Friday, January 21, 2011

From the canyons to the stars...

As I write this I'm listening to the London Sinfonietta recording of Messiaen's Des canyons aux étoiles..., which was inspired by various locations in Utah - Cedar Breaks, Bryce Canyon and Zion Park (movements 5, 7 and 12 respectively).  'Cedar Breaks', writes Alex Ross in The Rest is Noise, 'is the music of the bedrock.  Orations for brass in unison alternate with pulsing dissonant chords, rugged writing for piano and quasi-jazzy episodes, replete with wah-wah trumpet and glissando trombone. "Bryce Canyon" recycles certain of those motifs of geological violence, but they give way to a series of mighty chorales, in which the splendor of the canyon resonates within the observer's mind.'

Bryce Canyon, Utah
Photo: Luca Galuzzi

In the photograph above the canyon looks like a huge natural organ.  The red-orange rock formations are evoked in the music itself - Messiaen associated the colour red with E major. In a 1979 interview he said “Bryce Canyon was of special interest to me. That’s because it had all those wonderful colours, and I wanted to put them into music. So, the piece I composed about Bryce Canyon is red and orange, the colour of the cliffs.”  Quite a lot has been written about Messiaen's synaesthesia - if you're interested, check out the three dimensional maps of Messiaen's colour space in a paper by Paul E. Dworak. 

Des canyons aux étoiles... was composed after Messiaen's trip to Utah in 1972 and premiered in 1974.  According to Alex Ross the New York arts patron Alice Tully had 'asked Messiaen to write a work in commemoration of the upcoming American bicentennial.  It was an unlikely assignment, since Messiaen had little love for American culture and a special antipathy for New York.  His reluctance gave way when Tully, well briefed on the composer's vulnerabilities, served him a sumptuous repast capped with "an immense cake crowned with pistachio frogs spewing crème Chantilly."'  Here is an example of the celestial music facilitated by this delicious-sounding cake, the third movement of Des canyons aux étoiles..., 'Ce qui est écrit sur les étoiles' - 'What is written in the stars'.

Postscript 2016: Alex Ross has just posted a story about the St. Louis Symphony orchestra's principal horn Roger Kaza who in 1982 played the solo-horn movement in a branch of the Grand Canyon and sent a recording to the composer. Here's a short extract describing the performance out in the landscape made with a group of friends including trumpeter Tim Morrison.
'Fern Glen Canyon is a tributary of the Colorado, with hundred-foot vertical walls thirty to fifty feet across. Dripping springs create grottoes of ferns, greenery, and delicate wildflowers. Tim and I hiked up the canyon, played a few notes, and immediately reveled in the lush echo resounding off the ancient stone. This was the place to record the Messiaen.  [... ]
[The following day they assembled to perform it.]  By now it was dark and the crickets were chirping. The strange tritone-infused music, with its weird lilting rhythms, seemed perfectly suited to this hallowed place of rock and time. Because my chops were weak, I had to record it piecemeal. Fortunately, the music contains many long pauses and lends itself to such an approach. After an hour or two of retakes, I decided that everything should be covered. We packed up the sand-infested Walkman and hiked back to camp.'

Saturday, January 15, 2011

The Mind Landscape of Xie Youyu

Xie Youyu (or Xie Kun) was a Jin Dynasty scholar-official.  One day, the story goes, Emperor Ming asked him how he thought he compared with another official, Yu Liang.  Xie replied that he was no match for Yu Liang when it came to official duties, but he was superior when it came to 'a hill and stream' - imagining himself away from court and finding repose in nature.

Zhao Mengfu, The Mind Landscape of Xie Youyu,
section of a handscroll, ca. 1287

About a century later, Gu Kaizhi (ca. 345 - ca.406) is said to have painted a portrait of Xie Youyu which was innovative in its use of a landscape setting.  Gu explained this in relation to Xie's statement and said "this gentleman should be placed among hills and streams."  Gu's painting (now lost) may have survived long enough to influence the handscroll painted by Zhao Mengfu (1254-1322) which is now in Princeton University's Art Museum.  Zhao was himself an official who would have empathised with Xie - though his family were descended from Song  Dynasty emperors, he reluctantly accepted various roles as an official at the new Mongol court. 

