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.
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:
We approach the village from the North by the coffin road known as Windylaw. A sign indicates that this path was used for many centuries by people to carry their dead to Rosyth Church. Sometimes they would come from as far away as Dunfermline.
The ground is sodden underfoot and standing still you can feel the ticklish trickle of rivulets, running around your boots off the slight incline. This is the first day of reasonable weather for weeks and it feels good to stand under the mottled blue canopy and listen to the murmur of the flowing field.
Windylaw meanders up towards a small copse of trees. We are greeted by the guardian of the forest, a snuffling, wood-hedgehog type apparition which looks like it could have come straight out of Pogles Wood.
A woodpecker industriously loops its rrrrrat-a-tat-tat rhythm but remains unseen. We stand still and stare but there is no dart of kinetic red against gray bark. Instead, one particular tree conjures up a Medusa like quality. The branches appear to move, twisting and writhing like a cauldron of snakes.
Windylaw meanders through the trees and we walk alongside all of the ghosts who have tramped this path over centuries.
How many stopped to make their mark such as Toad has done here?
Once over the ridge of hill, we start to descend towards the shoreline and the village of Limekilns which we can see off to the right. We leave the path briefly to take in the vista over the Forth Estuary.
In many ways a picturesque enough view. Over the farmers fields to the river Forth and beyond to West Lothian. However, no view is ever as ‘innocent’ as it seems so let us tilt our heads a little bit further to the left and to the right. Let us ponder on what we can see…
Firstly off to the left, lies Rosyth Dockyard:
The picture is not great but you can clearly see Goliath’s looming presence of whom we have written before:
“Goliath is the largest crane installed in the UK and part of the most expensive project in British naval history with two aircraft carriers presently being constructed at £3 billion a pop. We have already been told that once constructed, one will be mothballed immediately and the other will have no planes to fly from it. Try explaining this logic to a five year old. The carriers are to be named HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales. The sheer folly, financial carnage and symbolism of this whole escapade is such that it almost fries our collective brain into meltdown. However, very soon we are all whistling and singing Elvis Costello’s Shipbuilding – the Robert Wyatt version naturally – so we can hum the piano solo with our kazoos. This has the desired effect, tames the beast and calm descends. As we walk further along the road, we can gain a better vantage point to look down over the dockyard and see the true scale of Goliath. Our fear turns to pity as we realise that all we are looking at is simply a dumb, beast of burden, a heavy lifter, on which has been foisted the indignity of jingoistic colours, the White Ensign flag and the reek of failed empire. Also lurking down there, somewhere in the bowels are seven decommissioned nuclear submarines, still radioactive and we are reminded of some possibly apocryphal tales of technicians metal-capped boots glowing green in the dark. Isn’t it amazing what can be buried in the edgelands.”
On the same day as our walk (31st March 2013), a number of articles appear in the press to indicate that Rosyth Dockyard has been chosen for a pilot project to break up some of the nuclear submarines, prompting fears it could become a dumping ground for radioactive waste. (Ignoring the somewhat obvious fact that it already is). The one fairly fundamental snag in this proposal is that no site or facility has yet been identified to store radioactive material safely. (It is going to be there for a long, long time). I suspect that our inventory of Empire and hubristic bravado – HMS Dreadnought, HMS Churchill, HMS Resolution, HMS Repulse, HMS Renown, HMS Revenge and HMS Swiftsure may continue to sit and rust for many years to come, hopefully with the nuclear reactors remaining intact.
You can also just make out the Forth Bridges, beyond the dockyard, in the above photographs. The iconic red diamonds of the Victorian rail bridge and the twin suspension towers of the not inelegant road bridge. Construction work is now well underway for a third bridge to join them. It would appear that the existing road bridge has literally become a piece of auto-destructive art. Road vehicle usage, far in excess of what was originally envisaged has reduced the life of the suspension cables and consequently the bridge. (although there is some debate about this). The result will be a new road bridge with an increased capacity to continue to satiate our desire for car travel. Build it and it and it will be filled is the usual outcome of transport policy so perhaps we stand as witnesses to the birth of yet another piece of auto destructive art.
As is becoming evident, the Forth is still very much a working river and from our viewpoint it would not be unusual to see a container ship – the new packhorse of global capitalism – chugging up the central channel to Grangemouth container port to drop off its wares. Alternatively, it could be a British warship off for some ‘munitions and maintenance support’ at Crombie Pier which is part of the sealed off Crombie Munitions Depot.
