Friday, May 19, 2017

Fog Line


A fortnight ago I was at the Wellcome Trust for an event curated by Amy Cutler in which artists, musicians and academics re-soundtracked nature documentaries by performing texts, improvising music and creating alternative soundscapes.  The ways in which animals are filmed and presented to viewers are continually changing (demonstrated vividly last year in the BBC's Zoo Quest in Colour) and this event included footage made with very different purposes in mind, from the scientific (Julian Huxley) to the surreal (Jean Painlevé).  As someone who grew up with Animal Magic and Johnny Morris doing amusing voiceovers to the 'antics' of zoo creatures, I've always viewed nature programmes with some suspicion and they clearly offer a rich field for academic enquiry, raising many more questions than the obvious ones around anthropomorphism.  The reason for mentioning the Wellcome Trust event here is that two of the performers, Justin Hopper and Sterling MacKinnon, chose not to soundtrack a nature documentary, performing instead to Larry Gottheim's seminal landscape film, Fog Line (1970). 



In introducing this performance Amy said that her students hate it when she makes them sit through Fog Line.  If this seems hard to believe, check out the hostility of the film's lone reviewer on IMDB.  In The Garden in the Machine: A Field Guide to Independent Films about Place, Scott MacDonald describes a kind of blindness in people who are asked to watch it.  'When I ask viewers immediately after a screening of Fog Line what they've just seen, a frequent response is a sardonic "Nothing!"'  Many are unaware that there are horses in the film, shadowy forms that become visible about two thirds of the way through.  It is as if the static camera, slow silence and gradual evaporation of the fog condition the viewer into thinking nothing at all will happen.  MacDonald suggests that an inability to notice the horses also reflects a refusal to see the filmmaker 'as the designer of the image'; in fact Gottheim chose his location partly because he had observed horses moving in and out of the space.

In his discussion of the film, MacDonald suggests that it presents the viewer with three conundrums: why did Gottheim include the wires, how is it that the horses appear so small compared to the trees, and what is that blurry grey disc, like a dark sun, that appears above the trees?  The answers illustrate Gottheim's interest in the way landscape vision is mediated through technology.  Those power lines offer a frame to measure the change in our field of vision, from blankness to a flat grey pattern and finally a three-dimensional space.  The depth of field that seems to distort what would naturally be seen by someone on the spot is the result of using a telephoto lens.  And that mysterious disc in the sky is simply a smudge on the camera that Gottheim did not remove - even if the film lasted longer than the last of the fog, we would never see the landscape perfectly.

I had only ever seen Fog Line in silence, though never of course in absolute silence, and as I watch it now the lifting fog is accompanied by the hum of my computer, a distant intermittent drill and the slow rumble of an aeroplane.  Nevertheless, the film itself projects a sense of quiet, and it is easy to imagine the fog muting any ambient sound.  At the Wellcome Trust, Fog Line was accompanied by a gradual amplification, with the emergence of recognisable landscape features echoed in the way a spoken fragment - 'Fogs also vary' - was repeated with more and more words until it became William Gilpin's complete sentence: 'Fogs also vary a distant country as much as light, soften the harsh features of landscape and spreading over them a beautiful, grey, harmonising tint.'

In preparing his piece, Justin discovered that Fog Line was filmed near the small town (Binghamton, New York) where he grew up.  So, after the Gilpin quote, he included words to evoke the 'physical and psychic landscape of small-town America: William S Burroughs, Walt Whitman and others. This telephone-wired and neon-lit landscape that dramatically appears from behind the fog's gauze, coming into focus just in time to snap back out again.'  It's strange, because to me those mist-covered trees and fields don't seem particularly American at all.  Instead they bring to mind the Sussex of my own childhood, although as I try now to recall that 'distant country' it slips slowly back into the fog.

Friday, May 05, 2017

This city which is no longer anything but an orchestra

When in the past I have added extra features to Some Landscapes, I have tried to include some new material at the same time.  What follows was going to be appended to my last post, introducing a new Chronology, but I decided it would be better kept separate (its relevance was that it concerns how a view, in this case a cityscape, has changed through history).  The quotation below, from Victor Hugo, is a great piece of Romantic prose but particularly interests me as an evocation of landscape through sound.  I checked back to see if it was referred to in R. Murray Schafer's classic book The Tuning of the World; it isn't - probably because Hugo was writing a work of historical recreation rather than direct observation.  Whether Paris ever sounded anything like Hugo's idea of the city in 1482 would be difficult to say.


