Archive for February, 2010

Musical Landscape

February 25, 2010

Nils Petter Molvaer came to Kendal last night. It must be testament to the Brewery Arts Centre’s reputation that an artist of such worldwide accclaim should want to play there.

It was a seamless set of almost one and a half hour’s length with the trio producing sound of massive size which thundered and ripped into you which contrasted with passages of such fragility. Each musician has complete command of the instrument; a single cymbal being removed and held close to the chest with the fingers producing the drumming, the guitar being used like a slap bass or being bowed to produce sounds of Islamic quality, the trumpet being used with different pick-ups, or not, or the bell being used with Molvaer cupping his hand against it and speaking or singing into it to sounds which sometimes sounded like voice and sometimes like trumpet. All of this of course fed through computers and synthesizers and amplifiers with a constant digital projection of imagery onto the players, with cameras on the musicians being projected on this and through this. It was a unique, semi-improvised piece of art, part acoustic part electronic, with ideas tried, sounds made and even when a sound idea was re-thought, the fact that here were ideas in the making, here was great art being produced, those re-thinks became an important part of the whole, like plugs being removed or Molvaer walking off stage briefly to get a towel.

Knowing Molvaer’s sound somewhat and knowing Garbarek and Hendriksen and knowing that this is Nordic music immediately produces images in one’s mind and they are landscape images. It is a hard landscape of rock, ice, snow and forest, an echoing, empty landscape, but it is also a landscape of metal, of the other side of Norway, of oil rigs and container ships, of vast functional, urban architecture.

I was reminded about a debate in my mind which I which I had only just been considering and that was about the portrayal of landscape in music. It seems a perfectly reasonable concept for contemporary composers to use landscape as an inspiration for their music; there are plenty of BBC Radio 3 commissions which testify to this. Yet it is not considered to be a proper contemporary subject for painting or photography and there isn’t enough debate around this. A much bigger and debateable thought concerns the ability of music to express or illustrate landscape. For me, music can perfectly conjure up landscape images but this is by very personal assosciation; knowing a landscape and listening to music, often any music, will always set up images assosciated with that music. Listening to that piece will forever bring up assosciations, in the way that smell will very definitely do the same. The music of contemporary Nordic jazz musicians will now always bring up images of a very wide Nordic landscape (wide in all senses) but how much is this by assosciation? The music I hear where the musician has tried to evoke a particular place or landscape rarely works for me because the personal assosciation is not there. I actually think it is more or less impossible for music to portray, evoke or illustrate landscape until there is that personal assosciation. Good music is too abstract for that. Once the personal assosciation is connected, almost every sound or note will summon up images connected with that music.

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Contrasting Landscapes

February 17, 2010

This is the longest winter, with no signs yet of that change which signals its end. Mornings continue to lighten to white frost and today the cloud which for a few days has muffled the mountain tops has been totally swept away so that above it is blue. Into that blue a sunshine which is like spring, beams in over long thin wisps of lake cloud which hangs low in the air, still below freezing. Mornings such as this give emphasis to the thought that the night distills the previous day, purifying it. There then are the mountains again, like English alps (though I have my doubts as to whether Lakeland is in England) jagged teeth and knuckles of white and pale blue under yet more siftings of snow. To say that this landscape sparkles like a jewel is to use a cliche but it is true and it is a gift for this holiday week. I can almost hear the whirr of 1000 high powered digital cameras striving to produce yet more images to dazzle, or numb the mind.

This Lakeland landscape contrasts so interestingly with the urban landscape of Manchester to where I went yesterday. I can’t help finding everything I encounter to be of interest and worth using and important. The new blocks and concrete roads, the University buildings, many so new or renewed, the suburbs of park and tree lined avenue, of old building wedged in betwen new. The continually changing arrangement of form. There is planning and yet there is none and in this it is perfectly natural. Certain places have always held my attention, often when I simply cannot stop to take notes or to draw, so that they have to be confined to memory. The Heinz factory at Wigan, long and low with its big red neon 57 sign on the broad vale rising to rough wide moor scattered with scrub and snow, pricked with masts. The broad flat landscape of the industrial retail park, which is dominated by IKEA at Warrington is always fascinating to me. Fluttering flags, tall lights, the massive blue box of the store itself with its huge yellow lettering juxtaposed with designer birches, planted for relief. It always feels like an airport terminal.

The extremes of influnce are vast at present. To filter it, to understand it, to contain it without diminishing it; these are the tasks now.

The Problem of the Beautiful

February 12, 2010

You could see for miles today. The mountains showed their snow white on the tops and then in gullies and valleys it lay like markings on a piebald horse. The sun rises higher each day and was brilliant though the land lies wonderfully drab. Greys and muted red-browns, dull yellows and greens. The frost, which has rarely been away for two months or more has made it that way.

How different it is from the overblown saturated colours of images found in glossy (no exaggeration) books of photographs of Lakeland of the type which we were discussing last night.

After being bombarded for quite some time by big pin-sharp imagesI began to come to the conclusion that these images bear as much resemblance to the Cumbria that I experience as would say images of London from a similar sort of book to a real Londoner. It made me think firstly of how photography, and especially digital photography because of the proliferation of images made possible with digital photography, has numbed our visual senses. It also made me question just how possible is it to truly express experience of place through purely visual means, because virtually all paintings of the Lakeland landscape (I use Lakeland because it is at present most familiar to me, but I refer to place and landscape in general) leave me thinking the same thing; this is not how I feel it.

The preserved heart of Lakeland is, through our contitioned eyes, very beautiful, but this preservation is also a problem, because naturally this is landscape seen in arrested development. Outside the National Park it is a different affair where those things which are seen to sully the landscape, but to which I am equally attracted, probably for this very reason, begin to emerge. I don’t need to say that images of these edgy, peripheral places and things don’t appear in the glossy books.

However, for all that I am aware and actually interested in the place in which we live as being somehow forever sullied and over-observed/explored, there are always times to counter-balance this, such as days like today when I am not afraid to say “this is beautiful” and not to be afraid to make something of that emotion.

My painting becomes a balance between the comfortable and the uncomfortable, between the edgy and the safe, between the romantic and the raw but it is always a re-construction. I don’t paint places, I paint about places.