Sounds in the Landscape

Posted on 30th June 2014 by admin

I learned a new word quite recently (which probably just shows how hopelessly behind the times I am): psycho-geography!

Unaware that I have been reading psycho-geographical books for years: I am a big fan of W.G.Sebald, especially his seminal work, The Rings of Saturn. In it he traverses East Anglia and Suffolk and, as he travels, he reflects on questions of place and history prompted by the land, the interaction of human and landscape and their impacts on one another. It is an unforgettable book and has influenced how I experience place ever since. I would go so far as to say that East Neuk Festival is the way it is because of Sebald. Since our very first year we have sought ways both to marry something of our own with East Fife – the music and wonderful artists – but also to respond to the places and histories, lost and present, that are already there. We have done it through film, music, exhibition, writing, music and each year we have found fresh inspiration here. Most recently we have been doing it through LITTORAL, our literature and ideas strand, that brings writers of the calibre of Richard Mabey and Esther Woolfson to discuss nature, place and travel. This chimes well with another inescapable concern not just for us but anyone alive right now: the environment, the future of our planet. In short, environment matters to this festival in both obvious and subtle ways.

Music is not a great vehicle for polemic or debate: there is nothing worse than being told that such and such a symphony represents this or that ideological point and then sitting through the performance straining to make out the narrative among the notes. But it can brilliantly inspire listeners, helping them see the world differently or, in some cases, simply ‘see the world’. Last year we had a special highlight with the UK premiere of John Luther Adams INUKSUIT at Cambo – a sea of percussion woven in amongst the plants and trees transforming the gardens into one of the largest ever soundscapes. As people roamed the garden they experienced it with an added intensity and vividness that was compelling and extraordinary.

Our concert, MUSICAL LANDSCAPES (Friday 4 July) at this year’s Festival takes a different tack. It is a journey North that I would like to lead you on. We start in Iona with James MacMillan’s wondrous evocation of the island and its seas, stormy and dramatic, ringing with bells and thunder. It is exceptionally atmospheric and brooding and needs the utter serenity of John Luther Adams’ …and bells remembered…  to counter it. Adams found this piece late one night. He lives in the far North in Alaska, and the sky was still dusky at midnight. The bell-like chords he played on his piano melded with the song of a hermit thrush outside. Really it is one of the loveliest ten-minutes of music I know. With Les Illuminations we return with a jolt to cities and crowds and above all to a sense of travel. Rimbaud was on the road for much of the time he was writing his 42 poems; and Britten started setting 9 of them to music in Suffolk, but finished in the USA. In dazzling and arresting string and vocal writing Britten conjures a sense of the tenor as a stranger in many strange lands. It is wonderfully dramatic and more than a little unsettling. To close this journey – and counter this nomadic uncertainty – I looked North once more, to a composer whose work is inextricably rooted in his native landscape, Sibelius. Plenty of ink has been spilled by people seeking to analyse Sibelius’s Finnishness in musical terms. I shan’t – I believe you can simply sense it in every note and bar. One thing is for sure: this is not a piece you can follow with anything else – the perfect ending.

Creating programmes like this is a very intuitive business. I always set out by listening to huge amounts of music, repetitious listening to allow different pieces to acquire a kind of weight and mass in my mind – like a selection of objects to be arranged on a shelf, each with its own colours, textures and flavours. Gradually the optimum arrangement emerges and there is always a clinching moment when I feel that I have got it. To me these four pieces act here to form a delicately balanced structure, cantilevered against each other.

I hope you enjoy it.