Rebecca Solnit's A Book of Migrations (1997) was reissued this year and classified as history/memoir rather than travel, though it is ostensibly about a month spent in Ireland. The book circles round the themes of landscape and memory, place and identity, journey and exile, as Solnit ranges across the history and culture of Ireland from the flight of the cursed King Sweeney to the bitter experiences of Travellers in contemporary Ireland. The ways in which Ireland has been viewed through the prism of English cultural attitudes are illuminated by the frequent reminders of her own radically different experiences growing up in California, with its arid landscapes and long, straight roads, short historical memory and assumptions about the possibility of an unpeopled wilderness. At the Cliffs of Moher she looks out at the sea, 'a deeper blue than my own churning gray Pacific, blue as though different dreams had been dumped into it, blue as ink. I imagined filling a fountain pen with it and wondered what one would write with that ocean.'
Cover photo by Dave Walsh who reviews the book on his website.
I'll try to convey here just one of the many interesting points she makes on landscape and culture, although I should stress that the elegance of her argument is difficult to convey out of context. In describing the sixteenth century suppression of Ireland by English colonists and its deforestation for shipbuilding and metal smelting, she also talks about the concurrent campaign to suppress the
Gaelic poets, whose rhymes in praise of military successes were seen as a
kind of propaganda. But 'what is most peculiar about the war against
the poets and trees in Tudor era Ireland is the close involvement of the
two greatest English poets of the age, Sir Philip Sidney and Edmund
Spenser.' Furthermore, these were the two writers who practically created the
English tradition of pastoral poetry. You might think, she wryly observes, that 'a country of
wandering poets and pastoralists should have enchanted the English
rather than appalled them.'
Sir Philip Sidney's father was Lord Deputy of Ireland and urged the English to 'spoil' and take the goods of any 'rhymers' they caught. Sidney himself would later go on diplomatic missions to Ireland for Queen Elizabeth. Spenser went over in 1580 as secretary to Sir Henry Sidney's successor Lord Grey and wrote a lengthy report A View on the Present State of Ireland, which recommends subduing the Irish by starving them. He took over an estate in County Cork, formerly the seat of the Desmond family, and 'immediately became unpopular with the neighbours'. It was targeted by rebels in 1598 - Spenser was lucky to escape to England, where he died later that year. Back in 1589, when Sir Walter Raleigh visited him, Spenser's home 'was surrounded with woods of "matchless height"; a few years later only bare fields surrounded the castle.'
The remains of Spenser's Kicolman Castle, County Cork
For Solnit the shadows of Spenser and Sidney's political lives in Ireland lie across their artistic merit. 'The exquisite poetry of Spenser's masterpiece The Faerie Queene is inextricably linked to his brutal prose A View on the Present State of Ireland ... Should the magical trees he celebrated in the poem be weighed against the trees he uprooted in County Cork? Can one have the latter without the former, since Ireland's lack of a landscape tradition is rooted in its scarred landscape? Can one understand the presence of English literature without the absences of Irish literature? Are the presences in the former, at some level, bites taken out of the latter? Is England gardenlike because Ireland was prisonlike? Does the English pastoral, and the security and abundance it represents, depend on the impoverished land and people of other lands?'
It is ten years since the untimely death of W. G. Sebald and earlier this month there was a special event to celebrate his work and launch Across the Land and the Water: Selected Poems, 1964-2001. There were contributions from Iain Sinclair, A. S. Byatt, Andrew Motion and others who knew him (like poet Will Stone, whose recollections of studying with Sebald were particularly poignant). It was sad to reflect that the last time I had seen translator Anthea Bell on stage it was next to Sebald himself, reading from the recently-published Austerlitz. The crumbling Victorian Wilton's Music Hall was a particularly resonant setting for the readings, and for the performance of songs from Schubert's Winterreise by Ian Bostridge. Hearing the Winterreise in this context prompted thoughts of all the journeys and sadness in Sebald's writings.
There are many clips online of Ian Bostridge performing the Winterreise - the one I've included above is the opening song in the sequence. I thought it would be interesting to provide here short summaries of the cycle's twenty-four songs, to show how many of them start with some aspect of the winter landscape - the rustling sound of linden trees, ice on a frozen river, a tree's last few leaves trembling in the wind. Many of these natural elements are evoked in Schubert's piano score (for example, in 'Der Lindenbaum', 'the piano’s fluttering triplet figuration in E major which opens the song evokes the gentle breezes and whispering leaves of summer: the figure returns later, altered with chromatic harmonies, to depict the cold wind and eerie rustling of the tree in winter, and the young man’s growing sense of delusion'.) Rather than do a plain synopsis I've turned the Winterreise below into a set of tanka-style verses - I know this is a complete travesty (as Mrs Plinius was quick to point out when she saw what I was doing) but I just found it more fun than writing a set of bullet points... I've based this on the English translation at the Lied, Art Song and Choral Text Archive, using Arthur Rishi's titles; you can follow the link to read proper translations, or the original German poems by Wilhelm Müller.
