Sunday, December 30, 2012

Far in the wild His steps were driven

 William Dyce, Pegwell Bay, Kent - a Recollection of October 5th 1858 (1858-60)

The development of landscape art in the margins of Italian and Northern Renaissance religious paintings was assisted by the convention of depicting Biblical scenes in recognisably contemporary settings.  Fast forward four hundred years and landscape has long since become an independent genre, with the a capacity for views depicted with extreme naturalistic precision.  William Dyce's Pegwell Bay, for example, accurately delineates every strata in its chalk cliffs.  But in the same artist's Man of Sorrows (first exhibited alongside Pegwell Bay in 1860) the old idea of using a recognisable local landscape for religious art is resurrected.  The results is a curious hybrid of two types of Pre-Raphaelite Painting (both of which can be seen at the current Tate Britain exhibition): detailed studies of material nature, as advocated by Ruskin, and religious scenes inspired by the Italian primitives. 
William Dyce, Man of Sorrows, 1860

'Far in the wild His steps were driven', according to the quotation by John Keble that Dyce used to accompany the painting.  The 'wild' here is the Scottish Highlands.  But, as Kathleen Jamie has argued, that landscape is not really 'wild' - the lone figure of Christ would have found it less like a wilderness if the landlords had not evicted its inhabitants.  It is poignant to imagine that the Man of Sorrows (who, with his auburn hair, might almost be Scottish like William Dyce) is actually thinking here about the Highland Clearances, which only came to an end in the 1850s.  In the Bible, Christ spent forty days in the Judaean Desert, a place that remains largely empty of permanent habitation, despite the growth of Israeli Settlements in the West Bank.  Tempted by the Devil to assuage his hunger, Jesus refused to turn the stones around him to bread: 'Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God'.  This ambition to rise above material things, shared by us non-Christians, finds an outlet in the desire to explore and meditate upon desolate but beautiful landscapes, where the stones themselves provide a kind of spiritual sustenance.

Monday, December 24, 2012

The forest gloom got heavier and the forest-silence deeper

Earlier this year I read The Hobbit to my young sons and, coming to the book again as an adult, I was impressed by the way the landscape is so vividly described without holding up the action.  After escaping the goblins of the Misty Mountains, for example, the party set off again and the hungry Bilbo 'looked from side to side for something to eat; but the blackberries were still only in flower, and of course there were no nuts, not even hawthorn-berries.  He nibbled a bit of sorrel, and he drank from a small mountain-stream that crossed the path, and he ate three wild strawberries that he found on its bank, but it was not much good.'  They continued on until the path disappeared: 'the bushes, and the long grasses between the boulders, the patches of rabbit-cropped turf, and the thyme and the sage and the marjoram, and the yellow rockroses all vanished, and they found themselves at the top of a wide steep slope of fallen stones, the remains of a landslide.'  After escaping relatively unscathed from an avalanche of these stones, they limped onwards in deepening shadows, 'down the gentle slopes of a pine forest in a slanting path leading steadily southwards.  At times they were pushing through a sea of bracken with tall fronds rising above the hobbit's head, at times they were marching along quiet as quiet over a floor of pine-needles; and all the while the forest gloom got heavier and the forest-silence deeper.  There was no wind that evening to bring even a sea-sighing into the branches of the trees...'

On Saturday we went to see Peter Jackson's film, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.  In his review Philip French writes that 'the mountainous terrain, increasingly dark and menacing as the story progresses, at times resembles paintings by John Martin and Caspar David Friedrich, and is beautifully photographed by Jackson's regular cinematographer, Andrew Lesnie, who has that feeling for landscape that's such a feature of antipodean cinema.'  Unfortunately, as The Telegraph's Robbie Collin complains, Jackson's new 48 frames-per-second process may make the 'swoopy landscape shots look smoother' but it also gives the film 'a sickly sheen of fakeness: the props look embarrassingly proppy and the rubber noses look a great deal more rubbery than nosey.'  During the thunderstorm in the Misty Mountains, the dwarves hang desperately on to shiny fake rocks, surrounded by special effects reminiscent of Jason and the Argonauts.  Tolkien's description of the descent from these mountains that I quoted above ends in a moonlit clearing where the party are attacked by giant wolves and find temporary respite by climbing up the pine trees.  In the film these wolves are led by a pumped-up super-evil Orc who I don't recall appearing in the book and the dwarves all end up hanging from one tree, cracking under the strain and hanging implausibly over a precipice.  It is a bit sad to think that Peter Jackson's vision is now supplanting Tolkien's in my sons' imaginations.  However, the book's maps and illustrations still seem to intrigue them, and as I write this they are actually staging the attack of the wolves in a Lego forest scene of their own devising.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Landscapes surge into consciousness