James Cahill explains in Three Thousand Years of Chinese Paintings (1997) that Zhao 'reconciled his career with his conscience by adopting the stance of chaoyin, "recluse at court," and expressing it in poems and paintings.  The concept of chaoyin was based on the belief that someone could be engaged in a political career in the outside world while preserving internally the mentality of the recluse, spiritually remote from the contamination of public life.'  Like Xie he could work for the government whilst inwardly inhabiting a 'mind landscape' where it was possible to sit alone and at peace, on a river bank among the trees.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Fields For Recording

Here are ten examples of landscape-related music released in 2010.  It is not a 'best of list' by any means, partly because I have restricted myself to albums where I can provide a relevant Youtube clip for you.  In doing this I was interested to see how recent music has incorporated field recordings in various ways.  On this topic though it is worth reading Richard Pinnell's review of the year's CDs - 'as technology has made the use of found recordings so easy the number of discs that just feel like lazy concoctions of traffic sounds, rainfall, children at play, hydrophone recordings etc seem to be ten a penny.'  There are exceptions however, and Pinnell talks approvingly of recent releases by Tomas Korber and Ralf Wehowsky, LaCasa, Vanessa Rossetto and David Papapostolou (none of whom are actually on my list below).

(1) The first one I have chosen is an album that uses arctic field recordings: Craig Vear's Summerhouses, on Mille Plateaux. Tracks include the menacing 'Crevasse Blue', the cold liquid sounds of 'Intertidal Pool' and the drifting music of 'After the Sinking'.

(2) Richard Skelton has been immersing himself this year in the landscapes of Cumbria and the west coast of Ireland, the fruits of which we should see in the future.  His Landings, which I posted about a year ago, had a limited edition release at the end of 2009, but this year saw its wider distribution, along with Crow Autumn, a repackaging of some earlier material recorded as A Broken Consort. Both were inspired by the Pennines; Crow Autumn includes, in addition to 'The River' (below), pieces entitled 'Like Rain', 'Leaves' and 'Mountains Ash.'

(3) Norway's Pjusk (Jostein Dahl Gjelsvik and Rune Sagevik) use processed environmental recordings in their album Sval. Reviewers all seem to have found themselves transported to an imaginary North: Pjusk 'immerse the listener in fathomless depths of electronic soundscaping, conjuring up the raw, icy topography of their nordic home'; 'like a warm refuge in an arctic winter, Pjusk creates inviting digital ambient music with a shimmering natural glow'; 'Pjusk has quite effectively drawn the connection between the warmly lit cabin in the mountains and the polar environs right outside their door.'

(4) Rangers' Suburban Tours was one of the most notable hypnagogic pop albums of 2010. Joe Knight takes us to 'Bear Creek', 'Bel Air', 'Deerfield Village', 'Brook Meadows' and 'Woodland Hills' (below), although all of these are moods rather than places.

(5) Richard Chartier's A Field for Mixing features 'Fields For Recording 1-8', a fifty minute composition based on 'processed field recordings of small and large, open and enclosed spaces'. It is extremely quiet, with none of the usual obvious landscape sounds. There is no Youtube clip from the album itself, but here is another Chartier composition - a collaboration with William Basinski (who gets a dedication in 'A Field for Mixing', along with Steve Roden).

(6) In September Ghost Box released a revised edition of The Farmer's Angle by the Belbury Poly with some additional tracks.  Further developments can be followed at The Belbury Parish Magazine, including the first broadcast of Radio Belbury.  Another hauntological landscape highlight in 2010 was The Belbury Poly's split single with Mordant Music, 'Welcome to Godalming', 'in which the two artists examine this small English town.'

