Sunday, June 28, 2015

Groombridge Place

'The origin of the plot of The Draughtsman's Contract is autobiographical ... I discovered a house on the border of England and Wales not far from Hay-on-Wye, where I attempted to draw a fairly modest early Victorian house. The weather was unusually fine. For about three weeks, I did some drawings ...  But also, since I was on holiday and enjoying myself, there were constant interruptions that I made no attempt to avoid: playing with my children, doing a piece of gardening, going to the shops, having meals, simply falling asleep in the sun. And this is the premise for the film. It's a story about a draughtsman who draws a country house and is constantly interrupted. ... It is also a fictional evocation of a long-vanished age in which draughtsmen and painters were employed by country-house owners in England to draw or paint their estates, their property, their houses and gardens. They commissioned such works to show off to their neighbours, or maybe even simply to delight themselves with their prosperity and status ... The whole film is very much a landscape film, which would relate to the traditions of Claude Lorraine and Poussin, two Frenchmen who spent most of their lives and their painting careers in Italy and had an enormous influence, not only on French landscape but on English landscape. The three predominant colours of this film are black, white and green. The black and white essentially of the costumes, and the green of the English countryside.' - Peter Greenaway quoted in the Guardian, 1 August 2003

Yesterday, in 'unusually fine' weather, we travelled to Groombridge Place in Kent, the setting for The Draughtsman's Contract (1982).  The house was built in 1662 by Philip Packer, with assistance from Christopher Wren, and the gardens designed by John Evelyn (all three were fellows of the Royal Society).  Writing about this period at the beginning of his gardening history The Arcadian Friends, Tim Richardson regrets that 'there is a tendency today to view this kind of seventeenth century 'formality' - what a strange term for it! - as sterile and lifeless.'  The same has been said of Peter Greenaway of course: 'for every person who reveres his work, there are many others who regard it as arid, cerebral and insular. "It's a big criticism of Greenaway films that they are far too interested in formalism and not enough interested in notions of emotional content," he says. "It's a criticism I can fully understand from a public that has been brought up by Hollywood movies that demand intense emotional rapport."'  The Draughtsman's Contract exemplifies Greenaway's belief that 'the form and the content should ideally be brought closely together.'  It is designed like a Baroque garden and its plot links the ideas of framing for a drawing and framing for a crime.

Michael Nyman, Chasing Sheep Is Best Left to Shepherds

The game of formal constraints that structures the film carried over into Michael Nyman's conception for its music.  Nyman's website explains that he went back to the complete works of Purcell (who died in 1695, a year after the film is set) 'and rooted out ground basses' to provide repetitive harmonic schemes. These 'could be interpreted as making a musical parallel with the organisational and temporal constraints that the draughtsman Neville imposes on the Herbert household as he goes about his task of completing the 12 commissioned drawings of the house and the grounds. The initial plan for the score was to assign a different ground bass to each of the two sets of six drawings (to help with the ‘reading’ of each of Neville’s designated viewpoints) and allow each piece to grow and develop as each drawing progressed over six days. This fine plan was shot to pieces by the practicalities of film length, the editing process and the invariable problems of balancing the demands of dialogue.'

Hyacinthe Rigaud, Hans Willem Bentinck, c. 1698-9
(those wigs in The Draughtsman's Contract were not completely exaggerated)

One aspect of the film I particularly like is that for all its postmodern artifice in design, dialogue and music, there is a very specific historical context.  It is 1694, year of the Married Woman's Property Act (which is crucial for the plot) and, as Greenaway explains, 'the Dutch Protestant aristocracy is now firmly in place in England.'  At Groombridge the canal, where a body is found in The Draughtsman's Contract, certainly gives the garden a Dutch feel.   It is Tim Richardson's contention that this period of Dutch influence, rather than the eighteenth century, gave birth to the English landscape garden.  Formality gradually began to give way to naturalness in the form of looser planting and serpentine walks.  Richardson writes about the friendship between Sir William Temple and Hans Willem Bentinck, 1st Earl of Portland, both diplomats and garden designers who worked to secure the throne for William and Mary.  Bentinck 'proudly commissioned a series of forty-four engravings of his garden at Zorgvliet in the 1690s', a fact which makes me wonder whether Greenaway had them in mind when he wrote his film.  Eventually Bentinck married a niece of Temple's, with whom he had six children.  There is a Dutchman too in The Draughtsman's Contract, but he is unable to provide his wife with an heir.  Which is why she strikes up her own private contract with the Draughtsman, for rather more than he could deliver with a pencil...

