Music has always been connected to its environment, and to the landscape – or the seascape, the cityscape. Environment can shape the nature of music – is it to be played outdoors or in a cathedral, in a club or a car, or through headphones? But music can also evoke the sense of being in a particular setting, and reflect our feelings about those settings. Two things – a concert and a book – have reminded me of that just recently. The concert was by Caoimhin O Raghallaigh and Thomas Bartlett, violinist and pianist respectively. It was in the Purcell Room in the Queen Elizabeth Hall on the South Bank. The book is “The Lark Ascending” by Richard King, a renowned music writer.
I’ll start with the concert, which took place on Friday 27 September.
I’d never come across Caoimhin O Raghallaigh and Thomas Bartlett before. My friend Shane suggested we go along, with a couple more of his friends, Steve and Andy. Caoimhin O Raghallaigh is in an Irish band called the Gloaming, who Shane told me are very popular in their home country. Much as I love Irish music and that sound I’ve called celtic soul, the Gloaming had, until now, passed me by. Thomas Bartlett is a pianist from New York, who is also in the Gloaming, and has played with all sorts of people, including Yoko Ono, the National and St Vincent. Together they have recently released an album called “Zona Rosa” and this is what featured tonight.
“Zona Rosa” sounds like a good title for the concert too. It was one of those performances that took you into the zone: of contemplation, imagination, the landscape. I found myself moving between admiration for the musicianship and thinking about all sorts of other things. Some were music-related, like how their music evoked the same sense of place as the great Icelandic band Sigur Ros, although in a less dramatic way. But I also found myself thinking a lot about the book I’m writing, the follow up to “The Decision”. Working title “Hope Rising”. I’d spent a few hours on it that day and my imagination was still buzzing. The music complemented those thoughts. It conjured up a picture of the Irish landscape, but at the same time gave me space to think about other things. I think others in audience might have found it an opportunity just to shut their eyes and relax after a hard day at work.
Since the concert, I’ve been listening to that album “Zona Rosa” a lot, on Spotify. It is a beautiful, serene piece of work. Never extravagant, but always evocative of that Irish landscape, be it the cliffs and the sea rushing in, or the green hills and meadows. It seems to me that the violin represents movement – the blowing of the breeze, the soaring flight of the seagull (or indeed the kestrel, title of one of the pieces), the furtive movement of a small animal, people dancing. Meanwhile the piano provides the foundation: the cliffs, the rocks the plants, the rivers and bubbling streams. Together they form an entrancing whole.
The depiction of a bird in flight through music, surveying the landscape below, is an opening theme of Richard King’s book, “The Lark Ascending.” I came across Richard, talking about his book, at the End of the Road festival this year. Each morning they have a number of talks in the Literature tent, hidden away in the woods. They are reliably fascinating. I listened to nine of the talks this year. Richard King’s was one of three that, in different ways looked at the relationship between man and nature. The others were Luke Turner, talking about his memoir “Out of the Woods” and Max Porter, describing his second novel “Lanny”. One of the things that all three authors had in common was a view that that relationship is necessarily always evolving. People are part of nature, an integral part. We shape our environment and the environment responds – and shapes us. Right now most of us are concerned that man has abused that relationship over the last century, and especially the last few decades, and that we are now beginning to pay the price. But the theme of the three authors was not directly concerned with those dangers. It was more about how the interaction can never be static. Luke talked about how the practice of “pollarding” (cutting back) trees in Epping Forest helped their healthy growth – a bit like pruning in our gardens, I guess. That has apparently been stopped now – when pollarded the trees can look quite ugly. But they are no longer growing in the same vigorous way. Richard and others talked about the strand of “eco-fascism” which harks back to a purer, halcyon age, which probably never existed. This was strong in the first decades of the twentieth century, and perhaps not surprisingly, some of its adherents also dallied with actual fascism. In “The Lark Ascending” he writes about how these back-to-the-country movements were also attracted to English folk music. And of course factions developed: again the purists versus the evolvers. Factionalism is clearly part of the human tradition.
I found “The Lark Ascending” a fascinating read, both in terms of how people’s interaction with the British landscape has evolved over the past century (partly through government interventions which either increased or prevented access) and how the author weaves music into this narrative. The musical choices on one level are pretty random and may just be some of the music he happens to like. But the choices also make sense: they illustrate his themes very effectively – and they introduced me to some music that I’d never listened to before. That included Stan Tracey’s jazz rendition of Dylan Thomas’s “Under Milk Wood” and the book’s opening suite: Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “The Lark Rising”, a quintessential piece of English “classical” music, which I’d never knowingly listened to before. And yes, the opening violins conjure up that sense of flight, of swooping and gliding, in a similar way to Caoimhin O Raghallaigh in “Zona Rosa”. A little more mellifluous perhaps, possibly reflecting the gentler nature of the English countryside that Vaughan Williams had in mind.
For me, the most interesting parts of the book were the later chapters, which trace the development of free festivals and later on outdoor raves. Both were ultimately curtailed by the forces of law and order, often brutally. They were backed up by draconian legislation. You can blame this all on the conservative forces in society; but there is also an unfortunate logic to the growth of both festivals and raves, whereby they begin quite small and idealistic, become more popular, attract less savoury participants (and criminals), upset the local communities, clash with the police, get stopped. But what has then emerged are more commercial, better organised and safer festivals. The type of events all sorts of people go to – myself included! At End of the Road, the authors always appear at the Rough Trade tent at 12.30 to sign copies of their books. I bought “The Lark Ascending” and asked Richard how he viewed festivals like End of the Road and their interaction with the countryside they occupy. “They charge us a lot for it,” was all he said. I was disappointed with that response and didn’t pursue the conversation any further. I guess Richard is a believer in a more natural, organic relationship between music and the landscape which finds its expression in “alternative” cultures; but as he notes in other contexts, that relationship inevitably changes over time.
The last musical references in the book are to the Scottish electronic band, Boards of Canada. I enjoyed being reminded of their music, which has a pastoral, ambient feel to it, perhaps reflecting the location of their studio in the Pentland Hills, south of Edinburgh. I have a few of their albums from the late 90s and early 2000s. My favourite is “The Campfire Headphase”. The title says it all really. There’s an EP, too, called “In a Beautiful Place out in the Country”. Worth a listen if you haven’t come across them before.
Music and Landscape, I called this piece. Both evolving, both evoking feelings of awe which are sometimes hard to put adequately into words – though plenty of us try! And where words might not always be up to the task in portraying the wonders of nature, of the landscape, music can capture an essence, an undefinable feel. In their different ways, Caoimhin O Raghallaigh and Richard King have done exactly that.