Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Field of Reeds

This is my annual post on landscape music - the earlier ones (with apologies for a few dead links now) are here: 2010, 2011, 2012.  I discussed a couple of excellent records earlier in the year so won't linger over these here: My Garden State by Glenn Jones and In St Cuthbert's Time by Chris Watson (I also wrote about Hiroki Sasajima's work but neglected to mention Circle Wind, sounds recorded at night around Tokyo and other urban locations).  Many of the themes I observed in 2012 were present this year too: encounters with mountains, rivers and islands; the search for politically charged sites and landscapes haunted by history; continuing attempts to expand field recording beyond simple notions of soundscape; music composed in studios or outdoors as an offshoot of wider artistic endeavours and then sold in a range of collectible formats.  Particularly noticeable this year, I think, has been the way some musicians and sound artists have engaged in different forms of field work, walking the landscape and documenting their findings in film and text as well as recorded sound.  The finished compositions are therefore the product of a period of research: digging in archives and libraries, investigations of particular sites or topographical features, close observation of natural phenomena and acoustic experimentation.      

Typical of this trend is an album by The Memory Band, on whose website you can read a series of Stephen Cracknell's Field Reports.  They were made whilst exploring the South Country and composing On the Chalk (Our Navigation of the Line of the Downs).  Cracknell explains that his steps were guided by old topographical writings - Belloc, Massingham, R. Hippisley Cox’s Green Roads Of England, Ancient Trackways Of Wessex by H.W. Timperley & Edith Brill.  On the day the record was complete he set off again on The Harrow Way, a semi-legendary ancient path: 'I walked the best part of sixty miles in those three days ending at Stonehenge, blistered and hobbled but elated.'  There is a Caught by the River review of the album by Rob St. John in which he describes On the Chalk as a place 'where the pastoral meets the produced, where machines (whether cars, planes or drum machines) plough patterned furrows through rich and partially-obscured landscapes. As Cracknell puts it in the sleeve notes: It is an album about change, the power of human will and our relationship with the landscape as we pass through it’.'

Place and its relationship to history have been the subject of another ongoing investigation by lo-fi duo Way Through.  Last year I mentioned here seeing them play at Cafe Oto, supporting James Brooks / Land Observations, whose own landscape project was dedicated to Roman Roads (and who contributed this year to Simon Fisher Turner's new soundtrack for The Epic of Everest).  Way Through's latest album, Clapper is Still, includes ‘Dedham Vale’ and 'Eyam', songs about two very different villages preserved as heritage sites, 'Sipson', on a site that is, in contrast, under threat from the expansion of Heathrow Airport, and ‘Imber and Tyneham’, referring to places that were cleared of their inhabitents during World War Two (the latter is Patrick Wright's 'Village that Died for England').  Rob St. John has reviewed this one as well for Caught by the River: 'lyrics cribbed from local history leaflets, information boards and bus stop graffiti become spoken and sung invocations of the sublime, the suburban and the specific. Chiming, often-dissonant guitar gusts off into post-punk angles: plotting new cartographical soundings over old ground.'

Rob St. John himself has been exploring Edinburgh's waterways, documenting his researches as a 7" single with accompanying essays and prints. This was part of the Year of Natural Scotland, for which numerous artists seem to have been making work in 2013, navigating a system of funding streams as complex as the lochs, drains, springs and sewers of the city.  Chris Dooks was another sound artist involved in this, with a film, Tiny Geographies and accompanying soundtrack; he has also recently completed Ciga{r}les, a set of treated field recordings made partly for therapeutic reasons (I think the looped voices on the former and combination of bagpipes and cicadas on the latter may not appeal to everyone).  Although the Natural Scotland projects sound interesting, they make you wonder how far records themselves can be appreciated out of context.  To stand on its own, a set of sound recordings need to be reorientated: Geoff Mullen's Filtered Water for example, is two long pieces derived from a 'multi-channel sound installation in the backwoods of Hudson Valley', converted into a mono recording.  Similarly, Jem Finer and Andrew Kötting's Visionary Seascapes is more than simply the soundtrack to the film they made last year with Iain Sinclair, Swandown.  

Pilgrim Chants & Pastoral Trails by Sharron Kraus is another album dedicated to a specific landscape.  One sunny day, she writes, whilst driving through the Welsh countryside, "I had the overwhelming sense that there was music contained in the landscape, waiting to be discovered. I decided to move to Mid-Wales, to a quiet place just north of that valley and try to tap into that music and draw it out."  The resulting compositions couldn't be less like Way Through; Joseph Stannard in The Wire praised their 'wild magic and windswept beauty.'  Kraus cites Richard Skelton as an influence, and this year he has been re-visiting music inspired by the landscape of Ulpha, in south-west Cumbria.  These kind of recordings, like field notes or diaries, can be returned to and developed in new ways.  He and Autumn Richardson describe the composition of Succession in almost scientific terms: 'the process of recovering these fragments and threading them into song is analogous to the work of palynologists, reconstructing images of past landscape ecologies from the layers of sediment. It is a kind of archaeology, a work of archivism.' 

