Reflections on/ during/ since the Landscape Quartet Symposium. Culture Lab, Newcastle University, 4-5th July 2013. Sally Jane Norman

The following text draws largely on our lively in situ discussions, recapitulating valuable points made by the other participants (the four Quartet members, and other critical friends Rachael Hales, Peter Nelson, James Wyness). It also allows me to clarify notions “brought to the table” individually, as exchanges roved productively across subjective engagements with creative practice and thinking, and cognate theoretical references.

Reflection on notions of place, physical wayfaring and wayfinding, sonic identities and kinship, both upstream and during the Symposium, brought to mind my homeland Aotearoa New Zealand, where a sense of letting the sea- or land-scape voice its songs aligns with the Polynesian belief of belonging to the environment, instead of believing that the environment belongs to us. We’re aware of having washed up as terrestrials in tribal canoes or sailing ships some time during the last millenium, if not during our 500 million year old prehistory when plants and animals began to migrate from the sea to rivers and land. Maori mythology recounts the battle of the sea god Tangaroa, who had to call his children to the ocean depths during a storm wrought by Tawhiri Matea, god of the winds and technology. Regularly since, Tangaroa hurls his waves against the land to try and destroy the realm of Tane, god of the forest, but once the storm has calmed, Tane’s earth children take to the waters to fish up and feast on the children of Tangaroa.

Stories like these, whose lines are recurrently played out and recollected for those who know them, structure modes of accounting for our place in life that need not be exclusively construed in anthropocentric terms. They enrich the ways we “recognise and celebrate the play of intentionality and agency in the world” (Val Plumwood, 1993). For ecofeminist Plumwood: “Opportunities for re-animating matter include making room for seeing much of what has been presented as meaningless accident actually as creative non-human agency. In re-animating, we become open to hearing sounds as voice, seeing movement as action, adaptation as intelligence and dialogue, coincidence and chaos as the creativity of matter.” (2001) Such thinking seems to be gaining impetus in a number of philosophical circles whose conceptual frameworks supply exciting contexts for endeavours – like those of the Landscape Quartet – to integrate unforeseeable kinds of agency into improvisatory creative processes, and to devise new ways of scaling and pacing encounters with non-human forces.

Archaeo- and paleo-acoustics provide evidence of how humans have long selected and worked with different types of spaces to exploit their sonic qualities : certain resonance frequencies in prehistoric chambers influence patterns of activity over the prefrontal cortex, entraining a temporary shift from left to right-sided dominance, corresponding to an emphasis on mood and emotional processing. Often recently rediscovered and parametrised, such sites indicate cultural “tunings of place” that are encountered amongst inhabitants of landscapes ranging from the Steppes to the smallest islands. Indeed, our quest to demarcate special occasions by listening and responding to the environment (as per Cage’s assertion that distinguishing between art and life celebrates and upholds our cultural history of “special occasions”) is ancient and ubiquitous.

Defined as collectively perceivable cultural artefacts, art works for anthropologist Victor Turner provide “paradigms which are (…) periodical reclassifications of reality (or at least, of social experience)”. As poetic constructs, these “periodical reclassifications” affectively as much as effectively address issues whose complexity we can barely grasp by rational effort. Turner suggests that art raises questions that appeal to and consolidate, experientially and cognitively, the sense of shared identity he calls communitas, “a relationship between historical, idiosyncratic, concrete individuals” that allows “flashes of lucid mutual understanding”, of “intersubjective illumination”; these in turn enable new collective understandings and undertakings – thoughts and actions. Live art works exert a particular kind of contagion and sense of communitas in their offering of a singular quality of presence.

