Friday, October 30, 2015

What the rocky mountain tells me

Mahler's hut at Steinbach

I have often written here about writers' huts but said nothing about composer's retreats, apart from one reference to a Tomas Tranströmer poem on Grieg in his work-cottage, 'shut in with silence.'  Gustav Mahler had three composing huts: in the Salzkammergut at Steinbach, further south at Maiernigg, and in Toblach (now Dobbiaco, in Italy).  They are all in spectacular settings and can form the basis of a tourist itinerary, although it is questionable how far we can still experience the landscapes Mahler knew.  Ten years ago, visiting the hut at Steinbach which Mahler had built in 1893 to avoid noise in the inn where he was staying that summer, Alex Ross suspected that his 'unquiet ghost is no doubt upset by the fact that his idyllic lakeside retreat is surrounded by an RV site and campground, where kids squeal all day long and German rap pumps from boomboxes.'  Nevertheless, 'if you look up to the colossal rockface of the Höllengebirge, which towers hundreds of feet above the lake, you can get a sense of why Mahler found this site so inspiring.'  Ross quotes 'Bruno Walter's memoir of Mahler: "As on our way to his house I looked up to the Höllengebirge, whose sheer cliffs made a grim background to the charming landscape, he said: 'You don't need to look — I have composed all this away!" The rockface became the introductory theme of the Third Symphony, the unison chant for eight horns, which he dubbed in one sketch "What the rocky mountain tells me."'

On that trip to Steinbach in 2005 Ross was accompanied by the critic Jeremy Eichler.  Earlier this month in the Boston Globe Eichler described a return trip.  (The article's picture caption refers to 'Gustav Mahler’s conducting hut' which leads me to imagine somewhere built because his family got fed up with him waving his baton around in their holiday inn).  Eichler writes that 'the walk had changed since my last visit. In Mahler’s time, meadows covered with wildflowers led down to the lake. Later, livestock were kept here. Eventually the site was converted into a campground. On this visit, the mobile homes I had recalled at the periphery seemed to have multiplied to the point that the area had the feeling of a full-fledged camping village.'  Apparently the hut itself had been attached to camp bathrooms until its restoration in the eighties, and prior to that it had been used as a slaughterhouse.  Leaving the hut, Eichler wonders whether more great works of art 'should have their own tiny huts, physical places you could visit that symbolize their very essence. Of course someone is always fixing their generator nearby, or wanting to turn the hut into a bathroom. But maybe the impulse to seek out these places nonetheless is not naively literal-minded so much as it is part of how we make the works our own, the way we locate their cosmic expressions on a more humble map of lived experience.'

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Stone Bell Mountain

A short way downriver from Jiujiang, where the the Yangtze meets Boyang Lake, there is a famous sonorous landscape called Stone Bell Mountain (Shizhong Shan).  According to the Song dynasty poet Su Shih, 'Li Po of the T'ang was the first to travel to the site, and he found a pair of rocks protruding from the lake. "I struck them and listened," he wrote. "The one to the south sounded deep and turbid, the one to the north had a high, clear pitch. After they were struck, the sounds continued to reverberate as the vibrations slowly faded." He thought that he had thus solved the matter. But I still had my doubts about this theory.'  Su found himself in the area in July 1084 and went to investigate.  Testing Li Po's explanation he found that the rocks in the lake merely gave off a dull thud.  Later that evening, he and his son took a boat out under the cliff and heard the piercing cries of falcons, followed by the cry of an old man, or was it a crane?
'I had just begun to feel uneasy and wanted to return when loud sounds were emitted on the surface of the water, booming "tseng-hung " like continuous bells or drums. The boatman was frightened. We slowly approached to investigate and found that at the foot of the mountain were grottoes and fissures in the rock. I could not tell how deep they were, but it was the small waves which entered, surged around, and crashed against each other that were causing this sound.
'As the boat returned, it passed between two mountains and was about to enter the harbor. There was a huge rock standing in the middle of the current, which could accommodate a hundred people seated. It was hollow inside, and it also had many holes in it. It swallowed and spit out the wind and water, giving off ringing sounds—"k'uan-k'an t'ang-t'a "—as the water struck it. It seemed to reply to the booming sound we had previously heard, just like a musical performance.'
Su Shi felt he had solved the mystery of the Stone Bells, but his account stimulated further enquiries, as Richard Strassberg writes in Inscribed Landscapes, from which this translation is taken.  'Among those visiting the place during the Ming and Ch'ing periods were Ch'iu Chün (1420–1495) and Lo Hung-hsien (1504–1564), who argued that the name was based on the mountain's shape, and P'eng Yü-lin (1816–1890), who discovered an underwater grotto and asserted that the mountain was hollow like a bell.'  Are people still seeking to understand the mysteries of this landscape?  I can't find anything much about Stone Bell Mountain online beyond a few tourism sites - we need a sound artist like Wang Changcun, Yan Jun, or Chris Watson to go there and investigate in the spirit of Su Shi.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Sandwalk wood

