Landscape into music

It says something about the power of music that some individuals fading into dementia can still recognize the music they knew earlier in their lives. Not to denigrate new music, or music one hasn't heard before, but our mental jukeboxes award top chart numbers to music that we have lived with over time. Those DJs making their playlists in our brain are the toughest of critics. They don't care what anyone else might think, "Close to You" is staying in the rotation. Music and memory are linked.

Music and place are linked as well. Stuck at home for the long, claustrophobic months of 2020, I thought about destinations I would travel to. Sheltering in place, music was able to take me on those journeys in my imagination, providing a kind of freedom. I could put on Anthem of the Sun (Warner/Rhino RR1 1749), and I'm right back with my Grateful Dead homies in the hills of Berkeley. Or I might spin the excellent recent vinyl remastering of Hoodoo Man Blues (Analogue Productions AAPB-034-45). Junior Wells is no longer with us, and I've never spent time in Chicago, but I know what being there feels like from this record, and I want to go.

During the Year of Living COVID Dangerously, I have tried to remain productive by composing some new music. This meant returning in my mind's eye and ears to places I love, like California's Sierra Nevada mountains. I have called a movement of a new composition "Sonora Pass." That area, which I first visited in high school, means as much to me as any place on earth. I remember the rhythm of walking there and can visualize favorite spots. There's a music that goes with that. That's what I want to hear.

Music can tell stories—hence the term "program music." Music creates emotions—that is why we have the blues. Music can also generate visual content. Music has the power to take you on road trips, complete with scenic spots. I tried to explain this feeling, after a performance of Mahler's Third Symphony, to conductor Kent Nagano. When I described how the Mahler Third made me feel like I was coming around the bend in a mountain trail, a vast new vista laid out before me, Kent smiled and agreed.

The history of Western visual art includes the subcategory of landscape art. People and museums have always valued work by artists inclined in this direction: Constable, Van Gogh, Turner, Monet, and so on. Likewise, the history of classical music includes composers who are very specific in this regard. Delius: Summer Night on the River. Vaughan Williams: In the Fen Country. Respighi: Pines of Rome. Messiaen and his birdsong. Above all, Mahler. That little bird in Beethoven's "Pastoral" symphony becomes flocks in Mahler. Mahler is about a sense of place not because he titles his pieces My Summer Vacay but because natural landscape oozes out of his music like sap. Those cowbells in the sixth and seventh symphonies are not there by accident. Mahler is listening with his ears' eyes.

World music has always celebrated the intertwining of nature and humankind. Solo flutes and koto in Japan, bowed pipa in China—all have an echo in the beautiful traditions of landscape art in those cultures. The ragas of North India celebrate the seasons and specific times of day. The drumming traditions of Africa and Native Americans summon the spirits of the land and the animals and people who inhabit it.

Some of my favorite examples of film scoring occur when the landscapes onscreen are underlined by the music. When Lawrence of Arabia arrives in the hugeness of the desert and Maurice Jarre's great theme bursts forth—that's a moment that needs no words. When mysterious, soft harp and piano notes play as Jack Nicholson steps out of his car in the dry foothills of L.A. in Chinatown; when the main title theme music by John Barry accompanies a train crossing the plains of Kenya at the start of Out of Africa: These are examples of how pure visual landscapes and music together can tell a story.

There is a connection between the natural world and the terminology of hi-fi. People writing about audio use terms like "air," or "breath," or "space." We don't want to feel "cramped," or "congested," or "etched." We don't want our audio to be "small"; we want it to be "open," and "huge." We want the music to feel "lively," and to "flow," in an "organic" way. We want an audio picture that is "textured," and "detailed." We want to practically be able to see the images of musicians. We praise audio hardware that conveys "energy" but is "nonfatiguing." When was the last time anyone described the sounds in a forest as "fatiguing"?

The photo on this page was shot at Shin Creek, in New York's Catskill Mountains. About ¼ mile farther up from this spot is the source of that small year-round stream. I composed a movement of a musical piece about that spot, titled Headwaters. A few seasons back, it was my pleasure to host the late Art Dudley there for some flyfishing. Art later wrote the liner notes for my recording Tight Lines (Stereophile STPH 022-1/2). I would like to be back on Shin Creek with Art to cast a few more flies. Sadly, it is not to be, but I have music to take me there.

dc_bruce's picture

There's a fairly long article in the AARP (!) magazine, which is available online to anyone:
about Tony Bennett. This is an unexpectedly sophisticated discussion of Tony's life and music, which also discusses -- in some detail -- how, until recently, he was been able to perform despite advancing Alzheimers. Even now, thanks to his wife, he maintains a formal rehearsal routine with his accompanist -- a routine which brings some momentary clarity to his mind. It manages to be simultaneously heart-breaking and heart-warming. One tidbit from the article I did not know was that his late 70s recordings with Bill Evans were not commercially successful (at the time, at least). I have an "audiophile" set of reissues of that recording, which I find truly extraordinary -- without regard to its audiophile qualities. It amazes me that few people "got" the marvelous combination of Evan and Bennett together at the time the original record was released.

jimtavegia's picture

spinning for the last 2 days. What a voice.

jimtavegia's picture

Hope you have another coming out in 2021. Have to be something from home I would think and not on the scale of Tight Lines.

Sasha Matson's picture

...and reading. Only learned about Tony Bennett's medical condition after writing. His voice has been so great for so long! Including that fine album with Bill Charlap and Diana Krall fairly recently. As for a world without live performance- it's getting tough. My heart goes out to the fine freelance musicians who's careers have been put on hold. Though I've heard of recording sessions involving small numbers of players happening, larger groups not. I can hear synthesizer demos of things I have written, but for me that just doesn't cut it- the high point is getting with great players in a fine studio! All Best, S.M.

Ivan Lietaert's picture

There is an excellent book about this topic: Paul Van Nevel's "The Landscape of the Polyphonists - The world of the Franco-Flamands". In it he describes how the undulating landscape of the old Flemish region (in the triangle Bruges - Mons - Boulogne-sur-Mer), is reflected in the music of Josquin Desprez, Dufay, Gombert, Lassus and many others (15th & 16th century).

Jack L's picture


I got a couple LPs of "Pines of Rome" & "Fountains of Rome".

Yea, on playing the symphonic poem of "Pines of Rome", I could visualize the casual lifestyles of Roman country people: kids playing under the Roman pines with elders watching. Pictures in music !!

Also "Fountains of Rome" displayed 4 fountains in the city & country side of Rome at different times of the day: daybreak, morning, noon & afternoon. Picturesque indeed !!

Jack L

tonye's picture

It's in Tidal, as a master. Cheek to Cheek.

Love that Big Band sound with the singers going in that style. Great sound. I always thought that Gaga was wasting her time in rock/pop. And Tony sounds really good, with that cadence, that style of his, that sounds a bit laid back, hear his phrasing and hitting those notes.


Awesome, thanks.