Music after James Turrell
At Tremenheere Sculpture Gardens
Peter Sheppard Skærved
Hearing Shadows, Wordless Light is a project that aims to provide a powerful immersive musical experience created via responses to art installations by world renowned artist James Turrell at Tremeheere Sculpture Gardens in Cornwall. It is funded by Arts Council England, National Lottery Project Grants with support from Research England and Falmouth University and devised by composer Jim Aitchison in collaboration with a remarkable team comprised of violinist Peter Sheppard Skaerved, Neil Armstrong owner of Tremenheere Sculpture gardens, film director Malene Sheppard Skaerved, filmmaker Immo Horn, pianist Roderick Chadwick, and the Kreutzer Quartet.
The first tentative ideas for a project were discussed in 2017 when Neil Armstrong, owner of Tremenheere Sculpture Gardens, took the composer Jim Aitchison inside James Turrell’s extraordinary Aqua Oscura art installation, a huge underground camera obscura. Inside the chamber, complete darkness is experienced for up to 10 minutes until the brain opens the necessary visual pathways to perceive a frail, mysterious image of the tree canopy and sky above the camera aperture, projected naturally onto the walls of the chamber. According to the composer, “the effect was profound, elusive, disturbing, and extraordinarily beautiful, very much a space, as Turrell would say, “to look at yourself looking””. After visiting, subsequently, the other major Turrell installation at Tremenheere, Tewlwolow Kernow, the light-filled domed elliptical ‘SkySpace’, the possibility emerged to create a musical response that explored both spaces.
Discussion of ideas for a potential project continued intermittently for 6 years until early 2023 when Jim invited his friend and long-term collaborator violinist Peter Sheppard Skaerved to visit Tremenheere and the Turrell installations and definite plans for creating a music project were born. Via a collaboration between Falmouth University, the composer, Peter Sheppard Skaerved and his Knowledge Exchange project with Research England supported by the Royal Academy of music, and Neil Armstrong and Tremenheere, a National Lottery Projects Grants application to Arts Council England was submitted in May 2023 and was successful. The support from everyone above has made possible a long-held ambition to respond to these extraordinary installations by one of the world’s most important living artists.
Creative Workshop 1 occurred in September and saw Peter Sheppard Skaerved (solo violin), Malene Sheppard Skaerved (film direction) and Immo Horn (filmmaker) come to Tremenheere for the first day of creative work in the Turrell SkySpace and Aqua Oscura, working with the composer and the owner of Tremenheere, Neil Armstrong. The day was spent filming performances of the composer’s first sketches for the solo violin piece after the SkySpace, Aperture, then interviews and discussions between Jim Aitchison, Peter Sheppard Skaerved, Neil Armstrong and Malene Sheppard Skaerved. Also focused upon were wider issues concerning landscape, music and art, the violin, and Peter Sheppard Skaerved’s Knowledge Exchange project supported by Research England which we were able to bring into wonderful coincidence with Hearing Shadows, Wordless Light.
Creative Workshop 2: the Kreutzer Quartet and Roderick Chadwick will come to Falmouth University later in the Autumn of 2023 to workshop material from Jim Aitchison’s new piano quintet, Transience Patterns, with students from Falmouth’s AMATA arts centre, which the composer is creating in response to Aqua Oscura.
The Main Performance Event will occur in both the SkySpace and the Gallery at Tremenheere Sculpture Gardens. We will be encouraging the audience to visit both the SkySpace and Aqua Oscura earlier in the day, and to this end, Neil Armstrong has kindly offered free entry to the gardens for audience members with tickets for the evening performance event. Falmouth University will be capturing the Tremenheere performance event on film and will create legacy digital content, including film and VR experience.
Peter Sheppard Skærved
Malene Sheppard Skærved interviewing Jim Aitchison, filmed by Immo Horn
An increasingly important international destination for audiences of gardens and art, Tremenheere can be found in a beautiful, sheltered valley overlooking St Michael’s Mount near Penzance in west Cornwall. Dramatic landscape and exotic and sub-tropical planting provide a backdrop to an evolving programme of contemplative and inspiring art by internationally renowned artists, in addition to a major gallery, shop, nursery, and restaurant.
