When does environment become landscape, and vice versa, at what point do they interleave, and what are the useful distinctions to be drawn? Where is performance, and when does documentation become art? When does ‘working together’ as an ensemble start? — is it at the point where two people walk together in silence through local woods, deep in individual thought; or when they work together to construct an instrument for one of them to play; or when they stand, knee deep, in either a rushing river or summer corn, enticing violins or flute to respond sonically to the elements; or when they gather in an anonymous, well-worn university performance space (part studio, part concert hall) to talk, share, and present their work in progress? Memories and personal histories are so embedded in the places that matter, or come to matter, that making ensemble work from response to landscape surely involves addressing a human counterpoint of different sensibilities and contexts, and means working to address this landscape, too?

These are brief reflections on the Landscape Quartet symposium held at the University of Surrey (12–13 October 2013) at which I was a respondent along with sound artist, Max Eastley. It was a companionable weekend of listening, rain and sandwiches, and of sounds carried on the wind. I returned enthused by the progress of this, as yet relatively new, project and the group’s thoughts on the work they had achieved so far. Part of a respondent’s role is to comment on and offer suggestions as to how the work might move on or develop, but a larger part perhaps is simply to observe, and act as a sounding board — to help reflection. Reflection involves telling personal narratives and anecdotes, and there were quite a few stories related in the course of this brief meeting of minds and sounds. My thoughts here are no more than a simple diary, as I am no theorist. But this is partly a deliberate ruse, since I’m of the opinion that making connections between ordinary, quotidian paths and artistic practice and motivation has its own benefits.

On the first morning I bumped into Max, over a TravelLodge breakfast. As you do when chatting over bacon and eggs, we made friendly but fairly random small talk; but, both of us being preoccupied with sound, we were able to take some short cuts. Max, much of whose work is powered by motors that click and whirr, gave a precise description of the various components of a strange, unidentifiable sound that had caused him to switch rooms. Meanwhile, I had a room with a window looking straight out at a concrete wall, which made for a quiet environment with no real view: an acousmatic tranquillity. We got on to the subject of how, for musicians, telling jokes is not only the social glue that helps in coping with endless hotel stays, but an unconscious part of learning each other’s ‘timing’ and pacing (what ‘makes a person tick’), later to be called on in performance or improvisation. I found this on my mind during animated discussions with the members of the Landscape Quartet, and also on the train home the next day when, crunched up in a standing-room only carriage, I opened the copy of Contemporary Music Review given to me by Bennett Hogg, to read Simon Waters, talking about the un-notatable nuances of ‘touch’ and performance practice.

When is it art, when is it personal discovery, and when is it shared? How much of the performer’s individual sensibility — their unarticulated ‘relationship’ to the physical world as well as their conscious modus operandi is revealed in making, in improvisation, and in talking about it. How does an ensemble form from individuals, and at what point is the sum more than the parts? I am looking forward to finding out how the group, still somewhat separate identities who configure performances in various combinations, will continue to find routes and paths towards further collaboration. It’s an exciting point in the group’s formation, I think.

For an observer it’s easier to see connections between process and identity: distinguishing features that might not be obviously apparent to those involved.  Describing this means getting personal, but I think that’s inevitable when working in, and with, landscape. Landscape is not a passive, surrounding environment. Landscape comes from human endeavour, and invokes personal response.

During the course of describing work-in-progress and then, more informally, discussing more general considerations, everyone told stories about landscape, and of the process of becoming attached to it — in the way that a particular landscape becomes ‘a place’, known and valued. As I got to know the a little of the work of the quartet’s individual members I realized that I was also getting to understand a little more about how personal stories and sensibilities inform practice, and decisions about practice, and in particular the deep connections we are capable of making between self (one’s personal ‘landscape’, as it were) and how we engage with landscape. Sometimes without noticing.

It seemed a natural connection, for instance, that Bennett Hogg — from a farming family, strongly attached to North-East England, with its strong mining history — should be intrigued not only by the elemental forces on which farming depends (water, especially) but the process of delving or digging, making and return. He described his proposed project, to use locally retrieved riverbed clay to forge sounding instruments (pots, bells) that would be flung back to the river and the sonic results captured, and spoke in terms of an acceleration of natural processes. Mining or farming; making, erosion and decay — these seemed a natural sequence of events for a child of Northumberland soil.

One of Stefan Östersjö’s primary methods of sonic exploration is to stretch fishing line from his guitar in long, taut strings that, tethered to a distant tree, become susceptible to vibration by wind or water. Starting from his instrument, the guitar, the long lines make journeys out into a new place, drawing lines beyond normal limits. The next day, as we all conversed over coffee about environment and place, he described how, as a long-distance runner, he often explores a new place by running along a river or path until he is out of the town, in unknown territory. As he spoke I imagined him running, running, and stretching out long, straight lines that gradually acquired more knowledge and familiarity, until they were ‘known’.

Sabine Vogel mentioned how she often bring small objects ‘that matter’ with her from a place, to decorate a temporary ‘home from home’, providing familiarity in transient circumstances. Sharing her work from the Quartet’s Swedish residency, she described spending time in a bird-watcher’s tower, making flutes sound in the wind with the aid of suspended flints, which acted as balancing weights. Her way was to anthropomorphize, speaking of how the wind changed, as helpful or something against her, how a family of ducks had become her ‘friends’. For the concert, she had brought back rocks to play, producing intriguingly rough tuned pitches through scraping their surfaces. Her flutes, now somehow ‘dulled’ on a grey classroom table, still had the flints attached to them by twine because ‘I couldn’t bear to take them off’. Objects and animals become talismans, friends or associates. At some point we all discussed that tendency to ‘name’ things and animate the inanimate — a rabbit’s foot, a named wind, an incantation against real fears. A bell to shake at the grizzly in the woods.

The work presented by Matthew Sansom explored earth and elements from a ‘hands-on’ perspective, as he crouched almost invisible in a wooded landscape, his hands moving in the earth, the sounds amplified and the tactile brought to the ear. He videoed the work, framing the treed landscape in a manner intentionally placing him and his activities in the centre of a larger image, but as a small, unidentifiable and almost absent entity—both subsumed and embedded. He had spoken before, in passing, of how the fens in the area he knew (and in which I currently live) have few public rights of way, and are consequently hard to access by foot. Just as we disbanded he remarked to me again on how ‘you can walk along the main drain’ and see the view, but ‘that’s all’.  I was reminded then of how important being ‘embedded’ inside the frame had been to the work he presented, in which a kind of non-narrative, witness to ‘being’ in a place was fundamental.

The Quartet is developing in a way that, it seems to me, may have landscape in common but integrates subtle differences of sensibility, approach, aesthetic  and personal ‘timing’. These differences make the Quartet, like any ensemble of listening musicians, capable of transcending individual practice, or adding to it. What intrigues me is how the Landscape Quartet is developing work that could move from four people sharing individual spaces, to four people sharing places together.

Katharine Norman 14/10/2013

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