Sunday, December 11, 2011

Frost's Bitter Grip

About this time last year, influenced by all those end of year lists, I posted ten examples of landscape music released in 2010, along with accompanying YouTube clips (nine of which still work).  Here is a similar list for 2011 and once again it is not supposed to be definitive; I'd certainly be interested in any additional comments and suggestions.  I did a post earlier this year on Toshio Hosokawa's Landscapes so am not including that. And, as I have discussed it before, I'm excluding Richard Skelton's Landings, another version of which appeared this year (the expansion of this project reminds me of the way Robert Burton kept adding material to The Anatomy of Melancholy). 

(1) The obvious place to begin is with Chris Watson, whose El Tren Fantasma, based on recordings of the old Mexican ghost train, has been widely praised.  The soundscape is not restricted to the railway tracks, as you can hear from the SoundCloud extracts below (sections 3 and 5, 'Sierra Tarahumara' and 'Crucero La Joya').  A BBC review describes the wild countryside through which the train passes: 'brushwood and tall grass sway beneath the breeze crossing canyon slopes, while constant cicada chatter is punctuated by the distinctive calls of woodpecker and crow.'  This was not the only Chris Watson release this year - Cross-Pollination, also on Touch, includes 'The Bee Symphony', created with Marcus Davidson, and 'Midnight at the Oasis' - recorded out in the Kalahari desert and nothing to do with the 1974 Maria Muldaur hit.

Chris Watson - El Tren Fantasma album preview

(2) Water Beetles of Pollardstown Fen, was released by Gruenrekorder shortly before they announced the premature death of its creator, sound artist Tom Lawrence.  This is a very specific take on a landscape; as one reviewer says, 'Pollardstown Fen is an ancient, 500-acre, spring-fed alkali marsh in County Kildare, 30 miles west of Dublin, but to listen to these hydrophone recordings by Irish musicologist Tom Lawrence, you’d think it was a well-stocked video arcade circa 1985.' Whilst Chris Watson's El Tren Fantasma was directly inspired by Pierre Schaeffer's musique concrète, the sense in which a record like this qualifies as 'music' is quite debatable.  Richard Pinnell has written that 'aside from some tastefully simple crossfades there isn’t any editing, enhancements or attempts to sculpt these recordings into anything more than the remarkable audio photographs that they are.'

(3) On a different scale entirely, I think it is relevant here to mention Björk's Biophilia, a multi-media project of cosmic ambition based on elements of nature and the landscape, like the sound of thunder and the cycles of the moon. (I think it would be too much of a stretch to include in this list Kate Bush and her fifty words for snow...)  Björk's live shows have featured new instruments devised for the project - the track 'Solstice' for example evokes the rotation of the Earth through the rather beautiful sound of a pendulum harp. The accompanying iPad apps makes me wonder how far these could be used to develop new genres of landscape art.  But despite the involvement of Sir David Attenborough, no less, these still sound limited: the app for 'Crystalline' for example comes with 'a game, in which you collect crystals in a tunnel as the song plays.' We just stuck to buying the actual album.

(4) Earlier this year I wrote here about J. A. Baker's book The Peregrine but had not then listened to the Lawrence English album inspired by it. Matt Poacher reviewed it for The Liminal and identified the way the music seeks to imitate the movement of the hawk: 'the roar of the surface drones do have the feel of the upper air, and the granular detail becomes like the murmarations of desperate starling or lapwing flocks, banking and swarming in the viciously cold winter wind. ‘Frost’s Bitter Grip’ and ‘Grey Lunar Sea’ also manage to portray, using a mixture of high thin metallic and broader cloud-like drones (not dissimilar in texture to some of the sounds Basinki captures in the warping tape recordings of the Disintegration Loops), the shattering cold of the winter of 1962/3, during which countless birds died and significant parts of Essex’s North Sea coast froze for months on end.'

(5) Canadian ambient composer Scott Morgan (who records as Loscil) has named all the tracks on his new album after features of the Coast Arc Range.  Although he uses field recordings the music is mainly built up from slow waves of synthesiser.  Appropriately enough it was released by the Glacial Movements label, whose mission statement may sound better in the original Italian but certainly makes clear what they are aiming for in their artists' 'glacial and isolationist ambient' music: "Places that man has forgotten...icy landscapes...fields of flowers covered eternally with ice... Icebergs colliding amongst themselves..The boreal dawn that shines upon silent white valleys in the Great Northern explorer lost among the Antarctic glaciers looking for the way home..."

