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20 March 2012

Insight: music, landscape and the imagination

Ruth Lee Martin Image: Ruth Lee Martin  

'Landscapes are a significant element of creative work, whether they are responded to directly or mediated through the experiences of others,' writes the Canberra-based composer Ruth Lee Martin. She is currently putting finishing touches to her new book of Scots Gaelic songs, written in Australia. The book will include a substantial introduction on the connection between music and landscape.

More 'Insight' features by the AMC's represented artists: Erik Griswold and Vanessa Tomlinson, Gordon Kerry, Drew Crawford, Peter Knight, Jessica Wells, Mark Isaacs.

The landscape gives you the sounds, the sounds give you the words, and the words give you the songs... Steven Wanta Jampijinpa Patrick, Warlpiri Elder1

Landscapes are never blank canvases but are imprinted, carved, scored and demarcated by our interactions with them over the countless years of our histories. In turn, landscapes inscribe themselves indelibly into our imaginations and memories, infusing and pervading our thoughts with their contours, colours, smells, and sounds. We carry them with us wherever we go. Landscapes, therefore, are both physical and imagined, both geographic territories and conceptual constructions, and, above all, a potent force in our lives. In his book Highland Homecomings, about the large numbers of people of Scots descent who make their way back to Scotland in search of the place of their ancestors, Paul Basu comments:

The landscape is never inert, never a material tabula rasa awaiting inscription, but is always already embedded within webs of personal and cultural narratives, memories and associations (Basu, 340).

The connection we have with landscape is a significant one, for much of our cultural identity - who we are, and, perhaps just as importantly, who we are not - is formed at least in part by meanings that are embedded in familiar and sometimes distant places. Landscapes are the repositories for much of our cultural history, as Jacky Bowring states in her article 'Eternal Sunshine: In Search of Spotless Landscapes':

Rural and urban landscapes are the containers of our memories, our 'unwitting autobiographies,' the places which are embedded in our psyche and reflect our 'tastes, our values, our inspirations and even our fears in tangible form (Bowring, 2010, 81).

A component of our past and present, therefore, is our relationship to place - the urban, or rural landscape with its saturation of cultural meanings in which we are immersed, and which contributes to creating who we are, and, indeed, who we are becoming, for identities are not fixed. Our individual and collective identities, while fluid and mobile, are also rooted in place (or places) of association.

For many migrants the removal from geographic place can be an intensely painful experience. Early settlers to Australia thought of the Australian landscape as a vast uninhabited wilderness - unfamiliar, unsettling, and alien in many ways. Hardly surprisingly, they filled their new world with the things that were familiar. They brought animals with them, laid out gardens with plants brought from 'home', and built houses in the style they knew and loved best.

Some have criticised this very human reaction to these times, thinking it insular and narrow. This seems harsh to me, for to look outwards was what many of these people were simply unable to do. For many of the early settlers to Australia the decision to come was not one that was chosen, but was thrust upon them by poverty, that was in some cases extreme and life-threatening (Peebles, 1963, or Richards, 2008).

Landscape from the Isle of Skye, Scotland.
View to Cuillin mountains, Isle of Skye, Scotland.
Photo © Bradley Cummings

Emigrating families on assisted passage endured months in uncomfortable, unhygienic and disease-ridden camps at major ports (such as those in Glasgow and Liverpool) before being loaded onto crowded ships rife with cholera, dysentery, and measles. They endured several months at the mercy of the sea, and many experienced the loss of a child or two during the voyage. A chilling account of the horrors of these voyages is found in a letter from John MacKinnon from Skye who left for Australia in the mid-1850s:

Oh Sandy! Throwing out my two boys into the deep sea, it will never go out of my heart. The youngest died with the measles crossing the line, and the other six days after with a bowel complaint. Disease raged greatly in our ship among children. Fifty-three children died, and two women in childbed, and one sailor. We had too many on board. (Maidment Pamphlets, Inverness Reference Library, accessed 10/10/2011, http://www.ambaile.org.uk/en/item/item_page.jsp?item_id=125711)

On arrival, the new migrants were often split up from friends and companions and sent to work in a landscape that was vastly different from the one left behind. Something that is too often forgotten is that some of these migrants had barely a word of English - for example from Britain alone there were thousands of Scots Highland migrants who came to Australia with Scots Gaelic as their only language, and many immigrants from Ireland, too, spoke only Irish. In this world of upheaval and trauma it is hardly surprising that these people turned to the comfort of the familiar to provide both a sense of security,and of continuity with their past and their histories, both individual and collective.

Landscape from the Namadgi National Park, ACT.
A different landscape: Namadgi National Park, ACT (Brayshaw homestead).
Photo © Bradley Cummings

A remarkable example of the strength of the connection between music, people and landscape, and also of the alien nature of the Australian landscape, can be seen in the life of Scots Gaelic piper and songwriter Iain Archie MacAskill (or John Archie as he was, and still is, known in his family). He was born in 1898 on the small island of Berneray in the Outer Hebrides off the West Coast of Scotland. In 1924, the West Australian government began a group settlement scheme to boost the number of farms in the area and to strengthen ties with Britain.Young men were encouraged to migrate to Western Australia with the promise of an assured living. For the first few years all went well, but by 1931 the farm that John Archie had worked so tirelessly to clear was lost to drought and the depression as the bank foreclosed on the mortgage.

