Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Wanderer's Night Song

There is a great tradition of poets contemplating the landscape from mountain huts.  I've talked here before about Gary Snyder 'looking down for miles / through high still air' from his hut on Sourdough Mountain.  One of the most famous Japanese examples is Kamo-no-Chomei who in the early thirteenth century built his own modest hut (like Thoreau) above a valley thick with trees, with a view of the Western heavens.  Earlier still, in China, there was Hsieh Ling-yün's retreat on Stone-Gate Mountain (although most of the time he lived 'in a comfortable mountain-side house, which included an enormous library and vast landscape gardens').  But it is not necessary to live in a mountain hut - a fleeting visit can suffice for a poet to make a permanent imprint on the landscape:

                          Über allen Gipfeln
                          Ist Ruh,
                          In allen Wipfeln
                          Spürest du
                          Kaum einen Hauch;
                          Die Vögelein schweigen im Walde.
                          Warte nur, balde
                          Ruhest du auch.

In September 1780 Goethe wrote these lines on the wall of a mountain hut in Ilmenau. 'The Wanderer's Night Song I' is now one of the best known German poems and has been set to music many times, by composers such as Schubert, Liszt, Schumann and Ives.  Here is a recent version by Peter Viereck which can be found at the Poetry Library site.  Viereck says that 'along with Pushkin’s ‘On the Hills of Georgia’, this is the simplest great poem in history.'

                     To every hill crest
                     Comes rest.
                     In every tree crest
                     the forest
                     scarcely draws breath.
                     Each bird-nest is hushed on the heath.
                     Wait a bit; soon you
                     will find rest too.

Goethe revisits the mountain hut
Goethe didn't return to Ilmenau until August 1831, seven months before his death, but was then moved to tears to see his poem still there.  During the nineteenth century, the hut became a place of literary pilgrimage - you can see a collection of old postcards like the one shown above at the Goethezeitportal.  According to David Luke (who has translated the poem for Penguin Classics) 'in the nineteenth century a forester is said to have discovered a literary English tourist attempting to saw the poem out of the wooden wall, and this led to a photographic record being made.  The hut was burnt down in 1870, and later exactly restored; Goethe's lines are there again, engraved on a brass plate.'

 The restored hut today
Source: Wikimedia Commons

You can see a recent interior image of the hut in a post on Goethe's poem at the Poemas del rio Wang blog.  As mentioned there, Goethe drew inspiration for 'The Wanderer's Night Song' from a fragment by the Spartan poet Alcman, which had been published in 1773.  Alcman does not address the listener, unlike Goethe's Wanderer; he simply describes all of nature asleep - the mountains, the ocean, the birds and beasts.  Nor, in what we have of Alcman's verse, does he contrast the hushed landscape with the busy activities of people, a poetic theme which (as C. M. Bowra points out) begins with Euripides' Iphigenia at Aulis:

  Agamemnon: The birds are still at any rate and the sea is calm; hushed are the winds, and silence broods o’er this narrow firth.

  Attendant: Then why art thou outside thy tent, why so restless, my lord Agamemnon?

The restlessness of men like Agamemnon was gladly left behind, far below, by Goethe and the other poets seeking rest and tranquility in a simple hut high up in the mountains.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Robinson in Ruins

On Friday I got to see extracts from Patrick Keiller's forthcoming film, Robinson in Ruins, at the AHRC's 'Art and Environment' conference at Tate Britain.  Keiller has been making it as part of an interdisciplinary project for the Landscape and Environment programme.  With him to present and talk about the film were an all-star panel - Patrick Wright, Doreen Massey, Matthew Flintham and Iain Sinclair.  Each of these, apart from Sinclair, was involved in the project, but working in parallel rather than contributing directly to the film itself.  Robinson in Ruins looks similar to Robinson in Space, filmed this time around Oxfordshire and focusing on the financial crisis unfolding through 2008.  Vanessa Redgrave takes over from Paul Scofield as the narrator. The film documents sites of political or historical significance, like the woodland where Professor David Kelly committed suicide, interleaved with recurrent images - letter boxes, wind blown flowers, lichen growing on traffic signs.  

