Showing posts with label rivers. Show all posts
Showing posts with label rivers. Show all posts

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

A Prospect of Wales

Last year I asked here 'why isn't the art of Recording Britain better known?'  Well Sheffield's Millenium Gallery is currently hosting a touring exhibition devoted to Recording Britain, with some of the original paintings from the 1940s set alongside earlier topographical watercolours and recent landscape art by people like Richard Long, Keith Arnatt and Ingrid Pollard.  A display case has books from the period, including A Prospect of Wales (1948), one of the old King Penguins (like John Piper's book on Romney Marsh which I described in  another post last summer). This book has illustrations by Kenneth Rowntree, whose contributions to the Prospect of Britain project were often quite unusual, e.g. The Smoke Room, Ashopton Inn, Derbyshire (1940) - a rather unprepossessing interior with dartboard, wall calendar and a fish mounted in a case. The accompanying essay is by Gwyn Jones, who founded The Welsh Review, wrote novels and translated Icelandic sagas.  Seeing this in the exhibition, and having just booked a week's holiday in Wales this summer, I thought I would get hold of a copy.

The title, A Prospect of Wales, sounds paradoxical - how is it possible to see the whole country?  To some extent Gwyn Jones' essay represents a kind of landscape writing I've mentioned here previously, the imaginary prospect which begins with the local and then spreads out far beyond the limits of sight.  Jacquetta Hawkes does this in A Land, which was published three years later than a A Prospect of Wales; as I wrote in an earlier post here, 'the book ends with 'A Prospect of Britain', from the city streets round her home in Primrose Hill to the different landscapes of Britain described in the order they were created: the chalk Downs, the Cotswold's, the West Riding, the Lake District.'  Another example: Virginia Woolf's Orlando (1928), whose hero/ine is able to climb a hill so high 'that nineteen English counties could be seen beneath; and on clear days thirty or perhaps forty, if the weather was very fine.'  And another, which I have not mentioned here before because it takes the reader completely beyond 'some landscapes': Olaf Stapledon's vision of the cosmos in Starmaker (1937), a book that begins with a view of suburbs and the sea's level darkness, and the opening sentence: 'One night when I had tasted bitterness I went out on to the hill.'  A Prospect of Wales begins, by contrast, 'I have just come down from the hill fronting my house in mid-Cardiganshire', but a few pages later he is asking us to ascend again to a point where 'we may survey with swinging glance the western counties of Wales.'

In my photograph above, the book is open at two of Kenneth Rowntree's illustrations of Pembrokeshire, which is where we will be heading next month.  'This is a coast,' Jones writes, 'soaked in colour and radiant with light.'  He quotes Graham Sutherland's essay 'A Welsh Sketchbook', which had appeared in Horizon in 1942: 'The quality of light here is magical and transforming - as indeed it is in all this country.  Watching from the gloom as the sun's rays strike the further bank, one has the sensation of the after tranquillity of an explosion of light; or as if one had looked into the sun and had suddenly turned away.'  I will no doubt have more to say about Sutherland and his Pembrokeshire paintings after we've explored this landscape. I'll conclude here with four lines of Welsh poetry quoted at the end of A Prospect of Wales which encapsulate what Jones sees as the real essence of the country, to be found 'not in the famed vistas ... but in some corner of a field, a pool under a rock, in a bare sheep-walk or a cottage folded in a gulley.'  The poem is by Hedd Wyn and Jones translates these lines as follows: 'Only the purple moon at the edge of the bare mountain, and the sound of the old river Prysor singing in the valley.'
Dim ond lleuad borffor
Ar fin y mynydd llwm,
A sŵn hen afon Prysor
Yn canu yn y cwm 

