Saturday, January 28, 2012

Trees into logs into smoke

Last night I watched Michelangelo Frammartino's film Le Quattro Volte on DVD and have been boring people all day trying to convince them how wonderful it is.  Reviewing it last year in The Independent, Jonathan Romney wrote that Le Quattro Volte 'will set you musing on matters natural and metaphysical, using little more than some Calabrian hillsides, a stack of logs, some snails and a herd of goats – and barely a syllable of dialogue. The film is an extraordinary achievement – beautiful, moving, mysterious, and, at times, extremely funny. In its self-effacing way, it's nothing short of a miracle – one of those rare works that break all the rules about what cinema "should" be in order to demonstrate what it can be.'  He goes on to explain that 'the title – literally, the four "turns"or "phases" – refers to the world as described by Pythagorean philosophy, with its theory of a cycle of eternal transformation and reincarnation. What this means in practice is that Le Quattro Volte isn't about story, or character, or even action. Rather, this is a contemplative film about things changing into other things – like trees into logs into smoke – and about the cycle of natural changes, the internal clock by which the universe keeps time.'

In an interview for the DVD, Frammartino said, "I've tried to make the landscape the protagonist.  I tried not to use it simply as background but to make it become something more important, to bring it out and elevate it to the level of protagonist.  For example, in the film there's a moment in the first part, when our protagonist is still a man, an old shepherd.  He's lying in the grass minding his own business when an ant starts walking over his face, over his cheekbones and up towards his eyes.  The ant steals the scene and the man's face, in close-up, becomes a landscape.  There's this reversal of roles.  And then, a few scenes later, there's a landscape with the roofs of the village and a big tree emerging, the protagonist of the scene, with a little man climbing up it, as tiny as an ant.  The man is like an insect and the landscape reminds us of a man's face.  This game, this shifting of levels, which can provoke laughter, I've tried to employ it in the relationship between close-up and landscape, this game of scale, this reversal of importance."

Friday, January 27, 2012

Water flows inward underneath a cottonwood tree

In the video clip embedded above the environmental philosopher David Abram talks about the way landscape no longer speaks directly to us.  In his book The Spell of the Sensuous, he writes that in oral cultures, ‘human eyes and ears have not yet shifted their synaesthetic participation from the animate surroundings to the written word.  Particular mountains, canyons, streams, boulder-strewn fields, or groves of trees have not yet lost the expressive potency and dynamism with which they spontaneously present themselves to the sense.  A particular place in the land is never, for an oral culture, just a passive or inert setting for the human events that occur there.  It is an active participant in those occurrences.’  These conclusions come after a description of the importance of location for Western Apache storytelling.  An ‘agodzaahi narrative always begins and ends with a statement explaining where it happened, using one of the language’s evocative place names (which read like compressed poems).  Abram cites the work of linguistic anthropologist Keith Basso, who found that these place names occur with remarkable frequency in Apache discourse.  I was intrigued by this, so I looked up the original Basso article (in Cultural Anthropology, May 1988), where photographs of specific locations are reproduced to demonstrate how well their Apache place names fit: “Water flows inward underneath a cottonwood tree”; “White rocks lie above in a compact cluster”; “Water flows down on top of a regular succession of flat rocks.”

According to Basso, ‘the great majority of Western Apache place names currently in use are believed to have been created long ago by the “ancestors” (nohwizá) of the Apache people.  The ancestors, who had to travel constantly in search of food, covered vast amounts of territory and needed to be able to remember and discuss many different locations.  This was facilitated by the invention of hundreds of descriptive place names that were intended to depict their referents in close and exact detail.’  What's particularly interesting about these names (for readers of this blog) is that they assume a specific point of view, like a landscape:  'Western Apache place names provide more than precise depictions of the sites to which the names may be used to refer.  In addition, place names implicitly identify positions for viewing these locations: optimal vantage points, so to speak, from which the sites can be observed, clearly and unmistakably, just as their names depict them.  To picture a site from its name, then, requires that one imagine it as if standing or sitting at a particular spot, and it is to these privileged positions, Apaches say, that the images evoked by place names cause them to travel in their minds.’ This travel is both “forward” (bidááh) into space, and, following the memory of their ancestors' wanderings, “backward” (t’ aazhi) into time.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Some wine beside the white clouds

