Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Blue snow

The National Poetry Archive was launched today. It includes clips of poets reading their own work, although only a minority are available for free, the rest have to be purchased. It only covers poems in English. The Archive seems to have a lot of potential but there is not too much there to get excited about yet. It contains a few landscape poems, such as Sean O’Brien’s Essay on Snow (2002), a sad meditation on a snow-covered city.

Postscript 2015: A very short post there and I see that you now have to pay 89p to hear the whole poem, although of course you can find it online: '...Untrodden parks and freezing underpasses. / The statuary anonymous, the cobbled chares / Like streams of blackened ice...'  (Chares are narrow streets). 

In 2009 The Guardian did a piece on Sean O'Brien which begins with a description of the landscape that inspired him:
'When Sean O'Brien talks about the north, he tells it like a story. His language, as he describes it, is tranquillised, rhapsodic; his voice drops; his sentences loop and lengthen. "I grew up in a northern city," he says, "and the landscape fascinates me: the flat, Saxon plains of east Yorkshire, the spectacular hills of the north and west, the uncompromising industrial cities - they form a complex identity. And they all touch on the Humber - the great, epic, Mississippianly wide river Humber - which runs past the doorstep like a continental division and moves out vastly into the sea. When we were kids, we used to think we could see palm trees on the other side."'

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Galapagos sounds

Chris Watson has been in the news recently for his work on the BBC series Life in the Undergrowth. You can listen to an excellent sound diary of his on the Touch Radio site. Here is their description:
Recorded in April 2005 on The Galapagos Islands, 1000km off the west coast of Ecuador... During March this year Chris Watson was out in the Galapagos Islands recording for a forthcoming tv film series. In particular Chris made a series of recordings throughout the unique and highly specialised Galapagos habitats; from the mist shrouded Miconia zone at the higher altitudes of Santa Cruz down to the dense cactus and thorn scrub bordering the coast on smaller uninhabited islands. This trip was also the first opportunity for Chris to try out location surround sound recording both on land and then underwater, exploring the sonic potential below the surface of the Pacific Ocean with a four channel hydrophone array.
Chris Watson’s solo albums are released by Touch (this link takes you to some nice landscape imagery, as well as a list of their artists). Chris Watson has his own site (with a few free downloads) and of course there are also sites out there for his former collaborators, Cabaret Voltaire and the Hafler Trio.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Desert in bloom

Thomas Gray wrote in his ‘Elegy’
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.

Gray never saw desert flowers, but others poets have…

Abu Tammam (c805-45) wrote a qasida (ode) on Spring, quoted in Robert Irwin’s anthology ‘Night and Horses and the Desert’, from a translation by Julia Ashtiany. Abu Tammam was an inventive exponent of metaphor which gives his landscape a striking visual quality. He describes the spring flowers, yellow and red, clashing like the partisans of the hostile Mudar and Yemen clans, who carried coloured banners (reminding me of those battle scenes in Kurosawa’s Ran). The yellow flowers are likened to pearls dipped in saffron, the red to a sunrise where the breezes are tinted with safflower. What exactly these clashing armies might be I am not able to say, although on the evidence of this site the yellow might be broomrape, the red, bladder dock.

According to Irwin, Arabic landscape poetry only really began a century after Abu Tamman, with writers like Sanawbari (d. 945) and Kushajim (d. 970-71). These poets aimed to describe the beauty of gardens and nature, whilst earlier poets had tended to write about landscape only in relation to emotions of nostalgia or loss.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Tree Line

Tree Line is one of many landscape-inspired compositions by Tōru Takemitsu (1930-1996). It was written in 1988 to mark the twentieth anniversary of the London Sinfonietta, as explained at Fraser Trainer’s Tree Line Guide site. The music was inspired by the line of acacia trees growing near Takemitsu’s workshop. There are teaching resources on Tree Line here which are quite helpful in understanding his modes and chords. The site also has a biography and brief extracts from Takemitsu’s An Autumn Garden and Rain Coming here. There is also a list of some other titles used by Takemitsu for his compositions, from which the following gives an idea of his concern for landscape:

