The Landlying Project

This is essentially a shameless piece of self-promotion disguised as an extended discussion of the Poetic Collaboration problem. For the past few months I’ve been involved in a collaboration with Julian Winslow, a photographer, on the general ‘theme’ of landscape. Here’s a it of a taste:

landlying pic

The River Medina Feb 2013


Before we go any further, I need to point out that I have been a poetry purist in that I don’t think that the poem should be sullied by other forms of expression. This is primarily because one will inevitably detract from the quality of the other. I’ve felt this since being very disappointed by Hughes’ ‘Remains of Elmet’ in 1979 and there has been little to change my mind since.

So my excuse for the above is that it didn’t start as a poetic endeavour but as an attempt to construct a ‘mix’ of oral history and image in such a way that each element informs rather than illustrates/accompanies the other. Regular readers will know that I have a creative interest in the appropriation of what people say (in formal settings) about things that are important to them and their lives. I therefore determined to interview local people who worked on or with the land. I bought one of those voice recorder gizmos and then gathered about twenty hours of interviews with eight different individuals.

A further creative ambition of mine has been to create something with overlaid/fugal voices in a way that plays with our notions of coherence. I tried this initially last year in overlaying and phasing my own voice reading excerpts of the Saville Report and this endeavour had given me the confidence to take things a bit further.

In terms of collaboration, I’m very fortunate to have Julian Winslow, an outstanding professional photographer, as my best friend. This creative partnership works for us because we respect each other’s respective skills and because we don’t need to worry about offending each other. Needless to say we haven’t produced what we intended to but we’ve allowed things to move in the direction of the material. Talking to people has revealed, in this narrow but eclectic sample, the central importance of parental influence in engendering an interest in the natural world and that one of the first steps into this interest is the naming of things.

For an ego-maniacal control freak like me this was intensely annoying because I wanted people to talk about moments of epiphany and transfiguration and about the placing of the body and about the myriad of processes in the environment occurring at the same time. What people actually said (once I’d let go of my ‘themes’) was far more compelling because it was considered, heartfelt and honest. People did want me to understand their experiences and perspective and were incredibly generous with their time so that I could clarify what was being said.

With this kind of generosity and honesty comes a sense of responsibility. My first fifteen efforts were aimed primarily at technique and pandered to my own preference for the abstract with short phrases that I’d ripped completely out of context and overlaying that too often fell into non-coherence. I then started to give some thought to the wy that polyphony has developed in different cultures and this gave me a new ‘hook’ to build the audio around.

I decided to use longer extracts and to concentrate on what I feel are the most honest and authentic things that people said, things that people seemed keenest to get across, the things that matter to them. This ranged from seeing the landscape as a primary source of education, a site of ecological paradox, a place of interlocking narratives to a place of healing and an ongoing source of child-like wonder. I also tried to honour the multi faceted nature of landscape processes by overlaying the voices so that the listener does have to concentrate to follow one or more particular thread.

The other quite important point to make is the absence of purpose involved in the collaboration. Early on we got accustomed to the idea that we didn’t know where this project was taking us and (after a while) relaxed into that fact and have tried to let it become both a key feature and a technical advantage. I’m not going to get too ‘deep’ about this but I’ve certainly found being playful for it’s own sake has had a significant and positive effect on my other activities.

One of the best aspects of collaboration is enhanced objectivity, as a fully fledged bipolar suffering artiste I have this inbuilt tendency to destroy almost everything within two days of making it. I now have to explain to Julian why stuff isn’t any good and this (it turns out) means that I keep much more- and I have a range of non-depressive reasons for doing this. This has also led to a reconsideration of ‘failure’- previously I’ve judged my output in terms of its proximity to what I want to achieve and rejected anything that was remotely wide of the mark. Now, I find I’m taking an interest in those things that turn out different and trying to work out why this is and what might be done with them.

We now come to the music, I really struggled with the use of recorded music initially but the reaction thus far has been that the minimal/repetitionist music of Lawrence Crane and the monotone trumpets of South Sudan do help to ‘frame the audio in a way that is (oddly) more involving on the ear.

In conclusion, Id like to thank those who contributed so much of their time- Irene Fletcher, Mary King, Chris Kidd, Tim Johnson, Julian Winslow, Max Hastings, David Biles, Keri Highland and Ian Boyd.

Feedback on any of this would be much appreciated. On the audio track below, things start with 10 seconds of almost deliberate silence.

