Friday, September 30, 2011

City Links

I used to imagine, sitting at a screen in the city, some kind of remote aural connection to a wild landscape.  Perhaps this is now possible - some durable, unobtrusive, solar-powered device hidden in the cliffs at Zennor for example, transmitting the sound of waves to my computer here.  As long ago as 1967 the composer and sound artist Maryanne Amacher set up microphones that could feed sounds back from five sites round the city of Buffalo.  Later she installed 'a microphone on a window overlooking the ocean at the New England Fish Exchange in Boston Harbour, transmitting the sound into her home studio continuously, sometimes using it as an element in other performances or exhibitions of City Links. “I would come in and it would be different according to different weather and changes,” Amacher told interview Leah Durner in 1989 ... She lived with the live transmission for three years. “I actually miss coming home to it,” she says now, some 20 years later.'  This quote comes from a 1999 Wire article; you can see a few photographs on the Maryanne Amacher Archive Project website (sadly it looks as if this has not been updated recently and a year ago they were asking for more funds).

It seems paradoxical to go to the trouble of listening to the world but played over the top of the 'real' soundscape surrounding you.  I wonder what John Cage thought of this?  Amacher worked with Cage on his Lecture on the Weather (1975), a composition 'for 12 speaker-vocalists (or instrumentalists), preferably American men who have become Canadian citizens, each using his own sound system given an equalization distinguishing it from the others ... The performance starts with the reading of the preface. In it Cage expresses his disgust with the institutions of American government. After that the work starts, the 12 men reading and singing text fragments by Henry David Thoreau, and/or play instruments (ad lib.). In part 1 this is accompanied by sounds (on tape) of wind and in part 2 by sounds of rain. In the third part the lights in the performance-space are dimmed and the performers are accompanied by the film and the sounds of thunder. The film consists of Thoreau drawings, printed in negative, the projection resembling lightning (white on black).'  Lecture on the Weather goes well beyond the simple notion of a soundscape.  It represents (in the words of Joan Retallack) a collision of political and environmental climates, like ' the complex chaotic condition of interpenetration and obstruction in which we live, a fragile balance of order and disorder, clarity and cacophony.'

Sunday, September 25, 2011

High Arctic


I've talked here before about the ongoing Cape Farewell project which takes a group of artists and scientists each year to the Arctic.  Last year's trip sailed around Svalbard and among those on board were poet Nick Drake and artist Matt Clark of United Visual Artists.  They have now collaborated on an installation for the National Maritime Museum: High Arctic. It is described as 'an exhibition with no touchscreens, no static photographs, and no panels with text: instead High Arctic is a genuinely immersive, responsive environment. Ultraviolet torches unlock hidden elements, constantly shifting patterns of graphics and text that react to visitors approaching; an archipelago of thousands of columns fills the gallery space, each representing a real glacier in Svalbard; an artificial horizon borders the gallery as a seamless canvas of light, shifting in intensity and colour. A Max Eastley and Henrik Ekeus-designed generative soundscape flows through the gallery, weaving in the voices of arctic explorers across the centuries as well as the poetry of Nick Drake.'


The exhibition looks into a future where we will have to imagine the Arctic as it once was.  As you walk on what seem to be pristine snowfields dark patches spread around you, and ice-floes break up as if melted by your torch.  When the voices are silent you can hear the bleak sound of wind whistling over the ice.  Each ice column has the name of one of Svalbard's disappearing glaciers on it, which appears and then vanishes when you move the light over it.  These minimal white blocks and their arrangement in the museum space reminded me of Rachel Whiteread's Embankment at Tate Modern, which was a response to her own Cape Farewell trip in 2005.  I took my sons along to High Arctic today and they really enjoyed interacting with the lights and exploring the labyrinth of ice blocks.  I see that, according to an article in Wired, the scale of these was 'based on Lego models because, as team member Ben Kreukniet explains, “Lego is awesome.”'

Friday, September 23, 2011

Before the melt-waters



My copy of The Oxford Companion to the Literature of Wales has a landscape by David Jones on the cover, painted in the twenties when he went to live with Eric Gill and others at Capel-y-ffin in the Black Mountains.  The book describes Jones' long poem The Anathemata (1952) as 'at once devotional and commemorative, a celebration of Christian mysteries and a recalling of the making - both geological and cultural - of Britain ... The poem draws its material mainly from Celtic, Latin and Teutonic 'deposits' underlying London and Wales, and from English literature.'  Peter Ackroyd and Iain Sinclair have followed a similar path in their recent writings (London Orbital quotes 'The Lady of the Pool' section of The Anathemata, in which Jones uncovers the mythic strata of the City).  But before the poem reaches London, before following the waves of ship-borne settlers whose culture has shaped Britain, there is a section called 'Rite and Fore-Time' which describes the formation of the land itself.  What I like about these lines is the way they too contain 'Celtic, Latin and Teutonic 'deposits'', projected back onto Ice Age Britain, 'before the melt-waters / had drumlin-dammed a high hill-water for the water-maid / to lave her maiden hair.'