Thursday, June 26, 2014

The River Duddon

The valley of the River Duddon

In 1820 William Wordsworth published The River Duddon, A Series of SonnetsAs Stephen Gill points out in his essay, 'Wordsworth and the River Duddon', reviewers were bemused that a famous poet should choose to write about this ‘insignificant river’ with a ‘barbarous name’:
‘What would he not have written had the majestic Thames employed his muse’, exclaimed the Literary Chronicle and Weekly Review, getting the matter exactly wrong. The lines from Burns quoted at the close of the ‘Postscript’ to the River Duddon sonnet sequence ought to have alerted the reviewer to Wordsworth’s poetic intent. In the verse letter ‘To William Simson, Ochiltree’, Burns declares that, ‘Illisus, Tiber, Thames, an’ Seine’ having all been celebrated in ‘monie a tunefu’ line’, he and his fellow poet should now rather seek the Muse ‘Adown some trottin burn’s meander’ in their own locality, to ‘gar our streams and burnies shine / Up wi’ the best’.  Wordsworth read this poem almost as soon as it was published in 1786, quoted from it throughout his life, and adopted its forthrightness as he began his celebration of the river with the barbarous name.'
In The Song of the Earth, Jonathan Bate suggests that the choice of the Duddon for a sonnet sequence over, for example, those other Wordsworthian rivers, the Wye and the Derwent, may have had something to do with its location, rising near the confluence of Westmoreland, Cumberland and Lancashire.  Standing in three counties at once is to feel both connected to the local and in touch with a much wider geography.  Wordsworth believed in a nationalism rooted in the regions, a country of small Anglican parishes where the periphery was as important as the centre, the Duddon as worthy of literature as the Thames.  A couple of years ago I wrote here about Wordsworth's sonnet Composed Upon Westminster Bridge, Sept. 3, 1802, in which the poet stood looking out over the Thames.  Here I will give a brief summary of the River Duddon sequence, from source to sea.
  1. Wordsworth's first sonnet announces his theme - not the spring of Bandusia, not some Persian fountain, not an Alpine torrent, but 'long-loved Duddon'.
  2. This river is 'remote from every taint / of sordid industry' and has remained unchanged, long after the surrounding forests have vanished 'where stalked the huge deer to his shaggy lair / through paths and alleys roofed with darkest green.'
  3. Wordsworth sits and prepares to 'paint' the river in words.  No monument marks its birthplace but instead the river itself has 'shed a gleam / of brilliant moss, instinct with freshness rare.'  
  4. The Duddon is like a snake, threading 'with sinuous lapse the rushes, through / dwarf willows gliding, and by ferny brake.'  
  5. After the solitude of 'sullen moss and craggy mound' the river becomes shaded by green alders, ashes and 'birch-trees risen in silver colonnade'.
  6. He describes the flowers that grow by the side of the river: wild strawberries, thyme and 'trembling eyebright ... sapphire blue'.
  7. A 'love-sick Stripling' might envy the plucked rose lying on his lover's breast, or imagine himself her caged bird singing, but those with 'calmer mind' would rather be an 'unculled floweret or darkling wren / that tunes on Duddon's banks her slender voice.'
  8. The poet wonders what kind of man first came upon this stream.  Whatever his ancient beliefs, the river's role was then as it is now, to heal, restore, soothe and cleanse.
  9. There are some stepping stones in the river.  Crossing here, when a flood runs 'fierce and wild', the Child puts 'his budding courage to the proof', whilst 'Declining Manhood learns to note the sly / and sure encroachments of infirmity.'
  10. The stepping stones again, and this time two young lovers cross, she blushing and holding out her hand, he teasingly withdrawing it, and then both of them feeling the thrill when their hands touch.  
  11. A flight of fancy in which tiny dancing elves are imagined dancing by their 'sunless cleft' and stealing a baby.
  12. As if realising that this sort of thing will try our patience, he exclaims: 'On, loitering Muse--the swift Stream chides us--on!'  It is all too easy for the river's features to become the 'toys of Fancy.'
  13. We zoom out to an open prospect of fields and a hamlet under a green hill.  Wordsworth imagines the pleasures of a warm hearth here in cold weather, 'when bleak winds roar / through the stiff lance-like shoots of pollard ash'.
  14. The river seems to seek its own solitude, attended only by its own voice, leaving behind the solitary shepherd and his cottage.
  15. From a 'deep chasm, where quivering sunbeams play', he sees a kind of 'gloomy niche' in the rock where some ancient statue might have been placed, sculpted by men perhaps, or fire, or the waters of the Deluge.
  16. A continuation of the theme, in which Wordsworth describes the caves and rock drawings of Native Americans.
  17. He hears the croak of a raven on a blasted yew and an eagle 'shedding where he flew / loose fragments of wild wailing.'  Sheep sleep by the remains of the old Roman fort and the ancient stone circle of the Druids.
  18. The sonnet is entitled 'Seathwaite Chapel' and suggests that the vale of the River Duddon protects 'Truth's holy lamp', alluding to the ministry of the Reverend Thomas Walker of whom Wordsworth wrote a short memoir, appended to the poem sequence.
  19. A tributary: 'waters, from their aery height / hurrying, with lordly Duddon to unite.'  Its musical murmur announces a source of refreshment to the thirsty fields.
  20. On the flowery plain of Donnerdale, the waters are slow and serene, but further on the course is rougher and the river dances from rock to rock.  
  21. 'The cloudy stall / of Time, breaks forth triumphant Memory' and Wordsworth recalls those he once roved with on the banks of the River Duddon.
  22. In a sonnet called 'Tradition' the story is told of a love-lorn Maid who yearns for a primrose reflected in a clear, blue pool and, it is implied, drowns there.
  23. Banishing such sad thoughts, he recalls the 'blithe cheer' of boys shouting and dogs barking whilst sheep are washed in a pool formed where bands of rock check the stream.
  24. Now he finds a good place to rest, 'with woodbine hung and straggling weed ... half grot, half arbour', enclosing both the body and the mind.
  25. Here he can imagine 'the One for whom my heart shall ever beat / with tenderest love' being brought.  But without her, 'the waters seem to waste / their vocal charm.'
  26. Memories of childhood: 'fondly I pursued, / even when a child, the Streams--unheard, unseen; / through tangled woods, impending rocks between.'  He has learnt much from the river.   
  27. He describes a ruined castle, 'quietly self-buried in earth's mould'. 
  28. He rises to continue his onward journey, while cattle avoid the heat of the day by crowding together 'under rustling trees / brushed by the current of the water-breeze.'  
  29. There are no stories of battles fought over this landscape, but to those who lie buried and unremembered,'the passing Winds memorial tribute pay'.
  30. In life, Wordsworth suggests, it is best not to yield to sudden temptations or swerve away too far from innocence.  He is content to 'saunter o'er the grassy plain' here, chained loosely to the river, knowing when he leaves that he will always return to it.
  31. The 'Kirk of Ulpha' is a welcome sight and he imagines reclining among its graves or marking the distant moonlit mountain summits, faintly shining, 'soothed by the unseen River's gentle roar.'  
  32. This penultimate sonnet is pure landscape: a description of the lower reaches of the river, 'gliding in silence with unfettered sweep'.
  33. The original sequence ends with the sea that the Duddon flows into - here there are no warships, just humble sailing boats.  Wordsworth would like to end his days like the river, 'prepared, in peace of heart, in calm of mind / and soul, to mingle with Eternity!'
Postscript: Wordsworth later added a thirty-fourth sonnet in which, as Jonathan Bate says, 'the poet deconstructs, then reconstructs, the analogy between human life and the life of the river.'  It can be read at The Poetry Foundation.

The stone circle referred to in Sonnet 17

[In one of his endnotes Wordsworth says that 'the country people call this circle Sunken Church'.  We visited Sunkenkirk, as it is now known, on our recent trip to the Lakes.  In The Modern Antiquarian, Julian Cope calls it 'perfect from all angles ... this Sunkenkirk is a place for the most righteous devotion.']