Medina river Feb 2013

Medina river Feb 2013

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7 responses to “The Landlying Project

  1. This is amazing, I will try to be coherent and reflective at some point but for now I am just enjoying being your very pleased and proud daughter. Julian’s images are amazing. There is one on his page which looks like it was taken underwater. They are wonderful complements / counterpoints to the audio. Much love, froglet x

  2. PS in an act of shameless self plugging (but not totally random) here is a thing I wrote about places and prehistory and books and journeys with you and Mum into landscapes alive with the past: http://girlwithtrowel.wordpress.com/2011/03/29/childhood-books-prehistory-and-place/

  3. Wonderful, John, wonderful. I admit I’m something of a sucker for this kind of stuff. It takes me back to those early Steve Reich pieces—like ‘Come out’—though perhaps there is a different aesthetics at work, different goals, etc. Though Lawrence Crain must have roots in Reich and Philip Glass and Terry Reilly. (Morton Feldman, John Cage). Obviously these pieces need some type of minimalist music. I liked the way you used both the Crain and the horn music. The second piece, though, is more successful with its involvement with silence, which these ‘crowded’ pieces do seem to me to be seeking. They place you in the middle of a loud party where you know absolutely no one. Might as well be invisible. No one is listening to anybody—and listen is all we can do. We listen. We follow a thread of words, only to lose it to another thread. It has the effect of emptying the words of what most of us would say is the primary use for words—like saying something that has some meaning to someone. I think it fair to say that we can’t mean meaninglessness—nor can we hear silence—but we can use words to approach both. These two pieces do that. (By the way, do you think a poem with such goals might be appropriately titled “The Silence of the iambs’?)
    Ahem. I’ll move quickly on.
    How about landscapes? Do these word mountains and word valleys and world plateaus, and of course word rivers amount to a word landscape? On top of the pictures they clash, perhaps, but yes, I think they do. In fact, the pictures work surprisingly well. Fluid and still, they suggest Gerhardt Richter let loose in the English countryside—with color. (I went to the Julian Winslow website: there is a picture of a pasture there I’m completely in love with.)
    Are you familiar with Jesse Seldess’ work? Very different from these pieces, but they kind of take you to the same place.
    http://writing.upenn.edu/pennsound/x/Seldess.html

    Finally, for my bit of shameless self-promotion, consider this poem I wrote and posted a little before your stuff hit the internet. It could read like a commentary. No? Well, maybe not. Butt I do think it has similar aspirations.
    http://extrasimile.wordpress.com/2013/04/19/handmaids-harp/

    And finally—finally—the words written down: have you thought of some sort of transcript—it would be an interesting supplement.

    Okay feedback over. I’ll put this old horse out to pasture.
    Jim

    • Jim, once again many thanks for your attention and thoughtful response. I’m still not entirely clear where I might be going with this endeavour but I’m delighted that you like it. I tried Feldman (for the silences) but the pieces that I tried were too detailed – if that makes sense – I’m not familiar with early Reich but The Cave and Street Life were somewhere at the back of my head. I’m also very fortunate to be ‘pushed’ by someone as talented and honest as Julian, without his encouragement and challenge I wouldn’t have pushed this as far as it’s now got. Certainly I’m ‘after’ the noise that we think of as language at the edge of itself in terms of coherence and meaning and this focus is teaching me quite unexpected techniques especially about maintaining a sense of drift that is important to me.
      Ju and I haven’t discussed Richter but we both started with a desire to produce a series of painterly ‘smears’, I recently watched a documentary on his later smears and that’s currently providing food for thought. The words written down is something I’m playing with- a visual rendition is currently on show at the Island’s Arts festival- I’ll send you some images when I’ve got them.
      The theme of landscape is an attempt to work through my own confused and conflicting reaction to being confronted with it, as you may guess I’m not at all comfortable with being less than coherent so for me it is sprung y what others feel and say about those feelings.
      The main worry that I have at the moment is the sheer size of the palette that I have – it took me three months to produce these two pieces simply because I kept working out different methods of production- a completely involving process.
      Thank you again, am now off to things Seldess and handmaids.

      John

  4. John: the Steve Reich ‘come out’ is on youtube.

    • Thank you, food for thought. Still not sure whether it’s this kind of ‘transition’ that I’m after- the phrase (sense) is stated clearly at the outset and I’m not sure whether I’m interested in that kind of quite showy dismantlement. However, you have prodded me further along the Reich/Ligeti axis and Ligeti’s overlooked Nouvelle Aventures which I ‘hear’ as an extended riff on the vocalisation of meaning. I stumbled cross the Berta people’s wonderful horn playing by chance but I’m now thinking more about Ligeti’s interest in African Polyphony.

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