Saturday, January 27, 2018

Body of Ice

In 2011, Australian harpist Alice Giles got the opportunity to follow in the footsteps of her geologist grandfather Cecil Madigan, who has been a member of Mawson's First Australasian Antarctic Expedition a century earlier.  At Davis Station she left her instrument by the shore as an aeolian harp, as you can see in the clip from her website embedded above. "The sound of the wind through the strings was incredibly clear and concentrated,'' she told the Sydney Morning Herald.  On her return she composed Alice in Antarctica, mixing music and extracts from Madigan's expedition diary.  She also participated in a conference about the Antarctic and music, the papers for which can be read (open access) in  Antarctica — Music, Sounds and Cultural Connections (Australian National University Press, 2015).  Here are some other things covered in this book that seemed worth noting on this blog.

Gilbert Kerr playing bagpipes to an indifferent penguin
on the Scottish National Antarctic Expedition
Unknown photographer. Source: Royal Scottish Geographical Society

  • Music made by explorers and scientists.  Various kinds of instruments and music making equipment were taken on the polar voyages, from hand organs on Franklin's expedition to the pianola used by Scott. One of the book's essays concerns a well-known photograph of Gilbert Kerr and his bagpipes (above) - the pipes themselves were later taken to the war and lost during the Battle of the Somme.  A piano on the Morning, a relief ship sent to Scott's first expedition in 1902, was used to compose what is probably the first published music written on an Antarctic polar journey.  Gerald S. Doorly wrote a small collection of songs, including 'Ice King', written as they searched the coastline looking for Scott's ship Discovery.  Most intriguing for me though is the idea that a Japanese flute may have been played over the ice on the Shirase Antarctic Expedition (1910-12).  Research by Rupert Summerson, himself a Shakuhachi player, polar explorer and scholar (a pretty cool job description), suggests that the player would have been Keiichi Tada, who also wrote tanka inspired by his journey to the Antarctic:
Looking back
Looking back again
Looking back
All I’ll see are mountains
And mountains of snow (trans. Amelia Fielden)
  • Compositions inspired by the Antarctic. The earliest example of a composition based on experience of the continent may be James Dwight Dana's musical setting of lines from Thulia: a Tale of the Antarctic, a narrative poem written by James Croxall Palmer, who was assistant surgeon to the United States Exploring Expedition of 1838–42.  Dana was an eminent geologist and part of the same expedition, though not on the ship that sailed down to the edge of Antarctica. Of course there are numerous more recent examples of music directly inspired by encounters with the Antarctic - I have mentioned here before the work of Peter Maxwell Davies for example.  An essay in the book by Patrick Shepherd refers to his own experience and that of three other New Zealand composers who have been to Antarctica: Chris Cree Brown, Gareth Farr, and Phil Dadson, who experienced a kind of epiphany while out on the ice:
'I was recording ice cracks for one entire night (without too much luck I have to say) and during this time sat motionless, simply watching and listening, much of the time focused on my relationship with the planet and to the sun. Instead of watching the sun slowly creeping along the horizon line, I could literally sense the earth turning around the sun. It was a simple and profound sensation and it has stayed with me.'
  • Sound art made on the continentPure field recording may be rarer now than it was when Douglas Quin made Antarctica twenty years ago.  Instead it tends to be a component of projects that combine different kinds of sound or used it to accompany other media.  Philip Samartzis provided field recordings for Body of Ice, a dance piece by Christina Evans, who contributes an essay to the book describing how she worked with her dancers to imitate the movements of ice - rolling, crumbling, melting and freezing.  When Cheryl E. Leonard visited the Antarctic she collected material to make natural instruments: limpet shells, the bones of adelie penguins, igneous rock slabs forming a scale of tones and glossy rock shards that chimed like glass.  She is now able to play these instruments to the accompaniment of her own field recordings, of seals, meltwater and the Antarctic ice, cracking and drifting in the sea. 

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Frail songs by torrents

Yesterday evening I listened yesterday to a recent episode of 'Late Junction' in which Anne Hilde Neset was taken by Jana Winderen to a snowy forest just outside Oslo to discuss field recording. I have embedded a clip of this below, although I'm not sure how long it will be available.  I would actually recommend listening to the whole programme while you can (among other things it includes a wonderful Morton Feldman tribute on what would have been his ninety-second birthday, David Fennessy's 'Piano Trio - Music for the pauses in a conversation between John Cage and Morton Feldman').  Winderen talks about the way the sounds of the forest change completely day by day - sound like light has to be captured instantly or it is gone forever.  She has been waiting many years to catch a particular lake when it is just about freezing.  At that moment the ice is like a drum skin and if you tap it you can hear the sound flying over the surface.  But on the rare occasions when the lake has been in this state, she has happened to be without her equipment. "Then I just have to listen to it with my ears and remember that, recorded in my memory".