Friday, June 06, 2014


We were at St Luke's on Sunday, the converted church near the Barbican which we last visited to hear Terje Isungset play his ice instruments.  This time we had come to see Richard Skelton and the Elysian Quartet perform music they devised together at Aldeburgh earlier this year.  I have described Richard's landscape-inspired music here several times before; live performance with a classical string quartet is a new departure for him.  The Elysian Quartet have a pretty cool CV, having performed Stockhausen's Helicopter Quartet and worked with people like Meredith Monk, Simon Fisher Turner and Damo Suzuki.  What I have included below are the programme notes describing the three sections of the St Luke's concert, along with a few brief reflections on what we heard.
EA performed by Richard Skelton and the Elysian Quartet: Rivers have occupied much of Richard’s recorded work, including the fledgeling moorland streams of ‘Landings’, the narrow, quick Cumbrian rills and becks of ‘Limnology’, and the tidal-bore of ‘From Which the River Rises’. ‘EA’ continues this fascination with a study of Suffolk’s river Alde as it slows and widens past Snape on the final, estuarine portion of its journey to the sea. It is perhaps his most delicate and lyrical invocation of a waterway. The word ‘ea’ itself is Anglo-Saxon for ‘river’.
Everyone I talked to afterwards found this slow, meditative piece particularly moving.  The string quartet, with Richard sitting beside them bowing an adapted bouzouki, gradually brought the music to an emotional pitch and gently let it fall again, before taking its themes up once more and finally bringing everything quietly to a close.  The riverine wash of the strings was punctuated by some insistent sounds like the cries of birds that at first I assumed were on a loop, until I realised everything was being produced by the five acoustic instruments.  As the references to his earlier work above suggest, Ea felt close in sound and feel to the music in Landings and other more recent releases.  The next piece was very different.
Above / Below performed by the Elysian Quartet: During his residency at Snape last December, Richard spent much of his time wandering along the Alde and through the nearby marshland towards Iken. Over the ensuing winter he began writing a textual score based on the names of birds and plants he observed in-situ, found referenced in public information signage, or discovered during later research by consulting books such as W.M. Hind’s The Flora of Suffolk . The Elysian Quartet selected eight species from the score and began working with Richard to develop a musical vocabulary that engages with them, hinting at the diversity of plant and avian life in Snape and its surroundings. The result is a series of miniatures, shifting focus from one species to another, from the earth-bound and air-borne – a sensitively observed journey through a specific environment. The species they chose were: common sorrel, curlew, heron, nettle, oystercatcher, redshank, yarrow and yellow flag. 

For Above / Below Richard left the stage and looked on as the quartet interpreted his score, beginning with an irregular patter of notes from one of the violins that sounded like rain but was, I think, an interpretation of the motion of an oystercatcher.  As the music progressed it was clear they were avoiding anything too obvious like the simple imitation of bird calls or other natural sounds.  Instead the four instruments, plucked and bowed, sometimes alone and sometimes in concert, were channelling elements of the Suffolk landscape in more subtle ways.  There is no recording available to listen again and try to identify any species, so the music will become a memory, like the recollections of impressions of a walk by the reed beds of the Alde.
Mimesis performed by Richard Skelton and the Elysian Quartet: ‘Mimesis’ is informed by Richard’s experience of the intense tidal surges of early December 2013, during which Snape Maltings itself was nearly inundated. Intimations of this flood-violence are found in the following public information sign along the marshland boardwalk: ‘The River Fights Back: In places along the banks of the river Alde, land was once claimed from the river to create farmland. Defences were built to protect this claimed land. Over the centuries the river has broken through again. The remnants of the defences are still visible, stretching out into the estuary.’ During his stay in December, Richard produced a collection of charcoal drawings, the majority of which seemed to describe the same river-like form undergoing a series of contortions. The ensemble have used these images as a kind of graphic score, producing a new work which evokes a river undergoing violent transformation.
Richard returned to the stage for this final piece.  By now the light outside was fading but still strong enough to illuminate the natural backdrop of leaves, visible through the large church windows behind the musicians and stirring softly in the wind.  Mimesis started softly too, but grew louder and more turbulent, becoming a roiling torrent that had the kind of surging force that reminded me of seeing Godspeed back in the day.  Richard's bow took some punishment and towards the end there were fine broken hairs curling from it, illuminated in the stage lights like electrical filaments or the spiralling seed heads of rose bay willow herb.  It was over all too soon: the music drained away, the musicians left the stage and we all remained in silence for a minute, until the lights came on and it was time to make our way out through the darkening churchyard.

Postscript: After the concert it was good to meet Hannah Devereux, whose ink drawings feature in the second edition of Lintel, an art journal published by the Corbel Stone Press which Richard runs with his partner Autumn. They are purely abstract but suggestive of fine rock strata or expanses of calm water stretching away to the horizon.

Saturday, March 15, 2014


We pass through grass behush the bush to. Whish! A gull. Gulls. Far calls. Coming, far! End here.
On the final page of Finnegans Wake, the River Liffey enters the ocean.  But the book is circular and its last words, spoken by Anna Livia Plurabelle, the personification of the river - 'A way a lone a last a loved a long the' - point back to its opening - 'riverrun, past Eve and Adam's, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.'  I was listening to these words at the National Theatre last night in riverrun, a solo performance in which the Irish actor Olwen Fouéré embodies the voice of the river.  Based on the trailer (see above) I imagined this could involve riverine footage and field recordings, but there was just Fouéré and a microphone, carefully lit, with ambient sound designed to immerse you in the experience rather than signify flowing water directly.  Her extraordinary performance has received good write-ups (e.g. in the Telegraph and the Independent), although reviewers have been honest about the inaccessibility of the text - none has claimed to be able to follow exactly what they heard.

'A river is not a woman / ...  Any more than / A woman is a river', wrote Eavan Boland in 'Anna Liffey', a poem published in a collection twenty years ago.  'Anna Liffey' is the name the river has sometimes gone by, an anglicisation of Abhainn na Life.  'It rises in rush and ling heather and / Black peat and bracken and strengthens / To claim the city it narrated. / Swans. Steep falls. Small towns. / The smudged air and bridges of Dublin.'  One of these bridges is now called Anna Livia and the city has also recently acquired a James Joyce Bridge, facing the house where his story 'The Dead' was set.  In a park by the Liffey you can see a sculpture depicting Anna Livia Plurabelle.  She was originally sited on O'Connell Street with water flowing around her long limbs and became known as The Floozy in the Jacuzzi.  However, her presence was insufficient to turn the tide of economic decline and as part of a new plan to regenerate the street she was replaced by a millennium monument, The Spire of Dublin (aka The Stiletto in the Ghetto).  But as the city continues to change around it, the Liffey flows on, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, always back to the ocean.