Our print of Darren Almond's Sandwalk Wood (2014)

Each day I pass on our stairs this print by the photographer Darren Almond.  It is one of his long-exposure images taken at night, which I mentioned here previously in 'Moons of the Iapetus Ocean'.  This print came with an accompanying limited edition book, To Leave a Light Impression, which includes a short essay by T. J. Demos that uses Almond's photographs to discuss denaturalised nature, hyperobjects and the anthropocene.  Fullmoon@Cerro Chaltén (2013) for example 'shows a nature estranged'; its uncanny appearance suggests the impression it must have made on Charles Darwin, who stopped in this remote landscape during his voyage on The Beagle, and the disorientating effect his work had on Victorian ideas of nature.  Our print feels, by contrast, quiet and mysterious: the dark tree's leaves are lit with a weak golden light and a silvery mist covers the field beyond the gate.  Visitors to our house have asked what the significance of this place is.  A world away from the rivers and mountains of Patagonia, it is Sandwalk Wood near Bromley, a landscape just as important to Charles Darwin, as it contained his thinking path.  His son Francis describes it in The life and letters of Charles Darwin (1887):
'My father's midday walk generally began by a call at the greenhouse, where he looked at any germinating seeds or experimental plants which required a casual examination, but he hardly ever did any serious observing at this time. Then he went on for his constitutional—either round the "Sand-walk," or outside his own grounds in the immediate neighbourhood of the house. The "Sand-walk" was a narrow strip of land 1½ acres in extent, with a gravel-walk round it. On one side of it was a broad old shaw with fair-sized oaks in it, which made a sheltered shady walk; the other side was separated from a neighbouring grass field by a low quickset hedge, over which you could look at what view there was, a quiet little valley losing itself in the upland country towards the edge of the Westerham hill, with hazel coppice and larch wood, the remnants of what was once a large wood, stretching away to the Westerham road. I have heard my father say that the charm of this simple little valley helped to make him settle at Down.

'The Sand-walk was planted by my father with a variety of trees, such as hazel, alder, lime, hornbeam, birch, privet, and dogwood, and with a long line of hollies all down the exposed side. In earlier times he took a certain number of turns every day, and used to count them by means of a heap of flints, one of which he kicked out on the path each time he passed. Of late years I think he did not keep to any fixed number of turns, but took as many as he felt strength for.'

Friday, October 16, 2015

A formed handful of earth as mountain and atmosphere

 Hon'ami Koetsu, Fujisan, 17th century
Source: Wikimedia Commons

In his book Zen Landscapes Allen S. Weiss discusses the way Japanese connoisseurs have seen natural forms in the surfaces of pottery.  Two famous examples are Fujisan and Seppo, tea bowls made by the great artistic polymath Hon'ami Koetsu (1558-1637).  On Fujisan the white glaze is said to resemble the snow on Mt. Fuji.  Seppo ('Snow Peaks') is a renowned example of kin-zukuroi (repairing with gold) in which the filled cracks resemble water flowing through melting snow.  Other pots by Koetsu include Amagumo (Rain Cloud) and Shigure (Drizzle).  Weiss observes that 'in Fujisan the pottery surface recasts a formed handful of earth as mountain and atmosphere.'  He writes about the importance of the foot of a vessel, where the unglazed clay is revealed to the drinker, a trace of the earth from which the bowl came. 'This appreciation of clay flavour is not unlike the sense of terroir in French gastronomy, signifying those site-specific characteristics of taste so often evoked in wine connoisseurship.'

There are other ways in which bowls can become a kind of landscape art.  I have mentioned here before for example the music of suikinkutsu, those reverberant vessels placed in Japanese gardens, and made a connection with Wallace Stevens' poem 'Anecdote of the Jar'.  Weiss suggests that pottery objects are subject to the same viewing conventions as other art forms in Japan, and therefore it is relevant to consider the the idea familiar from Japanese gardens of the 'borrowed view'.  He discusses a contemporary sake bowl (guinomi) by Satoshi Sato which has bamboo forms on the exterior and mountain shapes inside.  'In a greatly reduced sense, the guinomi 'landscape' may exhibit such a borrowed view every time it is examined and drunk from.  As the cup is raised, its lip serves as the 'horizon' that links the proximate scene on the front to the 'distant' landscape beyond the lake of sake within, as is the case for the cup by Sato Satoshi, where the bamboo branch forms the proximate field for viewing the distant mountains.  That the sake is transformed into a cascade as the elbow is bent and the guinomi is tilted is rarely an unwelcome effect.'

