We were recently asked to select a few tracks and talk about them for Cut Grass, the music show on totallyradio, hosted by Grasscut.
For anyone not familiar, Grasscut are the landscape-focused, musical duo of composer/producer/vocalist/musician Andrew Phillips and manager/musician Marcus O’Dair. As Grasscut, they have released two albums on Ninja Tune, with their third album Everyone Was a Bird – ‘an album born of footfall’ – recently released on Lo Recordings. Sleeve notes are by none other than Robert Macfarlane.
Grasscut have performed across Europe and worked with musicians including Robert Wyatt, John Surman and the Kronos Quartet. Marcus has also written a highly acclaimed, authorised biography of Robert Wyatt, Different Every Time, published in 2014.
The tracks we selected for the show were by: John Cage, Wire, Vashti Bunyan, Black Box Recorder, Barry Guy and Laura Cannell. There is a host of other great music featured and also extracts of readings by the poet Charles Olson.
You can listen to the radio programme here
We also wrote a piece for the Grasscut blog, loosely based around several themes connecting music and landscape:
In a Landscape
Sound in Spaces
The piece outlines in more detail the reasons for our track selections and pulls in a whole range of other music including: Patti Smith, Sandy Denny, Áine O’Dwyer, Brötzmann & Bennink, La Monte Young and Corrupted. You can read the piece here and/or read a couple of extracts below.
In a Landscape
Silence is not acoustic. It is a change of mind, a turning around.
In a Landscape, a composition by John Cage is, arguably, one of the more ‘tuneful’ of his works. Written for solo piano or harp, it throws a nod towards Satie and borders on Impressionism. The title as an existential statement could hardly be bettered. Not walking through a landscape, but the conscious realisation of (being) in a landscape. It is also worth noting that Cage’s (in)famous silent piece 4’33” was first performed in a landscape. The Maverick Concert Hall is an open-air theatre, on the outskirts of Woodstock, New York, which was built in 1916 to present ‘Music in the Woods’. Kyle Gann notes that there about as many seats outside of the hall, as in, and that oak, maple hemlock and shagbark-hickory trees intrude gently upon the listening space. On the evening of Friday, 29th August 1952, the pianist David Tudor opened and closed the piano list as instructed by the score. The merits or otherwise of the ‘silent piece’, 4’33”, have and will continue to be debated, but if nothing else, our view is that it is an invitation to really listen and become aware of your surroundings. Cage himself notes that the sounds he heard during the performance included the wind stirring, raindrops patterning the roof and the noise of people as they walked out …
Kay Larson says: “before anything else, (4’33”) is an experience.” It is a proposition that says, in notational shorthand: stop for a moment and look around you and listen; stop and look; stop and listen. “Something” and “Nothing” can never be divided.
Perhaps a useful thought for any landscape wanderer to ponder …
We have always been attracted to the idea of the motivated journey, or secular pilgrimage such as Werner Herzog’s walk from Munich to Paris recounted in Of Walking in Ice. The other dimension is the juxtaposition of an idea or image of a place, constructed before arriving, and the lived reality of actually experiencing it. In early 1970s New York, a young Patti Smith, obsessed with the poet Arthur Rimbaud, hatched a plan to travel to Harar in Ethiopia to find Rimbaud’s (imagined) lost valise:
I would return with the contents of the mysterious case, preserved in Abyssinian dust, and present it to the world.
Attempts to raise funding for the trip from “publishers, patrons and literary foundations” were met with bemused nods and Smith concluded that “the imagined secret papers of Rimbaud were not a fashionable cause.” However, Smith did manage to scrape up enough funds to head to Charleville in France, the place where the poet was born and buried. Smith recounts her experiences in a short text Charleville:
“I carried my raincoat and ventured into the Charleville night. It was quite dark and I walked the wide and empty quai Rimbaud. I felt a little afraid but then suddenly in the distance I saw a tiny light, a small neon sign — Rimbaud Bar. I stopped and took a breath, unable to believe my good fortune. I advanced slowly afraid it would disappear like a mirage in a desert…”
A bar where she would feed the jukebox with a: “crazy mix of Charles Aznavour, Hank Williams and Cat Stevens”.
This short book is a combination of the idealised image of a place, carried by Smith and the reality of her lived experiences such as finding the Rimbaud museum closed and bringing some blue glass beads from Harar to Rimbaud’s grave. “I felt that, since he was unable to return to Harar, I should bring a bit of Harar to him.”
Of course Smith’s pilgrimage experience seeps into much of her subsequent writing. The power of place imagined, experienced and carried within:
I gotta move from my mind to the area
(go Rimbaud go Rimbaud go Rimbaud)
‘Land’ from Horses.
The full blog piece can be read here:
All of the Cut Grass radio shows can be listened to here:
Kyle Gann, No Such Thing as Silence, John Cage’s 4’33” (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2010).
Kay Larson, Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism and the Inner Life of Artists (New York: The Penguin Press, 2012).
Patti Smith, Charleville (Paris/Arles: FondationCartier pour l’art contemprain/Actes Sud, 2008).