John Archie died a pauper at the age of thirty-six, of pneumonia, brought about in part by malnutrition. The songs that he has left us are full of the pain he endured during these difficult times, and they speak frequently and eloquently of his constant yearning for the Bernerary landscape, which he knew so well and which he describes in minute detail. His songs graphically illustrate the strength and endurance of the bond between people and place.

Gu bheil mi 'nam shìneadh fo mhìghean san uair,
'S trom-shac air m' inntinn cha dìobar sud uam;
Mo làmh air an rìdhleir 's mi sgrìobhadh an duain,
Toir urram dha 'n cheàrn-ghlas a dh' àraich mi suas.

And now I'm lying in sadness at this time,
A heavy burden on my mind that won't leave quickly,
My hand on the pen that is writing this song,
In praise of the green isle where I was brought up.
(MacAskill, 1961, p.64).

Interestingly, his response to landscape clearly demonstrates an inability to relate to the Australian landscape, no matter how lovely, preferring instead to replay detailed and evocative images of home in his mind, as the remainder of the following song attests. He begins by saying:

Tha mhaduinn sgiamhach 's a' ghrian ag èirigh…
An driùchd a' deàrrsadh air bhàrr nan geug ann
'S an eunlaith triall as air sgiathan glè-gheal.
Cha deàn mi sùgradh ri ciùin an àite…
Gach nì tha 'm shùilean gun diù gun chàil dha,
'S nach mòr nach tionndaidh mo chùl gu bràth ris.

The morning is lovely and the sun is rising…
The dew is sparkling on the tops of the branches there
And the birds are flying with bright white wings.
I am not uplifted by the peace of the place …
The sights before my eyes do not engage me
I would almost turn my back forever on them.
(MacAskill, 1961, p.74).

John Archie was buried in Karrakatta Cemetery in Western Australia in 1934, but his intense longing for the Bernerary landscape that he was never to see again was not forgotten by his family. Seventy years or so later, in 2010, after a long fundraising campaign, the family finally had the resources to bring his body back 'home' to Berneray where he was reburied in the landscape he loved so well.

Composers in Australia have taken varied approaches in the construction of musical works and their connection to landscape. Nowadays, Peter Sculthorpe's name is virtually synonymous with landscape and perhaps the first name that springs to mind along with Margaret Sutherland, Stephen Leek, Ross Edwards, Nigel Westlake and Anne Boyd, to name but a few. Other composers too have been attracted to landscape as a source of inspiration for music works. Sydney composer Romano Crivici is one composer who has been inspired by personal experience of the natural environment with works such as Landscapes and Haze, both of which were written on trips to the Outback, while Journey to the Mythical Place was inspired by a trip to the mysterious Lake George just north of Canberra where water seems to appear and disappear for no apparent reason.

Sarah Hopkins is a composer whose works demonstrate a fascination for, and interaction with, landscape in some unusual ways. Her CD Sky Song (1989), which she produced in collaboration with physician and scientist Alan Lamb, features the sounds of the winds of the Outback blowing through extensive lines of telegraph wires. This 'wind organ' produces a haunting and unique sound.

Ros Bandt is another composer with a fascination for place - be it urban or landscape. In her work Mungo she captures the recorded sounds of the landscape around the dried salt lake-bed of Lake Mungo at Willandra Lakes in NSW, with wind sounds that blow through the strings of a constructed Aeolian harp sculpture. She goes further than this, however, as she tries to come to a deeper understanding of this place as both landscape and as cultural repository.

For Bandt the landscape is no tabula rasa but is inscribed with thousands of years of history, full of symbolism and sacred meanings for its Indigenous inhabitants. Through a combination of direct interaction with the physical environment, and with mediated guidance from a Mutti Mutti/Barkindji elder, Bandt gains insights into this specific place, Lake Mungo, on many levels (Bandt, http://www.sounddesign.unimelb.edu.au/site/NationPaper/NationPaper.html).

Landscape is also a recurring theme in many of my own works, and my response to landscape varies. While writing this article I took the time to go through my list of works and I was surprised by how many of them relate to landscape, as it has never been something I have consciously sought. Some works are inspired by direct physical contact and knowledge of a place, such as The Burnished Earth Shimmers for Chinese lute (ruan), inspired by the gentle beauty of the limestone plains that surround Canberra on a hot summer afternoon. House on the Hill, commissioned for the 20th birthday celebrations of the building of Parliament House, reflects the impact of human activity on the landscape. The building itself is a remarkable piece of architecture that nestles into the landscape, rather than dominating it, and is rich in symbolism.

