I was listening to a musical evocation of landscape yesterday and thinking how difficult it was to associate it with my idea of the place (particularly, to be honest, as I was listening to an iPod amid the traffic of St Paul's Road, Islington). The piece was Gavin Bryars' 'The South Downs' and its dominant sound is a mournful cello. It seemed to me to evoke a colder, more rugged place than the soft green hills of Sussex. I actually had in mind 'The North Shore', a similar composition that precedes 'The South Downs' on Bryars' album A Man in a Room, Gambling, and I was thinking that 'The South Downs' sounded, for me, like the sea. Then I remembered reading that Bryars actually based it on the view from Birling Gap, where the sea is very present as you stand on the edge of the South Downs, looking down at the waves, hearing the wind and feeling the space around you. So I felt more of a connection, even though the music still feels too mournful and poignant for me: perhaps I've only been there on beautiful days...
The sea near Birling Gap - photographed by me in 2003
There is a good description of 'The South Downs' on this site in which various adjectives suggest possible correspondences between the music and the place:
"The piece is somewhat episodic in form, its 15-minute duration being separated by pauses and fermatas into a string of short scenes. These begin quite lucidly, with arpeggiated figures in the viola and simple tones in the piano. With each successive tableau, however, the viola's music becomes more urgent and dynamic, while the piano becomes more involved. Eventually, the instruments trade places: the viola indulges in long, relaxed tones and trills while the piano takes up the softly undulating arpeggios and broken chords. This slowing of motion in the cello corresponds to its descent into its lower ranges, alternately sliding further and further down to subterranean pedal tones and taking lyrical melodic ascents on the upper strings; the piano, in the meantime, maintains its humble task of pulsing away on rich minor mode harmonies. Bryars' chord progressions sometimes take unexpected turns, but his focused consistency of sonority and texture make them an almost secondary aspect of the piece. Still, one of the most dramatic moments in the piece occurs about ten minutes in when, as the piano sets the somber mood, the violin undertakes an unexpectedly poignant tremolando melody on double stops. The gesture and chords are so lush as to suggest irony in any other context, but in this piece Bryars has set the scene so convincingly as to leave little doubt about his expressive sincerity."
The last sentence is interesting and is a reminder of the difficulty artists have today in dealing with the genuinely moving feelings we still have in a place as picturesque as Birling Gap. Interestingly the description here refers to 'successive tableau', as if Bryars is reproducing a series of photographs. Which suggests another distancing effect: the representation of a representation, something I've mentioned here in relation to Gerhard Richter and (a reminder that this has always been a possibility) in connection with Domenichino's frescoes for the Villa Aldobrandini.