(1) from Thomas Köner's Novaya Zemlya

This is my third annual survey of landscape music, following an initial list covering 2010 and another for 2011.  Last year I noticed that I was talking as much about record labels as artists: Ghost Box, Hundred Acre, Another Timbre, Gruenrekorder and, of course, Touch Music who this year celebrated their thirtieth birthday.  Touch have produced a compilation of new material with the slightly underwhelming title Thirty Years and Counting that includes people I've featured on this blog previously: Fennesz, Jana Winderen, Chris Watson...  Robert Macfarlane, author of The Old Ways, actually got the chance to collaborate with Chris Watson this year on a record called The Sea Road, based around sections of his book.  The Touch album I've been listening to a lot this year is Thomas Köner's Novaya Zemlya, although as The Liminal's review points out, it doesn't work very well as background music.  'Landscapes surge into consciousness on the back of deep, reverberating drones and cavernous low-end pulsations: ice and glaciers drift on the Bering strait, machines can be heard releasing their toxic radium under the islands’ rocks, and sheets of constrained white noise evoke the howling winds that whip and slam against this far-off no-man’s land.'

(2) From Jez riley French's instamatic: snowdonia

Earlier this week I asked Cheryl Tipp, curator of A World of Sound and reviewer for The Field Reporter, to recommend the best field recordings of 2012.  The Sea Road was one of her nominations, along with two releases on Gruenrekorder, Jhirni Jali by Peter Caeldries and Estonian Strings by Jez riley French.  You can hear sound samples by clicking on those links - 'Savera' for example, from Jhirni Jali was recorded at daybreak in a tiger reserve in the north of India ('savera' is the Hindi word for morning). The Jez riley French samples are completely different - contact microphone recordings of "transmitter cables, long chimney support cables, disused piano wires stretched across old farm utensils, rust covered fences – each one a surprise, a discovery and a joy to listen to."  In Estonia he found that "the molasses hued mirrored lakes offered up some fascinating hydrophone recordings ... whilst the sound of trees cracking together and grain barns rattling themselves from sleep in the occasionally strong winds provided some richly charged moments of deep listening."  In the absence of an embeddable clip I've included instead sounds from another Jez riley French release this year, instamatic: snowdonia.  It is the latest in a series of 'instamatic' recordings, completely unprocessed aural photographs that record particular soundmarks he encounters on his travels.

(3) From Olan Mill's Home

Journeys have inspired other forms of music this year, such as Road to Palios by Ryan Francesconi (who did the arrangements for Joanna Newsom's Have One on Me) and Australian violinist Mirabai Peart.  According to The Line of Best Fit, their album has its moments, but 'gentle seascapes and pleasant rural imagery just do not do justice to the musicianship of these two artists.' Alex Smalley is another artist composing what might be seen as the aural equivalent of travel writing.  His music has been likened to Richard Skelton's and his earlier releases as Olan Mill had the Skeltonesque titles Paths and PineThe new collection emerged from his travels in South America, from ‘Isla Del Sol’, the birthplace of the Incan sun god on Lake Titicaca, conveyed in soaring vocals and strings, to the darker sounds of ‘Camino De Las Yungas’, the world's most dangerous road.  He has called the album Home because that is where it was recorded - distant scenes and memories recollected in tranquility.

