Sunday, December 28, 2014

The morning and I meet up again

After many leaden days in London there was a bright sun rising over the rooftops this morning.  It seemed a good moment to listen to Alice Oswald's dawn poem 'Tithonus' on the BBC iPlayer (still available for another four weeks).  This was a shortened version of the performance we went to see back in October at the Queen Elizabeth Hall:
'The world premiere of a specially commissioned new poem, read by the poet herself.
In Greek mythology, the Dawn fell in love with Tithonus and asked Zeus to make him immortal, but she forgot to ask that he should not grow old.  Unable to die, he grew older and older, until at last Dawn locked him in a room where, several thousand years later, he still sits babbling to himself.  This is an account of his babbling, written in real time, through a series of dawns from spring to midsummer 2014. It is a poem about survival.
The performance begins in darkness and lasts 46 minutes (the length of dawn in midsummer).'
Looking back on Twitter for my instant verdict then, I see I said "Alice Oswald performing her dawn poem Tithonus last night reminded me of Patti Smith (if she'd done Classics and lived in Devon)."  I was thinking about the similarities in the way they perform their poetry over music, holding you from the start and building to a point where language starts to overflow and key phrases turn into a refrain (I wrote here a few years ago about a Patti Smith performance like this, a tribute to W. G. Sebald).  At the same time I was conscious of the differences - Patti Smith's rock & roll romanticism and New York drawl contrasting with Alice Oswald's classical learning and precise diction.  The comparison feels less obvious with this new radio version, which had slightly less time for the impressive nykelharp accompaniment of Griselda Sanderson and cut the later part of the poem where poor babbling Tithonus repeats the same lines over and over.  However, listening to it rather than experiencing the performance focused my attention much more on the words of the poem itself.  Here are a few from 12 minutes in (I am transcribing from the broadcast so do not have the line breaks); a vision of the coming dawn: 
'...the wood still lost in its inmost unable.  And mist forms an orderly queue for the horizon.  Green ropes of wind.  White silks of field.  And buried under several feet of colour, the eyes can never quite see out, but it is glittering now in the gaps between things.  And a thistle begins to be properly named and certain of its spikes.  What a chandelier of dock flowers dangles from the ground inverted.  So the morning and I meet up again, but not on talking terms.'
Waking up this morning

Friday, December 26, 2014

Various sorts of landscapes with fine histories composed therein

Joannes and Lucas van Doetecum after Pieter Bruegel the Elder,
Magdalena Poenitens (Penitent Magdalene), ca. 1555–56
Engraving in the Metropolitan Museum of Art

In sixteenth century Antwerp there was a shop selling prints with the lovely name, Aux Quatre Vents. It was set up by by Hieronymus Cock in 1548 and run with his wife, Volcxken Dierix, who continued the business for thirty years after Cock's death in 1570.  They were highly successful, as might be inferred from their motto, 'let the cock cook what the people (volcx) want'. The great Pieter Bruegel came to work for Cock at the start of his career, in the mid 1550s, and designed a series of twelve Large Landscapes based in part on what he had observed during his recent travels over the Alps and in Italy.  As the Met site notes, these engravings (actually executed by the brothers Joannes and Lucas van Doetecum), 'among the most widely circulated and celebrated of Bruegel's images, allowed a large audience to become acquainted with his strikingly naturalistic and broad-eyed conception of landscape.'  The British Museum has the only surviving drawing for these etchings (below) - its odd title may be a mistake in Latin for the more appealing sounding Solitudo Rustica ('Rustic Solitude').

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Solicitudo Rustica (Country Concerns), ca. 1555
Drawing in The British Museum - Wikimedia Commons
Hieronymus Cock, View of the Colosseum, 1551 
Engraving in the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam - Wikimedia Commons