The Five Sisters - shale bings admired by John Latham

It was great to talk yesterday to some readers of this blog and enjoy a post-conference dinner in the sunlit landscape of St James Park with Kathryn and Jen (Kathryn Yusoff contributed a talk in the afternoon about the relationship between weather and climate).  Here, as promised, are a few quick impressions of the rest of the conference, which focused mainly on art and and had quite a lot to say about land art.  Richard Long's A Ten Mile Walk (1968), for example, was discussed by Nicholas Alfrey, who uncovered the historical landscape of Exmoor that the artist had traversed.  Craig Richardson talked about John Latham's involvement with the earthwork-like shale bings of West Lothian.  Ben Tufnell described Cai Guo Qiang's encounters with Spiral Jetty and Double Negative, and a trip to the Nevada testing site where the artist and his team managed to cause panic by detonating a small mushroom cloud.
The theme of artistic pilgrimage came up several times in different sessions.  Joy Sleeman described her trip to see Spiral Jetty and Sun Tunnels, finding there the idea of a pristine landscape (as described by Nancy Holt) belied by the evidence of some spent gun cartridges on the ground.  Brian Dillon re-told the story of his pilgrimage to Robert Smithson’s Monuments of Passaic and discussed examples of other recent artistic encounters with the ruins of modernism.  Spanish artist Lara Almarcegui talked about regularly re-visiting her own special site, A Wasteland in Rotterdam Harbour, 2003-2018.  Of course there is nothing new about footstepping earlier artists and Richard Wrigley began his presentation on the climate of the Roman Campagna with Corot's La promenade de Poussin.

Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, La promenade de Poussin, c1826

The landscapes imagined by Ballard, Tarkovsky, Sebald remain key influences - Matthew Gandy mentioned all of these in his talk (he included a bizarre photograph of a Ballardian luxury development in Argentina that has been inspired by the writings of Borges).  Russell Hoban's novel Riddley Walker, which imagines a post-apocalypse 'Inland' on the present landscape of Kent, is the source for a new work described yesterday by artist Heather Morison - a puppet show to be staged in Tasmania.  Heather and Ivan Morison travel the world making art but are based in Wales, where they own a wood and are creating an arboretum.  They also have a studio in Brighton where they are 'developing an atelier'.  Their approach somehow put me in mind of those glossy food/garden/design programmes on TV.  At one point we were shown a slide of the artists cooking for the locals in the manner of Hugh Fearnley-Wittenstall - the Morisons had designed their own burger and named it a 'J.G.' in honour of Ballard (I didn't manage to note down the ingredients).   

More interesting to me was Katie Paterson, whose work was discussed in a session on the Sublime. She described a work completed only last week, Inside this desert lies the tiniest grain of sand, which had involved returning to the Sahara desert a grain of sand that had been chiseled to 0.00005mm using the techniques of nanotechnology.  At extreme magnification the grain of sand resembled a planet and presumably the chiseling process could have created some nano-land art - a microscopic Spiral Jetty or near invisible Double Negative.  The point was made (by Brian Dillon) that she brings a necessary sense of humour to art that deals with cosmic scales of space and time.  This idea was reinforced near the end of the conference when Simon Faithfull showed his film of a domestic chair lifted to the edge of space by a weather balloon (see below). He also showed extracts from 0°00 Navigation, a Keaton-esque journey from the Channel to the North Sea along the Greenwich Meridian.  The clip below shows a section of this epic journey starting with the artist climbing undaunted through the back gardens of East Grinstead. Watching this it was hard not to think back to Richard Long, negotiating the obstacles of Exmoor, climbing doggedly over fences and sticking rigidly to the straight line on his Ordinance Survey Map. 

Simon Faithfull, Escape Vehicle No. 6, 2004

Simon Faithfull, 0°00 Navigation extract, 2009

Saturday, June 19, 2010

July Mountain

'We live in a constellation / Of patches and of pitches' wrote Wallace Stevens in 'July Mountain'. This poem is the starting point for Michael Pisaro's recent collaboration with percussionist Greg Stuart, which I've been listening to this week, along with A wave and waves, an earlier poetry and landscape inspired piece. July Mountain starts with 'patches and pitches' of environmental sound and until a striking moment, eight minutes in, when you hear the first note of a piano.  As the piece builds the natural sounds fade and the percussion intensifies (the effect is powerful but is a bit like listening to a hoover).  Several people have already written posts about July Mountain but the best description is by Yuko Zama  - here is an extract:

'From the start, some environmental sounds like falling rain, birds chirping, distant voices of people, airplanes flying overhead and cars passing by are heard. Despite this being a mixture of field recordings made at ten different locations, the sounds are all nicely blended as if they were sharing the same time and space, without causing any chaos or discordance, perhaps due to the delicately controlled balance of the individual volumes. At this point, any percussion sounds are barely recognizable.Then as time goes by, more environmental sounds like helicopters, calls of sea gulls, and waves (as well as many other almost unrecognizable sounds) appear in the soundscape. Since the transition between field recording sources is so natural and subtle, there is no impression that one field recording is switched to another at all. It is rather like the landscape and the time you are in is slowly and endlessly shifting to somewhere else almost before you realize it.  About eight minutes in, one strong, determined piano chord is added in the middle of the environmental sounds. The appearance of this piano chord changes the atmosphere of the whole soundscape...'

