Friday, May 30, 2008

A Sound Map of the Danube

Annea Lockwood's A Sound Map of the Danube has just been released. The New Music Box has an excellent interview conducted with Lockwood in 2004 in which she describes working on this project. One of the main problems was actually recording sounds that convey a riverscape when the Danube flows through cities that "pave its banks with stone and rock. All of them run roads right along the bank [laughs] I haven't recorded the Danube in any of them. I haven't recorded the Danube specifically in Vienna. I went up in the Vienna woods and recorded a tributary. I haven't recorded it in Budapest. I went south of Budapest to an island and found a great recording about a half an hour south of Budapest. Where else have I not recorded the Danube? [laughs] I didn't record it in Belgrade. I wanted to very much. So I went to where the Sava River flows into the Danube thinking, perfect spot, major tributary, major confluence, and there wasn't a peep. Not even a little wave action. I'm recording in tiny little spots, really out of the way places, and finding really wonderful sounds."

In her notes to the album she describes how the landscape 'composes itself': "I recorded from the banks, finding a great variety of water sounds as the gradient and bank materials changed, often feeling that I was hearing the process of geological change in real time. Towards the end of the final field trip, while listening to small waves slap into a rounded overhang the river had carved in a mud bank in Rasova, Romania (CD 3 track 2), I realised that the river has agency; it composes itself, shaping its sounds by the way it sculpts its banks."

Lockwood's Sound Map of the the Danube was preceded by her Sound Map of the Hudson River, a brief watery extract of which can be heard here. However, she began recording rivers in the sixties: "I started recording rivers back in the '60s, again when I was in England, because I was interested in trying to discover why they are so magnetic to us, why people love to go to river banks, what their ears are reaching for as well as their eyes, and what our bodies respond to in rivers. At the same time I was aware that for city people—many of the world's major cities are on rivers, right—for city people, rivers are usually entirely visual. They're not sonic entities. They're not sound worlds. I wanted to bring a river into the body in a different way than through the eyes."

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Manufactured landscapes

It's a very long way from the subject of my last posting to the industrial landscapes of modern China, explored in Jennifer Baichwal's film Edward Burtynsky: Manufactured Landscapes. Then again, Burtynsky's photographs are still a Western take on China - the exotic Rococo dream replaced by a nightmare of environmental apocalypse...

I tend to agree with Mark Sinker's verdict: "visually, the film is rich and subtle - Burtynsky finds an eerie beauty in the starkest, most poisoned, emptied vistas; what's deathly here is also potent and haunting. The words and music are less successful - the former somewhat diffident and unspecific, perhaps tactically, the latter rather off-the-peg, an Eno-esque soundtrack to an arch suspension of judgement. And the problem of the cliché of the Chinese as a teeming, purposeful yet inscrutable ocean of humanity is perhaps not quite pushed back against as much as it might be."

Sinker may be hinting here that the 'diffident and unspecific' commentary was necessary to get agreement to shoot the film. I suppose I was expecting something more creative, like the poetic science fiction of Herzog's Lessons of Darkness. The relative banality of the narrative in Manufactured Landscape does allow you to focus on the visual imagery, but it left me pondering (no doubt unfairly) whether the photographer and film maker had sufficiently reflected on what they were filming. Sinker provides an example in highlighting the Ballardian landscape of the Chittagong shipbreaking beach in Bangladesh, "where huge rusting tankers sit stranded on otherwise naked mudflats, scavenged and dismantled by local teenagers. We're told almost nothing about this set-up - except that it's very poorly paid and very dangerous - but Burtynsky perhaps judges the force of the image more effective than any lecture about economics or sociology."