What could a customer of Aux Quatre Vents have purchased?  Cock himself designed a series of topographical engravings of Roman sites based on his own time there (1546-8) and they may have influenced Bruegel in paintings like The Tower of Babel (the walls of which are reminiscent of the Colosseum). Last year's exhibition on Hieronymus Cock in Leuven included (according to Jamie Edwards of the University of Birmingham) a monumental monograph on the Baths of Diocletian, 'the very first published architectural monograph of its kind, which is staggering for both its physical size and its visual richness.'  Cock also printed a series based on drawings by his older brother Matthys, Various sorts of landscapes with fine histories composed therein, from the Old and New Testaments, and several merry Poems, very convenient for painters and other connoisseurs of the arts (1558). Matthys was later included (with his brother) in the canon-forming collection of twenty-three portraits of 'celebrated painters of Lower Germany' by Dominicus Lampsonius, published by Volcxken Dierix in 1572.   The Latin poem underneath includes a pun on the word 'Cock': 'Tu quoque, Matthia, sic pingere rura sciebas, / Ut tibi vix dederint tempora nostra parem.' ('You too, Matthias, knew how to paint fields in such a way, that our age has scarcely produced your equal.')

Matthys Cock
This engraving is from the 1612 expanded version (69 portraits) by Hendrik Hondius I

Matthys Cock, Landscape with Castle above a Harbour, 1550
Drawing in the National Gallery of Art, Washington - Wikimedia Commons

Perhaps the most intriguing Aux Quatre Vents productions on a landscape theme appeared in 1559 and 1561.  Their artist is unknown and has come to be known as the Master of the Small Landscapes.  He is credited with turning painters away from the panoramic 'world landscapes' of Joachim Patinir (c. 1460-1524) to the kind of modest scenes familiar to us from seventeenth century Dutch art.  This influence spread through a 1612 set of engravings produced in Amsterdam by Claes Jansz. Visscher (it has been argued that they would have provided buyers with a nostalgic view of the Brabant countryside prior to the revolt of the Seventeen Provinces, territory that had recently been ceded to the Spanish).  But who was the original Master?  The Visscher prints were credited to Bruegel but various other contenders have been proposed.  Was it the relatively obscure Joos van Liere?  Or Cornelis Cort, who worked for Cock and was named as the prints' author in a 1601 re-issue?  Or Hieronymus Cock himself?  It is not impossible that one day scholarly detective work will reveal a hitherto unknown independent landscape artist...

The Master of the Small Landscapes, Landscape with farms and a herdsman, 1559-61
Engraving in the Rijksmuseum - Wikimedia Commons

The Master of the Small Landscapes, Village view, late 1550s
Drawing in the Stichting Museum Boymans - Wikimedia Commons

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Factory chimneys across the River Eden

When we visited Aix-en-Provence and Mont Sainte-Victoire, a couple of years before France adopted the Euro, it was mildly gratifying to be able to pay for things using Paul Cézanne banknotes.  At that time the 50 Franc notes honoured another of my heroes, Antoine de Saint-ExupéryThe 20 Franc Debussy notes featured landscapes on both sides: a stormy sea representing La Mer, and scenery for Pelléas et Mélisande (1902), originally painted by Lucien Jusseaume and Eugène Ronsin.  I suppose the Euro notes that replaced these might be seen as having a tangential landscape association, but the bridges on them are really generic symbols rather than specific landmarks (unlike the original designs which included the Rialto Bridge in Venice and the Pont de Neuilly in Paris).  Bridges are popular currency motifs - outside the Eurozone Denmark uses them and here in Britian we can spend five different Bank of Scotland notes, ranging from the 14th century Brig O'Doon (£5) to the Kessock Bridge, completed in 1982 (£100).

Another landscape painter honoured on a banknote is Edvard Munch - he appears with his painting, The Sun on Norway's 1000-kroner note.  There has been a lot of praise this year for the new Norwegian note designs ('the world's coolest currency' according to Slate).  The original Snøhetta Design idea was to pair black and white coastal photographs with pixelated colour versions.  The Norges Bank has kept the pixels but gone for more traditional images on the obverse.  Personally I am even more envious of the new Norwegian passports, designed by Neue, which the Guardian described as 'beautifully simplified depictions of Norway’s natural landscapes drawn with fine lines in pastel shades ... When shone under UV light, the landscapes within the pages transform to show the northern lights in the night sky, a magical touch that adds a deeper sense of intrigue to the already striking document.'