The land at Tremenheere was owned by the monks of St Michael’s Mount until 1295, when it was bought by Michael De Tremenheere, an established tenant farmer. His lineage lasted 600 years carrying the name Tremenheere.
After the Tremenheere lineage fell away the Pearce family farmed the land for four generations. In 1997 Dr. Neil Armstrong acquired the hillside and valley, beginning the development of Tremenheere Sculpture Gardens. The guiding principle of the garden has been to evolve a naturalistic, Arcadian space that blends elements of landscape, planting, and art to create a place for contemplation and wonder.
The newly composed music will respond to Turrell's Aqua Oscura, a huge subterranean camera obscura, and to Tewlwolow Kernow, the domed elliptical ‘SkySpace’. Transience Patterns for piano quintet will explore the physiological-psychological-emotional experience of sight deprivation, and pattern emergence, and to four seasonal engravings captured from the camera obscura. Aperture for solo violin will respond both to gradual change of light and cloud patterns within the frame of the elliptical aperture in the SkySpace and the larger human drama of confronting the endless vaults of space above us.
The composer writes:
“Everyone who enters these extraordinary installations by James Turrell brings something unique of themselves into these primal spaces, resulting in a strange paradox of experiencing something both vastly impersonal and intimately personal… In particular, the psychological-philosophical resonance of being enclosed in the ‘Aqua Oscura’, in a darkness more profound than anything encountered since before one’s birth, and then not again until after the eyes close finally, is an experience beyond words, making that moment when the brain just begins to apprehend the vision of the tree canopy and sky emerge from the darkness even more remarkable.
In attempting to find a way into Turrell’s vision and create a meaningful musical interaction, I returned again and again to the artist’s words:
My work has no object, no image and no focus. With no object, no image and no focus, what are you looking at? You are looking at you looking. What is important to me is to create an experience of wordless thought.
Extraordinary words, but on a practical level I also had to find notes and music and some kind of meaningful arrangement of these in response that worked with my own style and approaches. If the art is about ‘looking at you looking’, could I make music about ‘listening to you listening’? The answer to that is perhaps both yes and no… I didn’t believe it was possible for me to create musical objects of such expertly focused economy and searching complexity closely analogous to the way Turrell’s installations work, but what Turrell’s work and the spaces at Tremenheere gave me were physical-mental spaces full of possibilities, spaces where I could indeed ‘listen to myself listening’ to my own musical approaches…
At this stage in the process, I have settled upon dividing my musical responses to the experiences up into four main areas, two of each aligning with my responses to the two installations:
Aperture,(SkySpace Music) for solo violin – two areas explored simultaneously
A frame or aperture showing a small part of a larger whole and redefining this
A tableau presenting dialogue between a human viewer and that larger whole
Transience Patterns, (Aqua Oscura Music) for piano quintet – two areas explored separately and successively
Part 1: a direct musical evocation of darkness opening to an emerging frail image
Part 2: variations on imitative and reiterating elements
Aperture, the SkySpace music for solo violin, will take a fragment from the evolving piano quintet composed in response to Aqua Oscura and use this as its basis, with the latter conceived, in this context, as the larger sky above, with the chosen fragment representing what can be apprehended through the smaller aperture. In addition, the presentation of this material will be conceived as a dialogue with material from an external piece of music: Urlicht, or Primordial Light, from Gustav Mahler’s second symphony (also from Mahler’s cycle of orchestral songs, Des Knaben Wunderhorn). The expressive scenario will be one of two contrasting voices: anguished human questioning meeting austere inscrutability.
Transience Patterns will be composed for piano quintet (2 violins, viola, cello and piano) in response to the Aqua Oscura underground camera obscura. I will take two different approaches.
