October 16, 2014

Uneasy landscape listening, post 1: The Otters

“Landscape art has never taught us one deep or holy lesson; it has not recorded that which is fleeting, nor penetrated that which was hidden, nor interpreted that which was obscure; it has never made us feel the wonder, nor the power, nor the glory, of the universe; it has not prompted to devotion, nor touched with awe; its power to move and exalt the heart has been fatally abused, and perished in the abusing.”

That is John Ruskin talking, and actually he would have made an exception for the picture on top, which shows The Holy Island, Lindisfarne, as seen by J. M. W. Turner around 1829 and embellished with some of his trademark atmospherics. But let us not allow such exceptions, as truth must be absolute, and anyway, it is not painting we’re interested in today. Instead let us think of field recording as the landscape art under discussion. Field recording, a genre that seems to come with an inbuilt promise of penetrating something hidden, of catching something fleeting, since we automatically enter a more reflective space through the fact that our supposedly prime sense, vision, does not drown out the acoustic experience. To merely listen seems to offer some kind of meditation on the secret nature of things…and indeed, if we follow Ruskin further, maybe his demands from the landscape artist would be best fulfilled by field recorder: “The artist has done nothing till he has concealed himself—the art is imperfect which is visible—the feelings are but feebly touched, if they permit us to reason on the methods of their excitement.” Just put up a mike and press the button.

And yet once we’ve caught that which is fleeting on our storage device, we’ve hewn it in marble and disconnected it from its natural surroundings where alone it was fleeting in. And if we listen to the sounds in their new, inevitable form and sequence, they become less about place, and more about choice: of selecting certain sounds over others, of wanting to add a history or memory to the sounds or just tag them in space and time. So many choices, so much artistry revealed…field recordist Chris Watson defines the methods of his excitement already in the less than innocent act of listening: “Listening in a positive way, that is actively taking the decision to focus on certain things and reject others, is a very positive and creative thing to do in that it—for me, anyway, individually—it actually stimulates my thought processes, it makes me think perhaps more laterally about problem-solving, or how I can achieve a creative output for something…it makes me think in a different way, that’s why I find it so satisfying.”

This active mode of listening characterizes Watson’s artistry, where events are often so close-miked that they penetrate to the heart of what maybe never existed, but the sounds that surround me here at my desk remain relatively distant. I’m listening to In St Cuthbert’s Time from 2013, “a 7th century soundscape of Lindisfarne,” as the booklet promises. There is of course nothing in the wind and the waves and the birdsong that would tell me it is not supposed to happen right now. Still the sounds suggest a somewhere, and I love me a conceptual conceit, so I gather what information I can from the booklet: about Lindisfarne and its history, 7th century monasteries and the writing of gospels on one hand; Latin names for the birds in order of aural appearance on the other; but not much to connect the two.

So in the 7th century, Lindisfarne, a tidal island off the eastern English coast, was a center of Christian culture, a priory of monks with a high quota of saints living the community life with mutual washing of feet, conquering of human nature, and illuminating of gospels. Watson proposes not a sound image of, but background sounds for these activities: “The production aims to reflect upon the daily and seasonal aspects of the evolving variety of ambient sounds that accompanied life and work during that period of exceptional thought and creativity.” An active selection of sounds that make up a vintage vibe sorted by seasons and cleaned of modern civilization (there’s cattle here, though, I hope of an ancient breed). And yet immediately a historical narrative begins, not in the sense of a story, but as a portrait of the possible attention these holy men might have spent on nature while they wandered alone in solitude. There is a nudge for the listener toward this historical angle, as Watson sends an actor through the aural picture ringing a monk’s handbell. Anecdotal evidence: here probably comes a fellow monk also looking for solitary space to leave the world behind in; let’s walk another way so both our meditations can go uninterrupted.

Which makes me more and more minded to listen to the record in analogy to history painting, not telling a complete story, but adding an interpretation to a story already told in the hope of making us feel something about it. Adding a new perspective that only hindsight can bring. Happily, there is one relatively popular history painting of St Cuthbert, executed in 1856 by the pre-Raphaelite painter William Bell Scott. It shows an event the artist dated to 678: King Egfrid and Bishop Trumwine visiting the hermit to offer him the Bishopric of Hexham. This takes place near the end of summer on a more secluded island called Farne, which Cuthbert had chosen to remove himself one more step from the world, while he kept in loose contact with the brethren on Lindisfarne. (By the way he would choose to accept a bishopric after some years hesitation, but only to Lindisfarne, not what he had been originally offered.) We see him here with an Eider duck as an attribute, a bird that over the centuries would come to be associated with him. Above him the sweep of the swallows in the sky closely follows that of the atmospherics in the Turner watercolor on top of this post… Anyway, let us now devise a narrativity test and play an excerpt from Watson’s summer sounds against the painting and see what happens:

It works very well, doesn’t it? Here’s what Rossetti wrote about it: “The amount of work is very great. I suppose it is the only picture existing, of so definitely ‘historical’ a class, in which the surroundings are all real studies from nature—a great thing to have done. The sky and sea are sky and sea, and the boats are as accurate and real as if you had got such things to sit to you. The whole scene too, and the quiet way in which the incident is occurring, at once strike the spectator with the immense advantage of simple truth in historical art over the ‘monumental’ style…” It is as if he had made the same test to judge the painting, while we’re checking the usefulness of the sounds as a picture of bygone times (ZeitgemÃĪlde in the more layered German term).

Sound artist/musician Patrick Farmer will have none of that. In his review of Watson’s record for The Field Reporter he insists: “This is not a case of a prerequisite willing suspension of disbelief. Nothing here seems to be paraded as a fiction.” Instead, Farmer attempts to take the artist by his word (or his implications), and is immediately stopped in his tracks on a technical point: “Watson states, or muses, that the sounds herein are a representation of the Holy Isle, Lindisfarne, some 1300 years ago. Unease… How is it that one can listen to this over electronic speakers, through whatever electronic device is preferred, and ultimately made, with electronic equipment, the modernist of the modern!” Farmer’s own argument places him in the classicist camp of the modernist of the modern, as he would prefer an utterly abstract purity of concept: “Each time I felt the sounds therein were better suited to an unapproachable, almost playful, sense of abstraction. When I say better suited, I mean I prefer to treat them as sounds entirely distinct from the concept upon which Watson lays them… For me this is abstract electronic music. Leading me to listen as intently as possible to this disc, as sounds, rather than as any form of nature, re-presented or re-imagined.” Unease… How is it one can listen to readily identifiable sounds that clearly speak of the wind and the waves and the birds and pretend they are abstract just because they are rendered through an electronic medium designed to transmit the signals that creative people send us to our ears? (Though actually sometimes the nature portrayed in St Cuthbert’s Time seems to aspire to the condition of abstract electronic music: birds’ song appearing almost quantized in repeated rhythm, and the winnowing of snipe like heavy tremolo effects turned up and down through a pitch-shifter (I’m sure all sounds here have natural causes, but checking the winnowing of snipe against anonymous recordings of the same on youtube, or even against the track “Sunsets” in Watson’s earlier album Stepping into the Dark, they do have incredible electrified presence here).

Of course Farmer is right in his unease, that by these technical means we cannot learn what the monks actually perceived: “Microphones are not ears, and we, at least I, do not listen, and certainly do not hear, sequentially, which to my mind, is exactly the manner upon which the segments are here laid flat… We have a way to go (I hesitantly speculate) before the represented soundworld of In St Cuthbert’s Time is even a relative truth...” Clearly both artists have different agendas: Farmer wants abstract art (which would have to be passively consumed by the mind), while Watson wants to provoke us to lateral thinking (as if we needed provocation). Farmer rightly sees that the methods of excitement do not stand to reason; yet, in the end, saying In St Cuthbert’s Time is abstract electronic music is about as useful as saying that the Waverley novels are concrete poetry. It does away with so much on offer (and in case we are worried by the fact that we might simply mistake this for a pure landscape recording if we just go by aural information without reading the booklet, then that’s ok because in history painting you often need the extraneous information of at least a title to have a clue what’s going on…)

Farmer himself made a wonderful record in duet with David Lacey called Pictures of Men in 2013, the same year as Watson’s Cuthbert. An aggressively figurative title, these pictures are not of men themselves, but maybe of their belongings, their transport and surroundings, and mostly of their abstract electronic music. It mixes sounds of decipherable origins with abstract noise and musical tones at an anecdotal pace. But some of the ingredients are the same as Watson’s, so what could better prove the difference in concept than to compare these sounds under the same conditions. What story will they yield?