The novel this description is taken from, Notre-Dame de Paris (in a nineteenth century translation on Project Gutenberg) is, like many nineteenth century historical novels, about history.  It was written partly to draw attention to the way contemporary Parisians were neglecting their architectural heritage.  Hugo suggests in it that before the invention of the printing press, poetry was manifested in architecture: cities were like great texts.  He stops the action of the story in order to devote the whole of Book Three to a description of medieval Paris from its cathedral.  Centring on the small island of the City and 'trapezium' of the university, the view would have encompassed a vast semicircle of the Town and, beyond this, the immense plain, 'patched with a thousand sorts of cultivated plots, sown with fine villages', ending at the hills on the horizon.  'Such was the Paris which the ravens, who lived in 1482, beheld from the summits of the towers of Notre-Dame.' 
'And if you wish to receive of the ancient city an impression with which the modern one can no longer furnish you, climb—on the morning of some grand festival, beneath the rising sun of Easter or of Pentecost—climb upon some elevated point, whence you command the entire capital; and be present at the wakening of the chimes. Behold, at a signal given from heaven, for it is the sun which gives it, all those churches quiver simultaneously. First come scattered strokes, running from one church to another, as when musicians give warning that they are about to begin. Then, all at once, behold!—for it seems at times, as though the ear also possessed a sight of its own,—behold, rising from each bell tower, something like a column of sound, a cloud of harmony. First, the vibration of each bell mounts straight upwards, pure and, so to speak, isolated from the others, into the splendid morning sky; then, little by little, as they swell they melt together, mingle, are lost in each other, and amalgamate in a magnificent concert. It is no longer anything but a mass of sonorous vibrations incessantly sent forth from the numerous belfries; floats, undulates, bounds, whirls over the city, and prolongs far beyond the horizon the deafening circle of its oscillations.
'Nevertheless, this sea of harmony is not a chaos; great and profound as it is, it has not lost its transparency; you behold the windings of each group of notes which escapes from the belfries. You can follow the dialogue, by turns grave and shrill, of the treble and the bass; you can see the octaves leap from one tower to another; you watch them spring forth, winged, light, and whistling, from the silver bell, to fall, broken and limping from the bell of wood; you admire in their midst the rich gamut which incessantly ascends and re-ascends the seven bells of Saint-Eustache; you see light and rapid notes running across it, executing three or four luminous zigzags, and vanishing like flashes of lightning. Yonder is the Abbey of Saint-Martin, a shrill, cracked singer; here the gruff and gloomy voice of the Bastille; at the other end, the great tower of the Louvre, with its bass. The royal chime of the palace scatters on all sides, and without relaxation, resplendent trills, upon which fall, at regular intervals, the heavy strokes from the belfry of Notre-Dame, which makes them sparkle like the anvil under the hammer. At intervals you behold the passage of sounds of all forms which come from the triple peal of Saint-Germaine des Prés. Then, again, from time to time, this mass of sublime noises opens and gives passage to the beats of the Ave Maria, which bursts forth and sparkles like an aigrette of stars. Below, in the very depths of the concert, you confusedly distinguish the interior chanting of the churches, which exhales through the vibrating pores of their vaulted roofs.
'Assuredly, this is an opera which it is worth the trouble of listening to. Ordinarily, the noise which escapes from Paris by day is the city speaking; by night, it is the city breathing; in this case, it is the city singing. Lend an ear, then, to this concert of bell towers; spread over all the murmur of half a million men, the eternal plaint of the river, the infinite breathings of the wind, the grave and distant quartette of the four forests arranged upon the hills, on the horizon, like immense stacks of organ pipes; extinguish, as in a half shade, all that is too hoarse and too shrill about the central chime, and say whether you know anything in the world more rich and joyful, more golden, more dazzling, than this tumult of bells and chimes;—than this furnace of music,—than these ten thousand brazen voices chanting simultaneously in the flutes of stone, three hundred feet high,—than this city which is no longer anything but an orchestra,—than this symphony which produces the noise of a tempest.'

Monday, May 01, 2017

Landscape and time

I am getting close now to having written one thousand Some Landscapes posts.  I hope to mark this milestone soon, but for now I'd like to draw your attention to a new feature accessible through the header bar above: a Some Landscapes Chronology.