Part 1 will attempt to respond in sound to the experience of total sight deprivation in the chamber and the 10 minutes or so it takes for the brain to apprehend the frail image of the tree canopy and sky above. I will seek to evoke both a mechanical emergence and a musical human-expressive presentation of the same, coloured by an imaginary evocation of what each viewer might take of themselves into the chamber. The experience can be both darkly terrifying and transcendently mesmerising. Neil Armstrong describes the physiological process thus:
As the nerve pathways become alive, it’s a journey in experiencing the artwork. It happens not gradually but in a series of staccato, glitchy bits of progress forward.
Part 2 will focus upon 4 etchings produced by Paupers Press created from photographs with 15-hour exposures of the image from the camera obscura, one taken in each season, Summer, Autumn, Winter, and Spring. Once again, I will seek to explore the idea of ‘listening to yourself listening’, or perhaps more accurately, the music listening to itself listening, but cast in 4 contrasting sections coloured by the contrasting expressive qualities that my musical imagination applies to the different seasons.
In seeking a form for this ‘listening to listening’ I arrived at the idea of investigating the musical features of canon and recurring harmonic sequence. Canon is a textural technique whereby two or more voices imitate and overlap out of step, as if listening to one another, and the skill of the composer is demonstrated through the beauty of the result triumphing over the challenges created by the complexity set out in the first voice, and where the combination of all the voices creates a convincing overall effect. The use of a repeating harmonic sequence presents a similar opportunity for a different kind of varied repetition, where changing musical gestures retain continuity by occurring always against the same or similar repeating background of harmonic ‘colours’.
Given the mysterious effect of Aqua Oscura, I alighted upon a so-called ‘enigma canon’ by Johannes Brahms, Mir lächelt kein Frühling WoO 25. I was drawn to Brahms’ canon having worked previously on a project about the tragic figure of C19th Austrian composer Hans Rott whose life ended early in an asylum partly due to his falling foul of the older composer and the conflict in the Vienna Conservatory between the Brahms and Bruckner camps. Given that Mahler was his closest student friend at the Conservatory and that I am using material taken from his music for the SkySpace, it feels appropriate to articulate this strange and tragic trajectory between all these figures and so forge a musical connection between the Aqua Oscura and the SkySpace.
Brahms’ enigma canon sets a short verse of bleak anonymous words talking of never seeing Spring again. As with all canons, the melody is exposed initially alone, and the puzzle to be solved in this case is one where the musicians must work out at what intervals in time and space the successive imitations of the melody must enter. The resonance here with the concealed vision of the Aqua Oscura feels most apposite. The solution to the musical enigma is quite extraordinary as Brahms has devised the melody and the harmonic result of the various combinations with itself in such a way that the succeeding imitating voices always enter one half step lower in pitch but done in such a manner where there is no jolting effect at all in the downwards motion which always remains smooth. Brahms’ canon has absolutely captured my musical imagination and become fused into my response to Aqua Oscura. I intend to create a large set of variations on the canon spread over 4 movements, each movement corresponding the 4 seasonal etchings from the Aqua Oscura. To do this over an extended timespan I anticipate needing to find other ways of responding to the canon aside from solely exploring the device itself. I expect to try various strategies that include harmonic analysis of the original and using this as a basis for variations, as well as potentially creating my own canon(s) to frameworks evolved from Brahms’ original.
The inevitable question will be ‘why use quotations from music by C19th European composers in the context of American C21st visual art installations in present day Cornwall?’ My answer is that, as suggested above, everyone takes into Turrell’s spaces something of themselves, and there are no signs above the entrances to the artworks forbidding viewers from taking their lived human experiences, of whatever kind, into those spaces. I simply took myself, and my lifetime of musical learning and the musical preoccupations current to me at that moment, into the Aqua Oscura and Tewlwolow Kernow, and the allowed the miraculous alchemy that Turrell has put in place to do the rest. A different music maker would bring different experiences with them, which is exactly as it should be.”