Vespers is as much a spiritual experience as it is a collection of songs. Recorded at dusk during the first lockdown in a graveyard near Michael Tanner’s home in Sussex, Vespers not only offers dreamy improvised classical music; it offers a genuine listening experience.

The fact that the music was recorded almost exclusively outside in a graveyard is crucial. You can hear the birds singing throughout the record. John Cage theorised about non-intentional music, ambient listening (which Brian Eno developed further) and the idea of almost accidental noise forming part of the musical and listening experience. The birdsong on Vespers falls comfortably and (I imagine) unintentionally into that tradition. By listening to the album at home at dusk, the sound of birdsong on the record, the music, and birdsong outside my own window merged to create a gloriously immersive experience.

The album captures the alluring qualities of the graveyard as we know it – a haunting majesty, a home for nature, and a place of ancient time, spiritualism and human ritual. The somewhat mythic, spooky or mystical nature of the graveyard (depending on your personal outlook) is brought to the fore by the mesmerising music on Vespers. On that theme, Michael Tanner himself is a somewhat mythical figure. His work (whether under his own name, as Plinth, Thalassing or as part of other groups/collaborations) can be hard to come by in a physical format and often can’t be found online. You come across it in underground reviews, rumours on blogs and forums and as snippets of mystical music caught briefly on the wind in the Sussex countryside. That may be slightly poetic but that’s what this music inspires.

At risk of getting bogged down with the how and where the album was made rather than the actual music, it is worth mentioning the use of ‘ping pong delay’ employed during the recording of the album. Tanner isn’t a fan of what he calls ‘studio trickery’ but he describes using the technique as being “borne from the fact that I just really missed playing music with other people, and the call and response nature of it restored a similar sensation. Making a sound into the void and it having it bounce back at you, making you then react and think on your feet.” In many ways this isn’t mere studio trickery but more a fundamental part of the way this improvisational music was born and recorded.

Ecce Quadragesimo Tertio opens the album with an otherworldly church organ, which is the only instrument not actually recorded in the graveyard itself. Autoharp strings creep in to heighten the ethereal mood. At two and a half minutes it is a short piece that has a hypnotic quality and in some respects is the key to entering the record. It mentally transports you to a different psychic place. The song slowly fades away in a dreamlike fashion as if the doors have been opened to a different realm and you’ve been invited to enter.

Vespers 2 is carried along by a repetitive note whilst subtle melodic music builds and fades and builds again above it, mixed with eruptions of birdsong in the background. At about the half way point the music almost disappears completely, before reappearing gently, invisibly from the atmospheric dusk that you can almost see, smell and feel as you listen.

Perhaps the outstanding piece on the record, Vespers 3 is a truly beautiful piece of improvised music. Here, one of Tanner’s regular collaborators comes to the fore; this is where Allison Cotton’s viola is most notable and adds emotional texture to the sound. Again, the graveyard is an active part of the composition  – the birds singing, the slight rustle of leaves or grass, the sound of a twig snapping underfoot. It is lush, atmospheric and enrapturing; a genuinely timeless piece of music that I didn’t want to end.

Charioteer takes up the entirety of Side B of the album at 23 minutes long. It conjures images of pastoral England before the enclosures, before the industrial revolution, when people still had a sense of the land and the cosmic energy that impacted their daily lives – the seasons, moon, sun and the stars. It feels fairly minimal, hinting at classical drone but that perhaps belies a complexity to the harp playing. Overall Charioteer is haunting, folk wyrd and trance-like in parts. You could argue that it is too long but that wouldn’t really have been a consideration for Tanner when playing the piece, never really expecting anyone else to hear it. Either way, the length of the song doesn’t harm the album, it just potentially denies us the opportunity to hear another song added to the record. C’est la vie. The sound dissolves away, guiding you gently back out of this world you have stumbled upon.

Michael Tanner has sat on these recordings for a year now. He thinks Vespers could be the most honest thing he’s ever recorded. It certainly sounds and feels honest, as well as natural and powerful. Powerful may not be the most obvious adjective to use here but it is powerful music in its own quiet, deeply affecting way. As an album it works as an exploration of place and what that place can represent but perhaps more than anything else it is just a beautiful collection of music recorded spontaneously in the face of upheaval and uncertainty. A musician responding to a global crisis, life altering events and boredom in a most natural way. It doesn’t really matter how you interpret or label this music – ultimately it works on its own terms and is a rewarding listening experience for those who give it their time. That is what really matters.

Vespers by Michael Tanner is out later this year, on the Dark Companion label.