How far would the emotions felt two hundred years ago in front of a painting like Coalbrookdale by Night have differed from those experienced by a modern viewer of Manufactured Landscapes. There is the same frightening power to alter landscapes and replace natural with manufacturing forces, and the same human and environmental costs (which were, of course, evident to poets like Blake and Wordsworth). But the sense of scale is far greater in this film - there is something of Kant's mathematical sublime in Burtynsky's photograph of seemingly endless mountains of coal, or in Baichwal's long opening shot of a vast factory floor. The enormity of the Three Gorges Dam, where Burtynsky photographed a city about to be drowned, is difficult to grasp. This awesome construction seems to have been unscathed by the recent Sichuan earthquake, in which terrifying natural forces have created new lakes through landslides, as well as weakening dams built by the Chinese (including one that is over 2000 years old).

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Fishermen in a gorge

Chinoiserie's motifs include chrysanthemums, dragons, pearls, pagodas, Chinese warriors, pigtailed boys and mustachioed monks. Looking round the exhibition 'Chinese Whispers: Chinoiserie in Britain 1650-1930' today, it was clear that in general, landscapes tend to feature as the settings for figures - drinking tea, fishing or walking under parasols. Nevertheless, Stella Beddoe notes in the catalogue that by 1800 the more picturesque figurative subjects illustrating Old Cathay had almost disappeared from mass-produced china in favour of more simple views of gardens, land and waterscapes. The most famous design of all, dating from 1790, features two lovers fleeing a stern father through a landscape that includes a weeping willow and pagoda. It is still ubiquitous - only last week I was eating cake from a willow pattern plate at my mother-in-law's. My grandparents had rows of them all around their dining room.

The catalogue to the exhibition is described here as 'useless', which is harsh, but I would like it to have had a bit more detail in places. For example, it would be good to learn more of William Alexander's drawings, made in China in 1793 whilst he was part of the unsuccessful mission to China (the emperor said to the British ambassador "we have never valued ingenious articles, neither do we have the slightest need of your country's manufactures.") The British Library has Alexander's images in their on-line gallery here. And it would also be nice to have had more information on some early (c. 1696) chinoiserie attributed to the engraver, publisher and scenery designer Robert Robinson (?1651-1706): works probably inspired by Chinese export paintings and the illustrations in Johan Niehof's Embassy (trans. 1669). The panel in the exhibition shows a misty and mysterious looking gorge with a fishing boat and figures picking their way along the rocks. There are more of these panels in the V&A.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Landscapes and Silences

The last two posts have discussed glimpses of landscape in nature poetry and poems of place, history and memory. In contrast, the Irish poet Geoffrey Squires describes landscapes directly but in much more general terms. In Landscapes and Silences (1996) for example, there are only vague clues as to the location: 'ancient stone houses', 'a government hotel' (which government?), 'metal barns on stilts'. And the poet is equally disinclined to pin down details of the natural world: 'on the house a blue climbing plant / whose name I forget', 'the scent of thyme or some other herb', 'some small animal or bird rooting around in the dead leaves.' It seems 'impossible to gather into perception' the 'tangle of nearness', although the mind's 'seeming inability to fix on anything... is itself an advantage'. He writes about a psychological landscape where 'pale white light... seems to drain things of themselves / leaving no substance no solidity'.

The excellent Shearsman Books site includes two free e-books by Geoffrey Squires: Lines (2006) and So (2007). It's worth also looking on their site at a collaboration between Kate Ashton and Gerrit Offringa, Waddenzee (2006), which describes the landscape of Friesland.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

The edges of rainflood

Colin Simms is a naturalist and much of his poetry describes landscape incidentally, through the experience of birds and animals. In 'Gos in Autumn' for example, one of the seasonal poems in Goshawk Lives (1995), set 'mainly in Northumberland and North Yorkshire in Northumbria', Simms describes the bird in flight over Crosscliffe and Raincliffe, with the crossgraining of 'leaf and light light leaf light light green light'. The poem soars over hills and dales, noting 'the edges of rainflood', 'anvil clouds on unstable air', 'horizontalling wind', 'ditches white in powderice and ice on old leaves.' There are lines like this: 'mist across rich edges music moving the beginnings of taken ideas and moods dancing on air.' Basil Bunting's influence is clear in the writing, and the last poem in Goshawk Lives describes the arrival of a pair of goshawks on Bunting's birthday, 1st March, 1985.

