Picturing On Land


The ruined tower of All Saints Church, Dunwich, 1919.

I became interested in inventing places for sounds. I often listen to music and get a picture of a certain time of day, a certain type of light. I did that with On Land: for each piece I had an image of a time of day. On Land is specifically dedicated to the idea of creating places in music. — Brian Eno

My recent reading has included a couple of novels by the Strugatsky Brothers, and The Rings of Saturn (1995) by WG Sebald, a book I’d been intending to read for many years. The Sebald is a semi-fictionalised account of the author’s walking tour through Suffolk in the early 1990s, an account interleaved with extended detours into personal memory, history and literature, with the text being augmented by grainy and often indistinct pictures or photographs. The book has acquired something of a cult reputation in recent years, and its digressions touch on a couple of cult areas of my own, notably Jorge Luis Borges (via his story, Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius) and, less directly, the music group Coil, whose Batwings (A Limnal Hymn) is evoked via a description of Thomas Browne’s catalogue of imagined objects, the Musaeum Clausum. Coincidentally, Thomas Browne is mentioned in the Borges story although Sebald cleverly leaves this as something for the curious reader to discover.


Suffolk is itself a curious county, in the sense of being strange, verging on the weird. The place is rich in British history—its situation on England’s eastern shore made it a site of various invasions—and weird enough to almost be considered Weird in the literary sense, even without fictional resonances from MR James (“Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad”, A Warning to the Curious), Robert Aickman (Ringing the Changes) and, tangentially, HP Lovecraft, who took the name of the sea-devoured town of Dunwich for one of his Massachusetts settings.

Sebald doesn’t mention weird fiction and he also doesn’t mention (and quite possibly never heard of) Brian Eno, but Eno’s fourth album in his Ambient series, On Land, was continually in my mind while reading, owing to the intersection of the places that Sebald visits with the titles of several of Eno’s pieces. The most obvious of these is the last track on the album, Dunwich Beach, Autumn, 1960, but equally Suffolkian are Lantern Marsh, and Unfamiliar Wind (Leeks Hills), the latter being a wood situated between Woodbridge and Melton, two of the places that Sebald passes through. Eno was born in Woodbridge, and On Land is as much concerned with unreliable (or semi-fictional) memories as The Rings of Saturn, something that Eno compares in his notes to Fellini’s semi-fictional film about his own childhood, Amarcord. Sebald’s descriptions sent me searching for pictures of Eno’s localities, especially the less familiar ones like Lantern Marsh and Leeks Hill. (Suffolk’s Dunwich is much more familiar to Britons owing to its long history of being eaten away by coastal erosion.) This in turn gave me the idea of trying to find a collection of suitably Sebaldian pictures for each track on the album, pictures that would be generally accurate but might equally be vague enough to suggest something more than the place or (in the case of painter Pierre Tal-Coat) the person in question.

1: Lizard Point


A photochrom. The album may be titled On Land but several of the place names suggest water or the sea, while Suffolk itself is a very waterlogged county, flat and prone to flooding. (The album was also conceived on an island: Manhattan.) Lizard Point in Cornwall is a long way from Suffolk, being the southernmost tip of mainland Britain. This picture establishes a pattern of cropping the original image to a square then applying noise and blur, in part to disguise flaws in the image but also to render the pictures less distinct.

2: The Lost Day


A postcard of Puddingmoor Steps, Beccles. A difficult choice since “lost day” could have multiple interpretations. In the end I chose a postcard with a Suffolk location mentioned by Sebald that also seems slightly odd in the way the figures are standing motionless on the steps.

3: Tal Coat


A detail of a watercolour painting by Pierre Tal-Coat. This was chosen for being abstract yet also being readable as a kind of landscape, possibly a waterlogged one, like Turner’s painting of Norham Castle at sunrise.

4: Shadow


A detail of The Dream (1910) by Henri Rousseau. The trumpet on this track is played by Jon Hassell, and the recording originates from Hassell’s Dream Theory In Malaya album which Eno plays on. In addition to being a picture of a dream jungle, Rousseau’s painting features a figure playing a wind instrument of some sort.

5: Lantern Marsh


A photo print of Walberswick Marshes. I couldn’t find a suitable picture of Lantern Marsh but this one features a suitably waterlogged landscape together with one of the many windmills that used to populate Suffolk’s flat fields.

6: Unfamiliar Wind (Leeks Hills)


A postcard of the place itself.

7: A Clearing


A newspaper photo that represents Weird Suffolk, from a report of the Rendlesham Forest Incident in 1980, one of Britain’s best known (if disputed) UFO sightings. This took place just outside RAF Woodbridge. Sebald mentions Rendlesham but not the incident.

8: Dunwich Beach, Autumn, 1960


And a postcard view of Dunwich beach which may be old enough to be the right date. I had to enlarge this one to match the other pictures, and doing this then adding the grain and blur resulted in an appearance that’s satisfyingly close to some of the postcard-derived works of Eno’s old art tutor, Tom Phillips.

For more On Land speculations see The Haunted Landscape Of Brian Eno’s Ambient 4: On Land by Adam Scovell, a piece which also makes the Sebald connection, and On Vanishing Land: MR James and Eno by Mark Fisher in The Weird and the Eerie.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Synapse: The Electronic Music Magazine, 1976–1979
Fourth Worlds: A Jon Hassell Mix
Mistaken Memories Of Medieval Manhattan
Brian Eno: Imaginary Landscapes
Thursday Afternoon by Brian Eno
Moonlight in Glory
Tiger Mountain Strategies
Generative culture
My Life in the Bush of Ghosts

5 thoughts on “Picturing On Land”

  1. An interesting post and project, and a coincidence for me as I very recently bought a vinyl copy of On Land for the pleasure of the larger format cover (in preference to the CD version I’ve had for years). It remains one of my favourite Eno albums. I should reread Rings of Saturn. I wonder whether one of the Strugatsky books you read was The Doomed City which I quite enjoyed. And I’ve long said that Tlon is my desert island short story, it’s where my website/email’s domain name originates.

  2. The initial quote from Eno in your post reminds us how unfortunate it is that popular music has been so often culturally wedded to the video image. Music has its own power to stimulate the imagination.

    John, which Strugatsky Bros? If you haven’t read it let me recommend FAR RAINBOW. It’s semi-hard to find but there is an excellent English translation published in Amsterdam a few years ago from Freedonia Books.

  3. Thanks, Colin, this is only an offhand suggestion, I don’t think the music really needs illustration since it illustrates itself. The main thing was to see some of the places that Sebald was writing about, especially the Ministry of Defence complex at Orford Ness.

    The Strugatsky novels were Roadside Picnic (a re-read) and Hard to Be a God. Current reading is another one of theirs, Snail on the Slope. And I have The Doomed City in mind for the future.

    The Tlön reference in your site name had eluded me until now!

  4. Hi Stephen. It seems I was writing my comment at the same time as you so I answered the titles question above. I’ve been reading the recent editions from the Chicago Review Press which are new translations by Olena Bormashenko. But I’m interested in their other books as well. The remarkable thing about the ones I’ve read to date is that they’re all very different in style and content; this is unusual in SF, as I expect you know.

  5. The prospect of a new translation is interesting, it may prompt me to try some more of their work then. I found the prose a little uninspiring in the work I’ve read. Whilst writing, the new album from Roger and Brian Eno is out and listening to the samples on Boomkat (https://boomkat.com/products/mixing-colours), reveals a return to the gorgeous miniatures of yore, along with hints of the eeriness that haunted some of Eno’s (imo) best work.

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