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. 

Saturday, November 30, 2013

The New English Landscape

This week Ken Worpole was talking at the LRB bookshop about his latest collaboration with photographer Jason Orton, The New English Landscape.   A full review of the book can be found on the Landscapism blog so I will just say a few words here prompted by what was said on Thursday.  Ken was joined by Rachel Lichtenstein, who read an extract from her work in progress on the Thames estuary, and interviewed by writer, film curator and cultural catalyst Gareth Evans.  The New English Landscape partly develops the ideas in an essay Ken wrote for the anthology Gareth co-edited, Towards Re-Enchantment: Place and Its Meanings (just re-printed, highly recommended).  It was obviously a very productive project: since I discussed it here three years ago Kathleen Jamie has expanded her essay for inclusion in Sightlines and Robert Macfarlane's contribution has seeded a new book, Landmarks, currently in preparation, on language and landscapeThe New English Landscape also incorporates material Ken presented at one of the Place events Gareth has organised at Snape (the next one in February is dedicated to various forms of landscape 'occupation').  However, notes on Essex had been accumulating in boxes for some years and Ken before the opportunity came to collaborate with Jason on 350 Miles: An Essex Journey (2005).  Mainstream publishers were only interested in books that dealt with the stereotypes of Ford Escorts and white stilettos.

Unsurprisingly, Essex held few attractions for Rachel Lichtenstein growing up in Southend, but ten years ago she moved back and has experienced a kind of personal re-enchantment with its landscape (she says she is "a born again Essex girl").  Ken has followed a similar trajectory: leaving Canvey Island just before the great flood of 1953, but returning there for walks in its wild places and unassimilated landscapes.  Of course distance lends enchantment and there was some discussion about the risk of seeing landscape at a remove from its lived reality.  I thought of Wordworth, who chose to settle in the Lakes not among the people he had grown up but at Grasmere, surrounded by Romantic scenery.  Rachel's current project is engaging with the working river through interviews with fishermen, tugmen, cocklers and river pilots (see embedded clip below).  People are absent from the images in The New English Landscape but, as Ken explained, there are traces of their presence: broken fences, overgrown greenhouses, a forlorn flag planted on an empty beach stretching almost to the horizon.  

It was a shame Jason Orton could not be present to say more about how he seeks to avoid the aestheticisation of dilapidation and decay that was central to Picturesque taste and what we now call 'ruin porn'.  By eschewing filters and shooting on film he tries to arrive at a truthful representation of place as it is actually experienced - Ken was scornful of the artificiality on display in the recent Landscape Photographer of the Year awards.  Muted colours and flat light might not grab the attention but they reflect a persistent strain in twentieth century English painting. Ken mentioned in passing the work of Prunella Clough, who lived in Lowestoft and depicted its dockyards, cranes, warehouses and fishermen.  I can see a clear resemblance to Jason's photographs in paintings like Sheds by a Quarry (1947).  Frances Spalding's description of this in her recent book Prunella Clough: regions unmapped seems to want to excuse its mundane subject matter: 'A conglomeration of pale corrugated roofs shimmer with an unearthly light, cradled within the warm umbers of a barren landscape ... bleakness, however, is made exquisite through subtle alterations of texture, colour and light.'  The photographs in The New English Landscape are not there to be admired like this for their formal qualities.  As Ken writes in his most recent blog post, the book seeks to establish 'a tension between words and images, the exigencies of social history and visual richness, so that there is an interrogative presence at work in our response to landscape as well as an appreciative one.'

Friday, November 15, 2013

Clouds and Mist in the Mountains

Ten landscape highlights from the V&A's exhibition Masterpieces of Chinese Painting 700-1900
(1) Possibly Yan Wenghui - Landscape with Pavilions (early 11th century)
There is an aura of great age about this scroll, although its exact date and the authenticity of its signature are in doubt.  Peering through the mist of fine grey ink and sepia-coloured paper you can discern little figures with umbrellas: it is a landscape in bad weather.  The catalogue describes the sky as 'dark and leaden' - 'as one moves towards the last section, the mountains become increasingly steep and rugged; a swiftly moving stream appears, and bent trees tell of the power of the wind and rain.'  The painting's fine details draw you into its world: you feel that with a magnifying glass it would be possible to enter even further into the past.  The Song Dynasty critic Liu Daochun found in Yan Wengui's paintings that 'the ship is like a leaf and the figures are like seeds of millet ... A thousand miles in a single foot - such was his subtlety!'
(2) Unidentified Artist - Reading the Memorial Stele (14th century or earlier)
This is a remarkably atmospheric painting, darkened by age (although not as dark as it appears in the catalogue, which is either badly printed in places or aiming to convery what these ancient silk hanging scrolls would look like in the shadows of an old library; fortunately it is much easier to see online.) Skeletal trees surround the stele and you wonder how the two travellers have the courage to linger there to decipher the inscription.  The warlord Cao Cao remains baffled as they ride away, but his attendant realises immediately that it commemorates a famously filial daughter of the Han Dynasty.  Another inscription to one side of the stele identifies the artists as Wang Xiao (the rather stylised figures) and Li Cheng (the extraordinary trees and rocks).  Li Cheng (Li Ch'eng, 919-967) was the great early Song Dynasty painter but sadly this scroll is probably from a later date, executed in his style.
(3) Mi Youren - Cloudy Mountains (1140s)
This painting has been impressed with the red seal marks and colophons of collectors and admirers over the course of 800 years, and yet it seems to be nothing more than an empty landscape of a few trees and distant peaks, brushed in thin dabs of watery grey ink.  It is owned by the Met who explain the appeal of the 'cloudy mountain' genre developed by Mi Fu and his son Mi Youren: 'referred to by scholar-artists as "ink play," the style suggests the importance of the painter's psychological expression, thereby raising the status of painting to that of poetry and calligraphy.'  The Mi style became popular again in the early Yuan dynasty, when the calligrapher and scholar Xianyu Shu wrote in his colophon to this painting (quoted in the exhibition catalogue) that 'an artisan's painting is short in ideas but long on representative likeness, but the opposite is true with the works of lofty souls and superior scholars.'  The vagueness of the view is such as to leave the viewer free to imagine 'a choice stretch of river shore lying far beyond the actual brushwork.'