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Sonic Waters and Fantastic Caverns

I have written here before about composers who have sought to impress the environment into their music by burying instruments in the earth (Richard Skelton) or immersing recordings in river water (Rob St. John).  A desire to enter into the landscape may also lie behind music that has been created underwater or in caves beneath the ground.  I have mentioned a few examples of the latter before, but there is now a relatively long history to these genres of landscape music and so I thought I would highlight here some examples from over thirty years ago, beginning with the work of Michel Redolfi, whose Pacific Tubular Waves / Immersion was recently reissued by Editions MegoPacific Tubular Waves (1979) is not an underwater piece - it was 'inspired by the oceanic horizons of San Diego' - but it became the raw material for Immersion (1980).  For this, Redolfi played his earlier piece through a sonar loudspeaker underwater, so that it was 'shuffled by the waves and unexpected filtering effects resulted from its passing through clouds of foam.  Its dispersion at sea by currents would send back incredibly smooth harmonic echoes.'  If he had left a recording of Immersion in the sea it might have been brought up years later, scoured by the underwater currents but still usable as the basis for a third version of this composition.

In 1981 Redolfi's Sonic Waters concert was broadcast underwater in the Pacific for an audience who could experience it floating on the surface or submerged in diving suits.  However, as Stefan Helmreich has pointed out, this concert was 'accompanied by campy sea creaturey devices, such as the giant colorful “jellyfish” that kept a low-frequency speaker afloat in La Jolla Cove. Such playfulness is a reminder that Redolfi does not imagine crustaceans, fish, or marine mammals as audiences ... Redolfi’s approach looks similar to that of the Florida Keys underwater music festival. Celebrating its twenty-fifth anniversary in 2009, the festival offers to scuba divers music played over Lubell Laboratory speakers attached to boats floating near the reef.  Attendees dress up as fish.'  There is an ocean of difference between that festival's 'reef rockstars, "Paul McCarpney" and "Ringo Starfish"' performing sea-themed pop songs and the experimental underwater investigations of modern sound artists like Jana Winderen.  I can't help feeling there must be potential between these extremes for new forms of site-specific undersea composition and performance in the future. 

Over the last few decades most of Redolfi's concerts (see clip above) have taken place in swimming pools, where the emphasis is on the unusual auditory experience rather than the character of the sea. However, the ambience and special qualities of these locations will never be irrelevant.  The pools chosen by Redolfi and others like the Wetsounds organisation or Max Neuhaus, the pioneer in this field, will have had their own acoustic properties and historical associations.  Similarly, performances in cave-like spaces in cities or industrial locations can be as atmospheric as concerts in natural caverns.  As with the underwater composers, much of the motivation for seeking out resonant underground spaces has been to make use of their unique sound properties - the Deep Listening Band, for example, have played in the giant Fort Worden Cistern which has a 45 second reverberation time.  But caves have a deeper significance, having been the sites for music making since prehistoric times, a point brought home to me recently by the discovery of an ancient lyre in a cave on Skye.  Here there is no direct parallel with performing underwater, although if there is an atavistic urge to make subterranean music, there may be an even more profound source for subaquatic music, since all of us begin life experiencing sound and music immersed in amniotic fluid.

Back in the late 1950s (when the real Paul McCartney was making his first appearances at the Cavern club with The Quarrymen), the Great Stalacpipe Organ, designed by Leland W. Sprinkle, was under construction at the Luray Caverns in Virginia.  Although described as ‘the largest natural musical instrument in the world’ its design involved altering the shape of some of the stalactites.  Music had actually been performed in this sonorous cave (as the postcard above from 1906 below shows) almost since its discovery in 1878.  A delegation from the Smithsonian Institution were surprised on an 1880 tour when co-discoverer Andrew Campbell picked out a tune on the rock formation that was later used for the Organ.  There are no other Stalacpipe Organs, but many other American caves have been settings for concerts: Bristow Cave, Tennessee, the Great Saltpeter Cave, Kentucky, Longhorn Cavern, Texas.  Worth mentioning here if only for its cover is a live recording from 1968, The Fantastic Thrashers at Fantastic Caverns.  According to its sleeve notes, 'the underground auditorium was packed and jammed. The dripping water, the underground river in the background, the weird effect of the lights off moist stalagmites were all made to come alive by the sparkling sound of the Thrashers.'