Richard Coyne suggests that pervasive networked media have led us – or we’ve led them – to tuning and calibration possibilities that are opening our senses to spatially and temporally specific, idiosyncratic, or downright deviant phenomena: “…the discipline that is so emblematic of order and harmony, namely music, is conspicuously infused with challenges to that order from within. (…) It could be said that architecture and music have long focused on proportion and harmony, but in doing so have manifested the remainder, the excluded, the superfluous, and the deviant. The tuning of place could be seen as a restoration of the discrepant, of the local, a reversion to the unevenly tempered Just scale, or local, diurnal scales of other traditions.”

The Landscape Quartet Symposium offered a privileged setting for listening to materials both sonic and discursively language-bound, for voicing and debating ideas, and collegially reframing questions of mutual interest – in many cases to do with the nature of listening itself. A mix of artistic practice, evident as an installation and as mediated audiovisual and sonic traces, and of speculative theoretical discussion, kept connections taut. Of note were politics of containment of sonic experience, marked by ideals of generically transportable musical canons that have long prompted the building of purportedly comparable (albeit constantly evolving) auditoria/ hothouses to optimally display carefully cultivated artistic species. Catholic zeal of this kind means ab-stracting (ab-trahere – to draw away) music from its physical origins, in order to focus on formal structural traits – Coyne’s “proportion and harmony”, or Wishart’s “lattice logic”: “The formalisation of musical parameters, the lattice of the tempered scale, the rhythmic co-ordination required by harmonic structuration, the subordination of timbre to pitch and its streaming in separate instrumental layers, is in many ways an attempt to negate the impact of the recognition of the source (human beings articulating mechanical sound-sources) and focus our attention upon the lattice logic of the music.” The Landscape Quartet group’s search for instrumentariums in the wild, and ethical commitment to their idiosyncratic tuning demands, contrasts with such logic.

It also raises questions about the profoundly layered, remediated tangle of cultural habits shaping listening and musicking experience that is rife with paradoxes. Mobile, finely tunable techniques allow us to capture resonant phenomena in often inaccessible places, then to conjure up their sonic spectres in familiarly normalised spaces (computer-modeled recreations of Pauline Oliveros’s early Deep Listening experiments, hitherto impossible to enjoy en masse without destroying the original acoustics, furnish a provocative instance of such sonic hauntology). Ultimately, though, how we construe relations between so-called source and derived experiences and existences remains up for grabs – indeed a slippery business when dealing with resonance and ghosts.

The Landscape Quartet symposium has left me happily grappling with some stimulating and knotty questions : What if our yearnings and efforts to celebrate the specifics of place, fine tuning ourselves to local idiosyncracies and discrepancies, were a kind of resistance to the global weave of a standardised, homogenised mesh of pervasive and locative media, which claim to cover so much human experience? And what if the creative results of these yearnings and efforts were primarily viewed to as technical challenges, goading on the incessant development of our extended sensing systems?


John Cage, Michael Kirby, Richard Schechner, 1965. ” An Interview with John Cage”, The Tulane Drama Review, Vol. 10, No. 2, pp. 50-72

Ian A. Cook, Sarah K. Pajot, Andrew F. Leuchter, 2008. “Ancient Architectural Acoustic Resonance Patterns and Regional Brain Activity”. Time and Mind, Volume 1, Number 1, March 2008 , pp. 95-104(10)

Richard Coyne, 2010. The Tuning of Place. Sociable Spaces and Pervasive Digital Media. MIT Press

Val Plumwood, 1993. Feminism and the Mastery of Nature. Routledge

Val Plumwood, 2009. “Nature in the Active Voice”, Australian Humanities Review, Issue 46, pp.113-129

Victor Turner, 1982. From Ritual to Theatre. The Human Seriousness of Play. Performing Arts Journal

Wishart, Trevor, 1996. On Sonic Art. Harwood Academic Publishers

Some of the ideas evoked here are developed in recent publications including:

SJN, 2013. “Contexts of/as resistance”. Contemporary Music Review, 32 (2-3). pp. 275-288

SJN, 2012. “Theatre as an art of emergence and individuation”. Architectural Theory Review, 17 (1). pp. 117-133.

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