Of course there are many examples of landscapes on banknotes, from the dramatic mountains of Guilin on China's 20 yuan, to the Ulster Bank's vignette's of the Mourne Mountains, Giant's Causeway and Queen Elizabeth Bridge (another one...)  There was a time when individual banks in England as well as other parts of the British Isles issued their own notes. The British Museum site explains how these became increasingly sophisticated in the nineteenth century with the use of steel engraving:
'Printers such as Perkins and Heath in London and W.H.Lizars in Edinburgh exploited this potential to produce exquisite banknote designs combining dazzling machine-engraved patterns – a trademark of Perkins’ firm – with delicate hand-engraved figures and rural scenes that reflected a growing taste for romantic landscape, evident in the popularity of topographical prints, watercolours and poetry. A wonderful note of the Carlisle City and District Banking Company carries a panoramic view of the city with its castle, cathedral, houses and factory chimneys across the River Eden; people stroll in fields in the foreground, while on the far bank cattle are wading and a line of washing is hanging out to dry.' 
This kind of local pride expressed through banknotes seems remote in the era of e-commerce and bitcoins.  Will physical money last any longer than passports or stamps?  I have written here before about landscapes on stamps, which represented the beauty and productive potential of far flung imperial territories.   It would be interesting to compare the iconography of banknotes, which represent financial geography, with stamps that link territories together.  Clearly a lot of thought goes into what they show as well as the ways in which they resist counterfeiters.  The Bank of Canada museum, for example, quotes an internal memo from 1954: 'the traditional ornamentation of bank notes reflects a ‘Victorian’ taste in design….derived from times associated with an immature, colonial status.'  Instead,
'officials at the Bank wanted the notes to feature images of Canadian landscapes that showed little or no evidence of human activity. They chose the final 8 images from over 3,000 photographs supplied from the collections of railways, archives and news agencies. From the Maritimes, through Eastern Canada, the Prairies, the Rockies and the North, what resulted was an extended portrait of The Great Lone Land vision of Canada. This vision was already out-dated, but served as the natural starting point for an evolving manifestation of official identity that would be played out on all future bank notes.'
Bank of Canada 1954 note showing Okanagan Lake in British Columbia, 
engraved by William Ford of the American Bank Note Company

Earlier this year the Huffington Post reported on calls to have a woman on Canadian notes for the first time - their suggestions include Margaret Atwood, Emily Carr (the subject of a retrospective at Dulwich Picture Gallery that I'll probably be writing about here soon) and, er, Shania Twain ("Canadian country and pop music star, famous for hits such as 'Man! I Feel Like a Woman.'")  Over here there was controversy recently at the announcement that a man (Churchill) would replace a woman, Elizabeth Fry, on the £5 note, until the Bank of England said it was planning to balance things out with Jane Austen on the next £10.  I'll end here on an Icelandic note with another landscape painter, Johannes Sveinsson Kjarval, depicted on the 2000 Kronur.  Björk, who will surely feature on the Icelandic currency herself before too long, named an instrumental after him on the album she recorded as an eleven-year-old in 1977.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Become Ocean

This time last year I wrote a lengthy (for this blog) survey of landscape and music in 2013 (following similar but shorter posts in 2010, 2011, 2012).  Here due to pressure of time I will revert to something much less ambitious and highlight just four releases, beginning with the winner of the Pulitzer Prize, Become Ocean, by John Luther Adams.  I wrote a post about Adams here in 2010 and last year I mentioned a recording of his composition Inuksuit.  The Pulitzer jury described Become Ocean as 'a haunting orchestral work that suggests a relentless tidal surge, evoking thoughts of melting polar ice and rising sea levels.'  In a New Yorker review of its première, Alex Ross explained that it has the structure of a palindrome.  'One mystery of Become Ocean is how different the material often sounds during the second half of the palindrome. The section after the first climax is thick with minor chords, particularly in the brass. Somehow, as these chords loom again during the buildup to the final climax, they take on a heavier, more sorrowful air. There is a sense of unwinding, of subsiding, of dissolution. I thought of Matthew Arnold’s “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,” and also of the line that the earth goddess Erda utters in the Ring: “Everything that is, ends.”'