The British Library's Royal Manuscripts exhibition includes books made from the ninth to the sixteenth centuries but begins with the extraordinary collection of Edward IV, including this copy of a French historical chronicle lying open at 'one of the earliest known European paintings in
which landscape is the principal subject.' I've just found that this image also appears in a list of mill images at the Medieval and Renaissance Material Culture site - a good source for other glimpses of landscape in the Middle Ages. What I like about this sort of list is the way it ignores the subject of the picture in favour of an unobtrusive detail - yes, there's an interesting windmill in the illustration below, but you have to drag your eyes away from the gruesome murder to see it (the windmill here nicely balances the clump of trees in a V-shaped composition pointing to the heart of the Roman Emperor). In other images on the site, mills are quietly grinding corn in the background whilst Narcissus looks down at his reflection, King David kneels before God, Elisha raises a woman's son from the dead, Arthurian knights go head to head in a tournament, Priam inspects the reconstruction of Troy, the Romans colonise Latium and ships navigate the coastal waters of Britain.
The assassination of Vitellius in De casibus, first quarter of the 15th century
Writing in The Sunday Telegraph last month, Andrew Graham-Dixon gave a four star review to the British Museum's Landscape, heroes and folktales: German Romantic prints and drawings, an exhibition 'drawn entirely from the holdings of an extremely discerning English private collector, Charles Booth-Clibborn.
On this showing, if his collection could be kept together and perhaps, one day, found a permanent home here, it would transform the representation of German art in Great Britain.' A week later Richard Dormer left the exhibition 'fuming', disappointed not to find 'passion, excess, sweeping
emotion' and regretting that the display left 'what must be enormous gaps': his review for The Telegraph gave it just two stars. I found it fascinating, even though I only had a brief amount of time to look round, and like Andrew Graham-Dixon I was particularly intrigued by the work of Carl Wilhelm Kolbe (1759-1835).
Carl Wilhelm Kolbe, Woodland pool with a man fishing and bystander, detail, 1793
Kolbe was born in Berlin (his father was a gold thread embroiderer) and pursued a career in philology alongside his artistic activities, composing a long book on the French and German languages. It wasn't until 1789 that he decided to train in art at the Berlin Academy and had to put up with being 'a bearded man in his thirties among a flock of boys, ten to twelve years in age'. He then obtained a post as court engraver in Dessau, publishing prints in Leipzig and Berlin and acquiring the nickname Eichenkolbe (Oak Kolbe) because he was so fond of depicting oak trees (he said 'trees have turned me into an artist'). The exhibition includes several examples of pastoral and woodland scenes with some impressive oak trees My photograph above shows a detail from an early etching with some doodles in the margins (the face in profile is possibly a self-caricature).
Carl Wilhelm Kolbe, Et in Arcadia Ego, 1801
Source: Wikimedia Commons
I've always thought it would be fascinating to compile a dictionary of the many sub-genres of landscape art - sous-bois for example, the French term for woodland scenes of the kind shown above. Such a book might include micro-genres particular to specific artists and one of the strangest of these would be Kolbe's Kräuterblätter (cabbage-sheets) - scenes featuring over-sized plant life, like his 1801 version of Et in Arcadia Ego. As Andrew Graham-Dixon writes, these etchings 'plunge
the eye into vertiginous screens of foliage, spectacularly sculptural
blasted trees and writhing, threateningly enlarged clumps of wild
vegetation. It is hard to say if these are dreams of oneness with nature or fantasies of
being consumed by it.' Kolbe himself came to rather regret these later in life, admitting in his autobiography that he had invented these plants 'completely out of my head, and I acknowledge that I was wrong - very wrong - to do so. Their perhaps not entirely unattractive forms may seduce the eye of the unlearned; the critical gaze of the naturalist cannot bear them.'
Between 1968 and 1970 Gerhard Richter painted a remarkable range of 'damaged landscapes', as they are termed by Mark Godfrey, the curator of Tate Modern's Gerhard Richter: Panorama. These include aerial views of cities in thick grey paint, the colour of ash and rubble, that Richter later likened to images of the destruction of Dresden but which might equally be seen as warnings of some future apocalypse. One of these, Townscape Paris (1968), is a painting I referred to rather tentatively in one of my very first blog posts here. At the same time Richter was also painting a very different kind of townscape, reproducing details of architectural models, and these too seem dystopian - windowless blocks showing no sign of life, casting shadows over empty white roads that resemble the patterns on a circuit board.
