Garden Notes

The natural world gives us beautiful landscapes and amazing soundscapes too. Katherine Watson has been deep listening

As we drift through the leaves and gold of autumn, headlong into a long, garden-quiet winter, I can’t help but succumb to a slower, contemplative mode in relation to all things horticultural. And with all things contemplative, one needs a soundtrack to accompany it. My latest discovery in the nature/music overlap is Pauline Oliveros.

Oliveros is a musician/composer who pioneered the art of ‘Deep Listening’ in the 1980s. It’s a practice that encourages us to listen ‘in every possible way to everything possible; to hear, no matter what one is doing’. In 2016 Oliveros collaborated on a fantastic (read ‘weird’) album called Botanikk where every track is based on a plant.

The first track Saxifraga Cotyledon, for example, creates a ghostly, creaking soundscape reminiscent of a dried pod; while Digitalis Purpurea introduces some interesting vocal sounds.

Nature-inspired music has its own academic field of research known as Ecomusicology – who knew? Closely related is the field of Bio-music – experimental music which might include sounds created or performed by non-humans.

John Cage’s album Branches (1976) might be included in this category, with musicians plucking cacti needles with toothpicks and rattling pods from a Poinciana tree. Nice.

So if you fancy exploring the world of bio-music and/or ecomusicology – perhaps for laughs or as inspiration for Christmas pressies – here are some nature-inspired options for the keen gardener.

For classical buffs try Benjamin Britten’s choral piece Five Flower Songs composed for the 25th anniversary of two botanists; or George Butterworth’s Loveliest of Trees, The Cherry Now a setting of the bucolic A Shropshire Lad by A.E. Housman. For old school try Joni Mitchell’s For the Roses; Hyacinth House by the Doors, or The Botanic Verses by Leeds-based post-punk/ gothic rock band The March Violets.

If you like something a bit edgier and more contemporary, The Garden by DJ/producer Cut Chemist is a great option, with mandolin and strings cut into a building bossa-nova soundscape, with the fabulous Astrud Gilberto on vocals – what’s not to like? There’s also the trance-jazz, nature-sounds of Hanging Gardens by The Necks. I have to mention Kate Bush (if only for the name itself) and her fabulous mimicry of bird-song on the album Aerial. Finally, for any cynics and rebels, Talking Heads’ 1988 track (Nothing but) Flowers is an obvious choice, in which the protagonist mourns the loss of “honky-tonks, Dairy Queens and 7-Elevens” in a world where nature has taken over.

If only.

Picture: Pauline Oliveros in the studio (with Thollem McDonas) – Angela C. Villa, Wikimedia Commons