Bethany and I talk, the topic of names comes up. They tell me how the long and uncertain process that led back to the name Bethany Ley was one of de-realisation, de-familiarisation, and eventually, of crucial reconstruction. EH: You created art under the name STANLÆY for around 6 years. Where did that name come from? BL: I’ll first explain what it was before that. When I was starting out, I remember really struggling to think of an artist name. In the past I really didn't want to use my name so I tried abstracting it to make something which was separate to me. So I came up with the name Stanhopea when I was living in Dublin and Paris. Stanhopea is a type of flower that only blooms one day a year. It kind of grows downwards instead of up. I liked the concept and aesthetics of it, but it didn't feel right. So when I moved back to England I made it STANLÆY because it was kind of off the back of Stanhopea and it was also kind of honouring my dad because he used to be called Stanley at school. I like the lineage and I also liked that it was its own entity. I used to think of it as having a body and I wanted to make some sort of cyborg body for it. There's loads of sketches of this little floating head thing. But none of that ever got released. EH: Was STANLÆY the floating head floating further and further away? BL: Yeah like a balloon. It became its own thing and solidified as itself which was natural, like a chemical bond. EH: Did you feel at some point that it had to change? BL: Yeah, definitely. Lockdown was definitely a big trigger because I really had to sit back and think, how am I spending my life? Over what? What am I happy to fail at? How can I be really honest in what I'm doing? And I felt like I wasn't being honest. EH: How did you end up back at Ley? BL: Ley is ultimately named after ley lines. I think it’s a nice way of constellating everything that I do. I often have felt quite fragmented, doing loads of different things. So it's a way of connecting the dots and I really like the concept of ley lines, the path between the monuments and the more you tread them the more magical they become, the more people have tread those lines. It's a nice image. And a constellation you can always add to as well, like a spider web. It feels limitless. The first material to be released under the freshly renewed re-embodied Bethany Ley was 2023’s Suite for Solo Violin and Software Abuse, released on Slow Worm Records. A gorgeous flourishing neo-classical suite featuring virtuoso violinist Kath Roberts. Inspired by gamelan music, avant-modernist composer Lou Harrison, and birdsong, it is a stunning piece of music that demonstrates Ley’s skills as a composer: at once pastoral and lush, juxtaposed with a jagged digital fragmentation. You can already get a glimpse into this world via the video for bloomdust (co-directed by long-time Ley collaborator Rob Ellis, and featuring dance and choreography by Ruth Marie Annie). The video is a perfect synaesthesia of Bethany’s sonic territories, as human and forest dance in harmony with each other, accompanied at all times by an otherworldly presence, a digital something that floats within the world.

Photo by Birte Carelse with additional art by Charlie Sherratt

EH: I want to ask about the suite. When you released it, it was something very different from STANLÆY. BL: Because ultimately, it needed to be Bethany Ley, I just didn't know how to detach it from the STANLÆY identity. EH: Musically, do you view it differently to how you've been working on Sundials? BL: Yes, in a few ways… the Sundials EP feels like a big game environment which I’ve extracted little bits of. Whereas I feel like the suite started as a seed, and that seed grew into a thing of its own. Obviously I was watering it and tending it, but it really grew out of a melody that I wrote. My plan was to get lots of people to play that melody on different instruments, and then I was going to stitch together all the pieces and harmonics to make my own instrument. That was the idea. That was the seed. I took the recordings, took out the harmonics, put it into a file, and then I just needed to take a step back. I sat back in my chair and realised, actually no, this needs to be a violin suite that's inspired by gamelan and bird song. I heard the melody, on its own, and the whole project and its influences were visible from there. Lou Harrison and Gamelan degung were enormous influences. Delia Derbyshire and Daphne Auram also. I intended to play around with the juxtaposition of classical sounds and the sounds of the software. I like that parallelism. I like the harshness that they can sometimes have together. EH: One of your first instruments was the viola, you are very familiar with the nuances of the instrument. Do you think you were particularly drawn back to solo strings as a sound in this project? BL: I feel like I always come back to the strings. They never leave. I love writing for strings so in this project having the opportunity to work with Kath [Roberts] was perfect. I think I proposed it to her before I even started scoring the parts. I asked would you be up for it? And once Kath said yes, I went in hard, because I knew I could make exactly what I wanted to make.. Being able to compose for a specific player who is very capable, an exceptional interpreter, an exceptional musician, that's very nice. Kath's able to handle anything I throw at her. It’s an amazing contrast between the sounds of the amorphous otherness of the synths and the more natural, grounded violin. Having been present for the continual evolution of Bethany’s artistic process, the suite feels to me like a culmination of old and new Ley: a hybrid of the ever-curious digital experimentations in synchrony with Bethany’s roots as a viola player, drawing on the folk traditions of the British Isles and Ireland.

Photo by Giulia Spadafora

The Body of Ley It’s an exciting time to be a fan of Bethany Ley, with an entirely new world of cyclical ritual on the Sundials EP, and a back catalogue of shining gems under the STANLÆY era. Catching their live set has never felt more unpredictable and vital. The ongoing evolution of Bethany Ley continues with fresh energy, momentum, and a renewed sense of identity. BL: There's this documentary I think about. There’s a lady, I think she's travelling a pilgrimage around Tibet and going to monuments of significance. And in that culture the pilgrimage lines make a shape like a body- one monument is the head, one’s the arm, one’s the leg. And I like that idea, the different kinds of buildings and parts of the constellations being like a different limb or something which has its own function. EH: Is that how you see all the different things you do? BL: I've not thought of it like that before but it could be a nice lens to view it. EH: The body of Ley. Where would your music be on that body? BL: I don't know... I think it would be the feet. Because for me it feels grounding, making, but it also feels like movement and physical steps. The body of Ley- an artist fully embodied- with music as its feet, walking the magic into the ley lines.


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