Another monochrome aerial view from 1968, Clouds, provides glimpses of an abstracted version of the German countryside - imagery that Godfrey compares to the opening sequence (above) of Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will (1935). Two years later Richter began a very different series of cloud paintings, this time treating them as isolated objects, white against featureless blue-green skies. They resemble Alfred Stieglitz's famous cloud photographs, Equivalents
(1927), which in turn (as Rosalind Krauss points out in that
weighty tome Art Since 1900) could be viewed as Duchampian readymades - uncomposed and
detached from their environment. Alps II (1968) might be a close-up of a storm cloud and is barely recognisable as a landscape painting, certainly a long way from the heroic image of German mountains celebrated in those early Reifenstahl films.
Seascape (Sea-Sea) (1970) is described in the exhibition as a 'collage of two
photographs of the sea, one inverted to appear as the sky. The painting
creates a momentary illusion of a coherent seascape, until it becomes
clear that the ‘clouds’ in the upper half of the painting are waves. It
creates a sense of discontinuity and suggests Richter’s acknowledgement
of the gulf separating him from the moment of Romanticism.' It made me think of Rothko's grey paintings, with the patterns of waves replacing Rothko's brushtrokes. Mark Godfrey views them as a cross between Capar David Friedrich and Blinky Palermo: an attempt at the kind of radical abstract statement Palermo was making in his Cloth Paintings using the traditional medium of a seascape. Another point of comparison is Vija Celmins and, like her, Richter also produced images of black and white fields of stars.
In 1971 an exhibition of Richter's recent work, painted in flat colour rather than black and white, prompted various critics to compare him with Friedrich. Landscape near Hubbelrath (1969), for example, shows an empty view with a road sign where we expect to see, in Friedrich, a church spire. Richter said that his art lacked the spiritual underpinnings of Romanticism: 'for us, everything is empty'. However, Mark Godfrey argues that Richter and Friedrich both aimed to create a sense of unfulfilled desire (readers of this blog may recall an earlier post on the way Friedrich composed 'obstructed views'). This approach may have seemed particularly appropriate to a post-war German artist working at a time when the purpose of painting itself was being called into question.
There is one more interesting example of Richter's engagement with Friedrich later in the exhibition, a painting called Iceberg in Mist(1982). I have mentioned various artists here before who went north to paint the Arctic seas - Peder Balke, Lawren Harris, Per Kirkeby - and Richter made his own trip in 1972, looking for a motif as powerful as Friedrich's The Sea of Ice. Mark Godfrey mentions that on his return Richter made 'an extraordinary and little-known book of black and white photographs of icebergs', printed, like the two halves of Seascape (Sea-Sea), both upside down and right side up. In this way Richter rejected the single sublime image and arranged the photographs in such a way that 'their overt subject became more or less irrelevant.' Richter's urge to thwart our desire for spectacular landscapes is also evident in the later painting, where we cannot even glimpse the tip of the iceberg as the whole view is shrouded in mist.
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
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
(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 lands...an explorer lost among the Antarctic glaciers looking for the
(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'.
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.'
(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.'
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.'
(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...'
On Tuesday I attended the dedication of the memorial to Ted Hughes in Poet's Corner. Poems were read by Juliet Stevenson, Seamus Heaney and Daniel Huws (the Welsh writer who knew Hughes at Cambridge); there is a Channel 4 news clip which gives a sense of the atmosphere there. The readings took place in front of Chaucer's tomb, which brought to mind that poem in Birthday Letters where Hughes remembers Sylvia Plath declaiming Chaucer to a field of cows, who seemed enthralled, 'ears angling to catch every inflection.'. Perhaps it would have felt more apt to have heard Hughes's poems out in the landscape, but there in the Abbey, he was connected to a tradition of English poets that began with Cædmon, who found his voice whilst caring for the animals at the monastery of Streonæshalch. Seamus Heaney made a short speech in dedication, invoking the closing lines of Beowolf where a memorial mound, high on a headland is built for the dead hero, 'far-famed and beloved'. The inscription on this new memorial comes from one of the poems in River (1983), 'That Morning', in which Hughes recalled standing solemnly 'in the pollen light / Waist-deep in wild salmon.' It seemed a moment of blessing, as if the fish had let the world as it is pass away: 'there, in a mauve light of drifted lupins, / They hung in the cupped hands of mountains...'