Friday, October 09, 2015

An eagle, a mountain, a ship

George Frederic Watts, Portrait of William Morris, 1870

When, in the summer of 1996, the V&A held an exhibition to mark the centenary of the death of William Morris, it seemed rather out of tune with the times - Cool Britannia, the YBAs and all that.  This was years before Jeremy Deller used the heroic figure of Morris in his Venice Biennale exhibition and then juxtaposed the output of Morris and his company with Andy Warhol and The Factory.   Making my way round that V&A exhibition, I felt rather pleased and vindicated when I spotted Brett Anderson from Suede peering into a display case just in front of me.  Perhaps Jeremy Deller was there too, unknown to me then (as The Guardian explained, he 'was of the same generation as Damien Hirst and the YBAs, went to the same parties, but never made any money'.)  Now it occurs to me that perhaps it was Jeremy Deller I saw, as he does bear a certain resemblance to Brett Anderson.  Writing this I am painfully aware that 'seeing Brett Anderson' has become what I most remember about the exhibition, despite having enjoyed it and come home with the catalogue.  I probably knew at the time that this moment was something that would unavoidably 'strengthen into memory'...
— Getting clearer now as it wears

The worn-down landscape.  Torn and bald and filled.

You know what will strengthen into memory: an eagle, a mountain, a ship.

As a place becomes somewhere you are starting to remember, it empties out and becomes more absolute.

It becomes the map.

Is it after all you who studies the map?
Lavinia Greenlaw, Questions of Travel: William Morris in Iceland
The Map: William Morris's 1871 Journey to Iceland
There is a full size version at the William Morris Archive

In her book Questions of Travel, Lavinia Greenlaw extracts particular phrases in William Morris's Icelandic Journal and uses them to formulate brief observations on the nature of journeys.  The examples above are also questions of landscape: how we regard it, how we remember it afterwards.  They were prompted by the page in which Morris describes a ride across the plain of Helgafell:
.... The mountains we look back on, toothed and jagged in an indescribable but well-remembered manner, are very noble and solemn. As we rode along the winding path here we saw a strange sight: a huge eagle quite within gunshot of us, and not caring at all for man, flew across and across our path, always followed by a raven that seemed teazing and buffeting him: this was the first eagle I had ever seen free and on the wing, and it was a glorious sight, no less; the curves of his flight, as he swept close by us, with every pen of his wings clear against the sky was something not to be forgotten. Out at sea too we saw a brigantine pitching about in what I thought must be a rough sea enough. The day has been much like yesterday throughout, and is getting clearer now as it wears.
Edward Burne Jones, William Morris in Iceland

When I picked up Questions of Travel (one of those appealing little hardbacks published by Notting Hill Editions), I recognised the title as a reference to the Elizabeth Bishop poem, but was expecting an account of a journey in the footsteps of William Morris.  I was probably thinking of Moon Country (1996) in which Simon Armitage and Glyn Maxwell travelled to Iceland in emulation of Auden and MacNiece.  However Lavinia Greenlaw says she was not on the trail of an earlier poet: 'I didn't go to Iceland because of Morris but, like him, because of my idea of the place.'  Morris, nonetheless, was very much inspired to travel by his reading - something that comes over clearly in the Iceland chapter of Fiona MacCarthy's wonderful 1994 Morris biography.  She describes him as 'certainly the first Englishman in Iceland who arrived with such a knowledge of its language and literature'.  Shortly after leaving Rejkjavik he was already noting the locations of Njáls saga and towards the end of the trip he tried out the hot-spring bath beside the house of Snorri Sturluson.  Helgafell is where the Laxdœla saga's extraordinary heroine Guðrún Ósvífursdóttir lived and was buried.  Morris also described this 'terrible place' in a letter home to his wife Janey.  His first impression was of 'a great sea of terribly inky mountains tossing about' but, he continued, 'there has been a most wonderful sunset this evening that turned them golden.'

William Morris is quoted in Letters from Iceland and mentioned in Moon Country: at one point Armitage and Maxwell add their names to a visitor's book Morris had signed.  Shortly afterwards they find a piano Auden and MacNiece had played and sit down to attempt 'the one song they both knew, 'Perfect Day' by Lou Reed.'  In 1936, Auden had complained about the sameness of Icelandic music but 'got some gramophone records of more primitive local music, including an amazing one of a farmer and two children who yell as if they were at a football match.'  Simon Armitage brought his own supply of tapes, including Talking Heads, The Fall, The Smiths and, naturally, Björk.  Lavinia Greenlaw is reticent in the introduction to Questions of Travel about her own experiences of Iceland but one might guess, based on her extensive writings about music, that she took a pretty fine selection on the iPod.  Back in 1871, William Morris had to be happy with what music he encountered on the way.  One morning a 'little maiden' played a langspil - the ancient Icelandic fiddle - for him, 'but it was sadly out of tune.'  