Then, in a very different vein, there was Don Cherry, who recorded two improvisations at the Mammoth Cave in Kentucky in 1978.   Here is Anna Mayo's description (from the useful Caveinspiredmusic site)
“On a morning in early October I watched the great free jazzman Don Cherry as he scaled a ledge high on the sheer wall of the Longest Cave in the World and played the rocks like a xylophone. Far below, our guide had fired up two kerosene lanterns so that we were able to doff our miners’ hats. Cherry, on the ledge, gave off vibes of the leopard-spirit of the Ngbe tribe as he improvised a roller-coaster of sound. Throughout Cherry’s performance, producer Verna Gillis sat on the cave floor, at one with her Stellavox tape recorder, earphones like a ceremonial headdress... Adjusting the AKG microphone... was sculptor Bradford Graves. Cherry darted from one rock to another, striking them with two hickory branches he’d brought along at the guide’s suggestion.”
Perhaps improvisers are best suited to exploring the musical possibilities of cave systems.  The Summartónar festival has brought jazz musicians like John Tchicai to perform to an audience in small boats in the sea caves of the Faroe Islands.  However, it is more usual to find show caves used as natural halls for the staging of more traditional concerts.  There are several such venues in Germany, including the cavern at Hohler Fels where, some 35,000 years ago, Palaeolithic musicians left behind bone and ivory flutes.  In Lebanon the Jeïta caves were opened for concerts in 1969 and closed a decade later during the Civil War, its passages converted into a munitions store.  Thus the distinction between caves and buildings becomes blurred - 'natural' spaces cease to become natural when they are discovered.  My last example below below combines natural and electronic sounds.  It is part of Jeïta ou Murmure des eaux (1970), a composition by François Bayle, who performed the inaugural concert at the the Jeïta caves.  When he found back in Paris that some of the field recordings he made in the cave were not good enough for his purposes he decided to replace them with 'beautiful water sounds' recorded in the bathroom of the studio.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

The sea is never far

'Narrated in fruity tones by future Poet Laureate Cecil Day Lewis, Figures in a Landscape offers a poetic portrait of sculptor Barbara Hepworth and the otherworldly Cornwall landscapes that inspired her work.'  This is how the BFI Mediatheque describes Dudley Shaw Ashton's short film and you can hear that plummy voice in the extract below, along with the 'haunting score' by Hepworth's friend Priaulx Rainer.  It would be easy to assume that the words in the film are Day Lewis's but in fact they were written by Jacquetta Hawkes, whose remarkable book on Britain, A Land, had appeared two years earlier.  The film begins with shots of the sea and coast and the words I have quoted below (punctuation my own), in which landscape, through the forces of wave and wind, is figured as a natural sculptor.  It then traces the ways that stone has taken on 'forms rising in the minds of man', from stone circles to churches and mines, standing out initially from their settings until 'seasons and centuries claimed them for the landscape.'

"Cornwall, a horn of rock, its point thrust out into the sea. Smooth or ribbed with waves, pale deep blue or angry dark, the sea lies round about it and from three sides sends up its mirrored light. Here is Penwith, the moors narrowing to Lands End, from the sea coast to the north it is not far across the rusty moors, where the rocks break through the bracken, not far to where the sea lies to the south. The sea is never far. It shapes the rocks, sometimes fingering them gently, sometimes forging them with long thundering blows, hollowing those caves where waves revolve in darkness.