Brian Olewnick, on his Just Outside blog, describes 'letting "July Mountain" cascade over you. The sounds begin quietly with birds, wind, the low throb of an airplane engine, etc. and gradually mass into an onrush that remains strangely delicate for all its force. The piano, children's voices, sine tones, light metallic clatter and much more begin to funnel into an ever widening vortex that absolutely sucks you in while always providing oxygen. It's as if you're sitting on the mountain or in that valley having had your ears hyper-sensitized so they were picking up every sound within miles and, more, making a kind of sense of them, collating them into a semi-recognizable pattern.'

The latest Wire has an interview with Pisaro in which Philip Clark asks him about a persistent worry with field recordings - that you can just stick a microphone in the landscape and call the result 'art'.  For his part, Pisaro points to the importance of the way an artist selects and frames nature (true of all landscape art) and Clark agrees, citing July Mountain, which is based on 'the pre-compositional strategies of a graphic score.' The instructions future versions are: '20 recordings may be made by the performer(s) or obtained from the composer.  They should all be made in mountain areas or valleys if possible. See the attached chart for the arrangement of the recordings in time, panning, and information about the fades...'  You can download the score from the Jez riley French site and see how precisely programmed the percussion is, e.g. 10 bells + beating sine tones (13 sounds) starting at 15:30 with duration 20", using bell numbers 1 and 2;  1, 2 and 4; 3; 1, 2, 3 and 4 etc.

A wave and waves (2007) has no environmental sounds - it is an orchestral piece in two parts, scored for 100 percussion instruments.  The title is a clue to the influences - John Ashbery's poem 'A Wave' and the sound pattern of waves at Big Sur, California.  At the moment, I think I prefer it to July Mountain. Part I, 'a world is an integer', is a single, cresting wave and Part II, 'a haven of serenity and unreachable', was inspired by Pisaro's observance of the waves at Big Sur, arriving with a periodicity of 15-20 seconds where "every seventh wave would be a 'big one'".  Here is another extract from the writing of Yuko Zama, emphasising the connection between the music and natural sounds:

'The pure straight tones in different pitches, created by bowing various musical instruments, evoke the horizontal vastness and a slow, gradual move of a single wave. Meanwhile, the fine particles of small grainy sounds, created by the showers of rice, seeds and pebbles falling on various materials or simply from ripping paper, evoke the image of a microscopic world inside the wave - where thousands of small bubbles and swirls of water constantly emerge and disappear. The layer of the various sounds with different textures creates a stereoscopic effect and a realistic perspective for the whole soundscape, resulting in the lifelike impression of a single wave slowly and silently surging from a far distance. The whole sound also evokes a feeling of floating in space, as if I were watching small stars glowing in the dark - appearing one by one in the galaxy, slowly passing by each other, then disappearing into the dark.'

      Friday, June 11, 2010

      Infrared landscapes

      Florian Maier-Aichen uses special lenses and computer imaging to render epic landscapes mysterious or disturbing. One of his untitled photographs at the Saatchi Gallery, shows 'a virgin beach lined with superhighway and luxury homes expanding into the misty distance. Tinting the surrounding forest in an unnatural shade of red, he casts an apocalyptic glow over the seascape, framing wilderness and human intervention as a scene of science fiction portent.' In another, the frontier wilderness, stretching off into the distance, is bathed in unnatural darkness. A Friedrich-like snow-scape, Untitled (2005), is lit by a suburban street light. A black and white photograph of Long Beach transforms urban sprawl a desert of ash, overlooked by an icy mountain range.

      In the Art21 video embedded above, Maier-Aichen talks about his infrared landscapes. He says "I'm not interested in pure landscape, the Ansel Adams way for example. I think it's too pure and it's not interesting because there's nothing happening." But he still sees his work as directly relating to the history of landscape photography, rather than environmental protest art. The second clip below shows him in action, preparing to try to recapture an image from an old postcard.  You can see more of his work at the 303 Gallery, e.g. Der Watzmann (2009) and Salton Seas I (2008).  