Landscape can be a solace to the exile, but it can be hard to contemplate the beauty of lakes and mountains without thinking of home, or the bitter circumstances and long journey that have led from there.  When the An Lu-shan rebellion broke out in 756, the poet Li Po travelled south to Kiukiang to escape the turmoil and fighting.  There he made an ill-fated decision to join Prince Lin, the Emperor's sixteenth son, whose flotilla was making its way down the Yangtze.  Instead of heading off to fight the rebels, Prince Lin was aiming to set up his own independent regime.  According to Arthur Waley (in The Poetry and Career of Li Po) it seems unlikely that the rather unworldly Li Po knew what the Prince intended - he would later claim to have been virtually kidnapped: "I allowed myself to be deceived by false pretences and was forced by threats to go on board a transport."  At the time though, he wrote poems like 'Watching the dancing-girls at a banquet on board Marshal Wei's transport; written while with the Fleet', indicating that he was thoroughly enjoying himself on this adventure.  This pleasant time came to an end near Yangchow, where Prince Lin's forces were met by government troops and his generals abandoned him - Li Po probably jumped ship as well at this point (the prince was captured and executed).  On his return to Kiukiang, Li Po was arrested as a traitor and imprisoned for several months.  After being set free he made his way to Wu-ch'ang, near Hankow, where he stayed for a while, hoping for a pardon, before continuing again, north, to Yo-chou, near the famous Tung-t'ing (Dong-ting) Lake.  There he met two friends, both exiles like himself.  Chia Chih was a writer (he had actually composed the Emperor's deed of abdication in 756) and former Governor of Ju-chou who had been demoted after being judged to have fled south from the rebels too hastily. Li Yeh was a relative of Li Po's, banished to the south after being charged with perverting the course of justice.  One day, the three friends decided to take an evening boating excursion on the lake...

Hermit Fisherman on Lake Dong-ting, Wu Zhen, 14th century

'The bright moon, the autumn wind / the waters of Lake Dong-ting, / a lone swan, the falling leaves, a tiny skiff.'  Thus Chia Chih conveys the beauty and the underlying sadness of the occasion.  In his Anthology of Chinese Literature Stephen Owen provides translations of the poems that resulted from this outing.  Li Po 'wrote a series of five of his most famous quatrains celebrating the beauty of the moment.'  But Chia Chih's are 'every bit as memorable.  Both poets called to mind echoes of exile and death beyond the edges of the vast lake, places like Chang-sha, where the Han intellectual Jia Yi was banished.' Li Po imagines riding the currents in the water up into the night sky and buying 'some wine / beside the white clouds.'  In the centre of the lake there is a mountain called Jun-shan (the source for one of China's ten famous teas) which Li Po pictures on a 'mirror of jade' - the 'bright lake, swept calm and clear.'  Chia Chih describes more turbulent waters, swollen with autumn floods.  The friends let the waves guide their light boat, 'no care whether near or far.'

So in eight short poems we have a record of an evening in the autumn of 759, a moment of reflection before events, like waves on the lake, swept these men up again.  Climbing Pa-ch'iu Shan that autumn, Li Po glimpsed another fleet mustering and wrote in one of his poems of the rebel forces approaching Lake Tung-t'ing.  It was only near the end of the year that peace was restored to the Yangtze region and the poet was finally able to leave, making for Wu-ch'ang where he again expressed his hopes of one day being given a posting back in the capital.  But by this time Li Po knew that any such post would be his last.  He fell ill while traveling to Nanking and in 762 made his final journey to see the great calligrapher, Li Yang-ping near T'ai-p'ing.  Meanwhile Chia Chih had also made his way back and, a year later, on the accession of Emperor Tai-tsung, regained his former position, going on to serve as Vice Minister of War before his death in 772.  Li Po seems to have died at the home of Li Yang-ping, to whom the poet entrusted what writings he still had after his years of wandering in exile.  According to the well known story, he took another nighttime boat excursion, and this time, drunk on wine, fell into the river and drowned whilst trying to embrace the reflection of the moon.

Note: As always the sources vary in spelling Chinese words and here I've generally stuck to the older Wade-Giles system - for me the poet will always be Li Po rather than Li Bai.  The pinyin version of Chia Chih is Jia Zhi.  As noted above, Lake Tung-t'ing is now generally called Lake Dong-ting.

Sunday, January 15, 2012


The Fitzwilliam museum in Cambridge is going to mount a small exhibition later this year, showing prints by two of the artists mentioned in Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts' book Edgelands. 'George Shaw's series, Twelve Short Walks, 2005, is drawn from revisited scenes of his childhood on the Tile Hill council estate in the suburbs of Coventry. Michael Landy's Nourishment, 2002, features life-sized images of weeds, or 'street-flowers' - the overlooked and neglected vegetation of Edgelands.'  Shaw's Humbrol-painted views (which made him the favourite to win last year's Turner Prize) and Landy's equally painstaking illustrations of groundsel, toadflax and thale cress represent two different approaches to the edgelands - one an attempt to depict the visual experience of these elusive, marginal spaces, the other an investigation into a particular defining feature: electricity pylons, cooling towers, sheds, containers, litter.

