music, landscape and me
in the beginning
May 1 2012
I am starting this blog in response to a request and suggestion from my great friend and artist, the fine art photographer, Ian Talbot who recently embarked on an exploration of his images and their relationship to the music of others here.
Where to begin?
It’s difficult to unpack quite how I got where I am now, in my head, musically.
I don’t expect these articles to be a logical or sequential path through the ruminations of my mind and history; rather, a dip-in and dip-out of remembrances, feelings and perhaps conclusions that I have drawn about the relationship between the visual – my paintings and most recently, my landscape photography (as seen here), and my ever driving need to write music.
I have no doubt these links exist within me: My pulse quickens when I see configurations in the landscape that stimulate and this stimulation in turn evokes sounds in my mind. ‘Sounds’ as opposed to music – that comes later – but these sounds are somehow related to and driven by both the physicality of the landscape and the ambience of it. But not all landscapes have this effect.
Beauty is not enough.
In fact, beauty in the conventional sense of landscape quality has nothing to do with it. What drives my sense of excitement about a landscape is the geology that underpins it. For me, the noble Chalk is king, but in general, landscapes formed from sedimentary rocks capture my imagination. I love the Mesozoic geological period for the strata it owns and the landscapes, especially in southern England it engenders.
It is now my life’s work to explore these landscapes and be inspired by them, this, not in any bucolic or nostalgic sense, nor even a romantic one (though these claims are perhaps a little too self-certain). In fact, I’m quite unsure how to define this drive and these responses. Certainly, my music best articulates how the visual (landscape) transforms into sound (music), within my work with the results being perhaps unexpected considering the source of inspiration, but who’s to say that our perception of what a pastoral landscape is evokes only a pastoral style music as valid response?
Having said that, my first profound music and listening experience is with English Pastoral Music and I have to this day, remained deeply in love and affected by the genre.
So, this is where I shall start.
Vaughan Williams’ Tallis Fantasia
I first encountered this piece when I was about 14. I was living in London. I had just started to paint – representational landscapes – this was the beginning time. I knew, even then that I wanted to compose but had no real idea what this was or what it involved, I just knew that my head was full of sounds and these sounds made me feel differently to usual.
My mother was dying from cancer. She loved to listen to music. Both my parents listened to Led Zeppelin, Emerson, Lake and Palmer and Focus – typical rock bands from the 70s.
I don’t know who bought it, but one day, my mother started to play an LP of Vaughan Williams’ string music, conducted by Sir Adrian Boult. Her favourite piece (I know this due to the repeated playing) was the Tallis Fantasia. The music would make her cry. I resented this. She was so ill and the sound of her crying was too much for me. Consequently I tried to stop her from listening to the music. I remember even hiding the LP for a time. This didn’t succeed for long.
Remarkably, as the weeks passed I began to despise the music less. Moreover, I was being increasingly drawn to listen, privately and away from my mother. I subsequently realised I had not only ‘despised’ this music because it made my mother cry, but because it challenged me, it made me want to let go of my emotions of grief and anger too; a threatening prospect as I was desperate to maintain a modicum of control. I became increasingly obsessed. Even more strangely, when listening to the music I was transported away to another place within myself. This place was full of landscape – landscapes a city boy like me hadn’t even seen yet – full of light and air and magnificence. It quickened my pulse and touched something tender inside that made me – drove me to want to paint and especially write music. I wanted to recreate the effect on others that Vaughan Williams had on me. At 14 years old, that is what I knew and it is that which pushed me forwards to become a composer and painter.
The music still has that same power over me now. What a masterpiece!
Ralph Vaughan Williams Tallis Fantasia