(4) From The Magnetic North's Orkney Symphony

Other British musicians stayed closer to home this year to investigate their local landscapes: Sheffield's David Newman, for example, with Beneath Peaks.  According to the Hibernate label website, its sounds 'were harvested from hikes and camping trips around the region’s hills, meadows, streams and bracken edged pathways. In the opening track ‘Asleep Beneath Nests’ you can even hear David snoring at Fieldhead campsite as he lay asleep in a tent!'  The Magnetic North's Erland Cooper was also sleeping one day when he was visited in a dream and told to make a record about his home islands. The resulting songs on Orkney Symphony reflect the islands' geography and culture (including the poetry of Edwin Muir).  In reviewing it, Amy Liptrot observes that 'just as the accents of the island peoples reflect their surroundings - rolling cadences like soft hills - the landscape affects the sound and attitude of the music. Three times a day, Northlink ferry MV Hamnavoe arrives from Scrabster and, in opening track Stromness, a trombone emulates the sound of the ship's horn coming into harbour, a defining characteristic of the town. The first of three songs named after Orkney beaches, 'Bay of Skaill', has a spare arrangement like a deserted beach, with a solitary figure walking across in a melody. A single note sustains - as if carried in the wind, and the driving rhythm is the ocean relentlessly arriving on the shore.'

(5) From Barbara Monk Feldman's The Northern Shore

Barbara Monk Feldman's The Northern Shore is a half hour composition for violin, piano and percussion.  "At the Gaspé peninsula in Quebec where the St. Lawrence river widens into the sea, the opposite shore appears across the water as a mirage that is either enhanced or diminished by the intensity of the light on the water during the day. I kept the memory of this light in my mind during the composing of The Northern Shore … some aspect of the light and horizon might be intimated in the way differing registrations of the violin are sustained in relation to the percussion and piano."  It is pared with another landscape-related piece, In the Small Time of a Desert Flower.  The composer Lou Harrison apparently said to her on hearing this “The rhythm of the piece seems to come from the geography of a landscape — something I have never heard before!”  According to the Guardian, the record is 'all quite beautiful in a passive way' but Julian Cowley in The Wire described the compositions as 'luminously beautiful', engaging 'with the sculpting, generative action of time, reflecting in that process landscape stretched across the horizon or etched into a parched expanse.'

(6) From Barbara De Dominicis and Julia Kent's Parallel 41

Modern ruins continue to attract musicians and sound artists, not to mention writers: earlier this year I mentioned Robert Macfarlane's collaboration with bass player Arnie Somogyi, Untrue Island, written and performed among the decaying Cold War listening stations, watch towers and blast-chambers of Orford Ness.  I've also talked before here about Peter Cusack's Chernobyl recordings and these feature in a double CD released this year called Sounds from Dangerous Places.  The importance of finding the right resonant spaces in which to record comes over in an interview with Barbara De Dominicis, where she discusses her recent Parallel 41 project with cellist Julia Kent. "In the Trentino Alto Adige, Vanja Zappetti a stoic historian of the region took us to an old abandoned fort. Once we got there we found out they had recently started restoring it so we ended up recording in an abandoned tunnel on the outskirts of Bolzano where they held illegal raves. It was a beautiful location next to the mountains with a creek running nearby and we made ample use of the natural sounds, recording and processing them live."  Reading this reminded me of Tempo di Viaggio, the film that documented Tarkovsky's search for the locations he would use in Nostalghia.  The clip above is an extract from a film Davide Lonardi made to accompany the Parallel 41 album.

(7) From Darren Hayman's Lido

I featured James Brooks' Land Observations project here earlier this year (there are also a few words from me on his site, drawing parallels between his Roman Roads compositions and the walks of Richard Long).  Darren Hayman's Lido was a similar combination of art and instrumental music that came out around the same time, and perhaps there are thematic links too: outdoor urban swimming pools as Modernist descendants of the communal thermae and balneae of Roman cities.  The Kings Meadow lido in Reading has become as much of a ruin as the Baths of Caracalla, or the Appian Way.  Both these albums also happen to start their journey in Hackney, near where I'm writing these lines: Land Observations with 'Before the Kingsland Road' and Darren Hayman with 'London Fields'.  The earliest memories Hayman has of visiting a lido are in Brentwood (track 8): "such a hazy, distant, blurred image. It closed in 1976 so the oldest I could have been was five or something. I went back to the site to make sound recordings and there was a faint echo of the place in the stretch of grass that covered. I recorded, literally, the absence of it and buried it in the recording." Another of his projects this year, The Violence, was about the 1645 Essex witch trials, and it completed an Essex trilogy that began with Pram Town, on the creation of new towns like Harlow, and continued with Essex Arms

