Friday, April 23, 2010

Toward the Sea

I've only just spotted an excellent article published in January on 'Music and Landscape' by Tom Service. It discusses some of the composers connected with particular landscapes, but cautions against seeing a direct link with the form of their music.  'You can find the musical things that supposedly tie Elgar to the Malverns in thousands of other pieces of music: if it's undulating melodies and harmonic lushness you're after, then Richard Strauss or Gustav Mahler might as well be composers of Worcestershire as of Bavaria or Austria.'  Music inspired by landscape tends to be personal and derived from experience, rather than straightforwardly illustrative.  Connections between music and landscape are ultimately based on 'their shared temporality. To walk in a landscape – or even to drive through it – is not just to physically place yourself in it, it's to imagine it, as well; to listen to a piece of music isn't just to experience the vibrations of frequencies and overtones, it's to imagine what the music is, how it makes you feel.'  

The article centres on the description of a walk on the beach at Sanday, the island in Orkney, with Sir Peter Maxwell Davies.  Just as Wordsworth composed poetry while he walked, Maxwell Davies ('Max') uses the beach as a three-dimensional stave.  'Looking at a dune a mile or so ahead of us, he explained that he says to himself: "OK, I need to get from B major to A flat major in the time it takes me to walk there." In his musical imagination, Max slows time down, and a harmonic transition that might take only seconds in performance is extended exponentially so that he can analyse and experience the notes from any angle, ironing out any infelicities he hears with the tread of his feet in the sand. The beach, its forms and its flotsam, are also part of his pieces. He told me that if a seagull mews overhead, or if he sees a sea-sculpted piece of kelp on the beach, they may nudge his imagination in a direction he hadn't considered and be written into the fabric of the music.'  I see I included a similar quotation from Maxwell Davies in a post I did on him here three years ago (if you look back you'll see I was frustrated that his website wasn't working - I'm glad to report it is now.)

Tom Service also wrote about his visit to Maxwell Davies on The Guardian's music blog in September last year, and in the following post, 'Composing the Sound of the Sea', he mentioned him again, speculating that the composer's second symphony, 'inspired by the wave-forms he saw in the sea beneath him' on the cliffs at Hoy, 'is up there with music's most successful evocations of the sea.'  His other contenders are:
  • Debussy - La Mer ('Debussy paid a fisherman to take him out in a storm off the coast of Brittany as part of his preparation for this piece; like Turner before him, he wanted to experience the violence of the sea before he represented it')
  • Sibelius - The Oceanides ('A seductive round-dance of waves, nymphs, and orchestral colour')
  • Britten - Peter Grimes ('The sea as psychology')
  • Bax - Tintagel ('The sea as big tune – nothing wrong with that')
  • Xenakis - Kyania  ('Without risking your own life in the teeth of a Mediterranean storm, listening to Kyania puts you at the centre of a sonic surge of massive, implacable intensity')
There are not many alternative suggestions in the comments underneath the article, although one person mentions Takemitsu's Toward the Sea ('moonlit sea, suggestion of bloody great whales beneath' - this is a reference to the fact that it was written for Greenpeace's Save the Whales campaign).  Nice also to see someone refer to Ocean by my favourite band, The Velvet Underground.

1 comment:

Plinius said...

Sono Luminus have released a collection of 'Seascapes' performed by Janice Weber which suggests some additional sea compositions. This is from their website:

'The sea has always been a powerful inspiration for composers and musicians, as the piano’s seven-plus octaves provide an ideal vessel for oceanic music. Seascapes is a collection of some of the finest and most interesting pieces in piano literature influenced by or written for the ocean. Each piece in this collection evokes a different sense of the sea’s limitless moods and splendor. The diversity of colors and styles are evident even in just the titles: Bedřich Smetana’s Am Seegestade (On the Seashore), Sergei Bortkiewicz’s Caprices de la mer, Eugène Guillaume’s At the Sea, Suite for Piano (Shining Morning, The Rocky Beach, Rough Sea), Alec Rowley’s Moonlight at Sea, Emil von Sauer's Flammes de Mer (Meeresleuchten), Felix Blumenfeld’s Sur Mer, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s Alghe (from Sea Pieces), Ernest Bloch’s The Sea Pieces: Waves, Chanty, At Sea, Marcelo de Manziarly’s Impressions de mer La grève (The Beach), Par une journée grise (On a Gray Day), Par une journée claire (On a Clear Day), Arthur Farwell’s Marine, Leo Sowerby’s The Shining Big Sea-Water, Cyril Scott’s Sea-Marge: Meditation for Piano, Theodor Leschetizky’s Jeu des Ondes (Play of Waves), and Alec Templeton’s Skye Variations. From peaceful meditations, dramatic reflections of violent waves, to a depiction of marine luminescence, the pieces in Seascapes and Janice Weber’s unique playing truly encompass the vast possibilities for creation that the majestic sea can inspire.'