After listening to this programme I took up a book, the latest collection of Thomas A Clark's poems, Farm by the Shore.  As I read it, I kept thinking of the deep listening and close attention to landscape that Jana Winderen describes.  Poems refer to the drone of the wind, the water song in leaves, the lapping of little waves, unquiet on quiet.  A small brown bird hidden in glancing light seems to vanish when it stops singing.  There is often a focus on such moments, when what is observed offers an insight into the processes of thought.  'Quicker than tadpoles / in pools the shadows / of tadpoles in pools / or the notion of shadows / of tadpoles in pools.'  There are places, these poems suggest, to which you can retreat to tune the mind or simply find repose in the shadows of trees.  Jana Winderen's recording includes the sound of tadpoles at rest, hibernating in their cold winter pools, waiting for spring.  Waiting is essential for her too, as she "concentrates into the environment" and begins to notice small things or experience chance phenomena like snow falling from a tree.  It is easy to picture Thomas A Clark walking the winter woods and listening to them with similar quiet patience: 'snowflakes on eyelashes / frail songs by torrents.'

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Lichens and Ferns on a Rock Face

Gherardo Cibo, Men Collecting Specimens on a Hillside, 16th century

This illuminated manuscript page shows specimen hunters on an Italian hillside, equipped with sickle, mattock and sack.  They are so intent on their work they seem oblivious to the beautiful sunset behind them.  It was painted by the amateur botanist Gherardo Cibo (1512-1600) who illustrated his own researches in Urbino and incorporated elements of the surrounding landscape into his botanical illustrations.  The example below is one of several that can be seen at the British Library page for 'Additional MS. 22332'.  In addition to the Daphnoides it shows 'a botanist gathering plants on a mountainside and a fortified town and river in the background.'  In other paintings of specimens we see a countrywoman gathering plants, a man sitting on a fallen column, people harvesting olives, a person reading a book and a man hitting a snake with a branch.  But it his distant views that are particularly appealing - a flock of sheep, a weir and watermill, a fortified town, a port, a rocky island, a mountainous landscape.  Cibo's people are in scale with these landscapes; it is the plants that have grown to giant proportions, like a Fumewort under which two young girls are able to sit in the shade and chat.

Gherardo Cibo, Daphne Laureola (Spurge-laurel), 16th century 

I came upon the painting of specimen hunters last week in the 'Herbology' section of the British Library's exhibition Harry Potter: A History of Magic.  There is clearly something magical about the other pictures in the MS too, as Cibo transforms herbs into plants the size of trees.  J. K. Rowling's treatment of landscape is something I can't really discuss as I've not read her books (though I have caught the gist of the story while Mrs Plinius was reading them to our kids and seen bits of the Harry Potter movies). The exhibition is excellent though, whether you're bothered about Harry Potter or not, with many interesting objects and books in addition to the Gherardo Cibo herbal.  However, one manuscript that wasn't on display was the second one by Cibo that the Library owns, 'Additional MS. 22333'.  The images on the British Library page include two seascapes and a landscape, along with the delightful view below, which at first appears to be a typical sixteenth century depiction of the Italian countryside, until you see the outsize lichens and ferns growing over the surface of the rocky hillside.

 Gherardo Cibo, Lichens and Ferns on a Rock Face, 1584

Saturday, January 06, 2018

The sea like a vortex

"The sixth storm, rain. Just barely saved the boat. The sea like a vortex, the surf like cannon fire. The tent broke. Wonderfully beautiful." - Tove Jansson
In the middle of the Tove Jansson exhibition, which is on for a few more days at Dulwich Picture Gallery, there are three large paintings of waves: Abstract Sea (1963), Weathering (1965), Eight Beaufort (1966).  You can see the first of these reproduced in the Telegraph's review, 'Revelatory show about the Moomins creator'. They were painted after she had returned to painting, in the wake of abstract expressionism and after having spent two decades creating the world of the Moomins.  As Tuula Karjalainen writes in the catalogue, Jansson was at this point 'so committed to storytelling that she usually included a figurative element even in her abstract works.  As subjects, she often selected motifs that in themselves already appeared abstract', hence these studies of the sea.  It was also at this time that she was planning and building her cottage on Klovharun island - the quotation above describes her experience camping there before construction began.  The islands of the Finnish archipelago appear through her art and have become part of the imaginative world of anyone who has loved Moominpappa at Sea or The Summer Book.