(8) From The Eccentronic Research Council's 1612 Underture

Hauntologists and psychogeographers will have be aware that 2012 was the four hundredth anniversary of another famous set of witch trials at Pendle in Lancashire (a place I mentioned here before in connection with a poem by Geraldine Monk).  This was the subject of an enjoyable collaboration between The Eccentronic Research Council and actress Maxine Peake, 1612 Underture.  There was a great short film to accompany this viewable on Youtube but it now seems to have been taken down, so I've made do with an audio clip above.  Another anniversary recording, Pendle 1612, was released recently by Lancashire's Folklore Tapes, co-curated by David Chatton-Barker and Rob St John.  In an interesting interview with The Liminal St John cites the influence of Patrick Keiller, particularly in 'the way he assembles such a constellation of – at times seemingly ephemeral – information, and traces a line made by walking through it all. To me, his work is encouragement to delve into the history of places and landscapes important to you, that through putting all this information that others have perhaps disregarded together, the most important thing is that you become connected to these places and landscapes in your own individual way.'

(9) From Simon Scott's The Sounds Below Sea Level

Pendle 1612 came 'in a screen printed heritage library buckram box which houses information and ephemera related to the trials: a map, photographs, an essay by the curators, and a dried nettle in glassvine envelope as well as a download code.' It is reminiscent of the approach taken by Richard Skelton and Autumn Richardson, whose writings I discussed a couple of weeks ago (I neglected to mention then that the texts collected in The Flowering Rock accompany a new sequence of music, Verse of Birds).  Clearly there is a demand for music as collectible objet de vertu - Olan Mill's Pine was available in a deluxe heavy vinyl edition 'wrapped in luxury soft tissue' and 'scented'.  But nettles and photographs are surely included with the hope of connecting the listener more directly to the landscape as it was experienced by the composer.  In an interview to discuss The Sounds Below Sea Level, an album based on field-recordings made at Holme Fen (the lowest place in Britain), Simon Scott explains that he was actually asked by his label boss to make a limited edition book to accompany the music.  After seeing Scott's photographs, "he also asked, do you have any notes, odd scraps of paper that you were putting together when you were writing your essay? I had! Most of it was at the bottom of my rucksack scrunched up. The book costs a lot of money to print, but if you’re interested in that side of things, then it’s a nice piece of art.”

(10) From Azurazia's Lowering the Mediterranean

My final selection here is a Julian Cope recommendation.  Back in July (or July 2012CE, as the Arch-Drude has it) the Head Heritage site's Vinyl of the Month was Azurazia's Lowering the Mediterranean. Over 'four sides of environmental feedback, field recordings, social commentary and cultural tamperings' this album tells 'the tale of the failed attempt to bring water to the Sahara Desert via several ill-fated white elephant dam ideas. Like many such Third World projects, this dystopian nightmare has left vast machinery and partially-completed civil engineering projects strewn around the north African landscape, each emitting enough residual sound FX to permeate all four sides of vinyl with alternately mind-numbing, then mind-irrigating sounds. Messrs Chromium and Moulin have corralled these chaotic sound titans splendidly; bringing forth a Soviet-sized music concrète that will most assuredly strike a compelling chord with anyone who accidentally interfaces with the stuff.' Side D is explicitly Ballardian: 'Hunting shipwrecks along sublimed lakes - Invocation of my terminal beach brother.'  Lowering the Mediterranean is the fourth release from Grautag records who specialise in 'music for wasted tomorrows.'

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Abundant brooks wandering over the snow white sands

'Its plains are spacious, its hills are pleasantly situated, adapted for superior tillage, and its mountains are admirably calculated for the alternate pasturage of cattle, where flowers of various colours, trodden by the feet of man, give it the appearance of a lovely picture. It is decked, like a man's chosen bride, with divers jewels, with lucid fountains and abundant brooks wandering over the snow white sands; with transparent rivers, flowing in gentle murmurs, and offering a sweet pledge of slumber to those who recline upon their banks, whilst it is irrigated by abundant lakes, which pour forth cool torrents of refreshing water.' - Gildas, De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae, c 547
Gildas was the first writer of history in Britain and this rather lovely description of the country's landscape was taken up and adapted by later writers.  The rivers that offer 'a sweet pledge of slumber to those who recline upon their banks' are mentioned again six hundred years later in the first paragraph of Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britannia.  But just a few pages on from this charming vision, we read of Brutus, the legendary Trojan who will found the race of Britons, 'twirling his battle-axe' and slaughtering the men of Aquitaine.  There he and his men 'burned the cities far and wide, heaping up fire upon fire.'  Still, when he does finally arrive in the 'best of islands', he settles down and establishes a new city on the Thames: Troia Nova, later known as London - where I'm sitting now writing this blog post.