While I am always highly conscious that this blog can only cover some landscapes, it has over time come to form a rather idiosyncratic history of landscape in the arts.  But the way it has gradually been written makes it sometimes difficult for me (let alone a reader) to see the wood for the trees.  I have therefore been compiling this Chronology which, like my Index, is simply a long and ever-expanding colour-coded list.  I'm not doing this to impose a structure on what remains essentially a rhizomatic process of growth.  A blog should be spontaneous rather than planned and I have no idea where this one will go or how long it will last.

So, if you happen to be interested in historical developments in culture, this list will allow you to scroll down and click into my entries that relate to a particular time and place.  Looking at it now I see, for example, that within twenty years of the first edition of James Thomson's The Seasons, Handel had composed his musical version of Milton's L'Allegro, Buson had written his haiku on a willow tree, Michele Marieschi had painted his view of the Rialto Bridge, Fang Bao had described his trip to Geese Pond Mountain and Henry Hoare was constructing the landscape garden at Stourhead.   

James Thomson's The Seasons - detail from a 1774 frontispiece
 
The Chronology, unlike the Index, is not comprehensive.  It stops in the year 2000 and doesn't attempt to cover everything I have written about contemporary culture.  Nor does it encompass every single mention of people like Wordsworth, Turner and Monet - I have been selective.  To give you a flavour of it here, I have pasted in fifty of the entries below - about two per century, from Sargon II to Xu Bing (the colours relate broadly to where the book or artwork was produced).  Of course the actual chronology has many more entries for the later centuries.  Landscape art continues to proliferate and diversify, though you cannot help wondering about what may have been lost now from those earlier times... 


c. 715 BCE    Sargon II (722 – 705 BCE) lays out parks north of Nineveh, around Khorasabad.  A bas relief (c. 715) shows this park to have had a man-made hill planted with a grove of trees, along with a small temple. It is one of the earliest depictions anywhere of a managed landscape.   >> The royal park in Nineveh

c. 650 BCE     Alcman, a lyric poet from Sparta, is the author of a fragment that would later inspire Goethe's 'Wanderer's Night Song'.   >> The Wanderer's Night Song
 
405 BCE     The first production of Iphigenia in Aulis by Euripides which begins in the grey light of dawn - Greek open air theatres had no sets beyond what was provided by the stage and the sky..   >> Dawn growing grey

c. 370 BCE     In Plato's Phaedrus Socrates is taken to a beautiful riverside, but makes a point of reminding Phaedrus as they walk there: 'I am a lover of knowledge, and the men who dwell in the city are my teachers, and not the trees or the country.'   >> The Valley of the Ladies

c. 330 BCE    Dinocrates, architect to Alexander the Great, proposes the conversion of Mount Athos into a statue of a giant man.   >> Mount Athos Carved as a Monument to Alexander the Great

c. 270 BCE     The Idylls of Theocritus.  His bucolic poems influenced directly or indirectly all subsequent European pastoral poetry. 'Here there are bays, and here slender cypresses, / Here is sombre ivy, and here the vine's sweet fruit...'   >> Like a crystal flood

210 BCE    Death of Qin Shi Huang, the First Emperor.  His burial chamber formed a kind of landscape, with rivers and seas of mercury.   >> Buried rivers of mercury

52 BCE    Cicero begins De Legibus (On the Laws) which begins with a scene at his villa where Cicero (Marcus), his brother Quintus and friend Atticus are looking at an old oak tree, a scene later painted by artists like Richard Wilson.   >> Tusculan's romantic groves

c. 40 BCE     Virgil composing The Eclogues, set partly in the North Italian countryside near Mantua, where the poet grew up, and partly, overlaid on this, in an ideal, pastoral Greece of the mind.  >> Under the trees, where the light air stirs the shadows

23 BCE     The Odes of Horace. Ode 3.13 praises the Bandusian Spring and, as Gilbert Highet wrote, 'this little place, because of Horace’s eloquence, became one of the ideal spots in the imagination of thousands of readers'.   >> The Bandusian spring

c. 0     Pliny the Elder's Natural History mentions Studius, 'a painter of the days of Augustus, who introduced a delightful style of decorating walls with representations of villas, harbours, landscape gardens, sacred groves, woods, hills, fishponds, straits, streams and shores.'   >> A delightful style of decorating walls 

c. 60    The Sixth Satire of Persius (Aulus Persius Flaccus), which would be translated by Dryden in the 1690s, has a land-owner who rejoices in his life free from the concerns of business and state: 'here I enjoy my private Thoughts'.  >> Rain-saturated, churning, chanting thunder

c. 108     Pliny the Younger's letter on the Springs of Clitumnus: 'it spreads into a broad pool, pure and clear as glass, so that you can count the coins that have been thrown into it and the pebbles glittering at the bottom'.   >> The Springs of Clitumnus

