Wednesday, 8 July 2020

Out of Place: on 'And On The Heath'

On songs on my new cassette/download album All Living Can Anyone Be Here.

It’s bound to fail, this impossible landscape

In Landscape Theory (2008) Kenneth R. Olwig writes in response to a roundtable conversation about representations of landscape. In the section titled ‘The “Actual Landscape,” or Actual Landscapes?’, he observes that there is a “consistent tendency to refer to “the landscape” in the singular…”, which is notable given that the roundtable suggests that “…landscape has a variety of meanings.” He goes on to suggest that “…landscape is notable for having a double identity…” it is, he suggests, following Yi-Fu Tuan, a “…‘diaphor’,  because it combines at least ‘two disimilar appearances or ideas’” which introduces a tension that “…derives from the fact that landscape means both ‘domain’ and ‘scenery’”. ‘Domain’ in this context is understood as “…a place, region, or country, or land inhabited by people and it thus belongs to the discourse of politics, economics, community, society, and what i would call the art of place making”, while ‘scenery’ “…belongs to the discourse of the aesthetics of space.” According to Tuan, he reports, “…the diaphoric meaning of landscape… lies not in one image (concretely known) pointing to another, but rather in both - equally important - imaginatively synthesized”. Olwig goes on to suggest that these two meanings are expressed in Dr. Johnson’s 1755 dictionary: “(1) ‘A region; the prospect of a country’; (2) ‘A picture, representing an extent of space, with the various objects in it.’” 

The song ‘And On The Heath’ exists within this “tensive meaning”.

Olwig continues his philological investigation of landscape by discussing the word 'prospect' as used in the first part of Dr Johnson’s definition, which he claims is “…actually ‘an extensive view’ with no particular reference to the practice of making pictures. The use of the term ‘prospect’ to refer to ‘a sketch or picture of a scene’ is in fact minor, and now ‘archaic.’ This suggests that artistic representation was not central to the constitution of landscape…” and that “…what one sees in prospect is a pre-given place that has been constituted through social activity in the course of making history.”

we can’t observe the boundless heath, all we do is point to things 

In 1993 social anthropologist Tim Ingold, in ‘The Temporality of the Landscape’, coined the term ‘taskscape’, to mark an attention to space being constituted as place through activity which takes, or perhaps makes, place.  In tandem with Olwig’s suggestions, these approaches to landscape would mark a shift from a visual artistic representation that places objects in space but lacks the representation of activity which might distinguish what makes the place. Ingold was particularly concerned with the spatial and temporal dimensions of the landscape in human activity as evinced in Pieter Bruegel’s famous painting 'The Harvesters'. 

In any attempt at landscape representation that engages with temporality in the form of duration and narrative as an inherent part of its media form, such as a film or music, human and non-human activity might become integral to the way place is characterised; in song pointing to and describing it, would, in itself represent an impossibility, a ‘visualisation’ which would put it out of place and out of time. From the position of the individual making the representation the place is only ever a subjective construction, it can’t stand in for the supposed objectivity of the map's geometric projection, or the fixity of the Euclidean perspectival view.

In ‘The Plains’ by Gerald Murnane, the landscape of the plains grows quite incomprehensible, as though familiarity engenders more a remove from it.  The landscape is avoided by its filmmaker protagonist, always only ever viewed obliquely, from an angle. It speaks of the impossibility of connection with landscape, it’s bound to fail, representation becomes a distancing, an uninhabitable landscape.

back on the heath, I try to write, the sense of site, invoke the place, the here and now and back in time, in 88 or 73 or 99

It is within this as an impossible ‘constituted place’ that the song ‘And on the Heath’ attempts to construct a landscape representation from the position of an eccentric relation to the place, space and the time, in relation to the non-centrality of the individuality of the writer to the heath of Blackheath.

and on the heath, sirens, police, crows, ducks, and geese

It makes its attempts at visual description, not from impressions captured en plein air as might be the case with landscape painting, but of the landscape as abstracted, oblique views, such as those of Murnane's plainsfolk, as seen in photos and videos I had captured on the heath, as well as from other associated sources.