Loscil - Coast/ Range/ Arc album preview 

(6) Guitarist Jon Porras records drones with Evan Caminiti as Barn Owl and has put out solo recordings as Elm.  Undercurrent is the first release under his own name and is described as 'California Gothic set to the tidal rhythms of the Pacific and tuned into the metabolic pathways of the northwest coast ... a love poem to the mist, a prayer cast in ghostly reflected guitar and deep pools of distortion'. Opening with 'Grey Dunes' (clip below), the album moves on to tracks with titles like 'Seascape', 'Shore' and ends gently with 'Land's End' and 'Gaze'.

(7) Following last year's round-up, Matt Poacher (whose blog Mountain 7 takes a particular interest in landscape and music) left a comment referring me to The Lowland Hundred.  I was therefore interested to read his comprehensive review this year of Diffaith, a project by The Lowland Hundred's Tim Noble. 'East of Aberystwyth is a tract of wild country, windblown and empty. Colloquially it is known as the desert of Wales – not because of a lack of rainfall but because of this character of emptiness...'  Diffaith (Welsh for 'wilderness') comprises six tracks and three complimentary short films (you can explore it further on Tim Noble's website). According to Matt, the album's centrepiece 'is a vast, monstrous thing, named for the blasted valley floor of ‘Llawr-y-cwm-bach’. The track is dominated by long periods of near-silence, punctuated with huge walls of Stephen O’Malley-like guitar that threaten to tear the fabric of the track apart. If Noble’s aim was to make it sound as if the very land were voicing some primeval shriek then he has succeeded. Christ alone knows what went on down there, but this sounds like a howl from the void.'

'Llawr-y-cwm-bach' by Tim Noble

(8) Tim Noble , The Lowland Hundred (whose new album Adit has just been released) and Hallock Hill (whose music Matt locates 'at the intersection between landscape and memory') release their records through Hundred Acre Recordings.  Another small label whose name would lead you to anticipate music with a landscape theme is Wayside and Woodland Recordings, run by epic45, who been recording pastoral indie pop for some years now and this year released an album called Weathering.  Tracks like 'With Our Backs to the City' (below) have reminded reviewers of Mercury Rev's Deserter's Songs - 'yet where Mercury Rev seemed to find what they were looking for in the Catskill Mountains, the best epic45 offer is a fleeting glimpse of salvation; the occasional burst of sunlight through a blackened sky.'

(9)  It is now five years since I first discussed the Ghost Box label on this blog and excellent new releases continue to appear - this year's highlight was As the Crow Flies, an album by Jon Brooks (The Advisory Circle). Also this year, Jim Musgrave, who works with Ghost Box's Belbury Poly, put out an album as Land Equivalents called Let's Go Orienteering which he describes as 'half-remembered educational films, imagined landscapes, foreboding woodland trails and a last minute dash towards a promised utopia'.  This combination sounds very familiar now but there are still more musicians wanting to follow these foreboding woodland trails.  The Ley Hunter's Companion by Sub Loam for example is packaged as another piece of aural psychogeography and described as 'two extended synthesiser and sequencer trips over the summer countryside.'

Sub Loam - Ley Hunter's Companion album preview

(10) As I reach the end of this post I realise it's as much a list of record labels as artists, and the final label I want to mention is Another Timbre.  Their recent releases featuring field recording include Tierce, with Jez riley French, and a CDr from Anett Németh ('A Pauper’s Guide to John Cage' and 'Early Morning Melancholia Two') which Richard Pinnell praised highly on his excellent website. But the album I'm highlighting here is Droplets by the trio of Dominic Lash, Patrick Farmer and Sarah Hughes because it includes a performance of Maria Houben's 'Nachtstück' recorded out in the landscape (a wood near Hathersage in Derbyshire to be precise).  Dominic Lash says that they didn't anticipate in advance accompanying the sound of a rainstorm: 'The plan was simply to record the piece outdoors; we were hoping for a rain-free window. But when the rains came, some way into the piece, they weren't especially heavy so I decided to keep on playing, hoping it would just be a brief shower. It turned out to be a little bit more than that...'

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