Spirit Garden
Rain Tree
Wind Horse
Towards the Sea
In the Woods
How Slow the Wind
A flock descends into the Pentagonal Garden
Rain Spell
Water Ways
Orion and Pleiades

Postscript April 2014

Looking back on this, one of my early short posts, I see that web links can be as transient as autumn leaves, and without them this looks rather bare of content.  In 2005 it was not possible to embed video links, something I do a lot now, although these often disappear after a while too.  I cannot find a clip of Tree Line so I've included here instead a performance of Rain Tree, one of the Takemitsu titles in my list above.  And, on the subject of titles, here's what Takemitsu said about them in his essay 'November Steps': 'a title should be precise but not limiting, strongly evocative, but still leaving some room for imagination.'  This essay discusses November Steps, Takemitsu's first composition to combine Japanese instruments with a Western orchestra.  'For me the sound of biwa and shakuhachi was to spread through the orchestra gradually enlarging, like waves of water.'  He therefore decided to call the piece Water Rings, but was told by his friend Jasper Johns that in the USA this would evoke unfortunate images of dirty bath water.  So he changed the title, but felt no disappointment on learning that what sounded like a beautiful metaphysical idea in Japanese would, in another context, refer to something from ordinary day-to-day life.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Townscape, Paris

So far the titles of these entries have suggested timeless landscapes. Desert circle’ could have been more specific, as in the title used here for Hamish Fulton’s text piece. The titles for these works are never clear – you can pin it down to the artist’s walk or leave it as a space that the viewer/reader/listener can inhabit.

At a crowded talk at Tate Modern last night it was not possible to see the title for Gerhard Richter’s Townscape Paris. I heard it as “Paris, 1968” – which is of course an event rather than a landscape. Was the painting nevertheless about les événements, even if they are merely evoked by their absence? The Tate curators suggest it is a grey anti-Paris, no longer the vibrant centre of art and here, stripped of familiar landmarks, resembling a bombed city. Perhaps therefore this townscape is best read as one of Richter’s paintings about painting.

And yet Townscape Paris was one of several monochrome landscapes Richter painted in that year. He also painted Townscape Madrid (1968) – a very similar picture but a different range of associations. Again from 1968, there is a sublime mountain scene: Himalaya. How does this relate to Townscape Paris? Gerhard Richter eludes easy interpretations.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Verdurous glooms

Thinking about Samuel Palmer’s night landscapes reminds me of John Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale (1819):
... tender is the night,
And haply the Queen-Moon is on her throne,
Cluster'd around by all her starry Fays;
But here there is no light,
Save what from heaven is with the breezes blown
Through verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways.

I cannot see what flowers are at my feet,
Nor what soft incense hangs upon the boughs,
But, in embalmèd darkness, guess each sweet
Wherewith the seasonable month endows
The grass, the thicket, and the fruit-tree wild;
White hawthorn, and the pastoral eglantine;
Fast fading violets cover'd up in leaves;
And mid-May's eldest child,
The coming musk-rose, full of dewy wine,
The murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves.
There is an excellent set of readings from Keats’ poems at the website for the Keats-Shelley Memorial Association. The version of Ode to the Nightingale bears repeated listening and I do enjoy the hint of Withnail in the narrator’s “O for a draught of vintage!”

Thursday, November 24, 2005

The sun and moon

There is an early sketch in the Samuel Palmer exhibition currently showing at the British Museum depicting God Creating the Sun and Moon (1824). It is indicative of Palmer’s “sun-and-moonism”, the way he lights his landscapes with dramatic suns and shining moons. This tendency is present from the beginning, in the ink drawings of the Shoreham period, such as Late Twilight with its waxing sickle moon, and remained fifty years later in watercolours like The Lonely Tower. Palmer said “the earth is never so fair without its luminaries – they are its eyes; and if it border on mannerism to introduce them, it is the same often to omit them.” It may indeed have become a mannerism among Palmer’s twentieth century followers. John Minton for example was aware that in the wake of Graham Sutherland and the other Neo-Romantics, Palmer-inspired moons were ‘in’ (see the catalogue essay by Colin Harrison). It is a long time now since the etchings of Sutherland and Minton were ‘in’, but seeing these Palmers together prompts the thought that it may be time to think again about the ways in which the earth’s “eyes” transform the landscape.