Swiss sound artist Marcus Maeder has been leading 'trees', a research project conducted by the Institute for Computer Music and Sound Technology (ICST) in collaboration with the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research (WSL).  Their aim is to 'combine field recordings of meteorological phenomena, recordings of acoustic emissions in trees and acoustic representations (sonifications) of ecophysiological data in one single auditory experience and make their correlation acoustically and aesthetically experienceable and explorable.'  Some of this sounds like the old dream of listening to the landscape directly, an idea I have often referred to here (see for example my post from earlier this year, Shoreless River).  Maeder's own CD, topographie sinusoïdale, constructs music as if it were a landscape: 'arranged in space, defining upper and lower boundaries of spatial objects, cliffs, edges, slow passages from one scene to another, at times focusing on details of a larger group of objects.'  Reviewing it recently in The Wire, Richard Pennell found it 'a very pretty, gently fluid piece of music, but a little too anodyne, an overlong watercolour wash.'  

The same could not be said for Emptyset - Paul Purgas and James Ginzburg - who specialise in subjecting resonant sites to noise at high volumes and frequencies and recording the results.  At the start of the year they had an installation at Tate Britain as part of the Performing Architecture series.  Here's what Boomkat had to say about their latest release, Material: 'In what has become the dominant theme of Emptyset's work, the cavernous architecture of the different settings - Trawsfynydd Nuclear Power Station in Snowdonia, Ambika P3 in London, and Chislehurst Mine in Kent - becomes a component of the music itself, the duo's bowel-shaking low frequencies responding to every nook, curve and surface texture of these man-made caves. When you think of the uses these spaces have historically been put to (chalk and flint mining, Magnox nuclear reaction, concrete testing), it's hard to think of Material as anything but industrial music in its purest, or at least most literal, form.'

Touch always feature in my annual surveys, and a new BJ Nilson album coming out shortly sounds interesting - 'a somewhat surreal audio rendition of the sounds of The City of London.'  Earlier in the year they released Diluvial, a collaboration between Wire's Bruce Gilbert and Beaconsfield ArtWorks on the theme of rising sea levels. Another album of note was Burkhard Stangl's Unfinished. For William Turner, painter, inspired by the artist's extraordinary late work (Tate Britain has an exhibition planned for next year, Late Turner: Painting Set Free, so I expect to see this CD on sale in their shop).  Then there was Stromboli, a collection of field recordings by Geir Jenssen, better known as Biosphere for his 'arctic techno' - most recently N-Plants (2011), an album inspired by the Japanese nuclear industry and recorded a month before the Fukashima disaster.  Jenssen has also been active in mountaineering and in 2001 climbed the Himalayan peak Cho Oyu.  The sounds he assembled on that expedition were released a few years later as Cho Oyu 8201m – Field Recordings from Tibet.  The new album for Touch consists of a Stromboli soundscape on the first side and a 'dub version' (subtly different) on the other.

Another volcanic area, Lyttelton, on the South Island of New Zealand, has been explored by Jo Burzynska, who records as Stanier Black-Five.  For her album Avast! 'sounds were captured at sites around the natural amphitheatre of this extinct caldera: from abandoned wartime bunkers on the top of the crater rim to the port and its cacophony of cargo ships, tugs and workshops.'  This area was also the epicentre of the earthquake that hit Christchurch in 2011.  Burzynska 'grabbed a recording device as she ran from her home, leaving it running on her doorstep capturing the aftershocks that ricocheted though her house and the disaster unfolding on the street outside.'  These sounds were then used in the album Body Waves, a collaboration with Malcolm Riddoch (whose exotic pseudonym is Zeug Gezeugt).  Reading about some of these sound artists, I sometimes end up thinking I'm in the wrong line of work... Jo Burzynska manages to combine field recording with being a wine writer and this summer created a 'multi-sensory sound and wine installation' for an event called Oenosthesia in Auckland.

It is impossible here to cover all the significant field recordings released in 2013 - hopefully The Field Reporter will put together a survey like they did last year.  However, I'd like to mention two of the organisers of In the Field, the symposium I attended in February, who have releases out this year: Cathy Lane, who has brought together interviews, archive recordings and natural sounds in The Hebrides Suite (see 'On the Machair', above) and Ian Rawes, who has put together together a record of some highlights from his London Sound Survey.  Last year Ian's British Library colleague Cheryl Tipp gave me some suggestions for notable releases to mention here.  This year she has drawn my attention to Luis Antero's project O Rio / the RiverThe first part is a confluence of water sounds recorded along the Alvoco river in Portugal.  The newly issued second instalment documents the memories of  an old river-keeper and three villagers who talk about the disused watermills.  The Impulsive Habitat label that put out Antero's recordings (run by David Velez, who set up The Field Reporter) has dealt in a diverse range of soundscapes this year: the Madagascan rainforest, the Parque Nacional Natural Los Nevados in Columbia, the Crack of Humahuaca in Argentina, the road between Takasaki and Tokyo, the platforms of Union Station in Kansas City, and the 'grimy laneways' of inner Sydney Camperdown

Back in 2010 I devoted a post here to the music of John Luther Adams, including Inuksuit, a composition designed to be played and heard out in the landscape.  Cantaloupe, the label run by Bang on a Can, have now put this out on CD for the first time: a recording made in the forest surrounding Guilford Sound in Guilford, Vermont.  Back in July, Ivan Hewitt interviewed Adams and it is worth reading his account of experiencing Inuksuit among the beech trees at the University of Richmond.  Having reached a crescendo the music subsided, the musicians went their separate ways and the audience 'ambled out into the trees and along the lake, pausing to listen to a vibraphone player here, a flautist there. Waves of sound rose, changed colour very slowly, and passed through the trees. Eventually they dispersed, but one couldn’t be sure for some time that the music was finally over.'