"Or it cuts arches where the bright see light stares through above the waters, the wind blows upon the skin of the sea until it creeps and shivers. It follows behind the relentless roll of the tides. The wind passes its hand across the moors, ordering the grasses, smoothing the rocks beneath. Autumn, winter, spring and summer, the wind and the sea carve the rocks, whittling their images. They are at it now and have been at it a million million years, beyond the reach of clocks."
Whilst the dominant metaphor here may be nature as sculptor, it is hard not to read a sexual element into this imagery.  I mentioned this in an earlier post on Jacquetta Hawkes, whose lover J. B. Priestley is quoted as having said of her "What a woman — ice without and fire within!"  Ashton's visual imagery echoes the script with shots of standing forms and foaming waves, but what is most distinctive is the way he uses Hepworth's sculptures, placing them around the landscape in compositions that have a surreal quality (see below).  The clip embedded here shows Hepworth in her St Ives garden (which Priaulx Rainer helped design), at work with her mallets and files, but around the three minute mark we see a finished piece lying on the sand to be polished by the waves.  "The waves beat on the stone and the yielding wood, claiming them back from the small plans of man, they give them the shape of the earth and its tides, but the carver cuts deeper with her seeing eye."

Barbara Hepworth's Sculpture with Colour (Deep Blue and Red) (1940) 
in front of mounds of china clay in a scene from Figures in a Landscape.
   "But others came cheerfully to dig for china clay. They piled the dark moors with soft white cones that stood in the staring light of the sea, bright light that breaks into colour."

A new exhibition Barbara Hepworth: Sculpture for a Modern World starts next week at Tate Britain and it will focus on the way her work has been presented or imagined in different contexts, including the landscape. 

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Uncommon Ground

A few weeks ago, on leaving the job I had done for six years, I was gifted a copy of Dominick Tyler's Uncommon Ground.  It combines attractive photographs with short descriptions of some of the words that have been used for British landscape features, partly inspired, like Robert Macfarlane's Landmarks, by the Barry Lopez/Debra Gwartney collection Home Ground. There are some intriguingly obscure words here like 'fraon', a place of shelter in the mountains, which Tyler found in a couple of early eighteenth century Gaelic dictionaries.  But many will be familiar from school geography lessons: tor, meander, blowhole, clint and gryke.  As I remember it the standard geographical terms were taught rather than local British variants: arête rather than druim or aonach.  However in one case I do recall being offered three interchangeable terms - cirque, cwm and corrie - as there seemed to be no collective agreement on what to call these glacial basins.  Tyler groups these under the word 'coire' - the Gaelic original of 'corrie'.  He says coombes are the same thing too which I don't think my geography teacher would quite have agreed with (we had lots of coombes in periglacial Sussex).  The one that Edward Thomas described in his poem 'The Combe', 'dark, ancient and dark', would have been quite difficult to photograph for Uncommon Ground: 'The sun of Winter, / The moon of Summer, and all the singing birds / Except the missel-thrush that loves juniper, /Are quite shut out.'

Uncommon Ground quotes sparingly from writers, but there are three lines from Milton's 'Comus' that mention both 'dingle' and 'dell': 'I know each lane, and every alley green / Dingle or bushy dell of this wilde Wood, / And every bosky bourn from side to side.'  The photograph accompanying this text shows Bunyan's Dell in Hertfordshire, where a large congregation of non-conformists once gathered 'under the canopy of heaven' to hear John Bunyan preach.  Milton's word 'bosky', referring to a thicket of trees, 'was also a word for a state of mild inebriation, perhaps drawing a parallel between a confusion of mind and a tangle of branches.'  I can't find any of these terms in the Landmarks glossaries, which suggests there is less overlap between the two books than you might think.  Robert Macfarlane is happy to admit words coined by poets, most notably Gerard Manley Hopkins, whose poems include: 'twindle' - stream foam dividing into two braids;  'heavengravel' - hailstones, and in the same line of poetry 'wolfsnow' for a sea-blizzard; 'slogger' - the sucking sound made by a waves against the side of a boat; 'shadowtackle' - the shifting patterns of shadow on woodland floors; 'leafmeal' which evokes the way leaves fall one by one and then lie like ground grain, 'silk-ash' - the fine ash covering glowing embers; and 'doomfire', an apocalyptic sunset.

