As a landscape artist, amongst other things, I'm obviously fascinated by landscape and all its ramifications but am also drawn to scenery which is usually one's first impression of a landscape. I spend a lot of time finding locations and 'designing' walks from which to view landscapes. In this way I’ve come to understand more about Scottish landscapes, most importantly from their social, economic and political perspectives.
But I’m intrigued and somewhat obsessed by certain aspects of English landscapes, initially by their unique beauty (I don't know if that's a very 'arty' things to do, to talk about beauty - perhaps I'm becoming sentimental). Through explorations of English landscapes I've experienced delicious moments, hours and days in some of the softest, almost perfect, rural settings one could imagine, particularly in the home counties and East Anglia. But it’s that near-perfection which causes all the problems and thereby lends great value to artistic investigations. I’ve come to understand the extreme pressures on the specifically English landscape and am particularly struck by a notion, articulated very clearly by writers such as Robert McFarlane, Joe Kennedy and Adam Scovell. If you don't know of their work I recommend having a good dig around for interviews, books and blogs and the inevitable trail of links. Here I've picked up on the idea that some of the most probing English landscape art - writing, film, photography - has an essentially unsettling, eerie, uncanny quality and that this might stem in part from the historical shock or trauma of a landscape brutalised by industrialisation and exploitative development policies. We therefore have one reading which assumes an Edenic utopia smashed to pieces by amoral greedy ruthless profiteers and equally that of a landscape sitting on a powerful and resilient substrate of uncanny social history. I'm following both threads with equal fascination. At the moment I’d like to know more about how the industrial revolution in particular comes into play or lies at the roots of this tension.
In the Scottish Borders where I live, dwell, wander and roam, the landscapes would at first blush seem to combine features of both Scottish and English landscapes in their blend of typical or stereotypical pictorial attributes, at times rugged, at times soft. But above and beyond this first impression this is a unique landscape, one that carries heavy baggage of its own, something I look forward to unpacking in my Landowner project.
With my new moving image project, The Landowner, I'm gathering together the last few years' worth of research and experimentation under one canopy. And not before time. This is the first iteration of a landscape project built around a character, a persona if you like, someone you'll find almost anywhere in the Borders, town and country. Landowning in the Borders is a feisty topic. We have two hereditary dukes who own most of Southern Scotland and a raft of smaller toffs, wealthy farmers and other 'private' individuals who carve up the rest. If you live here you'll meet them eventually. Some are wonderful people, some not so much, as you'll find anywhere in any social setting. Above and beyond the individuals what interest me is the established system (and here it is very much established) along with the traditions, assumptions, behaviours and attitudes that humans adopt vis á vis land use, land ownership and of course landscape itself, the wider field of artistic investigation.
In all of this it's important for me to avoid a literal approach to any of the concepts, themes or topics that I want to investigate around landscape. My first short Landowner film therefore leans heavily on ambiguity, uncertainty, disruption, allusion, connotation and non-linear narrative, alluding to some of the tropes and clichés of the eerie, the unsettled and the genre of folk-horror. It's through these different lenses that I've come to understand the disputed, contested and often inexplicable landscapes surrounding me.
I've taken great care with the sound design, resulting from my tried and tested experimental methodology. I'm fascinated by the chemistry between image and sound, between film-sound theory and practice. Future iterations will likely make do with less and less material until I get right down to the bone, the core of what it is I'm trying to do.
When I was looking at an outfit for the role at a very posh country gents shop in Kelso, a well-to-do hunting/shooting/fishing chap burst in dressed exactly the way I wanted. There's a specific 'look' to be acquired. To be honest some of the kit is of high quality, comfortable and functional for long days in the field. I did however pass on the £350 wellies.
Since composing Charivari, which by the way still needs a companion piece to make a publication, I've been sidetracked by lens-based activities. I really do find photography and experimental film-making compelling but have struggled to gather align these emerging practices with the ideas that drive my musical work. But eventually you find a way, an interest in form, environments, ecosystems, evolutionary complexity, layers of sound, layers of meaning, a properly scientific experimental mindset underpinned by a research-driven methodology.
Photography led me (back) to landscape practice on the one hand and the world of objects and human culture on the other. Landscape practice, which in my case fundamentally involves a lot of time walking around local forests, rivers and moorlands, led me to a fresh appreciation of a strand of film-making, story telling and mood-setting that had always appealed to me but which I'd never pursued seriously. This being the eerie, the unsettled, the genre of folk horror, the tales of M.R. James and Nigel Kneale, old BBC ghost stories, the wyrd, deeper understandings of the complexities of the English landscape and rural culture in film and literature. I find contemporary understandings of English landscape fascinating and I'd love to share my reflections sometime on the perspectives of a new generation of film-makers. Closer to home, here in the Borders, I'm caught up in the tangled web of 'difficult' landscapes, the weight of human history, the historical ballads, patterns of land ownership and uses.
It took me several years, ever-emerging, to understand the grammar(s) of film-making and of the kind of films I wanted to make. Throughout that time I rarely worked on sound design, arguably my strongest suite. I couldn't put imagery and sound together successfully (according to my definition) until I'd grasped the difficulties of shooting and editing moving imagery. Shooting films in forests on your own for example can be a messy business and there's no easy or logical way to establish a workflow (a useless word used mainly on YouTube instructional videos). I do have some background in understanding film sound, partly through a strand of my doctoral research where, broadly speaking, I examined possible parallels between film sound, photography and field recording. So here I am again working with recorded sound in both field and studio. The microphones and headphones are dusted off and it's almost time to start composing again. It would of course be wonderful to actually perform some music, but there is currently no local or regional platform for experimental music where I live and trying to break into the numerous cliques, cults and gatekeepers of the new music scene is a thankless task. That needs some work.