I like the interplay here, too; initially it works almost as well in the same way, perhaps the birds are less drawn from nature, but they don’t need to be, as we have them before our eyes. Obviously the topics of birds and sea are filed away more orderly in separate sections. And from the start, the electronically bolstered shape of the wind does seem to tug us toward something of a monumental style, which Rossetti wouldn’t have approved of…

Pictures of Men begins with the sounds of geese and pigs and probably some other animals thrown in agitatedly making noises, while now and then almost cartoonlike bangs and scuffles stir up the commotion further. Are Farmer’s pigs really more abstract because the artists don’t flaunt a concept? Or does the conceptlessness allow the animals to appear as a mere piggish idea of a sound? (Wouldn’t it be ideologically doubtful if the sounds of pigs were mere abstract noises to be used at thoughtless will by the artists?) So here’s one final narrativity test, Farmer and Lacey’s pigs against some of their species that have been abstracted into a landscape:

Hm. (Mama pig remembers the luddite revolution?) The sounds indeed offer more cartoony action but less of the story. Which may corroborate Farmer’s theories. The differences in atmosphere between the two ways of using field recording are tangible: in Pictures of Men, nothing is “laid flat,” as Farmer describes the sounds on Watson’s disc. There is a depth to the space that renders pigs in acoustic foreshortening, that simulates concrete space, there is drama, tension, incident…but as it won’t connect except as a composition of sounds, there is but one historical narrative, as is common with abstract art: the story of a whole being made from its parts, the myth of the work’s creation. Or that is what the review of this record from The Field Reporter suggests, written by Chris Whitehead: “Listening to Pictures of Men can be like finding an old cassette in the loft from 1980. One you recorded sounds on that have long since been forgotten, an early foray into what they call field recording. Some can be recognized for what they are whereas others are dull rumbles or rattles whose provenance is obscure...” Unease… The artist’s recording excavating our own personal history (would we have realized our own past alone?), our own unlearned creative listening. The artistic mindframe during the creative process causing a related mindframe (only passive, but still questioning, maybe spiritual) in the consumer (and do we consumers imagine a greater collection of hagiographies than the story of abstract art?)

The beauty of Watson’s recording actually is more abstract in the details. Just listen to this, six minutes into the autumn: all sounds modeled to perfection in fluttering detail with stunning virtuosity (by nature, by the creative ear, by sleight of post-production?):

The stream does not do it any justice but you have an idea. It’s incredible, each little movement rounded out with loving care. It is also massive, the liner notes seem to say these must be patterns formed by swirling flocks of starlings over their roost?

Anyway, here as elsewhere, the recording is quite dense, in several layers. There is no downtime, no meditation, but over the initial rumble of the sea and/or a dark wind, nicely muffled, very warm and deep, form a stage for a series of events, mostly birds that doing their thing, collective then more confident taking solos, augmenting each other, one group coming in as the other drops out, like the sections in a big band. Sometimes the listener is allowed closer, but what most strikes me is that the landscape keeps sitting in front of my speakers performing—this is no landscape to immerse oneself in. It remains resolutely an other, looking at me, waiting to be looked at.

Might Cuthbert maybe have listened to it like that? Like something outside his experience? Of course, the sounds on the CD perform (like Patrick Farmer said) in a different medium, but as I read Bede’s life of Cuthbert (Bede was around 15 when Cuthbert died and didn’t know him, still he later traveled the isles and experienced the monastery and its surroundings), the otherness of soundscape seems to connect with the story. There are no scenes of communication with nature in the book, but of course we can’t read too much out of that in a 7th-century narrative. Let us instead have a look into what details Bede will offer on Cuthbert: “He was so zealous in watching and praying, that he is believed to have sometimes passed three or four nights together therein, during which time he neither went to his own bed, nor had any accommodation from the brethren for reposing himself. For he either passed the time alone, praying in some retired spot, or singing and making something with his hands, thus beguiling his sleepiness by labor; or, perhaps, he walked round the island, diligently examining every thing therein, and by this exercise relieved the tediousness of psalmody and watching.” And I see Cuthbert staggering around the hills where god does not temper the wind to the tonsured lamb, zoned out, using sleep deprivation as a kind of drug, driving off sleep until he can stare at things in uncomprehending wonder, the world receding from him, standing in the background like a wall of noise. Watching things to relieve the tediousness of watching them…if something is boring for two hours, try it for four…