There is a review of a more recent collection dedicated to the gyrfalcon here and another review of Otters and Martens here - "my problem with this collection of excellent poems is the very strict theme. Every poem is about otters, or martens. It’s true the title is a bit of a giveaway, but even so…" Well I have to admit I wouldn't recognise a goshawk if one ever flew down to Stoke Newington, but I like the idea of a whole volume dedicated to one type of bird. There are five examples of Colin Simms poems online here. And Simms gets a couple of recommendations on this recent thread about nature writing.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Pendle Hill

Harriet Tarlo’s essay ‘Radical Landscapes’, published last year in Jacket 32 lists linguistically innovative poets who ‘have complex and thought-provoking slants on locality, pastoral, land politics and ecology/environment. A non-definitive list of such writers would include Allen Fisher, Peter Larkin, Tony Baker, Richard Caddel, Alan Halsey, Maggie O’Sullivan, Frances Presley, Elaine Randell, Gavin Selerie, Tilla Brading, Jennifer Chalmers, Thomas A. Clark, Martin Corless-Smith, Ian Davidson, Harry Gilonis, Giles Goodland, Ian Hamilton Finlay, Bill Griffiths, Randolph Healy, Nicholas Johnson, Trevor Joyce, Peter Larkin, Helen MacDonald, Barry MacSweeney, Billy Mills, Geraldine Monk, Wendy Mulford, Peter Philpott, Peter Riley, Jeremy Prynne, Maurice Scully, Colin Simms, Geoffrey Squires and Catherine Walsh.’

You wouldn’t necessarily think of some of these writers as ‘landscape poets’ in the sense of having continually written observational poetry about their environment. Geraldine Monk, for example is someone whose writing, according to Tarlo in another essay, ‘'Home-Hills': Place, Nature and Landscape in the Poetry of Geraldine Monk’, treats landscape indirectly and critically, challenging the ‘idealising and pastoral tendencies common in ‘nature poetry’. Monk’s Interregnum is about Pendle in Lancashire, connecting the present day landscape to its dark history as the scene of the Witch Trials of 1612. It includes a series of modern encounters with Pendle Hill - by hikers, bikers, ‘Born Agains’ and ‘Pagans’, each of whom seem to claim the site for themselves. The poem then turns to a fox (hunted like the witches) and looks down on the human elements in the landscape through the eyes of a bird, soaring ‘across uncontrolled / airspace and / forests’. Here we see another feature of contemporary post-pastoral poetry, a rejection of the anthropocentric and an embrace of the ecocentric.

Pendle Hill
(source: Wikimedia Commons)

So far the only poets in Harriet Tarlo’s list who have been discussed on this site are Ian Hamilton Finlay and Thomas A. Clark. So in my next two posts I intend to say something briefly about two more: Colin Simms (whose ‘Rushmore Inhabitation’ is quoted in the ‘Radical Landscapes’ article) and Geoffrey Squires.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Ebbsfleet Landmark

An interview in yesterday’s Guardian with Rachel Whiteread is headlined ‘Will Rachel Whiteread, unshowy as she is, be the Britartist who stands the test of time? As her haunting new work is unveiled, Simon Hattenstone reports’. When I read this I did a double take – haunting new work? Then I realised it was referring to an installation based on her collection of dolls houses, rather than her proposal for the Ebbsfleet landmark, which Adrian Searle strongly criticised earlier in the week: ‘Rachel Whiteread's concrete cast of the interior of a house - apparently one she used to live in - stands on a fake mountain replete with chalk escarpments, romantic crags and overhangs. It will be built from the recycled rubble of the emerging new town. I wish she hadn't done this. The whole thing feels recycled and unnecessary, and actually diminishes Whiteread's most famous sculpture, her 1993 House in east London.’ Still, the fact that Whiteread is up for this does suggest we’ve come a long way since Tower Hamlets council demolished House – an action which reminds me of those people who scrub off some Banksy graffiti only to realise they’ve inadvertently thrown away a whole lot of money...