(7) Taylor Deupree's 2010 ambient album Shoals (from which 'Rusted Oak' below is taken) used looped recordings of gamelan instruments. But he was also involved in Snow (Dusk, Dawn), a multimedia project incorporating sound and photography, the music for which  consisted of a sixteen minute ambient melodic loop.  The photographs were taken with expired polaroid film and featured fleeting images taken during the first heavy snowfall of the winter of 2009, at dusk, in the setting sun - 'nothing was to last, the snow, the image, the day'.

(8) The cover of the Pantha du Prince album Black Noise is an old fashioned mountain landscape painting that reminds me of the Adalbert Stifter stories I've written about here in 2010. Hendrik Weber's electronic compositions include snatches of field recording and chiming bells - they were apparently inspired by his journeys in the Swiss Alps.

(9) I always aim to be eclectic but must admit my knowledge of black metal is rather limited.  I see though that Agalloch's Marrow of the Spirit is one of NPR's albums of the year and their review explains that 'the forest is a common inspiration for black metal, particularly for the Norwegians who defined the genre in the early '90s. That makes sense: It's a cold, mystical place marked by unknown darkness. For Agalloch, the forests of the Pacific Northwest represent all of those things, but they're also a force of healing.' The album opens with a gentle instrumental (see below), 'They Escaped the Weight of Darkness', in which Jackie Perez Gratz plays cello over the sounds of birdsong and running water.  It is only once this track is over that the volume rises, the guitars storm in, and things get heavy... 

(10) Finally, released last month, A Path Less Travelled is a collaboration between Japanese improvisers Minamo and Lawrence English (whose Kiri No Oto I mentioned in an earlier post).  The clip below shows them performing in Tokyo in November.  The Pitchfork review notes that 'birds sing on 'The Path', crickets chirr on 'Headlights', and water splashes against a dock or boat on 'Springhead'. (Birds sing in 99% of pastoral electro-acoustic music and seldom receive any royalties. English's use of crickets and water is more striking: The former add a subtle Reichian pattern to a nocturnal melody, while the latter kick-starts the rest of the track's liquid swirl.)'

Friday, January 07, 2011

The Rialto Bridge from the Riva del Vin

Michele Marieschi, The Rialto Bridge from the Riva del Vin, 1737

The National Gallery's recent exhibition 'Venice: Canaletto and his Rivals' set the works of Canaletto alongside other Venetian painters like Luca Carlevarjis, whose choice of views and festivals at the start of the eighteenth century were a model for the later artists, Bernardo Bellotto, Canaletto's nephew who left to work at the courts of northern Europe (I included one of his views of Warsaw in an earlier post), and Francesco Guardi, whose poetic vision of the city looks forward to Turner.  Perhaps unsurprisingly given the theatricality of Venice, three of the artists in the exhibition began as scene painters: Canaletto himself, his early rival Michele Marieschi, and Antonio Joli.  Canaletto's father was a scene painter and so was his brother.  At this time the trade was often passed to the next generation and the Galli-Bibiena family, who were designing theatrical sets around Europe throughout the eighteenth century, can be seen to have influenced some of Marieschi's compositions.  Antonio Joli worked in the theatre at Modena and Perugia before coming to Venice.  He later visited England, decorating the house of John James Heidegger, director of the King's Theater at Haymarket and a renowned producer of Venetian-style masquerades.

The National Gallery podcast recently had a brief interview with theatrical historian Julie Dashwood on the influence of theatre design on Venetian view paintings.  She discusses perspective, lighting and framing before the interviewer turns to one of Joli's paintings showing the Doge’s Palace, Campanile and St Mark’s Square seen from the waters of the Bacino di San Marco.  "This surely can’t have anything to do with set designs? I mean ships and boats and the rest of it, can it?" "It can," replies Dashwood.  "The Renaissance stage - and in this the baroque stage is not a break, it’s a continuity of what happened in the Renaissance - they loved special effects. And they loved being able to create the effect of water and rain on stage and bringing in all kinds of machines. They had cloud machines – you can see the clouds here.  ... Of course Joli is able to bring it all into one painting and he creates a sort of stage ... the darkened auditorium if you like is on one side and the real action, the big-wigs, the grandees are coming in to play up their parts on the water, which is their stage, and then going into the city, which is their stage."