The Icelandic Journey has itself now been turned into music: a composition for chorus and orchestra, Earthly Paradise, by Ian McQueen.  Fiona MacCarthy wrote about in an article for The Guardian that also mentions Lavinia Greenlaw's then work-in-progress.  Morris's original poem 'The Earthly Paradise' 'was the work that brought him real fame. In this poem he develops one of his great themes: the ruination of the land. Morris had been watching with increasing horror the rampant industrialisation of Britain and the damage caused to the environment by uncontrolled factory production: poisoned air, polluted rivers, tracts of industrial waste. Iceland, by contrast, was purity itself, and his travels through the mountains braced him and inspired him for the years of environmental campaigning ahead.'  MacCarthy concludes her piece by wondering why it is that Morris retains his appeal to new generations of admirers.  'It has something to do with his peculiar, irascible, enchanting personality, still vivid in our age of triviality and blandness. At a time of endless half-truths and moral shilly-shallying, Morris's eccentric integrity shines out.'

Sunday, October 04, 2015

Summer nights and still water

My copy of Pan: the 1983 Folio edition with wood engravings by Fredrik Matheson

Knut Hamsun described to a correspondent in his imperfect English the theme of his novel Pan (1894): “Think of the Nordland in Norway, this regions of the Lapper, the mysteries, the grand superstitions, the midnight-sun, think of J. J. Rousseau in the regions, making acquaintance with a Nordlands girl — that is my book.”*  This 'J. J. Rousseau' figure is as strangely driven as Rousseau himself, living alone in a hut and exploring the surrounding mountains and forests whilst torturing himself over a young woman.  Looking back I see I have only mentioned Knut Hamsun's writing here once before and that was in connection with the poisoning of a dog (in his novel Mysteries) rather than in relation to landscape.  Regrettably another dog meets a similar fate in Pan but rather than dwell on that I will recommend here the novel's poetic descriptions of the Nordland landscape, as it emerges from the snows of spring into the heat of summer until eventually the sunlit nights are over and darkness returns. This for example, is the beginning of Chapter 13 (from a 1927 translation in the public domain), full of rapture but with an undercurrent of unease:
Summer nights and still water, and the woods endlessly still. No cry, no footsteps from the road. My heart seemed full as with dark wine.
Moths and night-flies came flying noiselessly in through my window, lured by the glow from the hearth and the smell of the bird I had just cooked. They dashed against the roof with a dull sound, fluttered past my ears, sending a cold shiver through me, and settled on my white powder-horn on the wall. I watched them; they sat trembling and looked at me—moths and spinners and burrowing things. Some of them looked like pansies on the wing.
I stepped outside the hut and listened. Nothing, no noise; all was asleep. The air was alight with flying insects, myriads of buzzing wings. Out at the edge of the wood were ferns and aconite, the trailing arbutus was in bloom, and I loved its tiny flowers... Thanks, my God, for every heather bloom I have ever seen; they have been like small roses on my way, and I weep for love of them... Somewhere near were wild carnations; I could not see them, but I could mark their scent.
But now, in the night hours, great white flowers have opened suddenly; their chalices are spread wide; they are breathing. And furry twilight moths slip down into their petals, making the whole plant quiver. I go from one flower to another. They are drunken flowers. I mark the stages of their intoxication.

Seascape from the 1995 Henning Carlsen film adaptation,
starring a young Sofie Gråbøl 

* Quote from a piece on Hamsun in the New Yorker

Thursday, October 01, 2015

The Hills, The Valleys, The River, The Sea

The summer's Barbara Hepworth exhibition may have been a bit underwhelming but one exhibit that caught my attention was a display of sketches for sculptures intended for Waterloo Bridge.  Sir Giles Gilbert Scott's design had incorporated four plinths but they were left empty after the bridge was completed in 1942.  When a competition was eventually held in 1947 Hepworth submitted four landscape-related designs: The Hills, The Valleys, The River, The Sea.  But the judges rejected her ideas and those of three other artists: 'the result of the competition was disappointing and we do not consider that any of the four schemes submitted can be adjudged suitable for the position that they are intended to occupy.' 

I won't add much more here because an excellent blog post on these designs has already been written by John Wyver at Illuminations.  You can also go to the Tate website for a detailed account of them by curator Chris Stephens and see the maquette and three sketches.  These images are under copyright so I can't include them here - instead I give you probably the most boring image ever embedded on this site.  My photo makes you wonder whether sculptures on this relatively small scale, attempting to project a sense of the whole landscape through which a river passes, would just have got lost among the cars and commuters.  But we cannot know as they were never made.  It is just possible that they could have caught something of the world beyond this unreal city and brought solace to all those weary people flowing over the bridge 'under the brown fog of a winter dawn'.