Saturday, September 15, 2007

Light and shadow in a far north landscape

One of my favourite writers on landscape is the prolific John Dixon Hunt. There is a short US radio programme, 'Milestones of the Millenium' in which he talks Lisa Simeone through the history of pastoral music. The recording is a bit odd as some of the recordings are cut short, but you get a few bursts of nature, like the sheep in Richard Strauss's Don Quixote, and music inspired by landscapes like Tales from the Vienna Woods by Johann Strauss.

Peter Maxwell Davies gets a brief mention near the end of this programme, which set me thinking about landscape elements in his work. He is described here as a "probing, meditative, ecological symphonist " whose work changed "in the 1980s in conjunction with his move from London to the Orkney Islands in the North Sea... Davies has developed a sense of musical pulse, long illusive melodic line, and textural counterpoint, within the context of sweepingly architectured movements, which seeks to find musical representations for the actions of waves, winds, clouds and the startling effects of light and shadow in a far north landscape." The music is not easy to get to grips with at first, but "on repeated returns and further listenings, like the northern landscapes that so intensely ground the entire sound world Davies is evoking, slowly-ever so grudgingly-ever so stingily-the rich textural beauties, the haunting whiffs of melodic line, the luxuriant soundscapes of kaleidoscopic colors reveal themselves."

In an interview here Maxwell Davies describes the effect of the isolated landscape: 'With nobody around, he says, "you can project the structure of what you're working on out of your head and on to the landscape. You're walking through a three-dimensional architecture of your music. You hear the whole thing happening in slow motion, and you can shift things around."'

What I really wanted to do here was give a link to his website and see what he has to say about landscape there. There are tantalising mentions of it online e.g.: 'he has a pretty good website .... In addition to the usual bio stuff he has info and photos of the Orkneys, his adopted home.... A few years ago he traveled to Antarctica to write his Symphony no.8 "on location" and the account he wrote is quite fascinating, especially for his description of the unique sonic landscape he experienced there.' But sadly these links don't seem to work! I'll leave them here though in case its a temporary problem and they are restored.

Postscript 2014: I have just revisited this post and see that the Maxwell Davies website is now working.  I have can't see a set of Orkney photographs but the Antarctic Diary is there.  There is a stern copyright warning at the end so I'm a bit nervous about fair-use quoting it at all, but here is one sentence to give you an idea...  "There is almost no wind, but occasionally an astonishing sound whistles gently from the peaks to the south, almost subliminal at first, but growing into an alto-flutish lament that resonates somewhere between your ears, then reveals its true origin when a high and complex counterpoint, suggesting ghostly oriental flutes, creates a sonorous wandering difference - tone, softly pulsing across the whole ice shelf."

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