Mortality Tables

Mortality Tables is a collaborative project founded by occasional Pooleyville contributor and MK resident Mat Smith. The most recent Mortality Tables Product, ‘On Mortality, Immortality & Charles Ives’, comprised spoken word with sound accompaniment from Erasure’s Vince Clarke and anonymous artist venoztks. Pooleyville asked Mat to talk us through the ethos of the project, as well as bringing you an exclusive first look at a short film to accompany ‘On Mortality….’, directed by filmmaker Marco Porsia.

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Mat Smith is a Milton Keynes music writer for Electronic Sound, Clash, Further. and Documentary Evidence. Mat has written sleevenotes for Mute, Cherry Red, BMG and Our Silent Canvas. He lives in Woburn Sands with his wife, two daughters, four cats and too many records.

I have conceded that I have limited creative skills

I write about music, but I don’t think of that as a creative skill: I simply document what I hear and how it makes me feel. I’m not a trained writer and I have a limited vocabulary. I call it ‘naïve writing’.

Even if I’m not especially creative, however, I do still come up with lots of ideas. And I seem to have accumulated a lot of contacts in many different fields through writing about music. Mortality Tables is about pairing the ideas with the people who can turn them into something tangible.

Mortality Tables was formed in the Fork Deli on Marchmont Street, Bloomsbury on 12 November 2019.

That day, I happened to have a navy blue Institute & Faculty Of Actuaries tote bag with me. I’d been given it at my day job and I’d taken it along to a breakfast interview with a friend who runs a cassette label. I knew he was going to give me copies of some recent releases, and it was the first bag I laid my hands on as I left Milton Keynes that morning.

As we finished the interview and I put the tapes and LP in the bag, my friend pointed at the bag and its Latin inscription – e peritia ratio – and asked me what it meant. I shrugged and said, “I don’t know – it’s something to do with insurance. It’s all mortality tables and shit like that.”

The name stuck. He and I began creating our first Mortality Tables Product that morning. It’s called FORKTALK. It’s a conversation between the two of us, and something that’s only ever selectively documented. The conversation sometimes happens at Fork, but very often doesn’t. We gave it the catalogue number MTP0.

The first Mortality Tables Product to emerge officially (whatever that means) was ‘Two Meditations For Freya’, earlier this year. The concept came to me while my youngest daughter was experiencing a period of anxiety and sleeplessness. Around that time, the guitarist and sound artist Goodparley (Oli Richards) was releasing his series of ‘meditations’ – one-take guitar improvisations recorded in the first moments of his day.

I’ve known Oli for a couple of years and am a big fan of his contemplative, nuanced approach to playing, as well as his interest in mental ill health issues. I asked Oli if he’d consider recording a piece for Freya to help her relax more, and he sent back the two pieces that comprise ‘Two Meditations…’ (For a taste of Oli’s other work, track down the two volumes of ‘Meditations’ on the Wormhole World label.)

‘Two Meditations For Freya’ is a good illustration of what I intend Mortality Tables to be. I want it to be a space for collaboration, where you can offer out ideas to people – sound artists, musicians, poets, artists, writers, film makers, photographers – and see how they respond. I’m very clear that my involvement should cease after the initial concept has been delivered to someone else; I have no place to judge or ask changes of whatever comes back. How a collaborator responds is unique to them, and completely valid for that reason. I have no desire to interfere with that, or impress my views onto their work. There is nothing more than the idea and the response.

Mortality Tables illustration, created by Savage Pencil (Edwin Pouncey)
Mortality Tables illustration, created by Savage Pencil (Edwin Pouncey)

Another of our collaborations to be published this year was a Mortality Tables illustration, created by Savage Pencil (Edwin Pouncey). The illustration shows the composer Charles Ives – a recurring figure in the ongoing development of Mortality Tables – standing in front of a United States life assurance mortality table from 1874, the year of Ives’ birth. (A mortality table is used by insurance actuaries to estimate when an insured policyholder might die, and when the insurer might have to pay out.) I have admired SavX’s work for the best part of three decades after first seeing his pieces for The Wire during my teens, and I’m delighted that his illustration for Mortality Tables has given the project its specific visual identity.

