Friday, December 14, 2012

Landscapes surge into consciousness

(1) from Thomas Köner's Novaya Zemlya

This is my third annual survey of landscape music, following an initial list covering 2010 and another for 2011.  Last year I noticed that I was talking as much about record labels as artists: Ghost Box, Hundred Acre, Another Timbre, Gruenrekorder and, of course, Touch Music who this year celebrated their thirtieth birthday.  Touch have produced a compilation of new material with the slightly underwhelming title Thirty Years and Counting that includes people I've featured on this blog previously: Fennesz, Jana Winderen, Chris Watson...  Robert Macfarlane, author of The Old Ways, actually got the chance to collaborate with Chris Watson this year on a record called The Sea Road, based around sections of his book.  The Touch album I've been listening to a lot this year is Thomas Köner's Novaya Zemlya, although as The Liminal's review points out, it doesn't work very well as background music.  'Landscapes surge into consciousness on the back of deep, reverberating drones and cavernous low-end pulsations: ice and glaciers drift on the Bering strait, machines can be heard releasing their toxic radium under the islands’ rocks, and sheets of constrained white noise evoke the howling winds that whip and slam against this far-off no-man’s land.'

(2) From Jez riley French's instamatic: snowdonia

Earlier this week I asked Cheryl Tipp, curator of A World of Sound and reviewer for The Field Reporter, to recommend the best field recordings of 2012.  The Sea Road was one of her nominations, along with two releases on Gruenrekorder, Jhirni Jali by Peter Caeldries and Estonian Strings by Jez riley French.  You can hear sound samples by clicking on those links - 'Savera' for example, from Jhirni Jali was recorded at daybreak in a tiger reserve in the north of India ('savera' is the Hindi word for morning). The Jez riley French samples are completely different - contact microphone recordings of "transmitter cables, long chimney support cables, disused piano wires stretched across old farm utensils, rust covered fences – each one a surprise, a discovery and a joy to listen to."  In Estonia he found that "the molasses hued mirrored lakes offered up some fascinating hydrophone recordings ... whilst the sound of trees cracking together and grain barns rattling themselves from sleep in the occasionally strong winds provided some richly charged moments of deep listening."  In the absence of an embeddable clip I've included instead sounds from another Jez riley French release this year, instamatic: snowdonia.  It is the latest in a series of 'instamatic' recordings, completely unprocessed aural photographs that record particular soundmarks he encounters on his travels.

(3) From Olan Mill's Home

Journeys have inspired other forms of music this year, such as Road to Palios by Ryan Francesconi (who did the arrangements for Joanna Newsom's Have One on Me) and Australian violinist Mirabai Peart.  According to The Line of Best Fit, their album has its moments, but 'gentle seascapes and pleasant rural imagery just do not do justice to the musicianship of these two artists.' Alex Smalley is another artist composing what might be seen as the aural equivalent of travel writing.  His music has been likened to Richard Skelton's and his earlier releases as Olan Mill had the Skeltonesque titles Paths and PineThe new collection emerged from his travels in South America, from ‘Isla Del Sol’, the birthplace of the Incan sun god on Lake Titicaca, conveyed in soaring vocals and strings, to the darker sounds of ‘Camino De Las Yungas’, the world's most dangerous road.  He has called the album Home because that is where it was recorded - distant scenes and memories recollected in tranquility.

