Tag Archives: Music inspiration

The Music of a Landscape – Part II

This song is dedicated to the Earth, the “Pale Blue Dot”…

“Hope” – the great photographs of Dorothea Lange

My fourth album “Heading West” is an interpretation of the landscape and peoples of the American west through the senses of a travelling Brit.  I wanted to express the emotions of my experiences and to convey the character of the places that I visited, although some of the music I composed turned out to be more abstract than that.

One example of this is my song “Hope”.  I’ve had some really lovely comments about this song which is always nice because you never know whether or not what you are doing is perhaps a cliche – the listener always decides this of course.  “Hope” is not easy to describe, which is why I gave the song that title after I had composed and recorded it – if one word can describe an abstract thing like a piece of music, then “Hope” was it in this instance.

When it came to putting together a video for this song, I started trawling aimlessly on the internet looking for inspiration.  It wasn’t long before the amazing photographs of Dorothea Lange jumped out at me as the perfect representation of what the song is about.

Dorothea Lange (1895 – 1965) was an amazing American documentary photographer and photojournalist, best known for her depiction of the Great Depression era which affected the world in the decade immediately preceding World War II.  Lange’s photographs humanized the consequences of the Great Depression in the American west and documented the migration of so many people intent on finding work and a place for themselves and their families.

In 1941 Lange was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship for her excellence in photography.

The picture on the video thumbnail is entitled Migrant Mother, and the woman is Florence Owens Thompson.  Look her up on wikipedia, the story of how the picture came to be taken and of her life is fascinating.  I hope you like the video and the music.

Spring on the Pembrokeshire Coast

Marloes Sands smaller

After 6 months of perpetual grey skies and torrential rain, spring has finally arrived on the Pembrokeshire Coast, and today our local beach looks like this.  It’s so nice to finally feel some warm sunshine, although admittedly there is still a chilly north-easterly wind coming down from the arctic.

Puffins on Skomer Island, Pembrokeshire       Photo: Mike Alexander
Puffins on Skomer Island, Pembrokeshire Photo: Mike Alexander

The sea birds have arrived back from the South Atlantic to breed on the offshore islands of Skomer, Skokholm, Grassholm and Ramsey.  These puffins nest in dis-used rabbit burrows on the islands, which are free of predators like rats and foxes, although the threat from the Great Black-backed Gull is still very real for the offspring of these little fellas.

Photo: Mike Alexander
Photo: Mike Alexander

The gannets have returned from their winter feeding grounds in the south to breed in huge numbers (32,000 nesting pairs) on Grassholm Island, and can be seen diving into the sea wherever they spot shoals of fish on which to feed.

Photo: Mike Alexander
Photo: Mike Alexander

In the next few weeks all of the spring flowers will emerge as the land awakens from its winter slumber.  The most familiar birds to be seen from the cliff tops are razorbills, guillemots, kittiwakes, fulmars and various species of gull, as well as shags, cormorants and the rarer choughs and peregrine falcons.

The music of a landscape – Part I

My music is often derived from and about some of the lovely places and wildlife of the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park in West Wales, where I have worked as an ecologist for 20 years.  I hope it is possible to hear the influence of this landscape in my song, which was deliberately written in a style evoking a kind of “national anthem for nature”, if that makes any sense?  Anyway I hope you like it 🙂  The song is from my album “Round River”.

A 6000 year old submerged forest that reappears from time to time

Although it is rarely seen, the remnants of a past forested landscape, where there is now sea and beach, is a very interesting feature and teaches us about past sea level rise and our recent glacial history, and makes sense of some of the archaeological remains we find around our coastline in West Wales.

At the end of the last glaciation the sea level was much lower than it is today because so much water was still locked up in the ice sheets to the north of Britain.  As the climate warmed forests became established on land that had been tundra for thousands of years, and this forest extended far out beyond where sea level is today.  Gradually as temperatures rose, the sea ice to the south of the arctic circle melted and sea levels rose, submerging much of the coastal forests.

In some places this action was very rapid and sand covered and then preserved the remains.  After heavy storms and at very low tides, peat or the stumps of these forest trees may be seen at places along the Welsh coast, particularly, in Pembrokeshire, at Newgale and Freshwater West.

Photo: Mike Alexander
Photo: Mike Alexander – The remains of a Scots pine trunk on the beach

The remains of animals and Mesolithic tools have been found in these deposits.  These include an Auroch, which is an ancient cow and is the ancestor of all modern cows, a pig, a roe deer, a red deer antler and a brown bear jaw.

At Lydstep Haven, a pair of broken flint microliths were found by the neck vertebrae of a pig.  This pig may have been injured, but not caught by its Mesolithic hunters and subsequently died in the forest.  A tree trunk fell on its remains, preserving it, and the microliths in situ.  This find has been dated to about 6000 BC.

Geraldus Cambrensis (Gerald of Wales ) noted the uncovered submerged forest, during his tour of Wales in AD 1188.

‘We then passed over Newgale sands at which place a very remarkable circumstance occurred.  The sandy shores of south Wales laid bare by the extraordinary violence of a storm, the surface of the earth, which had been covered for many ages, reappeared, and discovered the trunk of trees cut off, standing in the very sea itself, the strokes of the hatchet appearing as if made only yesterday.  The soil was very black and the wood-like ebony.  This looked like a grove cut down, perhaps at the time of the deluge, or not long after.’

We cannot be sure whether the marks he saw were made by a stone axe.  It is certainly possible, since stone axes were in use before the forests were submerged between about 6000 and 5000 BC.

He made these observations 800 years ago and similar observations are the basis for medieval traditions about the Cantref Gwaelodd – ‘the lost lands of Wales.’

This is what the beautiful coastline looks like today….

Photo: Mike Alexander
Photo: Mike Alexander

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Photo: Mike Alexander
Photo: Mike Alexander