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.
Continue reading “Picturing On Land”