(4) Qiu Ying - Saying Farewell at Xunyang (early 15th century)
Leaping forward from the early Song Dynasty due to my self-imposed limit of choosing just ten, and passing over works like Ni Zan's Woods and Valleys of Mount Yu (which you can see in an earlier post here), I come to this scroll, which is still 600 years old, although its colours remain as vivid as enamel. You can see it at the Google Art Project and even from the small reproduction above, it should be evident that this is a beautiful example of 'green and blue' landscape painting, the style that had arisen in the Tang dynasty when the subject of this scroll, Bai Juyi (Po-Chü-i) was writing his poetry.  In the middle a small group of men can be seen in a boat, listening to a woman playing a pipa, the Chinese lute.  It is a scene from Bai's famous poem 'Song of the Lute', written in 816.  Hearing the the sound of a pipa, Bai and his friends ask the musician to join them, but after playing some selections she puts down her plectrum and lapses into silence.  Then she tells them of the sad contrast between her youth as a beautiful courtesan in the capital and her current lonely existence.  Bai, who had been exiled from the capital the year before, is moved to tears.  There is a lovely translation of this poem in Burton Watson's Po Chü-i: Selected Poems.
(5) Wen Zhengming - Garden of the Inept Administrator (1551)
I have chosen this one partly for its amusing title: 'Inept' is rather different from 'humble', the usual translation of the name for this famous garden in Suzhou.  In 1535 Wen Zhengming painted aspects of it in a 31-leaf album for Wang Xianchen, its owner and designer.  This exhibition includes a different, later set of eight views, drawn in a 'humble' style so understated that the garden architecture has been diminished in size. The artist himself might be described as an inept administrator, having first sat the civil service exam in 1495 and failed another nine times before at last being granted an honorary position in 1522 (extraordinary to think that Wen, China's most famous sixteenth century artist, spent the whole period of the Italian High Renaissance failing to become a government administrator).  Having finally made it into the elite Hanlin Academy he resigned, disillusioned, after just three years and devoted the rest of his life to painting and calligraphy.  
(6) Fan Qi - Yangzi Riverscape (1660s)
'Fan Qi was one of the first artists in Chinese art history to paint a true horizon, namely a horizontal line separating heaven and earth.  In earlier and most later Chinese painting, including most landscapes by Fan Qi himself, the meeting of earth or water with the sky is ambiguous and blurred by clouds and a misty vagueness.  In fact, in the revolutionary horizon line here, which is about 75 centimetres long, there are only two short stretches of about 5 centimetres where sky and water really touch: at the three boat sails, and to the right of the tip of the tallest tree.  Everywhere else, shoals and clifs in pale grey and brown washes without contour lines appear behind the horizon, as if floating on it.  It is as if Fan Qi was afraid to show directly the full implications of his line: the earth is round, and even the tallest mountain, if far enough away, sinks beneath the horizon.'  (Kure Motoyuki, writing in the exhibition catalogue). 
(7) Wang Jian - Landscapes in the Manner of Old Masters (1669-73)
Twelve large scrolls in a row, each showing mountains and rivers in a different style but composed in a similar way: as the catalogue points out, 'from the stones and banks to the soaring peaks near the apex: a ridge almost like the undulating backbone of a dragon runs through each work.'  This ought to be a fascinating lesson in the history of Chinese landscape painting but neither the exhibition or the catalogue explain whose work Wang was imitating.  All we are told is that 'while some of the original paintings on which this set was based remain obscure to us today, others are instantly recognisable' (Fan Kuan's famous Travellers amid Streams and Mountains is clearly one of them).  Wang Jian was one of 'The Four Wangs', influenced by Dong Qichang (who I mentioned here last year), working in the lineage of literati-painters going back to Wang Wei.  The exhibition contrasts their more orthodox work nicely with the individualistic styles of Shitao and Bada Shanren.
(8) Fa Ruozhen - Clouds and Mist in the Mountains (c. 1690)
Fa Ruozhen is known now for cloud and mountain paintings in which the mist and rock are hard to distinguish.  The Met has one: ' like a great cumulonimbus cloud, the landscape billows upward in roiling layers of earth punctuated by misty vales harbouring half-concealed groves of trees.'  For this exhibition the V&A have borrowed a hanging scroll from Stockholm, and, as the catalogue says, 'it is sometimes difficult to decide whether cliffs and rocks are protruding or receding.  The space is relatively constricted, he clouds and mist failing to create any sense of depth.  The crags reaching almost to the top of the painting contribute to an almost claustrophobic atmosphere.'  Entering this place you would encounter cumulus boulders and trees like dark rain clouds; ascending through the mist you could never be sure how far the mountain extended.  If you kept on going you might realise you had left solid ground behind some time ago without ever having reached a summit.
(9) Bada Shanren - Flowers on the River (1697)
This painting of lotus flowers is so long, 14 metres, that following it feels like walking by a real riverbank.  What you can't really appreciate from reproductions is the sense of joyous freedom in Bada Shanren's gestural brushstrokes.  His poem at the end concludes: 'Happily singing my way, I immerse myself in the splashes of spring water and the sprays of flowers.  East and west, south and north after all are the same.'  A contemporary wrote that the artist's colophons 'were so strange that no one could understand them.  His brushwork was impulsively reckless; he did not stick to any established method, but worked in a firm and thorough and often unrestrained manner.' Michael Sullivan quotes this in his book Symbols of Eternity and goes on to wonder how Bada Shanren (Pa-ta Shan-jen) would have explained another landscape scroll which I have reproduced to the right.  'He might (if he were sober) have spoken of the Tao, or of the Void out of which form is manifest and into which it dissolves again.  This picture, executed with no preconceived composition in a kind of aesthetic ecstasy, carries us to the outer limits of pictorial art, to the edge of Void, stopping just short of the point of pure abstraction.'
(10) Xu Yang - Prosperous Suzhou (1759)
Finally, in complete contrast, this scroll is similar in length to Flowers on the River, but so detailed it seems to contain a whole world.  On reaching it, visitors to the exhibition stop and become immersed in its detail, edging along the display case from the morning light on Lingyan Hill past wharves and workshops, streets and shops, to the evening mist over the outskirts of the city.  It was commissioned by the Qianlong Emperor, whose own paintings and poetry I have described on this blog before.  Five years after completing it, Xu Yang and his assistants were asked to create scrolls depicting the Emperor's southern tours.  Six years and a hundred and fifty metres later they finished in time for his sixtieth birthday.  Art historians (and David Hockney) have compared these unfavourably with a similar set of scrolls painted in the 1690s by Wang Hui, attributing a certain stiffness in Xu Yang's work to the deleterious influence of new Western pictorial conventions that had arrived with the Jesuits.
NB: for copyright reasons I have not included images here beyond what is on Wikimedia Commons, although I have added links where possible.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Diesel river