Monday, January 03, 2011

Wire resonance tones induced by the wind

Yesterday Radio 4 broadcast a half hour documentary, 'The Wire', on the music created by wind and weather playing over fencing wire stretched across the Australian landscape.  In it, Chris Watson visits The WIRED Lab in New South Wales and talks to Alan Lamb - artist, biomedical research scientist and composer - whose work with the wires began in 1976 when he first heard the sounds made by a 1km stretch of abandoned telephone wires in Western Australia.  Lamb relates the story of how, as a young boy, he was introduced to the music of the wires during walks with his sister and their nanny, who showed the children how to press their ears against a telegraph pole to 'hear the sound of the world'.  You can get an idea of this from the weather sounds sample below, one of several on the excellent WIRED Lab site.  It is 'a multi-layered mix of natural weather pattern sonifications : rising and falling wind patterns, rain storms (heard as cracks and pops when water strikes the pickup, and as zaps/pings/crackles as the rain strikes the wire) and wire resonance tones induced by the wind.'

CreativeComplex-WEATHER-MIX by TheWIREDLab

The documentary is available to listen to on the Radio 4 site for the rest of this week.  In the course of the programme Chris Watson uses his own contact mics and buries hydrophones in the earth near the wires with the aim of literally "drawing music from the landscape".  But he is also struck by how easy it is to simply stand near the wires and listen to them.  My favourite moment comes about 16 minutes in, when Lamb is explaining to Watson how you can feel the vibrations in the wire.  As they are talking the background sound changes and Lamb says "Now that was an interesting moment because the sound just changed completely.  That's because the sun came out..."

Sunday, January 02, 2011

The Larches of Zernikow

In his collection Slow Air (2002) Robin Robertson talks in a poem called 'The Larches of Zernikow' about lines of trees planted by children before the war.  Even in October, the poet says, you would not realise, walking among them, that their yellow gold is branding the forest canopy with the sign of a swastika.  Robertson's endnote for the poem explains that the trees were planted 'under the direction of forester Walter Schmidt as a tribute to the 1000-year Reich.  Known locally as the Hakenkreuzschonung - the Swastika Plantation - it was not discovered until 1992 after an aerial survey of the region.  The trees were felled, but the stumps could not be removed.'

The story of the larches at Zernikow was told ten years ago by Imre Karacs in an Independent article. He explains that one local legend put the plantation's creation down to the inadequacy of the local Hitler oak (Hitler, like Bismarck, had oaks planted in his honour). 'Zernikow had not actually planted a Hitler oak, merely christened its biggest tree in honour of the Führer. According to this story, an official turned up in early 1938, demanding to know what plans were in place for Hitler's birthday. "We already have a Hitler oak," the locals said, proudly pointing to the venerable token of their esteem. "It will not do," the official screamed. "You must have something new." And so Forester Schmidt walked to an empty field to the north of the village, and proclaimed that on this spot should stand an eternal tribute to the 1,000-year Reich...'  Another legend involved 'a farmhand sacked from the estate for "perversion", after being caught in the cowshed with his trousers down', who got his revenge by denouncing the estate manager August Wehr to the Gestapo.  Wehr's friend and employer, the squire Hans von Wedel, then came under suspicion and so 'to placate the authorities Forester Schmidt set about planting the biggest swastika of the region. The squire escaped.'

A quick surf on this topic brought me to Beachcombing's Bizarre History Blog where I learned of another example of Fascist tree planting. 'In a surfeit of Mussolini madness in 1939 – no-one would have bothered two years later – the forestry school from nearby Cittaducale planted pines on the mountain side above the town in the shape of the letters D-U-X. Dux is, of course, the Latin for ‘leader’ (from which English gets duke) and a calque and more easily written version of the Italian DUCE, Mussolini’s preferred name among his supporters. The letters remain a much-loved local landmark and it seems that many Antrodocans were irritated when recently some provincial-level politicians tried to get rid of the offending letters.'