Miniature prototype mortality table, by Dan Leach
Miniature prototype mortality table, by Dan Leach

We also presented a miniature prototype of a different sort of mortality table, by a talented self-taught carpenter called Dan Leach. Dan has an incredible imagination and an ability to create amazing, intricate designs with wood. His collaboration with Mortality Tables is a concept for a coffee table, in the shape of a skull – a highly literal interpretation of our name. I like to think it’s more than a little bit inspired by The Residents, whose work I adore. Only one of the prototypes exists.

Those two Products serve to upend the notion that Mortality Tables is something like a record label. It’s not. I have no idea how to run a record label and no desire to learn. Mortality Tables is simply a catalogue of ideas and responses. I don’t plan to define it anymore precisely than that.

Our most recent sound work was ‘On Mortality, Immortality & Charles Ives’.

In around March of this year, without really meaning to, I began writing what could loosely be described as a manifesto for Mortality Tables.

On Mortality, Immortality & Charles Ives

I started reflecting on the tragedy and inevitability of mortality, but also how our memories of those who have passed away ensure that they live on – granting them, it felt to me, a measure of immortality. To this was added reflections on the life, accomplishments and twin careers of Charles Ives. In part, the reference to Ives is because he occupied important positions in two, mostly unconnected, fields. He was primarily an insurance actuary. That’s what paid the bills. To satisfy a need for creativity, he composed incredibly complex pieces that messed with conventions of time, space and tonality. His musical works went mostly unperformed in his lifetime, and his importance to the genesis of modern classical composition came considerably later.

Not for one second would I embarrass myself by making a comparison between my life and that of Ives’. However, Ives acts as a useful, totemic role model for anyone – like me – balancing a sensible day job (in my case, one that involves working with insurance actuaries like Ives) with more esoteric, extracurricular interests.

The manifesto, such that it is, was finished in early June 2022. A recording of me reading the essay was made by Gareth Jones at The artLab in Shoreditch, London later that month. The recording was then sent to Erasure’s Vince Clarke and anonymous sound artist venoztks, both of whom recorded responses to the text. Best known for his work in electronic pop music, Clarke’s version is initially a surprise for anyone familiar with his work. His response consists of a series of interleaving drones through which a fleeting trace of a distinctive Clarke melody emerges. The version by venoztks is sparse, inchoate and unplaceable, like a transmission from a broken transistor radio across the wastelands of existence. venoztks is adept at building up textural pieces from elemental noise like this, here framing the narration with clusters of abrasive, yet sensitive, sounds.

I like that Mortality Tables Products can take on a life of their own, and grow in ways that I didn’t really expect when they were started. For ‘On Mortality, Immortality & Charles Ives’, we further collaborated with Marco Porsia (Where Does a Body End?, What You Could Not Visualise), who produced a short film to accompany Clarke’s version of the piece. Porsia’s film taps directly into the diffuse themes of the manifesto, being both sentimental and unflinchingly honest in its gaze.

In the genesis of the Mortality Tables project, it was important to me that these four distinct works were presented this year.

Up until 2022, Mortality Tables had existed in something of a conceptual no man’s land, in notebooks, my imagination, conversations, field recordings and various lists. Products such as the collaborations with Savage Pencil and Dan Leach were completed last year but needed a framework to be constructed for them to make sense as part of a whole, which this year provided. They no longer felt like ephemeral ideas but tangible, audible or physical things.

Other collaborations – with sound artists Simon Fisher Turner, Alka and Todd Steponick, poet Barney Ashton-Bullock, photographer Jon Wozencroft and the superpolar Taïps imprint – are already in the catalogue and will appear in 2023.

These future works are each, in some way, concerned with place, memory, life and death. My father’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis and the discomfort of being middle-aged, brought all of these notions to the forefront of my daily thoughts. I figured that I could either live out my days in some sort of existential malaise, or find a way to use my anxieties about these themes more productively. I chose the latter.

Mortality Tables are looking for local MK-based collaborators for a project called ‘Music For Roundabouts’. Email mortalitytables at gmail dot com to get involved.

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