Thirty years before these abstract sea paintings, at the beginning of her painting career, Tove Jansson painted landscapes in strong colours which are reminiscent of early twentieth century Primitive, Symbolist and Surrealist artists (looking at them I thought of Rousseau, Munch and Nash).  These inevitably prefigure the later Moomin illustrations, like a set of watercolours in this exhibition showing scenes from The Dangerous Journey (1976).  The most striking of her early landscape compositions is actually called Mysterious Landscape and has no precise date.  Mostly painted in cold shades of blue, it shows ghostly trees lining a path to a white building that reminded me of what I saw last year at dusk in Stockholm's woodland cemetery.  Paths of light lead up dark mountains, bare trees burn bright red, and in the distance there is a moonlit fjord.  It seems to be part of a strange and magical story that at the time, before Moomintroll came along, she was still just telling to herself.

Monday, January 01, 2018

There Lies the Temple

Today I launched a new initiative, to post 365 landscapes on Twitter over the course of 2018.  In doing this I am using a format (see above) which will usually include a telling detail in addition to the main image, in this case a dark idol just beyond the brow of the yellow hill.  Whether people on twitter will find this interesting I am not sure, but it is giving me a chance to look across the whole field of landscape art and share the things I find most interesting.  And by allowing myself only one landscape per artist, it is possible to cover quite a lot of ground in 365 tweets.  I have pretty much planned the selections out already so am able to say now that they are all interesting and (mostly) beautiful artworks - there's been no need to include dull canvasses by second-rate Impressionists or attempt full coverage of all the minor Dutch landscape painters.  The one key rule I am setting myself is only to include artists who died before 1948.  This is obviously for copyright reasons, but also helps restrict the field a bit; in addition to nothing post-war, it means I will not be including anything by artists like Georges Braque, Georgia O'Keeffe or Giorgio de Chirico.  I will mainly focus on painting but will include some work in other media - drawings, photographs, tapestry, stained glass, mosaic.  The coverage will be worldwide, though with an inevitable focus on Western art (the other main tradition is Chinese painting).

One thing that struck me from the outset in doing this was how difficult it would be to achieve adequate representation of women artists.  In Europe, before the late nineteenth century, women painters did not generally specialise in landscape.  One of the images I have lined up for later this month illustrates the point.  It is a pastel sketch of an Alpine lake, made during a summer holiday, by Élisabeth Louise Vigée-LeBrun, who was renowned throughout Europe as a portrait painter (subjects included Marie Antoinette, Lady Hamilton and Lord Byron).  Another of my selections is by Berthe Morisot, whose best known subjects are her domestic interiors, even though her first appearance at the Paris Salon, in 1864, was with two landscapes.  It is only towards the end of the period that you find professional women landscape painters whose work really stands out, and some of these could be better known - Zdenka Braunerová (1858-38) for example, who will also be featuring in January.  I'd love one day to see an exhibition gathering together a whole range of pre-twentieth century landscape art by women artists.  A fourth one on my list for January is Emily Carr, whose work I featured here following a retrospective at Dulwich Picture Gallery.  The next post on this blog will be about a more recent artist whose work I saw at Dulwich last week, Tove Jansson.

I will conclude here with a few more words about Paul Gauguin's painting (sometimes called 'Sacred Mountain'), which shows a marae, or sacred enclosure, in the Marquesas Islands.  It is, like most (perhaps all?) of the landscapes I'll be tweeting about, a product of the artist's imagination.  Gauguin was inspired to paint and sculpt images based on Tahitian traditional religion and the gods that had been suppressed by Chirstian missionaries.  However, as Joseph J. Rishel explains (see the Philadelphia Museum site), 'the fence with its decoration of skulls, the idol on the hill, and the evocation of sacrifice in a thread of smoke ascending before the demanding god have no basis in Tahitian culture, Gauguin has created another kind of paradise in the opulence of his colour and the splendid sensuality of his images.'  Robert Goldwater (Gauguin, 1957) wrote that the artist had painted a kind of 'Olympus bathed in light, somewhere above the world of men. The baleful fence tells us we are shut out from it, and mortal, but the bright flowers remind us that this is still a world of life and lovely colour.'