low edge of cloud, shallow depth of field, forms rectangular, metallic sky, green underneath, and seen between, oblique squinting, ochre sunlight, dull glow diffuse, overcast

As I try to write the sense of place I include a bricolage of eccentric subjective personal and cultural associations, the temporal expressed as a kind of memorial association with the past, a ‘view’ that extends from the immediate present experience of place through imagined and historical resonance. 

rain falls in grey far away

The song started to take shape in January 2020, when I went for a walk to Blackheath, 2 miles from my house. This is not the settlement, the ‘village’ of Blackheath, but the large open space of the heath itself. Already by describing my own activity I’m constructing a ‘taskscape’, the tasks of walking and listening are taking, and here, making place. I was listening to Syd Barrett’s solo album ‘Barrett’ on my earphones, the songs are evocative of a sense of London that largely no longer exists, the grey whimsy of a mid-week afternoon where nothing happens, set in rambling Victorian terrace houses. This particular overcast and drizzly afternoon as viewed across the expanse of the heath, was strongly evocative of this sense, and the phrase from Barrett’s song ‘Baby Lemonade’.

the heater’s on, the windows are thin, I’m trying hard to keep this warmth in…

This line from The Go-Betweens song ‘Quiet Heart’ on their 1988 album 16 Lovers Lane, reminded me very much of my own return to London in the mid-nineties after living in Australia for some years. The band had themselves returned to Australia after several years living in London when they recorded the song, and the line captures the sense of living in draughty cold houses, that of the mundane exotic.

smile with us, in the morning, the best music, we play it all for you

A car bombs past with music blaring from an open window, ‘Keep on Running’ by The Spencer Davis Group, speeding doppler, the effect of the memory makes me think of pop music radio, Radio One, in the seventies, its jingles became part of the soundtrack of the imagined place.

These all speak of an imaginary sense of a past London, within my living memory, again one that doesn’t exist any more, but up on Blackheath, maybe because as a large expanse it's slow to change, as ‘empty’ land, as a heath that’s existed for centuries, and this collage of memory sensations becomes accommodated into the place.

The heath is criss-crossed by roads, main roads, side roads, a hub for traffic from a number of places, local traffic on the side roads intersects with the traffic travelling between Central London and the South Coast on the main road. 

again the same car, driving more slowly, and other traffic, moves toward camera, before indicating, taking left turn, stationary cars, pedestrians

“Blackheath, London.
A for sale sign in a hedge and a parked Mini in view.  A blue Volvo estate car comes into view and the camera follows this car along the road.  Open village green with park benches.  The same car going the other direction. Children on the green. Surrounding buildings.  Again we see the same car driving more slowly.  Other traffic. Volvo moving toward camera before indicating and taking left turn.  Stationary cars and pedestrians.  Car comes into view up a hill and driver can be seen behind the steering wheel.  Car goes down hill and up hill again.”

The process of composing the recorded song consisted firstly of constructing the instrumental track. For this I used a method I first used on ’Sickness Country’ on the Abstract Vectoral Landscapes album.
It's also developed on a few of the tracks on All Living Can Anyone Be Here. I play through a series of juxtaposed slow guitar figures, triggered as loops in Ableton Live. Initially I improvise the lyrics from the various fragments outlined above, which after a few attempts coalesce into some kind of lyric. The final vocal recording is processed live using autotune and slow phasing effects which gives it a haunting quality as it floats across the ground of the backing track. 

The song was written and recorded in January 2020. I tried to re-record it for All Living Can Anyone Be Here in part because I wanted to change some of the lyric and for the production sound to be more in keeping with the rest of the album, however I was never quite satisfied with the re-recorded versions and decided to use the original. While the song predates the others on the album, as it was made before the coronavirus themes that infect some of the record, it is concerned with similar ambient poetics of place and time, and sets the scene formally for the approach I would take for the new songs, and as such seemed to be a good choice as album opener.

No comments: