Music that helps to shape landscape experiences (an excerpt)

(music begins at 1:01)

The landscape architect Olmsted declared that ‘landscapes moves us in a manner more analogous to music than anything else’ (Olmsted biography by Martin 2011, 155). He was aware of a fascinating similarity between landscape design and the ‘flow of a symphony’. Olmsted noted how sounds were amplified and bounced off rocks and water surfaces. He even asked an orchestra to play at all the different positions along the grand lake in Central Park to discover the place were ‘that elusive sonic sweet spot’ was located.

One specific genre that is related to landscape design is the late eighteenth century ‘free fantasia’ (Richards 2001). The composition of the fantasia, similar to the predominant picturesque theory on landscape experience at that time, tends to evade clear harmonic trajectories and periodical structure. It treats the musical coherence mischievously, using ‘a mosaic of quick-changing effects, extravagant shifts of harmony and sudden changes of texture and dynamic level’ (Richards, 12). The effect is to become immersed into a structure that is unclear, even undiscoverable. The desire to evade formal structures and clear harmony was debated lively in that time period. Uvedale Price for instance scrutinised ‘Capability’ Brown’s rigid compositions that exercise no space for the imagination. According to Price the design by Brown implied to ‘never exercise your own taste and judgement – never form your own compositions; neither your eyes nor your feet shall be allowed to stray from the boundaries I have traced’ (Price 1794, 278). In contrast to this, the ‘free fantasia’ in music allows to create your own taste and judgement and to stray from the designated path and indulge in fantasy. The picturesque ear as the picturesque eye, ‘pursued a textured and roughed-up beauty which verged on the disorderly realm of the sublime’ (Richards, 12).

The most essential composition related similarity between music and landscape is the aspect of time. Music is experienced over a certain stretch of time, as are environments from the moment they are entered to the time of departure. Both are performance arts that deliver in their composition a sequence of sensations that are composed to become a guided experience. This is different from painting and photography that are static in their relationship to time. Landscape compositions however differ from musical scores by the control over sound occurrences. Without exception sounds in landscapes are without a balanced composition, although the song of birds and the (distant) rush of water and wind could become a coincidental tweed in an otherwise random composition. What is composed in a landscape is not music but a ‘soundscape’ that richly contribute to the sensational drifts within. The term sharawadji was introduced to indicate a specific un-orchestrated presence in an environment, becoming intermingled in a ‘perceptive confusion’ (Augoyard and Torgue 2006, 117, 118). Sharawadji can just as easily be located in urban soundscapes besides the sounds of wilderness. Sounds in environments might be disorderly, they are nevertheless effective in exciting the senses and enticing our logic. They carry the genius loci of a place because they are so clearly the result of active participation of all the superimposed influences in an area.

One musical example that I will discuss in more detail is by the Soviet Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich. The string quartet No. 8, in C minor, opus 110 (1960). This twentieth century composition is related to a human type of ‘sublime’: that of warfare, political suppression and personal agony. In contrast to this stands the classic and natural sublime. Many composers, in search for inspiration and peace of mind have walked hours a day through the woods, around lakes and alongside brooks and valleys (Wagner, Mahler, Sybelius, Bartok or Shubert ). Sometimes folk tunes and traditional songs were quoted as a means to deduct the rituals and local habits that are so deeply related to certain landscapes and natural phenomena. As did Shostakovich. Yet by this specific composition he was commissioned by the Soviet regime to write the score for a Soviet film concerned with the ruin after the bombardment and senseless incendiary on Dresden in the night of the 13th/14th February 1945 (Fanning 2004). It was given the official dedication: ‘in Remembrance of the Victims of Fascism and War’ and contained Shostakovich’s various thoughts on visiting the ruined city. For a few decades the interpretation of an anti-fascism propaganda was confirmed by a musical symbol at the beginning of the fourth movement: ‘four notes are repeated against a low drone: the sound of anti-aircraft fire and the menacing whine of a bomber high in the sky above.’ (Harris 2004-2012).

What is exceptionally interesting about this string quartet, besides its obvious capacity to create a sensational drift, is the transformation in musical interpretation over time. Once a piece on a devastated landscape and ruined nation as seen from a self assured communist regime and half a decade later an autobiographical piece reflecting the impossible and depressive state Shostakovich found himself struggling. The first four note motif, that is actually repeated throughout the whole composition, indicates not only anti-aircraft fire, it contains an autobiographical signature. The notes are D, E-flat, C and B which in German musical notation reads as D, S, C and H, the same letters that occur in the German spelling of his name, Dmitri Schostakowitsch. The performed intensity and position of this motif changes during the composition and thereby indicates a musical narrative, like a catchy tune that allows to follow this ‘character’. According to letters by Shostakovich found after his death in 1975, the composition also contains a quote from a song known to all Russians: ‘exhausted by the hardships of prison’. Like Tchaikovsky Sixth Symphony, the ‘Pathetique’, Shostakovich’s Eighth Quartet appeared to be a suicide note. They were both written by composers suffering suicidal depression. Tchaikovsky did kill himself after finishing his work whilst Shostakovich did not (Harris 2004-2012). Shostakovich composed music to contemplate his own life in ruin and the loss of his first wife Nina. ‘Although Shostakovich maintained that he could never hear the Eighth Quartet without breaking into tears, the work is not self-pitying. Rather its genius is that it transcends individual pain to address all human despair’ (Harris 2004-2012). A serious fantasy.

For the Soviet regime it had to be a clear depiction of the landscape that clearly showed the senseless destruction of one of the most beautiful cities the world had ever seen and for the composer himself it had to be a memoir that was ultimately satisfying, so death could follow. Personal tragedy is reflected in universal tragedy and vice versa. The interpretation while listening to this string quartet can therefore differ by extreme interpretations. It can relate to identifying certain musical movements as bombardments or a rage of fire and it could be identified as the agony of Shostakovich’s personal life repressing his chronic sense of fear for the Soviet regime and still being in grief over his former marriage. With such widespread possibilities of representative symbols or metaphorical references it becomes questionable if any interpretation matters. The fact that this music can bring about so much drift is in itself sensational to human faculties. Can the drift itself not become centralized in the experience of this music? Yes, it can.

The first reason is related to the four tone motive (D, E-flat, C and B). It is a clearly introduced and recognisable tune that is predominantly played by one instrument at the time and therefore juxtaposed against the tunes of the remaining instruments. The simplicity of the four tone motive makes it easy to remember. The sequence of the four tones is in itself already a sensation. These four notes do not belong to the same key. They belong to major and minor keys and therefore create a ‘tonal ambiguity and a corresponding feeling of uncertainty’ (Harris 2004-2012). More generally, a shift from major to minor generates a shift from happy to sad associations. From the first bar that you hear, you are made aware and to remember that positive and negative associations are aligned and equally present. This simple, inclusive and repetitive notion is, as I believe, a strong technique to create a juxtaposition regarding almost any here-and-now situation. This drift sets in at the very beginning and is repeated until the end. The development of this tonal character (or: ‘Leidmotiv’ as is more often used in opera and especially by Wagner) enables to hold on to the sensational drift and curiously follow how this ‘character’ evolves. This technique can be categorised as a mode of conversation between the instruments themselves; as well as a conversation with the audience. By recognising the tune and regarding its development by a concours of passions involved.

The second reason is the division in sections that differ in slow and dignified styles. In the first, fourth and fifth movement (Largo, attacca) is contrasted by the (very) fast, quick and bright second and third movement (Allegro molto and Allegretto). This contrast creates a musical narrative that can be ‘read’ as if a regular story-plot. After a slow start, the second movement is a very fast section that easily portrays aggression or defiance. In a story this would indicate the presence of a disturbance or catastrophe. Next is the more moderate tempo that allows a less hurried perspective in between dramatic occurrences; and finally there are two types of slow and dignified movements that allow to reflect, digest and perhaps even resolve what has occurred. This strong musical narrative offers a development of sensations over time that is similar to landscape experiences and equally multi-interpretable.

One could remain clueless about any appropriate association for the narrative structure and still gain by the experience of having understood the language of music in a fundamental manner. Whatever the precise interpretation, the tempi and mood changes themselves allow to include a wide spectrum of emotions and personal associations. The sensational drift of the music is what is the subject of this piece, not Dresden, nor a last note from the composer. It is an open invitation to allow your personal reflections to pass by, every time anew. A capacity that is equaled by those landscapes that conjure sensational drifts, different in tempi and moods (harmonious as well as dissonant), aligned by a walk and a few clear moments of insight.

Augoyard, Jean-Francois (ed.), and Henry (ed.) Torgue. 2006. Sonic experience – A guide to Everyday Sounds: McGill-Queen’s University Press.
Fanning, David. 2004. Shostakovich: String Quartet No. 8. Aldershot, England: Ashgate Publishing.
Harris, Stephen. 2004-2012. quartet no. 8. Shostakovich: the string quartets. Accessed january 2, 2012.
Martin, Justin. 2011. Genius of Place, the life of Frederick Law Olmsted, Abolitionist, Conservationist, and Designer of Central Park. Philadelphia: Da Capo Press Books.
Price, Uvedale. 1794. An Essay on the picturesque as compared with the sublime and beautiful. London.
Richards, Annette. 2001. The Free Fantasia and the Musical Picturesque. Edited by Jeffrey Kallberg, Anthony Newcomb and Ruth Solie, New perspectives in music history and criticism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.