music, landscape and me
. . . . and then there was ice!
May 2 2012,
The winter of 1985 was a hard one.
For some reason I had decided to travel to west Dorset in the middle of winter to visit a place I’d never been to, Burton Mere near Cogden Beach, on the whim that I thought it may be an inspirational place to go.
I’ve been doing this for some time; packing off on a jaunt to a place that ‘calls’ me without any hard facts that it will prove to be the place I want to be at all.
The story (yes, I’m afraid there is a short one) goes back to a black and white poster I acquired from British Coal back in the ‘70s. Among other coal related photographs, the wall poster had a section of cliff displaying many layers of stratification. The poster was on the back of my bedroom door and bewitched me from the moment I put it up. I examined its every detail, from the shore to the cliffs, feeling my way around the rugged contours with my imagination. Originally, my interest in obtaining the poster was the fossils to be found in coal but this section of coastline, incidentally illustrated on the poster (for geological reasons I didn’t know at the time) stimulated my imagination and emotions in ways hitherto unknown to me.
Unfortunately there was no indication of where the location was. I committed the picture to memory – its feel and contours – for future reference.
Some time later whilst looking through reference books in the British Geological Museum Library (for which I obtained special permission, being a minor), I randomly happened upon a photograph of the same cliffs. I knew immediately this was the place; every fibre and sense in my body resonated with delight. What’s more, the book told me exactly where it was; Church Cliffs, Lyme Regis, Dorset. Henceforth my love affair with the county began. I shall make reference to this place in future articles. I was 13 at the time.
This brings me back to why I was visiting Burton Mere in the winter of 1985. I was drawn to explore because I had ‘felt’ the place from afar and knew it held something I wanted; something that the landscape there could offer.
I was a fledgling composer – full of music in my head and totally unable to write any of it down, as I knew nothing about music at all, just that it was running through my veins uncontrollably. But by this time, at the tender age of 22, I was quite the developed landscape painter. So I was there, Burton Mere, in the ice, to find subjects to take away and paint. Consequently, I produced two paintings from that trip (as below).
I was alone on this expedition. For company I took my brand new Sharp cassette player with headphones (remember those)? Among the tapes I took with me was Tippett’s 2nd. Symphony; a wonderful work full of passion and colour and at times, ecstatic writing like only Tippett can produce (for me, he is the musical English Ecstatic). However, due to the conditions and where I was walking at the time, one movement of this work, the 2nd., slow movement, adagio molto e tranquillo, resonated with the landscape and conditions. The impressions it left have stayed with me, unchanged all these years.
Beauty in austerity
The ice cold of that day was echoed in this music; the metallic, brittle sound of trumpets and percussion created the ‘coldest’ music I had ever heard whilst the occasional interludes of luminous, swaying strings brought a warmth that was much needed. Yet this music was neither ‘nice’ nor soothing nor necessarily inspired by the landscape, but within it’s rugged austerity there was a beauty I recognised and loved. Like Burton Mere, a desolate location, especially in the middle of winter, yet yielding a dignified rawness that spoke of the essence of the place with no frills, no ceremony or affectation. This was ‘real’ music resonating with a ‘real’ place in my body and mind. Somehow, the music and the land together catalysed an alchemy that sent my spirits soaring with a sense of being alive, in the present and connected to something greater than myself; such is the power of music and the land. When I hear the music now, I’m right back there in the blink of an eye; my memories triggered through the senses by the potency of this music.
27 years later, I visited the Mere again and took a number of black and white photos; these are presented at the top and throughout this article. This time there was no ice, the reeds had been allowed to grow back naturally and cover much of the water; the water levels were much lower and the place full of the sights and smells of the cusp of seasons as winter erupts into spring. What hasn’t changed is the sense of isolation, openness and glorious desolation.
Sir Michael Tippett Symphony no.2 – 2nd. movement: adagio molto e tranquillo