He says for example, that it is long ages since these melt-waters 'troughed, in solid Ordovician / his Bala bed for Tacitus. / Long, long ago they'd turned the flow about. / But had they as yet morained / where holy Deva's entry is? / Or pebbled his mere, where / still the Parthenos / she makes her devious exit?' A footnote explains some of these etymological references: Bala is also called Pimblemere, and in Welsh, Llyn Tegid, the Lake of Tacitus.  Jones adds that 'it may be noted that Tacitus was the name of Cunedda's great grandfather' (the kind of fact that these days we can find instantly and then pursue as far as we like).  He also explains in the footnote that the lake 'is formed of solid rock but the S. W. end at least is thought to have been influenced by morainic deposits.  At some remote geological period the outflow was southward whereas now the Dee flows northward through the lake, but, says immemorial tradition, the two waters never mingle.'


Lake Bala

The poem goes on to describe the movement south of glacial material, 'heaped amorphous / out of Caledonia / into Cambria.' It was from the Southern Uplands, Jones notes, that 'geological deposits of the Ice Age and certain legendary and historical deposits of the sub-Roman age came to Wales.'  At the same time ice sheets from Ireland, Scotland and the Lake District converged into the depression of the Irish Sea and moved south, 'part thrust against the land mass of North Wales' (here Jones' footnote quotes Brit. Reg. Geol. N. Wales pp77-8).  Microgranites and clay-bonded erratics were wrenched away and carried 'with what was harrowed-out in via, up, from the long drowned out-crops, under, coalesced and southed by the North Channel.'  And then the description of glacial action ends with the strange image of St Brendan on his sea horse.  A footnote explains that glaciation extended 'just beyond the waters between South Wales and Ireland, which very many millenia later became associated with the marvel-voyages of the Celtic ascetics; such as the navigation-saint, Brendan, who in the legend rides the narrow channel on a marine creature and hails Finbar, mounted on David's swimming horse, with the words 'God is marvellous in his saints.''

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Soft pink landscape

Earlier this week I was sad to read Waldemar Januszczak tweet 'Oh no, Richard Hamilton died this morning. That is a HUGE loss. Probably Britain's most important post-war artist.'  But, as he went on to say, 'Richard Hamilton was working on a big touring retrospective when he died. So at least there is that to look forward to.' Back in 1992 I went to a sizable retrospective at the Tate Gallery and have just been re-reading the catalogue. This reminded me that five years before his famous collage, Just What Is It That Makes Today's Homes So Different, So Appealing?, Hamilton was helping to make large map-models of New Towns (Harlow, Basildon and Speke) for the Festival of Britain's Exhibition of Architecture, Town Planning and Building Research.  There is a small black and white photograph of one of these in the catalogue (like a Ghost Box album cover), where it is contrasted with Landscape (1965-6).  This later work is mixed media added to an enlarged postcard image of the South Downs - panoramic landscape as a 'self-reflexive, game-playing switching of representational codes, rather than as a mimetic, miniaturised simulation of the new Socialist Britain.'

In the early sixties Hamilton was struck by a new advertising campaign for Andrex toilet paper that featured photographs of girls posed in a forest glade.  He described the scene: 'Nature is beautiful.  Pink from a morning sun filters through a tissue of autumn leaves.  Golden shafts gleam through the the perforated vaulting of the forest to illuminate a stage set-up for the Sunday supplement voyeur.'  It is a masturbatory fantasy: 'the woodland equipped with every convenience.  A veil of soft-focus vegetation screens the peeper from the sentinel.  Poussin?  Claude?  No, more like Watteau in its magical ambiguity.'  In Soft pink landscape (1971-2) he reproduces this scene in misty paint, as if seen through half-closed eyes, with a roll of Andrex placed on the ground.