'Down by the shoreline with my back to the land
I felt my feet sink down in the sand
Down by the harbour standing all alone
I felt my heart grow heavy as a stone...'

- The Weather Prophets, 'Almost Prayed', 1986

Earlier today I was reading about the forthcoming Shorelines Festival at Leigh-on-Sea and these lyrics came to mind, from one of my favourite singles of the eighties.  The song conveys an impression of the industrial shore in a few simple images, from the swans in the diesel river, to the cargo and cranes in the dawn light.  What with the Morrissey autobiography and Sam Knee's appealing new book about Indie fashion, A Scene In Between, Mrs Plinius and I have been feeling rather nostalgic this week.  I've not yet read Morrissey, but A Scene in Between is mostly photographs and Peter Astor can be seen in one of them wearing the spotty shirt he had on to perform 'Almost Prayed' on Whistle Test.  I still have stashed away in a wardrobe some old NME articles from that time, including an interview with the Weather Prophets from 28 March 1987.  Hopefully nobody will object to me including here a few paragraphs from this, in which Astor talks about the kind of landscapes that influenced his lyrics and the importance to him of Andrew Marvell's poem 'The Garden' ('a green thought in a green shade...')  Sadly the interviewer moves on just when this is getting interesting...

Sunday, September 15, 2013


Yesterday we went down to the Isle of Dogs, where the great brick sugar warehouses on the side of West India Docks have for the last decase housed the Docklands museum.  This summer they have mounted their first exhibition of contemporary art, perhaps inspired by the excellent art programme at the National Maritime Museum (Dan Holdsworth, High Arctic, Ansel Adams).  As Ken Worpole says in his review on Caught by the River, Estuary is terrific stuff: 'there’s a real feel for the wind and the waves, and the smack of saltwater in nearly every contribution. Its success may encourage the transformation of the Docklands Museum into a major new public gallery for contemporary work about this great historical mind-altering space.'  I hope so, although there were hardly any other visitors there yesterday (in contrast to the opening night, which Ken says was 'awash with beer, champagne and oysters').  This did mean however that I was able to enjoy alone the full 18 minutes of John Smith's beautiful installation film Horizon, a really impressive piece of work commissioned by Margate Contemporary last year.

As you enter the exhibition you encounter two of Jock McFadyen's panoramic views of the A13 hinterland and Michael Andrews' last completed work, Thames Painting: The Estuary (1994-5), which conveys the action of water on sand by mixing ash into diluted paint.  Other works document the course of the Thames in photographs and photogravures: the decaying seaforts, redundent industrial land ripe for urban regeneration, detritus washed up on the margins of the river, old ships sinking into the mud. You can watch William Raban's excellent Thames Film, which I described here three years ago, a fast-forward trip (Jaunt) from Southend to the Houses of Parliament by Andrew Kötting, who recently collaborated with Iain Sinclair on Swandown, and a long sequence by Nikolaj B. S. Larsen documenting the working life of the river.  Most enjoyable of all, there is footage of The Bow Gamelan Ensemble from 1985, performing 51º 29'.9"North - 0º11' East, Rainham Barges, bashing out music from makeshift instruments at the river's edge as the tide rises and night falls.  I'll end here with a clip from Youtube capturing the group members at that time (the Ensemble disbanded in 1990), talking rubbish.

[PS: In case you're wondering, I'm not sure why Blogger has suddenly messed up the format for my title, squashing it to the left, and I'm afraid I haven't worked out a way of getting it back to how it looked yet...]

Friday, August 02, 2013

Five minutes on even the nicest mountain is awfully long


Winds, Woods, Mountains, Lakes, Islands, Plains and Streams: each are addressed in turn in W. H. Auden's 'Bucolics' (1953).  Glyn Maxwell, writing in 1994 (the year he was a New Generation Poet) thought them 'the supreme poems of a broad and balanced education in this century'. He appreciated the way Auden managed to generalise without abstracting and simplifying.  In 'Mountains', for example, which you can hear Auden read in the embedded clip above, he asks whether he must accept that the Lake District is merely a bourgeois invention like the piano.  But the reality of the landscape cannot be reduced to this.  'I wish I stood now on a platform at Penrith', he thinks - waiting for a local train and anticipating the moment when 'you smell peat or pinewood, you hear / your first waterfalls.'  'Mountains', as Maxwell says, touches on crime, farming and archaeology, as well as the relationship between geography and psychology, but concludes with something personal and idiosyncratic: 'For an uncatlike / creature who has gone wrong, / five minutes on even the nicest mountain / is awfully long.'