This is very close to Crombie Point where Jules Verne and Aristide Hignard disembarked from an Edinburgh steamer in 1859 to continue their travels through Fife and Scotland. This journey inspired Verne’s novel The Green Ray.
And beyond Crombie Pier lies the Grangemouth petrochemical plant, Scotland’s only oil refinery. An industrial city of chimneys and cooling towers, belching steam, and when darkness falls, shooting dramatic flares into the sky against a wash of sodium hue.
Chances are that all the cars sitting nose to tail on the Forth Bridges will ultimately get their petrol from here. Just another nodal point in the network of global petrochem dollars.
OK surely that’s it. But no. Strain your eyes to the far right and another iconic sight can be zoomed into view. The chimney of the coal powered Longannet Power Station. I’m sure it keeps our lights on but is regularly towards the top of the charts in any survey of ‘most polluting power stations’ in the UK and Europe.
Anyway this digression is just an illustration of how a landscape view is never neutral. On one level, yes this is a beautiful landscape. However, this is also a landscape inextricably linked into the ebb and flow of the global capitalist economy or on a more pessimistic note is there any more perfect spot to catalogue and observe the agents and consequences of what George Monbiot calls the Age of Entropy. (Thanks to Liminal City for alerting us to this). At the very least, the psychogeographer can reverse the panoptical gaze of the modern political machine. Standing here we can use landscape as a mirror to reflect back. We can see the war machines, the entropic processors of fossil fuels, how the local is connected to the global. On this spot we can be the watchers. We can see what you are up to and imagine and enact alternative possibilities. (Such as going for a walk!).
We continue our descent down Windylaw which edges the perimeter of the newer built part of Limekilns. A desire path breaks off to the left and we soon find ourselves at the rear of the old ruined Rosyth Church. Records indicate that the church dates back to the 12th century when it is mentioned in the charter sent to the monks of Inchcolm Abbey in 1123. The church ceased to be used as a place of worship sometime between 1630 and 1648. You can clearly appreciate why the coffin road evolved. Even today, the only access to this spot is by walking or possibly by boat. Whilst doing a bit of research, a curious entry in the RCHMS archive records catches the eye. In 1998 a “stray human mandible was found on a grassy area just south of Rosyth Old Kirk burial ground by Mr Walmsley of Inverkeithing. The very weathered and friable bone belonged to a child aged 6-9 years.”
there is none more lonely and eerie than Rosyth, at anyrate at the close of a winter day, when a rising wind is soughing through the bare branches, and the sea is beginning to moan and tramp to and fro over rock and shingle.
John Geddie, The Fringes of Fife, (1894)
Unlike Geddie, we find the church reflecting sunlight on a bright, still morning with just the slightest intimation of Spring in the air. Little of the original structure remains. Only the East gable and part of the North wall. A mort house still stands, built at a later date, to no-doubt frustrate the profitable enterprise of the resurrectionists (body snatchers) who are known to have prowled the coastal graveyards, often arriving by boat.
The churchyard, as in all churchyards, is full of stories. Manicured fragments of past lives lived. How much of a person can be captured when reduced to a few lines of inscription on a gravestone? In many cases, the weather and the passage of time work to gradually efface even this small act of material remembrance. Chiseled stone is returned to smoothness as the distant past becomes literally more difficult to read yielding up only broken fragments and guesses.
This gravestone below is particularly rich in symbolism: the trumpet blowing Angel of the Resurrection; the memento mori skull as a representation of death and the hourglass denoting the passing of time.
This stone was erected in the year of the French Revolution:
We were really intrigued with this one. The reversed numeral “7” in particular. Also the fact that four sets of initials are on the gravestone?
Nowadays, the quiet graveyard appears to be a haven for bird life. During our visit, blackbirds scurried amongst the leaves whilst a robin dotted around the gravestones following us.
One last photo before we leave and its only later that we notice the ghostly halo around the door frame. Saturated light I’m sure but who knows?