In 1975 Hamilton exhibited Andrex-inspired work at the Serpentine Gallery along with other landscape views derived from postcards.  Some of these show Miers, the French spa noted for the laxative properties of its waters.  There were also nine pastel images of sunsets, each with a giant turd in the foreground.  One further view was of sunrise over Cadaqués with a turd blotting out its church, and Hamilton linked this with Jung's account of a dream he had: 'the cathedral, the blue sky, God sits on his throne, high above the world - and an enormous turd falls upon the sparkling new roof, shatters it, and breaks the walls of the cathedral asunder.'  Hamilton's interest in the Andrex adverts continued and in 1980 he completed Soft blue landscape (the cover of the Tate's 1992 exhibition catalogue, below, shows a detail from this painting, omitting the toilet roll).  It was at this point that Hamilton discovered the rather surprising identity of an artist who had actually worked on the original 1960s Andrex campaign... Bridget Riley.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

One streak of dying light


Landscapes, finished in 1949 and premiered by the San Francisco Symphony in 1953, is the earliest work for orchestra by Chinese-American composer Chou Wen-chung.  It uses three traditional Chinese melodies to create three different 'landscapes': 'Under the Cliff in the Bay,' 'The Sorrow of Parting,' and 'One Streak of Dying Light.'  The titles come from poems by Cheng Hsieh (1693-1765), Ting P’eng (c. 1661) and Liu Chi (1311-75).  You can read the full poems and see the score on the composer's excellent website.  The third one, for example, reads: 'Green, green the grass west of the pavilion,/ The clouds low, the cries of the wild geese faint,/ Two lines of sparse willows, /One streak of dying light, /Hundreds of homing ravens dotting the sky.'

In the years following Landscapes Chou worked as student and assistant to Edgard Varèse (the manuscript for Déserts was written out by him).  He also continued to compose his own landscape-inspired music; in 1956 for example came And the Fallen Petals, based on a poem by Meng Hao-jan (689-740).  He says 'in this work I have tried to convey through sound the emotional qualities of Chinese landscape painting and to achieve this end with the same economy of means ...  In this as well as in my other works to date, I am influenced by the philosophy that governs every Chinese artist, whether he be poet or painter; namely, affinity to nature in conception, allusiveness in expression, and terseness in realization.'  The music is in three sections: 'Part 1: Against a quiet and mysterious landscape, budding blossoms dance the praise of life in the Spring wind', 'Part 2: A storm breaks and the furious wind drives the dazed petals far and wide,' 'Part 3: Against a quiet and mysterious landscape, the fallen petals are being swept away and fresh blossoms on the branches dance in the Spring wind.'

Chou's long career continues and his most recent piece is from 2009, Ode to Eternal Pine, dedicated to Elliott Carter (who is still going strong in his second century).  He says of this that 'in East Asian cultures, the pine, often seen on mountain peaks, is a symbol of longevity and the eternity of nature. “Meditating on Eternity” is a reflection on the fundamental esthetic principle of East Asia, as expressed in the Chinese terms tian di ren, heaven, earth and humanity. It suggests human emotion within the timelessness of the universe and the physical constraints on earth, the two axes symbolized by the subsequent movements, “Lofty Peaks” and “Profound Gorges.”'  I was reminded of these two axes while reading an interesting interview with Chou, where he says that back in 1977 he had been responsible for selecting a traditional Chinese zither piece called 'Flowing water' for inclusion on the Voyager golden records - music that has now left behind the physical constraints of earth on its journey out into the universe.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

A falcon flew across the marsh, weaving through the wind

On Thursday Radio 4 are broadcasting a new play by Helen Macdonald about that classic of English nature writing, J. A. Baker's The Peregrine (1967).  It will be, I'm told, "a strange thing", comparing Baker's pursuit of wild falcons with Helen's own experiences keeping a goshawk called Mabel.  The play has been produced by Tim Dee, who wrote in his own bird memoir, The Running Sky, about his fascination with the book and its strange author, who seemed to lose himself in a quest to follow the peregrine wherever it took him: 'earthed, haggard and self-loathing, traipsing through marshes, crouching in ditches and lurking on field edges.'  Whether Helen ended up in this state too we shall be able to hear next week.


Robert Macfarlane's preface to the 2005 NYRB edition of The Peregrine noted that little is known of Baker's life beyond what is recorded in his book.  This mystery has added to the aura surrounding him over the years (in a way reminiscent to me of Robert Johnson, who in 1961 could be described on King of the Delta Blues Singers as 'little, very little more than a name on aging index cards and a few dusty master records in the files of a phonograph company that no longer exists').  But (as with Johnson) investigators have now unearthed more information and it turns out that when he wasn't on the trail of falcons or composing his visionary masterpiece, Baker managed the Chelmsford branch of the AA.  This new biographical material has been included in the introduction to The Complete Works of J. A. Baker, published earlier this year.  In addition to The Peregrine this volume has a selection of diary entries devoted to bird watching, The Hill of Summer (Baker's second, almost-forgotten book) and an essay, On the Essex Coast.