Among the artists who, like George Shaw, convey a sense of the actual landscape, there is David Rayson, who has executed a set of canal path paintings, From Ashmore Park to Wednesfield, where 'there are no people about, just their traces in the old leaden water, the missing railing, the litter...'  Then there are the motorway verges that Edward Chell has made the focus for his paintings, even going so far as to exhibit them in Little Chefs.  And there are the photographs Keith Arnatt made after leaving behind performance art in the early seventies: Abandoned Landscapes, A.O.N.B., The Forest.  In the tradition of Samuel Palmer's detailed jewel-like images, Arnatt has made a series of 'polythene Palmers' - colour images of a rubbish-strewn path, Miss Grace's Lane.  But unsurprisingly it is easier to name artists who have chosen to isolate details, like Michael Landy's weeds, than show a wider prospect, since the edgelands tend to fail to live up to even our post-industrial ideas of the picturesque. 

Of course some parts of the edgelands have themselves been landscaped, as Farley and Symmons Roberts observe of a new university campus and various retail sites and housing estates.  They visit an East Midlands business park where 'shrubs and flowers don't just decorate perimeters, they read like spreadsheets.  Thriving businesses have bigger teams of gardeners' and one software company has a lake surrounded by bulrushes.  At this point, after a digression on poets and the sub-genre of deer roadkill poems, the authors imagine a wild stag wandering into the business park and ask 'Who would notice? Who would write the poem?' Well, why not one of those software company employees, I wondered.  This was one of those moments where the authors seemed to look down on the inhabitants of the landscape rather like eighteenth century tourists (as Robert Macfarlane noted in his review).  But aside from that, Edgelands is an engrossing read, scattered with memorable images - like the railway embankment (to pick just one example) which they compare to a glacier, its litter 'caught like till in the ice, inching slowly towards earth with the general tumble of each season's growth.'  I also find it impossible not to like a book that references Mark E. Smith's magnificent (and overtly misanthropic) 'Container Drivers'...  on which note I'll end this post, playing out with the mighty Fall: '... Look at a car park for two days / Look at a grey port for two days / Train line, stone and grey / RO-RO roll on roll off...'

Saturday, January 07, 2012


John Martin, The Bard, c1817

As the Tate Britain exhibition John Martin: Apocalypse comes to the end of its run, it would be interesting to know how well it has done.  There was talk beforehand of the way that Martin's critical reputation has risen and that his spectacular paintings should appeal in a world of 'proliferating IMAX cinemas and giant plasmas' (Ian Christie in Tate Etc. magazine) and contemporary photography framed on a Sublime scale - Edward Burtynsky, Florian Maier-Aichen, Andreas Gursky (Jonathan Griffin also in Tate Etc.)  The Tate's familiar Last Judgement Triptych was accompanied by a new 'theatrical display' intended to evoke the way these paintings were seen around the world in the late nineteenth century.  Looking round the exhibition I found it easy to see why John Martin's work has been mocked - "huge, queer and tawdry" was the verdict of William Makepeace Thackeray.

Martin's shortcomings are more evident when you see the paintings up close: The Bard for example often gets reproduced in books about Romanticism but I'd not previously been able to see how unconvincing some of its details are - Edward I's army a line of little tin soldiers trailing all the way back to the castle gate.  Yet there's still something awesome about these blockbuster paintings (at least that's what the adolescent Chris Foss fan I used to be was telling me) and the exhibition was also fascinating for the way it highlighted Martin's less well known activities - as a decorator of plates, an illustrator of prehistoric creatures (Gideon Mantell's The Wonders of Geology) and a painter of modest topographical water colours, like some views of Richmond Park where, like Edmund Spenser in Ireland, he had an oak tree named after him (how many writers and artists are commemorated in this way I wonder?)