206     The Chinese warlord and poet Cao Cao writes his 'Song on enduring the Cold' while leading his troops across the Tai-hang mountains to attack a rival.   >> The voice of the north wind sad

c. 335     The Latin poet Tiberianus flourished at this time and may have composed the nature poem, ‘Amnis ibat inter arua ualle fusus frigida…', a depiction of locus amoenus.   >> Locus amoenus

371    The Moselle, an influential Latin landscape poem by Decimus Magnus Ausonius was probably written in 370-1.   >> The Moselle

405     Tao Yuanming (also known as T'ao Ch'ien or Tao Qian) leaves the army and goes into retirement, living in a farming village in Jiangsu province near Lu Mountain.  He wrote that whenever he started trying to explain Lu Mountain, 'I forget words altogether'.  >> Hunger Mountain

422     Hsieh Ling-yün (Xie Lingyun), who initiated the shan-shui ("rivers-and-mountains") tradition in Chinese poetry, is exiled to Yung-chia on the southeast coast where he grows to love the wild scenery.  >> On a Tower Beside the Lake

502    The beginning of the Liang Dynasty in China.  Liu Xie (Liu Hsieh, c. 465-522) was active at this time - in The Literary Mind Carves Dragons he wrote that the best poets attended to the world by 'sculpting' the landscape, delineating details with no need of additional embellishment.  >> Mountains and forests and the marshy banks of rivers

c. 550    The Spring of Khosrow, a vast silk Persian carpet (84 x 35ft) depicting a royal garden is made for the Sāsānian king Khosrow I.   >> The spring of Khosrow

629     Beginning of the reign of Emperor Jomei, whose poem in the Manyōshū ('Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves'), 'Climbing Mount Kagu', describes the view from the mountain down towards the land of Yamato.   >> Climbing Mount Kagu

687    Sun Guoting writes his Treatise on Calligraphy and recommends drawing inspiration from rolling thunder, toppling rocks, flying geese, animals in flight, dancing phoenixes, startled snakes, sheer cliffs, crumbling peaks, threatening clouds and cicadas wings.  >> When the brush moves, water flows from a spring

715     Completion of the Umayyad mosque in Damascus with mosaics, depicting landscapes and buildings in a late Roman style. They were admired by Robert Byron in his classic travel book The Road to Oxiana.  >> Landscape mosaics of the Omayad Mosque

759     Eight short poems record an autumn evening at Tung-t'ing (Dong-ting) Lake where three exiles, Li Po, Chia Chih and Li Yeha, enjoy a moment of reflection before events, like waves on the lake, come to sweep them up again.   >> Some wine beside the white clouds

822     Bai Juyi is made prefect of Hangzhou where he helps create the famous landscape of West Lake by building a causeway that now bears his name.   >> The West Lake of Hangzhou
  
840     Abu Tammam (c805-45) writes an Arabic qasida (ode) on Spring describing the desert flowers.   >> Desert in bloom

905     The Kokinshū is compiled by four Japanese court poets, led by Ki no TsurayukiIts poems are arranged by season - spring topics include lingering snow and plum blossoms, mist, bush warblers, returning wild geese, green willow, yellow kerria, new herbs, wisteria and, of course, cherry blossoms.   >> Plum blossom on snow

997     In China, Emperor Zhenzong’s reign begins.  His Painter-in-Waiting was Yan Wenghui about whose landscapes the Song Dynasty critic Liu Daochun wrote: 'A thousand miles in a single foot - such was his subtlety!'   >> Clouds and Mist in the Mountains

1054    Wang-An-shih, poet and later Prime Minister of China, wrote an account of an expedition he made this year to a cave at the Mountain Where Hui-pao Meditated    >> The Mountain Where Hui-pao Meditated

1084     In July the poet Su Shih, at a famous sonorous landscape called Stone Bell Mountain (Shizhong Shan), decides to investigate, finding there a huge rock 'hollow inside, and it also had many holes in it. It swallowed and spit out the wind and water, giving off ringing sounds'.   >> Stone Bell Mountain

1122     At Kaifeng the Chinese Emperor Huizong completes the great rock garden he had commissioned, containing the rarest and biggest stones and every sort of plant from all over his empire.   >> The Mountain of Stability