Like Georges Perec in his Species of Spaces, Whiteread has worked her way outwards from the most intimate space of the bed, to the room, to the house and beyond to spaces in the wider world. Now the demands of scale (the Ebbsfleet commission was to make something bigger than the Angel of the North) have taken her a step beyond site specific constructions like the Holocaust Monument in Vienna and into the realm of land art. The use of rocks and rubble in her Ebbsfleet proposal points directly to the work of Robert Smithson. As Jonathan Jones points out, ‘in an age when anxiety about humanity's impact on the planet has never been deeper, it's strange to see statues casually slapped on to seashores and commissioning bodies competing to create the most immense "landmark" to rival Antony Gormley's Angel of the North. The five artists who this week unveiled their proposals for the Ebbsfleet Landmark... are aware of the dangers, and one, Rachel Whiteread, has proposed a sculpture that's explicitly about waste.’

Rachel Whiteread discusses her proposal here. She says “to me, the Ebbsfleet valley is the closest thing we have to America in this country, in terms of industrial landscape - this long flat expanse with buildings that merge into the distance. It's a place I can really relate to.” I’ve not been to Ebbsfleet but it sounds the kind of place Smithson would have been at home in. It also seems to be one of those Ballardian landscapes much loved by English psychogeographers.

Who will get the Ebbsfleet commission? If I were a betting man I’d put my money on Mark Wallinger’s horse to win this particular race. He seems the most popular with the public (at least on this Guardian blog). However, if Rachel Whiteread’s “precipitous, craggy mountain and monument to a generic home and castle” remains no more than a papier maché model, it will still be interesting to see if she if she continues to develop proposals for large scale works in the landscape or returns to more intimate installations and sculptures.

Friday, May 09, 2008

The Zone

Rembrandt, The Three Trees etching

I was at Tate Modern today for an all day symposium on The Art of Andrei Tarkovsky. It began with a talk by Evgeny Tsymbal who worked on Stalker (1979) and who was partly responsible for the famous dream sequence which you can see in this Youtube clip. After about 45 seconds in this clip some trees appear. I thought these were reflections but they are actually an upside-down image of Rembrandt’s engraving The Three Trees. Tsymbal said he had recalled Tarkovsky’s use of Renaissance art in earlier films and gone to look for some art reproductions in a Tallinn bookshop. All he found that was suitable was this Rembrandt and an image of John the Baptist from Van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece.

Three years ago artist Jeremy Millar was also in Estonia to see and film the locations for Stalker. He too found inspiration in a bookshop – a copy of Ajapeegel by Tatjana Elmanovitsh (1980), one of the first books about Tarkovsky. ‘Ajapeegel’ means ‘Time Mirror’ in Estonian and it is the title of a film Millar is making using footage he shot of what must be one of the most memorable landscapes in modern cinema, ‘The Zone’ through which the Stalker leads his two companions. To be honest I was a bit disappointed with the film in its current state – a series of panning shots and a voice over with echoes of Patrick Keiller and W.G. Sebald. Millar and his excellent interlocutor Brian Dillon had both been at the Sebald symposium I reported on last year.

The rest of the day was quite a mixed bag. I was expecting more artists who were explicitly working with Tarkovskian material – it would have been interesting to hear from the University of Westminster’s David Bate, for example, who has also made the pilgrimage to Tallinn to photograph The Zone. The other artists who did attend (in addition to Jeremy Millar) were Hannah Collins, who has recently done some slow tracking shots and long takes in the style of Tarkovsky, and Hannah Starkey, whose interesting photographs didn’t really appear to have been directly influenced by Tarkovsky. Of the other speakers, Toby Litt was entertaining and film critic James Quandt was the most interesting, pointing out Tarkovsky elements , for example, in Bela Tarr’s Damnation (rain, ruin, entropy), in Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan (windblown grass, a muddy path, church bells) and in Carlos Reygadas (a tree and a road straight out of Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia).