Perhaps the most surprising exhibits were two examples of his schemes to improve the city of London.  The first, which might have been drawn by a 1970s land artist or a 1990s psychogeographer, was his plan for a London Connecting Railway - a beautiful curving form superimposed on a map, like the outline of an octopus.   The other was a drawing of a sewer housed in a new Thames embankment, stretching from 'the Ranelagh Outlet to the Engine Station': a proposal considered seriously at the time but easy to view as one more facet of Martin's capacity to dream up imaginary cities. (It made me think of today's urban explorers, uncovering tunnels like these and scaling buildings to view the city below from a John Martin perspective.)  An excellent article in The Guardian by the John Martin expert William Feaver mentions these engineering projects and claims that Martin 'was ecologically prophetic. In his 1833 A Plan for Improving the Air and Water of the Metropolis he raised an issue such as had been dismissed by the scoffers who ignored divine warnings and were swept away in Noah's flood: "Is it not probable that a too ignorant waste of manure has caused the richest and most fertile countries such as Egypt, Assyria, the Holy Land, the South of Italy etc to become barren as they now are?"'

John Martin, Pandemonium, 1841

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

The Dawning of Music in Kentucky

I recently came upon a nice short essay by Kyle Gann called 'American Romanticism: Music vs. Painting'.  It discusses nineteenth century music in relation to the paintings of artists like Frederic Edwin Church and Martin Johnson Heade, mentioning in particular three early orchestral works inspired by landscapes: 'The Ornithological Combat of Kings (1836) by Anthony Philip Heinrich (1781-1861), the Niagara Symphony (1854, though it doesn’t seem to have been performed before the current decade) by William Henry Fry (1813-1864), and Night in the Tropics (1861) by Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1829-1869). All three were based on New World subject matter – South or Central America in Heinrich’s and Gottschalk’s cases, like so many of Church’s and Heade’s best paintings. All three offer effects unknown to European music of the time – particularly Gottschalk’s pop-music syncopations and the rumble of eleven timpani with which Fry evokes Niagara’s cascade. All three are marked by a technical ineptitude that any sensitive amateur could pinpoint – Heinrich’s marching-band momentum badly needs a rest now and then, Gottschalk’s harmonic rhythm is deadeningly predictable, and Fry lapses into Wagnerian banality whenever he’s not being onomatapoetically athematic. They seem today like brave but Quixotic figures, would-be heroes whom the passage of time reduces to clowns.'

Frederick Edwin Church, Niagara Falls, 1857

Anthony Philip Heinrich is a particularly interesting figure: a Bohemian wholesale dealer in linen, thread, wine, and other goods who settled in America and only decided to take up music after the failure of his business and death of his wife.  According to David Barron, he travelled to Kentucky and in the spring of 1818, where, in a move that anticipates Thoreau, 'he withdrew from the musical society of Lexington, Frankfort, and Louisville and went to live in a log cabin in the woods around Bardstown. This was a significant moment in Heinrich's life, for here he paused to study and instruct himself in the art of music by improvising on the violin, and finally to write down these expressions as vocal, piano, and violin compositions.'  His first major publication, a collection of songs and pieces for violin and piano, was called The Dawning of Music in Kentucky or the Pleasures of Harmony in the Solitude of Nature (1820).  Like William Henry Fry, he composed a noisy piece inspired by the Niagara Falls, The War of the Elements and the Thundering of Niagara. He was friendly with John James Audubon and in addition to the The Ornithological Combat of Kings mentioned above, composed The Columbiad, or Migration of American Wild Passenger Pigeons. Heinrich's music was performed to acclaim in New York in the 1840s and there were successful concerts back in Prague in 1857, but four years later the old man died in poverty. 

John James Audubon, Passenger Pigeon, from Birds of America (1827-38)

The article by David Barron quoted above includes an amusing description of an occasion on which Heinrich was introduced to President Tyler, written by John Hill Hewitt, the piano teacher to Tyler's daughter:
'The composer labored hard to give full effect to his weird production; his bald pate bobbed from side to side, and shone like a bubble on the surface of a calm lake.  At times his shoulders would be raised to the line of his ears, and his knees went up to the keyboard, while the perspiration rolled in large drops down his wrinkled cheeks.
The ladies stared at the maniac musician, as they, doubtless, thought him, and the president scratched his head, as if wondering whether wicked spirits were not rioting in the cavern of mysterious sounds and rebelling against the laws of acoustics. The composer labored on, occasionally explaining some incomprehensible passage, representing, as he said, the breaking up of the frozen river Niagara, the thaw of the ice, and the dash of the mighty falls. Peace and plenty were represented by soft strains of pastoral music, while the thunder of our naval war-dogs and the rattle of our army musketry told of our prowess on sea and land.
The inspired composer had got about half-way through his wonderful production when Mr. Tyler restlessly arose from his chair, and placing his hand gently on Heinrich's shoulder, said;
“That may all be very fine, sir, but can't you play us a good old Virginia reel?”'