On leaving the the graveyard, we head right which leads to a pleasant shoreline walk along to Limekilns. Looking over the water there is even a hint of Glastonbury Tor over in West Lothian. It’s the tower folly of The House of the Binns, Tam Dalyell’s family home. It’s a short walk to Limekilns and as we approach we are reminded of David Balfour and Alan Breck who visit the village in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped:
“about ten in the morning, mighty hungry and tired, came to the little clachan of Limekilns. This is a place that sits near in by the water-side, and looks across the Hope to the town of the Queensferry.”
(Kidnapped, Chapter XXVI, End of the Flight: We Pass the Forth).
We will write-up what we found in Limekilns and Charlestown another day.
Now Playing: Current 93 – Baalstorm, Sing Omega
Alan Reid, Limekilns and Charlestown: A Historical Sketch and Descriptive Sketch of a Notable Fifeshire Neuk, (Dunfermline: A. Romanes, 1903).
Buildings loom over us and persist beyond us. They have the perfect memory of materiality
Longevity has no chance without a serious structure
Stewart Brand – How Buildings Learn
We finally got the chance to have a good investigative wander around the Summerhall building. Just in time before the Edinburgh Art Festival exhibitions close.
Summerhall is the old Dick Vet building (The Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies of the University of Edinburgh) which has now been transformed into what must be one of the most unique art and performance spaces in the UK. (Europe/World/Cosmos?).
A previous visit was during the full-on party atmosphere of the Edinburgh Festival. Archie Shepp was performing in the Dissection Room, blowing his fire music and détourning jazz standards for the animal spirits. Quite a contrast to a September Saturday when you could wander through the building and its environs and rarely encounter another soul. With over 500 rooms, located over three floors, a basement and outbuildings, wandering the footprint of Summerhall is more like exploring a Borgesian labyrinth where encounters and exhibits are chanced upon and randomly discovered. Quite unlike the mapped-out, directional flow of the conventional gallery experience. Even spending most of the day at Summerhall, we still didn’t ‘find’ everything that was here – around thirty discrete exhibitions that are incorporated into the existing fabric of the building.
And what a building. Whispering from the walls and corridors, you can sense the stories and sounds that are soaked into this space. Stories not only of the human, but also the animals who have inhabited and passed through here: the corridors, the stables, the animal hospital, the dissection rooms…
First exhibition stop is the, rather playful, outdoor installation 7×7 by Jean Pierre Muller in collaboration with seven musicians: Robert Wyatt, Archie Shepp, Sean O’Hagan, Mulatu Astatke, Kassin, Nile Rodgers and Terry Riley. Muller and his stellar band of sonic explorers have created 7x7th Street consisting of seven wooden huts linked to a letter, a colour of the rainbow, a day of the week, a chakra, and a specific place. Riffing on these associations, each musician has then created an interactive sound sculpture tapping into their own diverse personal histories to create “new connections of knowledge, meaning and poetry”.
Robert Wyatt’s hut is ‘A’ for the Alhambra, the Red Palace. Monday, the first day of the week, so the day of the Moon.
Inside Wyatt’s Alhambra, everything is under the influence of Clair de Lune. Audrey Hepburn strums a guitar and sings Moon River, Louis Hardin, aka Moondog, keeps watch over the lunar rockets and Neil Armstrong prepares for take-off.
Archie Shepp’s hut is ‘B’ for the Blues and the B-line to Brooklyn. The colour of orange sits well with Tuesday, the day of Mars.
Perhaps our favourite is Terry Riley’s ‘G’ for Galaxies, the colour violet and seventh day of the week, Sunday, day of the Sun. A hut of the Cosmos, the domain of The Sun King,
What is noticeable in Terry Riley’s interior panel is a much reduced number of visual elements. Instead, symbols and motifs are treated to repetition, distortion, diffraction and linked up through connecting space. Much like Riley’s music!
A few pictures from the other huts:
After the jaunty, neo-pop art of 7x7th Street, a sharper contrast could not be made visiting the Old Stables. Tucked in behind Robert Wyatt’s hut, this is the scene of Robert Kuśmirowski’s installation Pain Thing. There is a palpable change in atmosphere as you enter the building from the street. The colours of 7×7 Street leach out of the retina and fade to dirty cream and grey. Flecks of what looks like dried blood stain the floor and an oppressive air starts to envelop and smother. When we arrive in the main room – an asthmatic room – it feels like we are witnessing the aftermath of some post-apocalyptic scene. An animal experimentation zone where something has gone horribly wrong. The paraphernalia and apparatus of the medical research establishment lies around, test tubes, bell jars, pumps and instruments, some scattered on the floor. The torso of a unidentified creature lies on a hospital style trolley, limbs severed, bone sliced through:
This is not a place we wish to linger.