Samuel Palmer, The Lonely Tower, painted 1868, etching 1878
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Flickering sunlight

In the New Oxford Book of Irish Verse, Thomas Kinsella translated four anonymous ninth century monastic poems. They perfectly fuse the pleasures of landscape and books.

One of them concludes that it is lovely to write while out in the woods. Here nature is not mediated through the text, it is all around, inspiring the writer: “above my book, with its lines laid out; the birds in their music sing to me”. In another, the landscape can be experienced without even looking up: “the sunlight breaks and flickers on the margin of my book.”

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Jade mountain

Landscapes are to be found throughout the Royal Academy’s magnificent exhibition China: The Three Emperors 1662-1795. Naturally there are scroll paintings by Huang Shen, Shitao, Wu Hong and others. But there are also landscapes covering two lacquered and gilt display cabinets, scenes of tilling and weaving painted onto the pages of a porcelain book, European landscapes decorating a Rococo-style vase and the boating scene from Su Shi’s ‘Ode on the Red Cliff’ carved into a stone seal.

During the Qianlong era (1736-95) landscapes started to be carved into jade objects. The exhibition includes a brush rest shaped like a bridge, a carved boulder depicting two ladies in a garden, and a pair of delicate perfumers, with rural scenes, one showing a woodcutter and fisherman, the other scholars reading. However, the most spectacular jade landscape is The Nine Elders of Huichang (1787). The subject is a gathering of venerable friends, hosted by Bo Juyi (Po Chü-i) in the spring of 845. As Alfreda Murck notes in the catalogue, the painstaking carving here is the antithesis of that spontaneous brushwork valued in landscapes painted by the literati of the period. The Emperor himself carved onto the sculpture an inscription noting that stone is more permanent than paper. This jade is so hard that it cannot be scratched even by steel blades. The motion of the trees, the conversation of the scholars and the waterfall cascading down the mountain are frozen in time.

Salt sea wind

One of Eugenio Montale’s most famous poems, in his first collection Ossi di seppia (‘Cuttlefish Bones’) describes a sunflower, which the narrator wants to plant in a field ‘parched by the salt sea wind’. This phrase is Jonathan Galassi’s translation of ‘bruciato dal salino’ and in his note to the poem he explains that ‘salino’ is a dialect term in Liguria for the wind impregnated with salt from the sea. There seems to me to be so much condensed poetry in that word ‘salino’…

The beauty of local language is not just a question of individual words. In Arctic Dreams (1986) Barry Lopez says that young people struggle to be fluent in Inukituk because it really only comes alive out on the land. For Lopez, language is not imposed on the landscape, it evolves from a conversation, and “a long-lived enquiry produces a discriminating language”.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Desert circle

You can download for free from Ubuweb an MP3 of Richard Long reciting his text piece Desert Circle.

And if you buy Hamish Fulton’s book Wild Life, you get a CD in which he recites his text piece Seven Days and Seven Nights Camping in a Wood, Cairngorms, Scotland, March 1985.

In their original form these text pieces retain the spatial quality of art; recited they are given the temporal quality of writing. The walks themselves (the actual art works) took place in an ordered way over time. But the recollection and record of them need not have this simple linear progression.

Despite the direct language used by Fulton and Long, a pattern of words on the page or on the wall leaves some distance between the viewer and the original experience. A recital, especially one in which the artist himself speaks the words, is another step in the transformation of the art work, taking it closer in form to the original walk, but leaving less space for the viewer to experience their own version of the art work.