      Monday, June 07, 2010

      The grey sea and the long black land

      This time last year I wrote about the BBC's poetry season, contrasting a documentary on Gawain and the Green Knight by Simon Armitage with the excellent Owen Sheers' series, ‘A Poet’s Guide to Britain’. Since then, the two writers have edited anthologies of nature poetry - Sheers with one based on his series, Armitage with The Poetry of Birds.  The Armitage is a joint effort with bird-watching author Tim Dee, who provides fascinating descriptions of the birds at the end of the book.  This approach contrasts with Sheers' - he provides minimal editorial material, letting the poems speak for themselves and saying nothing about the landscapes or the authors (the poems are not even dated so the uninitiated will have no idea whether they are reading something recent unless they investigate the copyright information at the back or google the name of the writer).  It's a bit if a shame because the television programmes were full of fascinating material; I have some sympathy for the Amazon reviewer who "was looking forward to a 'book of the series'. There are some beautiful poems in this book but it's not what I was expecting so I'm disappointed with my purchase."

      Having said this, I enjoyed Owen Sheers' selections and the way he strings poems in each section together, like a renga sequence or a carefully constructed compilation tape, where each 'speaks to the next and, in some way, listens to the one before.'  So, for example, the last part, 'Coast and Sea', begins with 'Dover Beach', then moves to another Victorian vision of the moonlit sea, Browning's 'Meeting at Night'.  This introduces the theme of lovers which continues in Hardy's 'Beeny Cliff' and from there it's an easy segue into another Hardy, 'To a Sea-Cliff (Durleston Head)'.  The cliff theme continues with Charlotte Smith's 'Beachy Head', Shakespeare's 'King Lear, Act 4, Scene 6', and Anne Ridler's 'Bempton Cliffs'.  So it goes on, taking in poems by Hopkins, Keats and Edward Thomas along with contemporaries like Carol Rumens, Daljit Nagra and Menna Elfyn.  He also includes a second poem by Anne Ridler, this time describing the sea at Zennor in Cornwall (I mention this because I was on this sea, in a boat heading to Seal Island near Zennor, only last week).

      I'll end this post by reproducing one of these poems of Coast and Sea: Robert Browning's 'Meeting at Night' (1845)


      The grey sea and the long black land;
      And the yellow half-moon large and low;
      And the startled little waves that leap
      In fiery ringlets from their sleep,
      As I gain the cove with pushing prow,
      And quench its speed i' the slushy sand.


      Then a mile of warm sea-scented beach;
      Three fields to cross till a farm appears;
      A tap at the pane, the quick sharp scratch
      And blue spurt of a lighted match,
      And a voice less loud, thro' its joys and fears,
      Than the two hearts beating each to each!

      Sunday, June 06, 2010

      Landscape with the Penitent St Jerome

      Leonardo da Vinci, Landscape, 1473

      The British Museum's 'Fra Angelico to Leonardo: Italian Renaissance Drawings' exhibition includes three landscapes.  The first is Leonardo's famous drawing of the Arno valley dated August 5th 1473, which I mentioned in an earlier post on the link between panoramic landscape drawing to topographical maps.  We do not know if this sketch was drawn in situ, but as A. Richard Turner writes in The Vision of Landscape in Renaissance Italy, 'these quick lines have all the quality of a spontaneous reaction to a living model.'  The next artist discussed in Turner's book is Piero di Cosimo, whose highly artificial and literary paintings he contrasts with Leonardo's.  Piero's main contribution to landscape art came in panels like Forest Fire, Hunt and Return from the Hunt but the British Museum exhibition has one of his drawings: Landscape with the Penitent St Jerome (c1490-1500).  The curators say of this that 'the intricacy of the landscape compels the viewer to unravel it slowly, a visual equivalent to the pilgrim's slow and difficult ascent to the church in the background.'

      The third landscape drawing on show at the BM is a simple pen and brown ink study of travellers journeying to a village, made c1495-1508: one of the fifty or so landscape drawings that survive by Fra Bartolommeo.  He doesn't feature in Turner's book, possibly because Fra Bartolommeo's importance for landscape history wasn't fully realised until after the rediscovery of forty-one landscape sketches in 1957.  Some of the views drawn by the artist have now been identified with specific Dominican buildings, but the Christies site, describing a sketch the artist made of a tree (which sold for $996,000), suggests that 'trees rather than buildings are central to the structure of Fra Bartolommeo's landscapes.  By focusing on trees, a new analysis of these compositions is possible. There are no mountains, only gentle hills and small rocky outcrops. In most compositions elongated trees reach to the sky and shrink the buildings into insignificance as they appear to be engulfed by the undergrowth. Either sketched lightly in swirling calligraphy, or carefully outlined, the trees punctuate the scene. As in the Tuscan woods at La Verna where Saint Francis experienced his vision, Fra Bartolommeo's trees are often seen growing in between rocks. Trees, for Fra Bartolommeo, are thus the essence of landscape.'