The Saint Petersburg Bede manuscript

Another early chronicle, The Venerable Bede's Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (731) also opens with a description of Britain, longer but less poetic than that of Gildas (one of his sources, along with Orosius, Julius Solinus and Pliny the Elder).  After giving us its location and dimensions, he is soon, like an old fashioned geographer, listing its chief produce... 'Britain is rich in grain and trees, and is well adapted for feeding cattle and beasts of burden. It also produces vines in some places, and has plenty of land and water fowl of divers sorts; it is remarkable also for rivers abounding in fish, and plentiful springs. It has the greatest plenty of salmon and eels; seals are also frequently taken, and dolphins, as also whales; besides many sorts of shell-fish, such as mussels, in which are often found excellent pearls of all colours, red, purple, violet and green, but chiefly white. There is also a great abundance of snails, of which the scarlet dye is made, a most beautiful red, which never fades with the heat of the sun or exposure to rain, but the older it is, the more beautiful it becomes. It has both salt and hot springs, and from them flow rivers which furnish hot baths, proper for all ages and both sexes, in separate places, according to their requirements.'

Saturday, December 01, 2012

Field Notes

Autumn Richardson and Richard Skelton have kindly sent me a copy of Field Notes, a compilation of their place-poems. The first section reprints Typography of the Shore which explored connections between the experience of landscape and the making of a book.  Thus, on the ‘ragged shoreline’ of Tentsmuir in Scotland there are ‘spurred stems’ and ‘wind-kerned grasses’ – ‘ragged’ is unjustified type, a ‘spur’ is the serif-like ending to a letterform and ‘kern’ is the action of adjusting spaces between the letters.  The second chapbook in the series, Skin and Heather, used text from Richard’s book on Anglezarke, Landings: ‘climb the small stile / gather the small stream’, ‘moors like scar tissue / skin and heather’. The third, Induviae, was a set of Autumn poems which took its name from the withered leaves which cling to the stem of some plants.  The fourth, Into the Bare Moorland, was written from Ireland about the West Pennine Moors and the final section of the book, The Flowering Rock, is a new collection of poems describing the landscape of the Burren: madder and thrift, eyebright and hart's tongue living in the seams between the shattered rocks; beneath them, arterial passages where the 'wailing notes / of water and wind' create 'hollow songs / of hollow hills.'  A sixth sequence, not included in the Field Notes compilation, is Wolf Notes, which I described in a post here last year.  The Field Notes series is intended to grow into ‘a poetic map of seemingly disparate locations – a distillation of what is unique to each, whilst also charting the underlying connections that may exist between them.’  

The language of landscape is a common preoccupation in these texts, and in the authors' other Corbel Stone Press publications.  The name *AR that they used for Wolf Notes stands not just for Autumn and Richard, but is also 'an archaic place-name element found in river names. It is thought to stem from the Celtic language spoken by ancient Britons, known as Brythonic. The asterisk indicates that it is a hypothetical, reconstructed form, as there is no surviving documentary evidence. It is thought to mean ‘starting up, springing up, setting in motion.’  Landings (reprinted in a new edition earlier this year) includes thirty pages of Lancashire dialect terms.  Among my favourites are: Borrans - rough, craggy places, to which foxes run for safety; Carrwater - red peaty water; Dag - dew on the grass; Fub - long withered grass on old pastures or meadows; Hare-gate - an opening in a hedge, sufficient for the passage of hares; Hippings - stepping-stones in a brook; Leawks - tufts of barren dry grass; Rindle - a small stream; and Stanner - a ridge of stones formed by the sea.  Their newest work, Limnology is 'a sequence of word-lists, text rivers and myth-poems that explore the rich corpus of water words found in English, the dialect of Cumberland, Icelandic, Anglo-Saxon, Gaelic, Irish, Manx, Welsh and Proto-Celtic.'  You can hear an extract from the accompanying CD below, river music 'that has gradually accrued volume and pace over the past six years, swelling to nearly 30 minutes of vivid, and sometimes violent, intensity'.