Reading Bede it appears as if the object of the hermit life was enhancing the distance, losing interest in all things (not as philosophical exercise, but as a kind of depressing fact). Hear this story, from after when Cuthbert had settled over and built a hut on a smaller Farne island to better escape all worldly thoughts: “Now when Cuthbert had, with the assistance of the brethren, made for himself this dwelling with its chambers, he began to live in a more secluded manner. At first, indeed, when the brethren came to visit him, he would leave his cell and minister to them. He used to wash their feet devoutly with warm water, and was sometimes compelled by them to take off his shoes, that they might wash his feet also. For he had so far withdrawn his mind from attending to the care of his person, and fixed it upon the concerns of his soul, that he would often spend whole months without taking off his leathern gaiters. Sometimes, too, he would keep his shoes on from one Easter to another, only taking them off on account of the washing of feet, which then takes place at the Lord’s Supper. Wherefore, in consequence of his frequent prayers and genuflexions, which he made with his shoes on, he was discovered to have contracted a callosity on the junction of his feet and legs. At length, as his zeal after perfection grew, he shut himself up in his cell away from the sight of men, and spent his time alone in fasting, watching, and prayer, rarely having communication with any one without, and that through the window, which at first was left open, that he might see and be seen; but, after a time, he shut that also, and opened it only to give his blessing, or for any other purpose of absolute necessity.” Here he literally shuts himself from the world and its sounds, the main objective a dulling down to offer god an empty vessel? (I love this image of the washing of feet as social gesture like monkeys lousing each other.)

If in a later age Cuthbert would be identified as somebody communing with nature and with a reciprocated fondness for eider ducks (is there some humor involved: eider downs vs. the man who doesn’t sleep), such ideas would fit better into the years e.g. around 1200, when they were lived by St Francis. There are a couple of stories of interaction with animals in Bede, though. For example Cuthbert is banning a bunch of crows after they steal thatches from the roof of his hut, then allows them back after they humbly apologize. That’s more to prove his authority over creation than his understanding of it. And finally there’s one very touching and special story. Bede again: “He would go forth, when others were asleep, and having spent the night in watchfulness return home at the hour of morning-prayer. Now one night, a brother of the monastery, seeing him go out alone followed him privately to see what he should do. But he when he left the monastery, went down to the sea, which flows beneath, and going into it, until the water reached his neck and arms, spent the night in praising God. When the dawn of day approached, he came out of the water, and, falling on his knees, began to pray again. Whilst he was doing this, two quadrupeds, called otters, came up from the sea, and, lying down before him on the sand, breathed upon his feet, and wiped them with their hair after which, having received his blessing, they returned to their native element.” 

Beautiful, but again not speaking of any communication with nature, but god’s way of delousing the righteous man. The illustration I’m showing is to be found in a manuscript of Bede’s Life of Cuthbert, a history painting, too, from the late 12th century. So this is how it could have been:

Except I’m sorry I’m cheating: these sounds are not authentic history painting, they’re merely illustrative. I’ve mixed two scenes from Watson’s Stepping into the Dark (1996) and Weather Report (2003), records whose concepts allow for a closer detail: the former listening in on hidden atmospheres of special places; the latter a stunning wealth of close-up actions forced into a single image. Weather Report is indeed a record that has the “power to move” or “touch with awe,” even if nothing fleeting is caught, but what’s caught is fixed for potential eternity, like the medium demands. And actually, the recording’s method of blowing up detail is also something that should make Ruskin very happy: “The true ideal of landscape is the expression of the specific—not the individual, but the specific—characters of every object, in their perfection… Every landscape painter should know the specific characters of every object he has to represent, rock, flower, or cloud; and in his highest ideal works, all their distinctions will be perfectly expressed, broadly or delicately, slightly or completely, according to the nature of the subject, and the degree of attention which is to be drawn to the particular object by the part it plays in the composition.”

Finally, after all the creative listening, what’s with the monk’s creativity? We remember, In St Cuthbert’s Time aimed to project the “ambient sounds that accompanied life and work during that period of exceptional thought and creativity.” The Lindisfarne Gospels show both the figurative and the abstract. Saint Matthew sitting in a box with a curtain like in a photo booth (with a horn-blowing angel sitting on his head). Little grotesqueries that look like bathing ducks and stuff attached to ornamental patterns. Elaborate decor in wondrously outgrown, completely non-objective initials, like this chi-rho…or wait, is it a bird?

(With apologies to John Ruskin, whose second preface to Modern Painters I’ve taken out of context. The Watson quote is from a video that shows all of his infectious and commanding enthusiasm here. Patrick Farmer’s review is here. Chris Whitehead’s review of the Farmer/Lacey is here. Read all of Bede’s life of St Cuthbert here. And here’s a very nice entry on the illustrations in a manuscript of that life from the late 12th century.)