Inside Summerhall, the building retains its institutional air. Long corridors, unmarked closed doors, stairwells and the cell like structures of the basement. Signage still indicates past functions: The Post-Mortem Room, The Demonstration Room, The Anatomy Lecture Theatre. It is a great place to simply wander around, listening out for whispered narratives layered into stone, wood and glass. The fabric of the building is also used to good effect. The original laboratory benches are used for display purposes and basement cells exude a sinister ambience. One room hosts what looks like some restraining, torture chair and in another a dark sticky ooze spreads on the floor, apparently the residue from some long decomposed water melons.
Chance discovered highlights include stumbling into Ian Hamilton Finlay’sFewer Laws, More Examples which examines Finlay’s response to and fascination with The French Revolution. An ambivalent mash-up of principle and virtue, but also fear and terror. Robin Gillanders’sThe Philosopher’s Garden Redux portrays ten photographs taken in the Parc Jean-Jacques Rousseau at Emenonville where Rousseau spent the last years of his life. Each photograph represents one of the ten walks of Rousseau’s last (uncompleted) book Les Reveries du Promeneneur Solitaire (1782).
“These hours of solitude and meditation are the only time of the day when I am completely myself”
The Richard Demarco Archives host a treasure trove of photographs and posters and are a wonderful tribute to Demarco’s visionary approach to curating art. There are legendary documented events featuring Joseph Beuys, Marina Abramovich and Tadeusz Kantor and Scottish artists such as George Wyllie and Jimmy Boyle. There is also a reminder that Demarco would take his productions over to Fife with photographs of Valery Anisenko’s production of Macbeth at Ravenscraig Castle, Kirkcaldy in 1996. A hand scribbled NB reads:
“MacDuff was the Thane of Fife. His Castle lies 8 miles down the Coast”
which indeed it still does at East Wemyss. Now a ruin, the site is associated with the MacDuff Earls of Fife, the most powerful family in Fife in the Middle Ages.
Venus with Severed Leg is a collection of photographs by William English documenting the early days of Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren’s ‘ Sex’ shop. The crucible for the birth of The Sex Pistols and Westwood’s influential punk stylings.
Phenotype Genotype (PhG) is a collection of documents, artists books, object multiples catalogues and other ephemera from 1900 to the present day. Displayed on the original college laboratory benches, it is perhaps a bit strange and even disconcerting to see Debord’s La Société du spectacle and Patti Smith pinbutton badges, displayed like museum exhibits, encased behind glass.
Also in the same room, painted directly on to the wall is The Periodic Table of Art. Executed with a certain touch of humour and perhaps also playing upon what appears to be a fundamental human need to catalogue, and document almost anything into a ‘meaningful’ taxonomy.
The absolute standout piece, however, is David Michalek’sFigure Studies and Slow Dancing. An utterly mesmerising, beautiful and thought-provoking 3-screen film installation inspired by the pioneering photography of Eadweard Muybridge. Michalek works with choreographers, dancers, actors and people from the streets of New York and has filmed them, unclothed, performing various 5 second human ‘actions’ in extreme high-resolution. These 5-second actions are then played back over a period of 7 minutes with every nuance of movement captured on the human body over this elongated time frame. The rich diversity of human form is portrayed across age, gender, ethnic diversity, shape and size. It also raises the question of whether ‘class’ is written on the unclothed body. This is a work that not only enriches and enthralls but helps you to see the world afresh outside of clock time. The work is further enhanced by the (uncredited) soundtrack which is used to great effect to compliment the images. The unmistakable slow breathing of Morton Feldman’s Piano and String Quartet.
Just before closing, we are trying to find our way out when we turn a corner and find ourselves facing the iconic image of Joseph Beuys. It is as if he is walking towards us, puposefully, the reflecting light creating a halo around him. As we leave, it is good to know that the spirit of Joseph Beuys is patrolling the corridors of Summerhall. We wonder if the vets ever treated a Coyote?
Now Playing: Terry Riley – Descending Moonshine Dervishes