(4) From The Magnetic North's Orkney Symphony

Other British musicians stayed closer to home this year to investigate their local landscapes: Sheffield's David Newman, for example, with Beneath Peaks.  According to the Hibernate label website, its sounds 'were harvested from hikes and camping trips around the region’s hills, meadows, streams and bracken edged pathways. In the opening track ‘Asleep Beneath Nests’ you can even hear David snoring at Fieldhead campsite as he lay asleep in a tent!'  The Magnetic North's Erland Cooper was also sleeping one day when he was visited in a dream and told to make a record about his home islands. The resulting songs on Orkney Symphony reflect the islands' geography and culture (including the poetry of Edwin Muir).  In reviewing it, Amy Liptrot observes that 'just as the accents of the island peoples reflect their surroundings - rolling cadences like soft hills - the landscape affects the sound and attitude of the music. Three times a day, Northlink ferry MV Hamnavoe arrives from Scrabster and, in opening track Stromness, a trombone emulates the sound of the ship's horn coming into harbour, a defining characteristic of the town. The first of three songs named after Orkney beaches, 'Bay of Skaill', has a spare arrangement like a deserted beach, with a solitary figure walking across in a melody. A single note sustains - as if carried in the wind, and the driving rhythm is the ocean relentlessly arriving on the shore.'

(5) From Barbara Monk Feldman's The Northern Shore

Barbara Monk Feldman's The Northern Shore is a half hour composition for violin, piano and percussion.  "At the Gaspé peninsula in Quebec where the St. Lawrence river widens into the sea, the opposite shore appears across the water as a mirage that is either enhanced or diminished by the intensity of the light on the water during the day. I kept the memory of this light in my mind during the composing of The Northern Shore … some aspect of the light and horizon might be intimated in the way differing registrations of the violin are sustained in relation to the percussion and piano."  It is pared with another landscape-related piece, In the Small Time of a Desert Flower.  The composer Lou Harrison apparently said to her on hearing this “The rhythm of the piece seems to come from the geography of a landscape — something I have never heard before!”  According to the Guardian, the record is 'all quite beautiful in a passive way' but Julian Cowley in The Wire described the compositions as 'luminously beautiful', engaging 'with the sculpting, generative action of time, reflecting in that process landscape stretched across the horizon or etched into a parched expanse.'

(6) From Barbara De Dominicis and Julia Kent's Parallel 41

Modern ruins continue to attract musicians and sound artists, not to mention writers: earlier this year I mentioned Robert Macfarlane's collaboration with bass player Arnie Somogyi, Untrue Island, written and performed among the decaying Cold War listening stations, watch towers and blast-chambers of Orford Ness.  I've also talked before here about Peter Cusack's Chernobyl recordings and these feature in a double CD released this year called Sounds from Dangerous Places.  The importance of finding the right resonant spaces in which to record comes over in an interview with Barbara De Dominicis, where she discusses her recent Parallel 41 project with cellist Julia Kent. "In the Trentino Alto Adige, Vanja Zappetti a stoic historian of the region took us to an old abandoned fort. Once we got there we found out they had recently started restoring it so we ended up recording in an abandoned tunnel on the outskirts of Bolzano where they held illegal raves. It was a beautiful location next to the mountains with a creek running nearby and we made ample use of the natural sounds, recording and processing them live."  Reading this reminded me of Tempo di Viaggio, the film that documented Tarkovsky's search for the locations he would use in Nostalghia.  The clip above is an extract from a film Davide Lonardi made to accompany the Parallel 41 album.

(7) From Darren Hayman's Lido

I featured James Brooks' Land Observations project here earlier this year (there are also a few words from me on his site, drawing parallels between his Roman Roads compositions and the walks of Richard Long).  Darren Hayman's Lido was a similar combination of art and instrumental music that came out around the same time, and perhaps there are thematic links too: outdoor urban swimming pools as Modernist descendants of the communal thermae and balneae of Roman cities.  The Kings Meadow lido in Reading has become as much of a ruin as the Baths of Caracalla, or the Appian Way.  Both these albums also happen to start their journey in Hackney, near where I'm writing these lines: Land Observations with 'Before the Kingsland Road' and Darren Hayman with 'London Fields'.  The earliest memories Hayman has of visiting a lido are in Brentwood (track 8): "such a hazy, distant, blurred image. It closed in 1976 so the oldest I could have been was five or something. I went back to the site to make sound recordings and there was a faint echo of the place in the stretch of grass that covered. I recorded, literally, the absence of it and buried it in the recording." Another of his projects this year, The Violence, was about the 1645 Essex witch trials, and it completed an Essex trilogy that began with Pram Town, on the creation of new towns like Harlow, and continued with Essex Arms

