music, landscape and me
. . . on the third day
May 4 2012
There was more Vaughan Williams.
In fact, the music of Vaughan Williams has played a central part in my own musical life. Apart from the rather glib, ‘I like it’, there are aspects of his music that work on many different levels for me, most deeply personal.
It’s easy to assume that as a composer, one emulates the music of others that is especially admired or liked. It is true that in some of my initial efforts of throwing notes together I was strongly influenced by Vaughan Williams and the English Pastoral School. But I was also aware that this had been done and done brilliantly many years before so what could I possibly have to add by creating more ‘sub-Vaughan Williams’ music: Nothing! I was also aware that copying was not for me; even being strongly influenced by the work of others made me feel uncomfortable.
At this point in time (late 1980s) I had no idea where I would end up musically, only that I was being driven forwards by a deep emotional need to write music; my ‘own’ music, that was unlike the music of others.
Emotionally, the sound-world of visionary pastoral music was my homeland. It had been for some time, especially through the very turbulent times leading up to and following the death of my mother in 1977. Although hard to quantify, I believe that the music I was listening to at the time kept my inner world alive. I had begun painting and knew that my life would never be the same again, but I was also being obsessed by sound and similarly knew that this ‘burden’ as it was then, would be central to my development. I would become a composer. These things were certain.
So Vaughan Williams (and others) offered me hope, light and sustenance to keep going through the gloom, misery and insecurity of much of my teenage years. This hunger for ‘soul-food’ was also reflected in my relationship with the land or to be more precise, with particular landscape and places. It’s clear I have a great connection to pastoral music and landscape but at the same time, would not compromise and emulate this music in my own work. So what was I trying to achieve through my own music and painting and now photography?
This is such a difficult question to answer and I don’t know if I have sufficient command of my inner world to be able to give a definitive statement. What I can say and will no doubt repeat several times across these articles is that the quality of feeling I experience when listening to the music of some other composers coupled with particular landscapes is a keen driving force behind the kind of music and images I want to create. Whether misguided or not, I want to, in some inadequate way, communicate these feelings; recreate them – the wonderfulness, grandeur, warmth, value, desolation, ugliness, beauty, other-worldliness, transcendence, almost spiritual (as opposed to religious) sense of apotheosis particular landscapes as well as music of others engender in me, and re-create these experiences through my own work.
Lofty ideals and I’m not sure if I achieve any of them for I cannot tell what other people feel and think when they experience my work; I can only appreciate the feelings my work initiate in me, and that’s no guide, no guide at all for what others will experience! So, blindly (and perhaps deafly), I continue down this road. It’s the only road I know!
I’ve previously mentioned my love of chalk and shall write more extensively about that later. But for now, I’d like to focus on a time I spent exploring Norfolk in the late 1980s and how this land effected my work, acting as a vehicle to enable me to express through image some of the feelings I have described above.
Horizons and light – big skies – that’s Norfolk in a nutshell! Towards the horizon’s endure. The land goes on and on – the horizon never ends; the skies are so large and heavy they press down on you, sometimes claustrophobically. The land is haunted with echoes of the past. Quiet, changing little, this land has a specific sound, feel and ambience; a very particular look that I can recognise instantly. Norfolk isn’t always a ‘pretty’ or twee place. Certainly around the coastal fringes, vast salt marshes and mud flats it can feel like the most isolated and lonely place on earth. And in bad weather; like the end of the world. It is a very particular place where ‘beauty’ is often found in its loneliest spots away from the picture-postcard tourist dives. This is where you’ll find the beating heart – where you’ll ‘hear’ the music.
As ‘horizon’ is so central to these landscapes and so central to my own visual work (and in a bizarre sense, my music, too), I’m concentrating this article around photographs and drawings that exemplify my feeling of horizon. Not all the work is from Norfolk, but I hope it will be clear to see the common aesthetic thread that runs through my visual work, wherever its landscape is rooted.
And to round off, the very poignant, impressionistic tone poem ‘Norfolk Rhapsody No. 1’ by Ralph Vaughan Williams