J.M.W. Turner has been hard to avoid in 2014.  I've not yet got myself to a cinema to see Mr Turner but did write here recently about the Late Turner exhibition and the Turner-inspired colour experiments of Olafur Eliasson.  In last year's music round-up I mentioned Burkhard Stangl's Unfinished. For William Turner, painter and this year I can refer you to Robert Curgenven's album Sirène, which includes a track referencing the famous story of Turner strapped to the mast in a snow storm (an episode recreated in Mike Leigh's film).  Rob St. John thinks a 'comparison might be made between Turner and Curgenven in the way that their work evokes – in texture, tone and colour – abstractions of the natural world: in this case the power and unpredictability of the sea.'  The track itself sounds foggy and eerie to me rather than tempestuous and chaotic - a long drone based on recordings of the pipe organs of Cornwall's coastal churches.  In the clip below you can hear some of the opening piece from Sirène, although the footage was shot not in Cornwall but at Lake Mungo in New South Wales, making a connection with Curgenven's new LP recorded in remote parts of Australia, They Tore the Earth and, Like a Scar, It Swallowed Them

Michael Pisaro is another American composer I did a post on here four years ago and his new work Continuum Unbound (3 CDs  in a box, with an essay) is reviewed in the latest Wire Magazine. Kingsnake Grey is a field recording of sundown in the Congaree National Park, providing a temporal interpretation of a landscape.  Congaree Nomads by contrast moves across the land from Cedar Creek to the Congaree River.  It is made up of 24 three-minute field recordings but these are overlaid with 'instrumental fogs' - bowed percussion instruments that can  be quite hard on the ear.   Anabasis is 'a composition in 72 parts for five musicians, loosely based on four kinds of materials: Sand, Wind, Tone and Wave'.  It begins quietly with what might be the rustle of something moving through undergrowth, but soon gathers strength until it starts to sound like an oncoming 'weather bomb' (a phrase we heard repeatedly on the news this week).  Overall the segments making up this piece are quite abstract, with no direct relationship to the landscape of the Congaree National Park.  You can read a detailed review on Brian Olewnick's Just Outside blog.

The new end-of-year Wire Magazine also reviews a Wist Rec compilation of music inspired by Richard Mabey's classic The Unofficial Countryside.  Seven tracks span a range of approaches: Ruhe combine birdsong, electronics and piano, Ian Hawgood includes samples of human voice, Sub Loam (who featured in my 2011 survey) evoke hedges, ditches and weeds with a sound that Sukhdev Sandhu describes in his review as a kind of 'junkyard improv, a dream collaboration between The Clangers and Pierre Schaeffer'.  The Unofficial Countryside comes as a collectable package, with 'Pierre-Emmanuel Tendero's moody photographs, all encased in a wooden box that reproduces, in hand-burned fashion, the pylons on the cover of the book's most recent edition'.  As Sandhu points out, this might seem 'at odds with a book dedicated to landscapes that are messy, sprawling and fertile', although I suppose it is consistent with the idea that such spaces are as valuable in their own way as wild landscapes.

It is increasingly clear each year that any survey of 'landscape' music is also a survey of its accompanying essays, photographs, videos, artwork, hand crafted packaging, maps, instructions and found objects.  Whether the notion of ambient 'soundtracks' to books will take off with mainstream publishers I am not sure, but some of them are starting to offer music as part of the package (a 10" record is planned to accompany Melissa Harrison's second novel In Hawthorn Time, due out next year).  Psychogeography in particular seems to lend itself to the notion of a soundtrack - Gareth Rees put together a mix for his book Marshland: Dreams & Nightmares on the Edge of London, aiming to convey 'that blend of industrial and pastoral noise, the late night raves, the raucous birds, the unrelenting drone of the city and the eternal lapping of the dirty river.'  I will end here by recommending another mix Gareth has curated, the Unofficial Britain Soundtrack 2014.  It opens with the sound of  Howlround's Torridon Gate, an album entirely based around the wrenching metallic sounds of suburban garden gate... It would be quite hard to imagine anything more different to John Luther Adams' Become Ocean.

