The relationship between music and landscape is primal: almost certainly as old as humanity.
We know that music predates settled human communities, and societies that live now as they have for thousands of years demonstrate musicality that is inseparable from the land they live in.
Perhaps best known are the “songlines” of Aboriginal peoples of Australia, where music literally maps out terrain and landmarks, allowing navigation of journeys and pilgrimages to be passed down through generations.
Hunter-gatherers of the Congo Basin in west Equatorial Africa have systems of singing that act in part to orient themselves and locate one another in deep rainforest or at night – making music that maps the dimensionality of its dern history reference to the land has tended to be more lyrical or allegorical.
Folk musicians would reference the lilt of the ocean or the might of the mountains in their homelands or places they’d visited.
When classical music became romantic in the 19th century, Elgar referenced the rolling English hills, Smetana the flow of the Czech river Vltava, Sibelius the Finnish tundra, and on it went.
But with the advent and increasing sophistication of sound recording and replication technology, it once again became realistic to incorporate the land itself, its feeling and topography, into the music.
Field recordings are frequently woven into music from experimental to populist, and acclimatisation to binaural recording, surround sound and ever better speakers as commonplace now means we increasingly really can hear landscapes in our normal listening settings.
Vitally, too, the shifts in digitisation of music and art through the 21st century have helped dissolve the boundaries between gallery/installation art world and subcultural music making.
Sound art as such is accessible and widespread.
And the way we think about the landscape is a million miles from traditionalist views: in an age of Google Earth, fear of environmental collapse being ever present, our relationship to scenery and nature is complex, problematic and ever-changing.
All of which provides the context for the extraordinary new trio of releases, The Landscape Series, taking the Irish landscape as their starting point.
Irene Murphy, canal recording, Credit: Irene Murphy
Irene Murphy is Irish herself, resident in Cork, and has made a digital work in Not Just Rivers consisting of a 33-minute audio piece, photography and words – also released as a bottled “fresh water ecosystem” with QR code to download the album on its lid.
It’s centred on the flooded land created by a 1950s hydroelectric scheme that destroyed a swathe of primeval forest, while ironically helping to preserve one small corner of the same land.
Natalia Beylis, Credit: Sean McCormack
Natalia Beylis is from Ukraine via Baltimore but now lives in rural Leitrim, Ireland.
Her Prophecy Of The Beetle treats the rune-like patterns etched by bark beetles on tree branches to create a “visual score” for her similar length, single audio piece – which is also released as a physical edition of six beetle-scored branches laser etched with QR codes.
Óscar Mascareñas, Credit: Maurice Gunning
Only the Mexican artist Óscar Mascareñas has made anything approaching a traditional album: his sound work on Burrenscapes is broken into eight tracks and released on a coloured vinyl LP.
It is “a sonic poem about the life of the Burren [a national park in Ireland’s County Clare famous for its rocky landscape], its atemporality, geography, the dense and profound nature of its mountains, and the immense desolation that covers its valleys.”
But his work is every bit as abstract as the other two.
All of them incorporate wildlife, water and other field recordings along woven into gradually unfolding musical motifs.
Both Mascareñas and Beylis use spoken word, too – the former more actorly recitation, the latter, voices that sound like lessons and snatches of intimate conversation drifting in on the radio waves, but both cut up and layered with the other sounds around them.
All three overflow with microscopic detail but are perfectly plotted over their duration – really, they’re all more like abstract radio plays than any particular musical form.
Not Just Rivers is the most “realistic” in its use of field recordings – at times the water lapping and rainstorm sounds sound like something from a relaxation tape, but then either something like swarming midges or rusty metal scraping will break the reverie, or the collaged voices will turn the whole thing dreamlike.
Prophecy Of The Beetle is downright surrealist in its games with scale and the way the non-musical will mutate into the musical and vice versa.
Burrenscapes is the most immediately emotive, its drones and thrums and use of silence provoking feelings you’ll struggle to name, and its ten-minute finale “Mother, Earth” more touching than you’d ever imagine a single chord rising and falling could be.
All of them are magical and reward repeat listening, and all three will indeed make you feel a curiosity about and connection to the land they depict or are inspired by.
Cover Credits: Irene Murphy, Willie Stewart, Maurice Gunning, Federico Bottos/Unsplash
Writer | Joe Muggs
Joe Muggs is a writer, DJ and curator of many years standing, covering both mainstream and underground. His book 'Bass, Mids, Tops', covering decades of UK bass music, is out now via Strange Attractor / MIT Press, and you can subscribe to his newsletter at tinyletter.com/joemuggs.