Bunyan's Dell

Uncommon Ground starts with a local word, 'zawn', derived from a Cornish word for a chasm, but reading it through you keep coming across connections with other languages and landscapes.  'Shiver', the Cumbrian term for a fragment of slate derives from the Germanic word for splinter, 'scivero', which in turn, 'in a nice little etymological loop', led to the modern German 'schiefer', slate.  It is pleasing to learn that the Russian word 'Zastrugi' which gives us the name for ridges in snow formed by the wind also means 'the splintering of planed wood against the grain' and 'the undercut bank of a stream' (although even more pleasing would be to learn that Russian has two additional words for these precise phenomena).  This kind of thing made me want to see the global glossary of landscape terms being slowly compiled, according to Robert Macfarlane, by the Arabic scholar Abdal Hamid Fitzwilliam-Hall.  It has occurred to me that this Borgesian encyclopedia may prove insufficiently ambitious if it excludes the rimae, catena and dorsa of the Moon, or the words that will be needed to describe detailed features or atmospheric effects elsewhere in the solar system.  But I suppose I am betraying here my urban sensibility, where the daily experience of nature can seem as remote as those planetary features discerned in telescopes and given Latin names before anyone has been able to experience them.

Thursday, June 04, 2015

Wreckage upon wreckage

Paul Klee, Angelus Novus, 1920
'A Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.'  - Walter Benjamin, 'Theses on the Philosophy of History'

A couple of months ago I was in Eastbourne to see the exhibition Ori Gersht: Don’t Look Back. It included his two-screen film, Evaders, a reimagining of the last journey of Walter Benjamin.  The film begins with an actor in a hotel room and we hear Benjamin's famous description of the angel of history.  When the voice-over reaches “his face is turned toward the past”, the other screen is activated.  Now the actor is trudging through the cold mountains, battered by the weather, looking older than Benjamin actually was in 1940 (but Benjamin was physically frail and encumbered by a heavy suitcase). ‘He moves at a steady, laboured pace through patches of mist, along a snowy tree-lined path. Often, on the right screen majestic landscapes contrast with the man’s suffering and vulnerability on the left: sweeping mountain vistas grazed by clouds, trees shrouded in fog, craggy boulders, and the wind whipping over a riverbed’ (Al Miner, Ori Gersht: History Repeating).  The route taken by Benjamin was  'particularly dangerous because of the tramontana, a violently strong, dry wind that can last for days and is, in the cooler months, bitterly cold. The tramontana is known for its piercing moan, and locals attribute murders and suicides to long exposure to the sound.’  Benjamin survived the journey but at Portbou, on the border of France and Spain (as I wrote here a few years ago), exhausted and fearing repatriation, he took his own life with an overdose of morphine tablets.


In 2005 Ori Gersht travelled to Kosov in Ukraine, the birthplace of his father-in-law, who hid there for from the Germans two and a half years after the village had been declared “Judenrein” (cleansed of Jews).  The blurred Richter-like photographs Gersht took raise similar questions about the representation of such places as the Sally Mann Civil War landscapes I wrote about here a few years ago.  Gersht explained his decision not to photograph what he saw in a clear, objective way: ‘the camera can only depict the here and now, in this instance a pastoral Brueghelesque landscape, but my experience of these places was conditioned by what I knew…’ Steven Bode puts it well in an essay in the book to accompany Gersht's exhibition The Clearing: ‘the ghostly indeterminacy of the majority of the images, rather than reading as portentous, seems more redolent, at times, of feelings of uncertainty and doubt. Is this landscape as haunted, and as loaded, as he himself sees it? Have these places retained any traces of what happened over sixty years ago? And if not, how can they be made to communicate, so that the memory of what once went on there is not to be forgotten?’

On the same journey Gersht made a film in the Moskolovka Forest (see the clip below).  The setting, a site of Nazi atrocities during the war, reminded me of Simon Schama's Landscape and Memory ('Blood in the Forest') and the histories, myths and ideologies associated with Europe's ancient woodlands.  In Forest trees are felled, crashing slowly to the ground with a sound that reverberated around the gallery.  In between these moments, birdsong can be heard again as the camera remains still or pans slowly across the tall trunks, leaving you wondering which one will be next.  We never see the men whose actions result in the death of these trees.  Whilst it is, in Al Miner's words, ‘an elegy for the nameless dead who were lost in wartime atrocities, the piece also enacts the kind of ceaseless vigil that will be needed if these crimes are not to be repeated.’