Friday, December 05, 2014

Wall of Treasures

Frans Francken II, Preziosenwand (Wall of Treasures), 1636


A whole book could be devoted to the history of landscape paintings within paintings (not a potential best seller perhaps, but I'd read it).  The art collection genre might be a place to begin - rooms crowded with paintings, not just on the walls but propped up on the floor and furniture.  The rocky mountain scene above is one of six different landscapes in the Wall of Treasures, first painted around 1610 by Frans Francken who 'may be considered the father of the genre' (Vlieghe, Flemish Art and Architecture 1585-1700).  Within a few decades, artists like Gonzales Coques and Gaspar Jacob van Opstal were doing art collection scenes whose miniature works of art were painted in by the actual artists who had created the full scale originals.  Thus the depiction of a collection was itself a collection of art works.  It makes you wonder whether any artists thought of including the gallery painting itself, anticipating its own arrival into the collection, to create a mise en abyme in which  landscape paintings would be repeated on a smaller and smaller scale ad infinitum. 

Gonzales Coques, Picture Gallery, 1671


What you are looking at here is the reproduction of a photograph of a painting of a painting of a landscape. And that last term might be broken down still further, since at this date a painting of a landscape was not really a painting of a landscape, but an imaginary construct based on observation of actual places and scenes from other paintings.  Just to the right of Francken's Wall of Treasures a 'real' tree can be glimpsed through a window, in what at first looks like a separate room until you realise it is presumably the reflection in a mirror, so that even within the world of the painting we are again only seeing the image of nature.  Galleries often have no windows, for practical reasons of course but aesthetic ones too - actual views might distract us from those the artists have projected onto rectangles of canvas.  Willem van Haecht's The Picture Gallery of Cornelis van der Geest (1628) depicts a high ceilinged room full of art and a group of connoisseurs intent on studying it, but you feel that one or two will eventually tire of this close study and wander over to the tall window visible on one side to gaze out instead on the distant green parkland.  

Jan Vermeer, The Guitar Player, 1672

Willem Pieterszoon Buytewech's The Merry Company, 1622-4

Of course landscape paintings were collected on a more modest scale throughout Europe and are a natural component of interior scenes by artists like Pieter de Hooch, Dirck Hals, Gillis van Tilborch and David Teniers.  They can be found in some famous Vermeers: The Glass of Wine, The Love Letter and The Concert, where there is both a landscape painting on the wall and a landscape painting on the inside cover of the harpsichord.  One that is especially familiar to me from visits to Kenwood House at Hampstead Heath is The Guitar Player (above) - a simple view of a tree that could be a snapshot of the heath that surrounds the house.  The tree's foliage resembles the girl's hair, a kind of compositional echo you often find in these paintings.  Another example (above) is the lacy clouds and plume-like trees in Willem Pieterszoon Buytewech's The Merry Company.  And here is Amy Powell's description of another Merry Company, painted by Pieter Codde (c. 1633):
'Lit from the upper left and painted mostly in white, grey, and sandy flesh tones, the musicians lean and look in various different directions, the men’s hats ending in sharp little points. Lit from the upper left and painted in the same sandy colours, the decaying vegetation in the landscape likewise leans in various different directions and ends in sharp little points, as if the landscape painting had somehow magically adapted itself to the attitudes of its viewers. Thin on iconography (a brewing storm at most), the landscape would have little to recommend itself as a moralising allegory if not for its funny way of resembling the merry company of musicians, who are of course happily oblivious to their inevitable disappearance.'
In this Oxford Art Journal article, Powell notes that paintings in Dutch interiors are often dark or indistinct, subordinate to the surrounding furniture.  She draws a modern parallel with Alan McCollum's Surrogate Paintings (blank images hung in groups) and his Perpetual Photos - blurry blow ups of paintings glimpsed in black and white TV movies. To these I would add the Polish artist Rafał Bujnowski's Framed painting (Whistler), 2002-3, which is a version of the painting hanging beside Whistler's mother repainted 'life size' so that it looks like a radically abstract landscape.  (Of course I'm conscious in writing this that I am only actually seeing it reproduced here on my screen, at a scale smaller than Whistler's).  In an earlier post here I mentioned Gerhard Richter's Details, extreme close-ups of paint that 'appear like fictitious landscapes.'  If you were to enlarge a landscape painting-within-a-painting sufficiently you would reach a scale where a new view seems to emerge in the patterns of its pigments.

James Abbot McNeill Whistler, Portrait of the Artist's Mother, 1871