There are still composers writing more traditional programmatic music inspired by nature: Jennifer Higdon for example, whose An Exaltation of Larks and Sky Quartet appeared this year (she can be heard on the Q2 music Soundcloud site introducing her music, including other landscape related compositions like 'City Scape', 'Summer Shimmers', 'Autumn Reflexions' and 'Dooryard Bloom', a setting of Walt Whitman). There is landscape too in the poetry of Ted Kooser, whose words were put to music this year by Dawn Upshaw and Maria Schneider for their song cycle Winter Morning Walks.  Personally I would rather listen to Hirta Songs, a collaboration between Alasdair Roberts and Robin Robertson (whose poetry and compelling voice I have referred to here before).  Robertson has written self-deprecatingly in The Guardian that the poem he wrote after visiting the island of St Kilda was 'really just a list of place names' - 'although it gave some sense of the scale of the place, and allowed for the sea-rhythms, the poem had lots of topography, but no real narrative.'  So he got together with Roberts to work up a set of folk songs and tell the island's stories, but that original poem, 'Leaving St Kilda', remains in the middle of the album, read to the accompaniment of Corrina Hewat's gentle harp.

Musical collaboration increasingly occurs remotely over the internet: one example from 2013 was Temperament as Waveform by field recordists Lee Patterson and Vanessa Rossetto.  It was interesting therefore to read that Taylor Deupree and Australian Cameron Webb (Seaworthy) deliberately went to great lengths to meet and walk together  the snow before composing Wood, Winter, Hollow.  Deupree prefers 'the human interaction and local landscapes over the soulless exchange of sound files.'  So 'the pair struck out in a New York February to a 4,000 acre nature preserve near Deupree’s studio called Ward Pound Ridge, a park rich in history that supports a diverse range of plant and animal life. While the cold of winter kept most of the animals quiet the landscape nonetheless teemed with sounds.'  They recorded raindrops on stone, wind in the beech trees and a creak slowly flowing through ice.  Later, in the warmth of the studio, these were combined with bells, sticks, melodica, analog synthesiser and the gentle sound of Seaworthy's guitar.  The result (see below) is quite different from 'Rusted Oak', Deupree's ambient soundscape that I featured in my 2010 Landscape Music round-up.

Field of Reeds, These New Puritans' follow-up to Hidden (NME's album of the year for 2010) has been a difficult one for reviewers to get their heads round.  It has been interesting to see it described by some critics as if it were another exploration of Essex (the 'new English landscape', according to Ken Worpole's recent book).  Here is Luke Turner, writing for The Quietus... 'The estuarine landscape of Field Of Reeds is best seen in two ways: in grand panorama from an aircraft banking over London, when sun glints off the water of the Thames widening toward the North Sea. Or, on the other hand, oozy intimacy along the rough shoreline, traditionally a site for dumping the waste of London. Here, alongside creeks where air bubbles rattle from the mud with the ebbing tide, a rutted horizon offers up gifts of ancient marmalade pots, broken clay pipes, fused and rusted metal. It's a landscape that refuses, like memory or dreams, to be defined or contained, that forever shifts and opens itself up to new narratives and fresh explorations.'

With both musicians and reviewers taking inspiration from the new nature writers and psychogeographers, it was no real surprise earlier this year to come across a project directly influenced by W. G. Sebald.  I can't now recall the exact circumstances in which I initially read The Rings of Saturn back in 1995, but it would have been in my first flat, at the top of a house in Tufnell Park.  I imagine my concentration was occasionally broken by the sound of baselines throbbing from the flat below, owned by record producer Dilip Harris.  Now, all these years later, I see that he and Rob Gallagher of Galliano have assumed the joint identity William Adamson and recorded Under An East Coast Moon, an album that draws 'inspiration from the Suffolk landscape – ancient burial grounds, fortifications against Nazi invaders, sea defences now inadequate against global warming and forests felled by the great storm of 1987.' Its 'cautionary tales of fallen women, folk songs and gothic legends fuse with reflections and refractions from W. G. Sebald’s book The Rings of Saturn.'

Well that'll probably do for now, but feel free to comment below on the interesting landscape related music I have neglected to mentioned. I'll end this post with the trailer for The Epic of Everest, scored by Simon Fisher Turner. 

1 comment:

Three Cane Whale said...

Thanks for this inspiring collation of like-minded souls. Thoroughly enjoyable and provoking. You might also enjoy our "Holts & Hovers" album, inspired by and recorded in 20 different locations. Thanks.