One final reflection on landscape and Tarkovsky: in talking to Jeremy Millar, Brian Dillon used an interesting verb to describe the way the Stalker approaches The Zone and contemporary artists deal with place: they try to ‘incite something from the landscape’.

Friday, May 02, 2008

One particular spot in the King's-field

Gilbert White was intrigued by echoes and in A Natural History of Selborne considered the means whereby 'any gentleman of fortune' could create the conditions for listening to echoes in his park by erecting an appropriate structure 'on the gentle declivity of an hill, with a like rising opposite to it... From a seat at the centrum phonicum he and his friends might amuse themselves sometimes of an evening with the prattle of this loquacious nymph.' The text here is from Letter XXXVIII, February 12th, 1778 (the Latin at the end means ‘answering echo, who has yet to learn / To keep her peace when spoken to, or speak the first in turn’):

In a district so diversified as this, so full of hollow vales, and
hanging woods, it is no wonder that echoes should abound. Many
we have discovered that return the cry of a pack of dogs, the notes
of a hunting-horn, a tunable ring of bells, or the melody of birds,
very agreeably: but we were still at a loss for a polysyllabical,
articulate echo, till a young gentleman, who had parted from his
company in a summer evening walk, and was calling after them,
stumbled upon a very curious one in a spot where it might least be
expected. At first he was much surprised, and could not be
persuaded but that he was mocked by some boy; but, repeating his
trials in several languages, and finding his respondent to be a very
adroit polyglot, he then discerned the deception...

All echoes have some one place to which they are returned stronger
and more distinct than to any other; and that is always the place
that lies at right angles with the object of repercussion, and is not
too near, nor too far off. Buildings, or naked rocks, re-echo much
more articulately than hanging wood or vales; because in the latter
the voice is as it were entangled, and embarrassed in the covert,
and weakened in the rebound.

The true object of this echo, as we found by various experiments, is
the stone-built, tiled hop-kiln in Galleylane, which measures in
front 40 feet, and from the ground to the eaves 12 feet. The true
centrum phonicum, or just distance, is one particular spot in the
King's-field, in the path to Nore-hill, on the very brink of the steep
balk above the hollow cart way. In this case there is no choice of
distance; but the path, by mere contingency, happens to be the
lucky, the identical spot, because the ground rises or falls so
immediately, if the speaker either retires or advances, that his
mouth would at once be above or below the object...

Echo has always been so amusing to the imagination, that the poets
have personified her; and in their hands she has been the occasion
of many a beautiful fiction. Nor need the gravest man be ashamed
to appear taken with such a phenomenon, since it may become the
subject of philosophical or mathematical inquiries...

One should have imagined that echoes, if not entertaining, must at
least have been harmless and inoffensive; yet Virgil advances a
strange notion, that they are injurious to bees. After enumerating
Some time since its discovery this echo is become totally silent,
though the object, or hop-kiln remains: nor is there any mystery in
this defect, for the field between is planted as an hop-garden, and
the voice of the speaker is totally absorbed and lost among the
poles and entangled foliage of the hops. And when the poles are
removed in autumn the disappointment is the same; because a tall
quick-set hedge, nurtured up for the purpose of shelter to the hop
ground, entirely interrupts the impulse and repercussion of the
voice: so that till those obstructions are removed no more of its
garrulity can be expected.

Should any gentleman of fortune think an echo in his park or outlet
a pleasing incident, he might build one at little or no expense. For
whenever he had occasion for a new barn, stable, dog-kennel, or
the like structure, it would be only needful to erect this building on
the gentle declivity of an hill, with a like rising opposite to it, at a
few hundred yards distance; and perhaps success might be the
easier ensured could some canal, lake, or stream, intervene. From a
seat at the centrum phonicum he and his friends might amuse
themselves sometimes of an evening with the prattle of this
loquacious nymph; of whose complacency and decent reserve more
may be said than can with truth of every individual of her sex;
since she is...

...quae nec reticere loquenti,

Nec prior ipsa loqui didicit resonabilis echo.