Other compositions are inspired by a landscape of the imagination, mediated through other people's experiences, to which I in turn respond. The power of landscape to insinuate itself into a musical work can be found in my work for four clarinets, Brindabella Blues. When I started to compose this work, I had an entirely different landscape in mind, for this piece was to be a response to something quite different. As I began to compose I kept looking out across the plains to the distant Brindabella mountain ranges, intensely blue in the afternoon light. The presence of these mountains, which provide an important aesthetic aspect to much of Canberra's cityscape, was irresistible. After a struggle to make the piece conform to my original conception, I gave in and Brindabella Blues was created quite effortlessly.

Another quite different response to landscape can be seen in my Wimmera Song Cycle, based on the Wimmera region in Victoria. This work is a musical response to Kevin Hart's poetry about the Wimmera, a place he knows intimately (Hart, 1999 pp. 56-58). Although I haven't been to the Wimmera, I would argue that I have experienced a sense of this place through the powerful and stark imagery of Hart's poetry. This is landscape experienced and imagined though one person, and then reimagined through another.

Three striking aspects of Hart's poem 'Wimmera Songs' that resonated with me were the underlying sense of reverence for this landscape; the intimate knowledge and experience of this landscape that Hart shares with us all through his use of vibrant and sensitive imagery; and an overwhelmingly dynamic and joyful celebration of all that that particular landscape encompasses for Hart. The approach I took was simply to immerse myself in the words, to reflect on them, and then try to represent musically what this place now signified for me through my own musical language.

A fine balancing act for the composer is to illuminate the words and images of others, while crafting, or perhaps it should be, grafting, our own voice into the dialogue. However, the mediation process doesn't just end with the composer, the performers too have an important role to play. Sydney group Halcyon worked hard to bring out both the poetic and musical ideas of this work in its draft form, and, in the process, added their own voices.

A couple of months ago I received a letter from Kevin Hart in which he says, 'I have listened with great pleasure [to the Wimmera Song Cycle]: you have done my poems proud'2. It would be interesting to follow up and see if Hart's perception of the Wimmera has changed in any way by my participation, and the participation of the performers, in this dialogue of place.

And so our relationship with landscape is powerful; so powerful that even when, or sometimes especially when, mediated through the experience of others it has the ability to resonate with us, to help us see things in a different way perhaps, and to inspire further creative responses.

Our relationship to landscape and musical response can be viewed on a continuum, one end being a creative response to an intimate knowledge of the physical landscape, while the other end is a response to a landscape of the imagination. This is a landscape that has never been directly experienced itself, but rather, mediated through the experiences of others. Both approaches to landscape are compelling in their own ways.

In the first instance, the composer/songwriter knows the landscape intimately; is immersed in the landscape, knows the smells, the sound of the wind, the 'feel' of the place, the names of the small hillocks and streams, the grasses and flowers, the animals and insects, and so understands a place in a most profound way. The other end of the spectrum is a response to landscape mediated through the experiences of others. This act of mediating our musical responses enables us, as composers, to bring a broad and far-reaching vision of landscape into our work that not only acknowledges the creative work of others, but also expands our own horizons and experiences of landscape.

Perhaps these ideas go some way towards a better practice of the use of music or elements from other cultures - for this it is not about claiming what is not ours to claim, but rather about referencing the new creative work as a mediated response to the rich cultural knowledge of others.

Landscapes are a significant element of creative work, whether they are responded to directly or mediated through the experiences of others, or perhaps something in the middle. As aesthetic objects we see landscapes as inherently beautiful, but as repositories of our memories and our histories landscapes are far more: landscapes are the source of life; the source of our identities; the source of our songs, for our relationship with landscape is essentially about who we are and who we are becoming.


1 personal communication 7 March 2012
2 personal communication 28 December 2011


Bandt, R. 'Hearing Australian identity: Sites as acoustic spaces, an audible polyphony', http://www.sounddesign.unimelb.edu.au/site/NationPaper/NationPaper.html
Basu, P. Highland Homecomings, Routledge, Oxford, 2007.
Bowring, J. 2010 'Eternal Sunshine,' in Beyond the Scene: Landscape and Identity in Aotearoa New Zealand [eds. Stephenson, J. Abbott, M. Ruru, J.] Otago University Press, New Zealand.
Hart, K. 1999, Wicked Heat, Paper Bark Press, Sydney.
MacAskill, I. A. An Ribheid Chiuil, [ed. Alick Morrison], printed for the editor by Learmonth & Son, Stirling, 1961.
Martin, RL. 'Leaving Makes me Sorrowful', in Antipodean Traditions: Australian Folklore in the 21st Century, [eds Seale, G and Gall, J) Black Swan Press, 2011.
Prebbles, J. 1963, The Highland Clearances, Perguin Books, London.
Richards, E. 2008, The Highland Clearances, Birlinn, Edinburgh.

Dr Ruth Lee Martin is Senior Lecturer at the School of Music, Australian National University. Martin is active in many areas of music composition, performing and research in various combinations. Martin's compositional output is diverse, consisting of works for piano, small and large ensembles, choir and orchestra. As a Scottish migrant, she is strongly influenced by Scottish folk music.


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