(8) From The Eccentronic Research Council's 1612 Underture

Hauntologists and psychogeographers will have be aware that 2012 was the four hundredth anniversary of another famous set of witch trials at Pendle in Lancashire (a place I mentioned here before in connection with a poem by Geraldine Monk).  This was the subject of an enjoyable collaboration between The Eccentronic Research Council and actress Maxine Peake, 1612 Underture.  There was a great short film to accompany this viewable on Youtube but it now seems to have been taken down, so I've made do with an audio clip above.  Another anniversary recording, Pendle 1612, was released recently by Lancashire's Folklore Tapes, co-curated by David Chatton-Barker and Rob St John.  In an interesting interview with The Liminal St John cites the influence of Patrick Keiller, particularly in 'the way he assembles such a constellation of – at times seemingly ephemeral – information, and traces a line made by walking through it all. To me, his work is encouragement to delve into the history of places and landscapes important to you, that through putting all this information that others have perhaps disregarded together, the most important thing is that you become connected to these places and landscapes in your own individual way.'

(9) From Simon Scott's The Sounds Below Sea Level

Pendle 1612 came 'in a screen printed heritage library buckram box which houses information and ephemera related to the trials: a map, photographs, an essay by the curators, and a dried nettle in glassvine envelope as well as a download code.' It is reminiscent of the approach taken by Richard Skelton and Autumn Richardson, whose writings I discussed a couple of weeks ago (I neglected to mention then that the texts collected in The Flowering Rock accompany a new sequence of music, Verse of Birds).  Clearly there is a demand for music as collectible objet de vertu - Olan Mill's Pine was available in a deluxe heavy vinyl edition 'wrapped in luxury soft tissue' and 'scented'.  But nettles and photographs are surely included with the hope of connecting the listener more directly to the landscape as it was experienced by the composer.  In an interview to discuss The Sounds Below Sea Level, an album based on field-recordings made at Holme Fen (the lowest place in Britain), Simon Scott explains that he was actually asked by his label boss to make a limited edition book to accompany the music.  After seeing Scott's photographs, "he also asked, do you have any notes, odd scraps of paper that you were putting together when you were writing your essay? I had! Most of it was at the bottom of my rucksack scrunched up. The book costs a lot of money to print, but if you’re interested in that side of things, then it’s a nice piece of art.”

(10) From Azurazia's Lowering the Mediterranean

My final selection here is a Julian Cope recommendation.  Back in July (or July 2012CE, as the Arch-Drude has it) the Head Heritage site's Vinyl of the Month was Azurazia's Lowering the Mediterranean. Over 'four sides of environmental feedback, field recordings, social commentary and cultural tamperings' this album tells 'the tale of the failed attempt to bring water to the Sahara Desert via several ill-fated white elephant dam ideas. Like many such Third World projects, this dystopian nightmare has left vast machinery and partially-completed civil engineering projects strewn around the north African landscape, each emitting enough residual sound FX to permeate all four sides of vinyl with alternately mind-numbing, then mind-irrigating sounds. Messrs Chromium and Moulin have corralled these chaotic sound titans splendidly; bringing forth a Soviet-sized music concrète that will most assuredly strike a compelling chord with anyone who accidentally interfaces with the stuff.' Side D is explicitly Ballardian: 'Hunting shipwrecks along sublimed lakes - Invocation of my terminal beach brother.'  Lowering the Mediterranean is the fourth release from Grautag records who specialise in 'music for wasted tomorrows.'


Diana said...

Truly fascinating selection - a lot to follow up on. Thank you for this.

Plinius said...

Thanks. Readers should note that Diana has an excellent blog covering some similar themes to this one.

Plinius said...

Postscript (30/12/12):
If you're interested in field recordings you should check out all the end-of-year lists that are now up on The Field Reporter: Part 1 and Part 2.