Piero di Cosimo, The Forest Fire, 1505

The second clip below is 'Woods', which begins in Piero di Cosimo's primal forest, where none of the creatures 'thought the lightning-kindled bush to tame / but, flabbergasted, fled the useful flame.'  That was before civilisation had taught them 'to abhor the license of the grove.'  Nowadays it can be said that 'the trees encountered on a country stroll / reveal a lot about that country's soul.'  The poem ends with what seems like a premonition of the disease that has lately infected our woods: 'a small grove massacred to the last ash...'  And so neither woods or mountains are places Auden feels fully comfortable in; indeed none of the landscapes in the central five poems 'really get his vote', as Maxwell puts it.  'Plains' fill him with horror, 'Islands' seem a place of joyless exile and 'Lakes' are for other people ('It is unlikely I shall ever keep a swan / or build a tower on any small tombolo').  It is only in the final section, 'Streams', that Auden seems to find peace and contentment.  'It is fitting.' Maxwell concludes, 'that he ends up by water, 'the aboriginal pilgrim, / at home in all sections', timeless and free yet chained like us to the actualities of gravity and stone.'

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Across the Tappan Zee

'Sligo River Blues' has always been my favourite song on John Fahey's Blind Joe Death (1959), the album which defined a new genre: American primitivism.  Other rivers flowed through his subsequent work: 'Sunflower River Blues', 'On the Banks of the Owchita', 'Revelation on the Banks of the Pawtuxent' (all feature on the recent Four Men With Beards compilation, The Transcendental Waterfall: Guitar Excursions 1962-1967).  I'm not sure how important landscape was for Fahey but a sense of place is evident in a lot of the music he put out on Takoma Records.  His friend Robbie Basho, who made his Takoma debut in 1965, was, like the Beat writers, inspired to transplant aspects of Asian culture, including the ragas of Ravi Shankar.  Landscape obviously inspired songs like Song of the Snowy Ranges, Rocky Mountain Raga and Green River Suite, although I must admit I do find his singing a bit hard going.  After Robbie Basho's untimely death in 1986 (following a freak chiropractor accident) his mantle was assumed by the East German guitarist Steffan Basho-Junghans.  This passing on of the name might seem less of an affectation if you bear in mind that the original Bashō only assumed this haigō (haiku name) in 1680 after disciples planted for him a bashō (banana tree).  The video clip below is an interview with Steffan Basho-Junghans in which he talks about the importance of nature and mountain landscapes for his music and painting. 

One of the most prominent figures in the revival of American primitivism over the last decade has been Glenn Jones, whose new record My Garden State I've been listening to this week.  It was written on extended trips to look after his mother in northern New Jersey, where he grew up.  The album begins and ends with 'field recordings of insect chorus and chimes, evoking baking hot days in the burgeoning fields of a market farm' (Nick Southgate in The Wire).  The tune Jones plays with Laura Baird in the clip below is named after the Tappan Zee bridge that spans the Hudson River.  Other tracks are based on specific experiences, as Grayson Currin explains in Pitchfork: ''The Vernal Pool', for instance, is an improvisation Jones played shortly after Baird showed him the farm habitat of spadefoot toads, which use the “spades” of their feet to dig into their subterranean lairs for a season’s rest. When it rains in the spring, they dig their way out and become “explosive breeders.” Jones saw the toads in the fall, when they still lurked underground. This piece starts with listless hibernation, his slow notes languishing inside their own decay. Across its five minutes, though, it builds into a bustle, with a thumbed bass line muscling its way through a raga-like flurry of sound. Even at its most vibrant and vivid, 'The Vernal Pool' reveals a constant vein of anxiety, as if to acknowledge at once the world’s forever-chained wonder and worry while celebrating it, too.'

Monday, April 01, 2013

Silt Road

Having mentioned Silt last week, I come now to Silt Road, a new book kindly sent me by Charles Rangeley-Wilson.  It is 'The Story of a Lost River', the River Wye: not the 'sylvan Wye' celebrated by Wordsworth, but a nine mile tributary of the Thames that used to flow through High Wycombe until it was built over as part of a road widening scheme.  The book has historical digressions on water meadows, chalk geology, the Swing Riots and the Hellfire Club, but there's a pervading sense of melancholy, as the author trudges through winter rain and sits alone in a public library, looking at old maps and trying to trace the history of the river's imprisonment.  At one particularly low ebb he dreams of a dead fish, prompting recollections of happier times fishing for trout in Tasmania. Angling has been the subject of Charles Rangeley-Wilson's two previous books, Somewhere Else and The Accidental Angler and it is no surprise to see that he will be appearing on the new Caught by the River stage at this year's Field Day festival.  The same event will also have Melissa Harrison reading from her novel Clay (she has just reviewed Silt Road in The FT), plus a session dedicated to field recording that features some of the people I mentioned here recently (along with DJ and fellow Stoke Newington resident, Jonny Trunk).  It's good to see Caught by the River going from strength to strength - having begun as a site dedicated to the riverine enthusiasms of the team behind Heavenly Records it has now become essential reading for anyone interested in British nature writing and field recording.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Stepping Stones

I've been reading the late Dennis O'Driscoll's Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney.  Among the interesting things I learnt was that Heaney's poem 'The Mud Vision', in which a strange religious apparition briefly visits modern secular Ireland, was partly inspired by Richard Long.  As Heaney explains in another interview, 'the actual mud-vision idea came from seeing a work by the English artist Richard Long, a big flower-face on a wall, made up entirely of muddy handprints. It began as a set of six or eight petals of mud and then moved out and out concentrically until it became this huge sullied rose window.'  Another strange image - a tree-clock made of tin cans - appears in the poem 'Fosterling', although this was not inspired by a piece of land art.  In Stepping Stones, Heaney recalls that it came from an old story about a Faustian pact: a band of tinkers built a fantastic clock in a tree and set it to the wrong time to fool the devil when he returned for the local people's souls.  Such marvels took Heaney many years to work into his poetry.  Growing up he inhabited a 'lowlands of the mind', a silted place where poetry was 'sluggish in the doldrums of what happens'. It took a long time 'for air to brighten, / Time to be dazzled and the heart to lighten.' 