'Detailed descriptions of landscape are tedious,' writes Baker at the start of The Peregrine, and indeed he never needs to amass detail to convey a vivid and original sense of place.  By omitting all reference to identifiable locations (500 of which actually appear in the newly published diary selections), Baker strips his landscape down to the shapes and colours and sensory impressions that a falcon might experience.  Mark Cocker (in his introduction to The Peregrine) says that 'for Baker devotees this compositional device has given rise to a kind of sport, as they try to tease out a real geography behind the otherwise anonymous descriptions.'  But equally, it has the effect of transforming Baker's corner of Essex into a universal landscape.

The Peregrine draws on observations made over a ten year period but is written as if they all took place in one year.  I have quoted below some of the opening lines to convey a sense of the way Baker often sets the scene with a distilled, imagistic landscape description. The first entry in the book is for October 1st, when he finds a peregrine and watches as it picks off a jay (too vivid and conspicuous against the green water-meadows) and vows to follow him all winter, sharing 'the fear, and the exultation, and the boredom, of the hunting life.' The last entry is on April 4th, when he pursues the peregrine until he is able to crawl to a position five yards away, right in front of the bird, whose eyes look into his but seem to see something beyond 'from which they cannot look away.' 
October 14th: One of those rare autumn days, calm under high cloud, mild, with patches of distant sunlight circling round and rafters of blue sky crumbling into mist...
October 30th: The wind-shred banner of the autumn light spanned the green headland between the two estuaries...
November 2nd: The whole land shone golden-yellow, bronze, and rusty-red, gleamed water-clear, submerged in brine of autumn light...
November 11th: Wisps of sunlight in a bleak of cloud, gulls bone-white in ashes of sky...
November 16th: The valley was calm, magnified in mist, domed with a cold adamantine glory...
November 21st: A wrought-iron starkness of leafless trees stands sharply up along the valley skyline...
December 8th: Golden leaves of sunlight drifted down through the morning fog...
December 15th: The warm west gale heaved and thundered across the flat river plain, crashed and threshed high its crests of airy spray against the black breakwater of the wooded ridge...
January 5th: Broken columns of snow towered over lanes dug from ten foot drifts.  Roads were ridged and fanged with white ice, opaque and shiny as frozen rivers...
February 10th: This was a day made absolute, the sun unflawed, the blue sky pure...
March 10th: Towering white clouds grew in the marble sunlight of the morning.  The wind eroded them to falling weirs of rain.  The estuary at high tide brimmed with blue and silver light, then tarnished and thinned to grey.  A falcon flew across the marsh, weaving through the wind...

Friday, September 02, 2011

Bless all ports.

Well, summer is over - the coldest for eighteen years apparently and, as The Tate's Vorticism exhibition also comes to an end, it is perhaps excusable to curse the English climate 'for its sins and infections'.  The Vorticist Manifesto blasts our 'flabby sky that can manufacture no snow, but can only drop the sea on us in a drizzle like a poem by Mr. Robert Bridges.'  But at the same time, claims that 'the English Character is based on the Sea' and blesses England's

PORTS, RESTLESS MACHINES OF    | scooped out basins
                                                               | heavy insect dredgers
                                                               | monotonous cranes
                                                               | stations
                                                               | lighthouses, blazing
                                                               |     through the frosty
                                                               |     starlight, cutting the
                                                               |     storm like a cake
                                                               | beaks of infant boats,
                                                               |     side by side,
                                                               | heavy chaos of
                                                               |     wharves,
                                                               | steep walls of
                                                               |     factories
                                                               | womanly town
                                                                                                                  
There follows a list of the great ports, including Newcastle, which is portrayed a few pages later in a Vorticist woodcut by Edward Wadsworth.  The Tate exhibition includes a similar print, called simply Port, and it was a subject Wadsworth would return to throughout his career (although his later harbour views are much less interesting).  During the First World War Wadsworth was involved in the application of dazzle camouflage to allied ships and used this experience in what may be his most famous port scene, Dazzle-ship in Drydock at Liverpool (1919).  Roy Behrens has recently unearthed a photograph of Wadsworth painting this - you can see it on his Camoupedia blog.

 Edward Wadsworth, Newcastle, 1914