1188     Baldwin, Archbishop of Canterbury, sets out to travel through Wales recruiting men for the Third Crusade.  He is accompanied by Gerald of Wales, whose book The Journey Through Wales contains many interesting references to nature and topography.  >> The Journey Through Wales

1204     Liang Kai leaves the the Song painting academy in Hangzhou to paint at a Buddhist temple.  His Poet Strolling by a Marshy Bank emphasises the inaccessibility of the distant landscape by a massive overhanging cliff, partially obstructing the poet's view.  >> Whiling Away the Summer

c. 1270    'Clouds over the Xiao and Xiang Rivers' (Xiaoxiang Shuiyun), one of the most famous qin melodies, composed at the end of the Song dynasty by Guo Mian (or Guo Chuwang).   >> Clouds over the Xiao and Xiang Rivers

1337     Petrarch discovers 'a delightful valley, narrow and secluded, called Vaucluse ... Captured by the charms of the place, I transferred myself and my books there.'   >> The source of the Sorgue

1378     Wang Meng's painting Lin-wu Grotto at Chu-ch'u - 'topography reveals itself convulsively before our eyes like some mountainous mass in the process of solidifying'.   >> The landscape of the bland

1436     Zeami writes 'The Book of the Golden Island' (Kintosho), which describes his journey to Sado.  It 'bears the same relation to his plays that Basho's prose-sketches bear to his hokku.'   >> The Golden Island

1473     On August 5th Leonardo da Vinci draws his view of the Arno valley.  We do not know if this sketch was drawn in situ, but as A. Richard Turner writes in The Vision of Landscape in Renaissance Italy, 'these quick lines have all the quality of a spontaneous reaction to a living model.'   >> Landscape with the Penitent St Jerome

1515     Matthias Grünewald's Basel Crucifixion:  W. G. Sebald would write of it that 'behind a group of mourners / a landscape reaches so far into the depths / that our eyes cannot see its limits.'  Its strange dark sky may seem unreal but may be inspired by memories of the eclipse of 1502, a 'catastrophic incursion / of darkness, the last trace of light / flickering from beyond.'   >> After Nature

1596    In Book IV, Canto XI of The Faerie Queene, published this year, Edmund Spenser describes the marriage of two rivers: Thames and Medway.   >> The spousalls betwixt the Medway and the Thames

1648    Nicolas Poussin's remarkable Landscape with a Man Killed by a Snake: sky, trees and the mountains in the distance are like decor, a (welcome) distraction from the events unfolding at the front of the stage.   >> Landscape with a Man Killed by a Snake, Landscape with a Man Killed by a Snake

1689    Matsuo Basho and Kawai Sora set off on the Narrow Road to the Deep North, traveling into the past, to re-visit landscapes with long held poetic associations.   >> The Road North

1730    Publication of James Thomson's The Seasons, a poem that has been both influential and the subject of much criticism.  Although there are good lines there is 'want of method', in Dr Johnson's judgement.   >> Brightening fields of ether fair-disclos'd

1765    Jean-Jacques Rousseau spends two months on the Island of Saint-Pierre. 'In listening to the flux and reflux of the waves, he tells us, he became completely at one with nature' - Kenneth Clark.    >> On the Island of Saint-Pierre

1820    William Wordsworth published The River Duddon, A Series of Sonnets.  Reviewers were bemused that a famous poet should choose to write about this ‘insignificant river’ with a ‘barbarous name’.   >> The River Duddon

1840     J. M. W. Turner in Venice painting watercolours, including Venice, looking across the lagoon at sunset with its Hodgkin like combination of see green lagoon, misty orange sky and a solitary band of purple cloud.   >> Venice, looking across the lagoon at sunset

1888    Theodor Storm's last completed work The Rider on the White Horse is published.  Its story, based on the legend of a horse and rider that appears when storms threaten the dikes, is about the reimagining and reshaping of the environment.   >> Face to face with sheer mountains of water

1916    Tom Thomson's famous painting The Jack Pine.  A year later he disappeared while on a canoeing trip in Algonquin Park, prompting many subsequent theories about the cause of his death.   >> The Jack Pine

1979     Andrei Tarkovsky's film Stalker, an inspiration for many recent artists and writers on landscape (Geoff Dyer's Zona is a close reading of it).  >> Zona

1999    Whilst sketching in the Himalayas, Xu Bing has the idea for his Landscripts series that combine Chinese characters into landscape compositions.  'I sat on a mountain and, facing a real mountain, I wrote 'mountain' (you might also say I painted a mountain...)'   >> Mountain Rhythm and Mountain Plateau