I've embedded above a brief YouTube clip showing Dennis O'Driscoll interviewing Seamus Heaney and below I've set down a few observations on five landscape-related Heaney poems, with comments derived from Stepping Stones:

  • 'The Peninsula'   Heaney mentions in Stepping Stones that this poem (in his second collection, Door into the Dark) was written after a drive to the Ards peninsula in County Down. In it he writes about the way landscape can restore the ability to really see the world when it seems there is 'nothing more to say.'  Heaney imagines driving all day around the peninsula, a 'land without marks', until dusk arrives, when 'horizons drink down sea and hill.'  Then, heading home, details begin to emerge in memory - 'a glazed foreshore and silhouetted log' for example.  Such an experience makes it possible to 'uncode all landscapes / by this: things founded clean on their own shapes, / water and ground in their extremity.'
  • 'Bogland'  "I was putting my right leg into the trousers when I got the first line," says Heaney in Stepping Stones.  We have this pair of trousers to thank for some of Heaney's most famous poems.  "From the moment I wrote it, I felt promise in 'Bogland'  Without having any clear notion of where it would lead or even whether I would go back to the subject, I realised that new co-ordinates had been established."  This last poem in Door into the Dark would open the door to others in which the bog and its Iron Age victims serve partly as metaphor for events in Northern Ireland: 'Tollund Man' in Wintering Out and then the poems of North: 'Kinship', 'Punishment', 'Strange Fruit'... The drowned bodies are inseparable from their landscape: the Bog Queen preserved on the gravel bottom, 'between heathery levels / and glass-toothed stone'; the Grauballe Man, who 'lies / on a pillow of turf / and seems to weep / the black river of himself'.
  • 'Gifts of Rain'   In Stepping Stones Heaney is asked about a new interest in the semantic and phonetic in his fourth collection, Wintering Out, where poems take the sound of words as their subject.  I've described one of these, 'Anahorish', before, but there is also 'Toome' and 'Broagh', in which the rain beating on 'windy boortrees / and rhubarb-blades' ends suddenly like the word itself, with that gh that strangers find 'difficult to manage.' 'Gifts of Rain' describes a flooded landscape and the swollen river Moyola 'harping on / its gravel beds.'  This too is a phonetic place poem: 'The tawny guttural water / spells itself: Moyola / is its own score and consort, / bedding the locale in the utterance...'  
  • 'Höfn'   Heaney is periodically drawn into politics by O'Driscoll's questions and this poem, with its aerial view of a melting glacier in Iceland, is the pretext for a question on the environment (Heaney says he inclines more to lament than protest).  'Höfn' focuses on Heaney's primal fear of the glacier as it looked that day, an 'undead grey-gristed earth-pelt', so cold that it would 'deepfreeze the seep of adamantine tilth'.  Heaney is of course 'a man of the soil' and tells O'Driscoll that he has rarely felt as exposed as he did that day over the "stony grey scar of ice."
  • 'Postscript'   This is the last poem in The Spirit Level and is similar to 'The Peninsula', but much more specific: the drive is 'out west / into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore, / in September or October, when the wind / and the light are working off each other.'  The poet observes swans on the surface of a lake but is content to drive on rather than park and try to 'capture' the moment.  The 'known and strange things' will, he realises, pass by and through him like the wind, catching 'the heart off guard' and blowing it open. Asked about this poem in Stepping Stones, Heaney says that it came to him quickly, as he recollected a windy day on Galway Bay: "we drove on into this glorious exultation of air and sea and swans."  You can hear him read the poem in the clip below.

Saturday, January 05, 2013

Clearing Winter Storm, Yosemite National Park

Ansel Adams, The Tetons and the Snake River (1942)
Source: Wikimedia Commons
This image was included on the Voyager Spacecraft Golden Record. 

Old photograph albums are littered with images of mountains, lakes and rivers that were of momentary fascination to the photographer on their travels, but are ignored now in comparison to the accompanying snaps of family members.  Perhaps it's not surprising therefore that Geoff Dyer's Borgesian history of photography, The Ongoing Moment, largely excludes landscape views.  He only finds one thing to write about Ansel Adams, 'the most popular and arguably the most influential photographer in American history', according to the website for the Adams exhibition currently on in London.  It is a passing reference to an atypical non-landscape photograph, 'unexceptional in every way', that Adams took of the model Charis Wilson.  Ansel Adams is certainly not a photographer you go to for human interest.  Alastair Sooke of the Telegraph doesn't warm to him: 'Adams’s photographs have an enamelled over-intensity that can feel inhuman. In his pictures, Adams presents an alternative to reality. With consummate skill, he isolates and composes a scene so that it resembles a snapshot of perfection. Yet it also remains distant and unattainable.  Even a familiar image such as Clearing Winter Storm, Yosemite National Park, California, about 1937 has an extraterrestrial quality: all that wintry vapour could be clouds of nebular gas coalescing into a faraway planet at the beginning of the universe. On such a cosmic scale, humans are irrelevant. Adams’s vision is at best detached, at worst cold and misanthropic.'

One of the advantages of seeing the exhibition with children this week was that I felt I had permission to enjoy these images as an 'alternative to reality' (on another of the miserable wet days we have been experiencing here in London).  I didn't feel I had to keep reminding myself that these mountains and rivers are not the timeless wilderness his photographs might lead you to suppose.  Nor was I in danger of being seduced into planning a holiday to 'the great landscapes of the Golden State' (the exhibition is sponsored by Visit California).  Instead I became absorbed in the shadows, patterns and visual echoes that Adams brought out of monumental vistas and detailed studies of surf and foam, seaweed and barnacles, icicles and snow.  Adams was one of the photographers who led the move away from Pictorialism (soft-focus images intended to look like paintings) but his images are all highly composed.  One interesting early print shows the influence of Ukiyo-e woodblock prints: a mosaic of flat planes showing sky, rocks and slope of trees and Marion Lake. (You can see this photograph at Artblart - an interesting blog brought to my attention just this week by its author Marcus Bunyon).  Alastair Sooke sees something of 'a deadening effect' in this formalism, given that Adams's wanted the images to provide an 'equivalent' to the emotions he felt out in the landscape.  Nevertheless, these photographs would be 'unexceptional in every way' if their musical configurations of form and light and shade wasn't deeply satisfying at some level.  And on that note here, is a clip of the late Dave Brubeck, talking about Ansel Adams' notion that 'photographers are in a sense composers, and the negatives are their scores'.