Posts Tagged ‘wild places’

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Letting go the lighthouse

September 7, 2014

orford_ness_eadt_no_permissionOrford Ness is an extraordinary place.  A strange peninsula, reachable only by boat and very much like an island in feel, it was formed by the combined effects of silt from the river and sand and stones washed in by the tide.  It’s a unique habitat of vegetated shingle, and is not really solid land at all – the whole shape slowly waves and twists over decades and centuries under the pressures of the tides.  Right next to Aldeburgh, Britten’s town on the Suffolk coast, it lies directly in front of Orford Harbour, which was busy and important port until the Ness grew for miles across it, blocking off access from the sea by all but the smallest boats.

It offers a strange and memorable combination of rare, delicate wildlife and flora alongside dilapodated and sinister buildings left by the Ministry of Defence, who used the site for experiments on weaponry (including H-bomb detonators) from the 1920s to the 80s.  It’s been memorably described by W.G Sebald in The Rings of Saturn, and also by Robert Macfarlane in his wonderful book The Wild Places.  

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But why I am talking about it here?  The ness has been the site of numerous lighthouses over the centuries, the last and most impressive of which was built in the 1780s.  It’s a strong and sturdy structure – but the coastline in front of it has been eroding very fast in recent years.  It won’t be long at all before the base of the lighthouse will be literally standing in the North sea, and once that starts decay and dereliction will quickly follow.  This is why a couple of years ago the decision was taken to decommission the lighthouse and allow it to be gradually reclaimed by the elements.

It seems to me that this is a historic moment.

Looking-over-Orford-ness--001It’s obviously a big change for the people of Orford Ness, who no longer see the beam scanning over the waves, and know that the sea is drawing ever closer.  But to me it also feels like the turning of the tide in a much bigger story.  Orford lighthouse dates from the Enlightenment, when a combination of rationality and idealism gave people the confidence and the means to begin to shape the world in the way they wanted to.  The lighthouse warning ships away from a treacherous coast is just one small example of how men set about subjugating nature, sometimes with laudable intentions, sometimes in thoughtless greed.  Everyone knows now that that story has got us into a perilous position, and that the environment’s power over us and our futures has turned out to be far greater than our power over it.  And now, without in any way abandoning our efforts to use science and technology to make the world a safer place to live in, we’re having to show a much greater humility.  Our engineering capabilities may be a hundred times greater than they were in the 1780s, but the fact is that where they chose to intervene and to build, we today are forced to withdraw and abandon.

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So I was hugely excited when I heard of plans to mark this turning-point with a series of arts events to celebrate the story of Orford, its people and its history, and to think over the significance of the present moment and contemplate the future.  Thanks to novelist Liz Ferretti, who has been a prime mover in all this, I’m now writing a new piece inspired by this unique place and by the lighthouse’s past and future. What will the new piece be?  I’m still turning over lots of ideas, so that will be the subject of another post.  But it’s an exciting project: there could be no more contemporary issue than this.  

Photos gratefully acknowledged:  EADT; Orford Ness National Nature Reserve; Matthew Guilliatt.

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Self-ablaze

April 6, 2014

wild2Last October I found the idea for a new violin piece, reading a book by Robert Macfarlane called The Wild Places.  The book tells of his own personal attempt to get close to the wild, to feel it, think about its history and its value and the various ways in which we have related to it through human history.

At one point he writes about an ancient tradition called shan-shui: these artists, living in the mountains of China admired and revered the unconfined energy of the wild, its continuous coming-into-being. To this quality of aliveness they gave the name zi-ran, which might be translated as ‘wildness’, ‘self-thusness’ or ‘self-ablazeness’.

I was thrilled to discover this idea and make it the focal point of my new piece.  At the same time, with the busy-ness of termtime and then a bout of illness around Christmas, it was a long time before I managed to make any real start on it.  No doubt at some level ideas were brewing at the back of my mind, but they were far from being specific musical ideas, just some vague sense of what the whole thing ought to feel like.  As time passes, the fact that it feels like a very powerful, inspiring idea also starts to become a pressure: if you’re going to tackle an idea like this then you have to come up with something worthy of it…  Finally, in early March I was able to make a start, and (luckily, and quite unusually) once I’d got going the piece flowed with remarkably little hesitation.  I’ve now had the pleasure of hearing Peter Sheppard Skaerved and Roderick Chadwick, the violinist and pianist for whom I wrote it, give a truly barnstorming first read-through, which was very exciting.  I’ve rewritten just one part, where I felt the music slightly lost track of the central idea, and am now looking forward very much to the premiere on Sunday 27 April in Kettles Yard.

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The Wild Places

October 8, 2013

I’ve been reading Robert Macfarlane’s fascinating book The Wild Places, which is both a meditation on the meaning, value and history of the wild, and a search to find the few remaining truly wild, untamed places in Britain.

I was especially struck by one passage:

wild“There is a history that tells of wildness as an energy both exemplary and exquisite. … Such a love for the wild can be found in the Chinese artistic tradition known as shan-sui or ‘rivers-and-mountains’. 

Shan-shui originated in the early fifth century BC and endured for two thousand years. Its practitioners lived in the mountain lands of China, and wrote about the wild world around them. Their art sought to articulate the wondrous processes of the world, its continuous coming-into-being. To this quality of aliveness the shan-shui artists gave the name zi-ran, which might be translated as ‘self-ablazeness’, ‘self-thusness’ or ‘wildness’.”

And: “the wild proceeds according to its own laws and principles … acts or moves freely without restraint, … is unconfined, unrestricted.”

At the same time that I was reading this I was starting to think about a new piece I’ve been asked to write for Peter Sheppard Skaerved, the extraordinary violinist who has given a whole series of amazing performances of Ouija since I wrote it for him last year.  And immediately I read this I knew I had found a starting point.  Not yet a musical idea, but an idea nonetheless, a vivid and powerful one.

The new piece will be called Self-ablaze. The concert is at Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge, next April (27th), and will be given by Peter with Roderick Chadwick on piano (who played piano in the first performances of my flute-and-piano piece Plus avant que l’étoile, beautifully), so my new piece will be in very good hands!