What no ‘Skying’? Some Landscapes, is a British blog which “highlights ways in which landscape has been evoked, depicted or transformed in painting, photography, literature, music and film”, and they recently counted down the best examples of music relating to landscape from the last 12 months.
(1) The obvious place to begin is with Chris Watson, whose El Tren Fantasma, based on recordings of the old Mexican ghost train, has been widely praised. The soundscape is not restricted to the railway tracks, as you can hear from the SoundCloud extracts below (sections 3 and 5, ‘Sierra Tarahumara’ and ‘Crucero La Joya’). A BBC review describes the wild countryside through which the train passes: ‘brushwood and tall grass sway beneath the breeze crossing canyon slopes, while constant cicada chatter is punctuated by the distinctive calls of woodpecker and crow.’ This was not the only Chris Watson release this year – Cross-Pollination, also on Touch, includes ‘The Bee Symphony’, created with Marcus Davidson, and ‘Midnight at the Oasis’ – recorded out in the Kalahari desert and nothing to do with the 1974 Maria Muldaur hit.
(2) Water Beetles of Pollardstown Fen, was released by Gruenrekorder shortly before they announced the premature death of its creator, sound artist Tom Lawrence. This is a very specific take on a landscape; as one reviewer says, ‘Pollardstown Fen is an ancient, 500-acre, spring-fed alkali marsh in County Kildare, 30 miles west of Dublin, but to listen to these hydrophone recordings by Irish musicologist Tom Lawrence, you’d think it was a well-stocked video arcade circa 1985.’ Whilst Chris Watson’s El Tren Fantasma was directly inspired by Pierre Schaeffer’s musique concrète, the sense in which a record like this qualifies as ‘music’ is quite debatable. Richard Pinnell has written that ‘aside from some tastefully simple crossfades there isn’t any editing, enhancements or attempts to sculpt these recordings into anything more than the remarkable audio photographs that they are.’
(3) On a different scale entirely, I think it is relevant here to mention Björk’s Biophilia, a multi-media project of cosmic ambition based on elements of nature and the landscape, like the sound of thunder and the cycles of the moon. (I think it would be too much of a stretch to include in this list Kate Bush and her fifty words for snow…) Björk’s live shows have featured new instruments devised for the project – the track ‘Solstice’ for example evokes the rotation of the Earth through the rather beautiful sound of a pendulum harp. The accompanying iPad apps makes me wonder how far these could be used to develop new genres of landscape art. But despite the involvement of Sir David Attenborough, no less, these still sound limited: the app for ‘Crystalline’ for example comes with ‘a game, in which you collect crystals in a tunnel as the song plays.’ We just stuck to buying the actual album.