Songs of the soil: the music of the British landscape

When we think of the land, the hills and the sea, we often don’t think of their natural sounds, but the great music inspired by them.

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The British landscape has its own music, but it might not be what you think. Birdsong is often like an alarm call, chaotic and babbling, weirdly intermittent, or frighteningly absent. The lowing of cows can sound strangely concerned, then become deep, terrifying guttural moans in the hours after calves have been taken away. Then there are silences that stretch out into the countryside, deep, dark and long. 

But when we think of the land, the hills and the sea, we often don’t think of these natural soundtracks. We think of the instruments and voices that try to conjure up the more uplifting sides of these places’ character instead, of the music that we use, or even exploit, to help us get closer to nature (or closer to some core of ourselves, if we’re being honest).

This is what Richard King’s The Lark Ascending proposes to explore. It takes Vaughan Williams’s rhapsodic composition, first performed in full in 1921, as its title and principal inspiration – a piece that is the most requested ever on Desert Island Discs. On paper, this subject is a departure for King: his previous books are histories of independent music (How Soon Is Now?) and a lyrical ode to record shops (Original Rockers). This is a man who set up a record label at 22 to release noisy, end-of-the-century Bristolian bands such as Flying Saucer Attack and Third Eye Foundation. But people all wear on, just as the landscape does. 

King has been based in rural Powys for nearly two decades now, the area from which his family comes. This subject is home. References to the Welsh countryside trickle through his book, flowing underground then rippling to the surface again. This says a lot: this book is as much about roots, connections and memory as it is about music.

The Lark Ascending is something more rugged, lyrical and strange than a conventional history. Like the bird of Vaughan Williams’s piece (itself inspired by the 1881 George Meredith poem), it swoops and dives through the century that followed its first performance. “The Lark Ascending” arrived, King argues, as a response to the losses Britain faced after the First World War. Williams began its composition before the outbreak of conflict but got delayed by his participation in the war, driving ambulance wagons; he finished the piece for violin and piano in 1920 (rescoring it for violin and orchestra a year later).

But the British countryside had been struggling long before the loss of so many of its young men, King points out. An agricultural depression in the late 1800s caused by heavy rainfall and poor harvests, as well as cheaper imports flooding the market, meant the countryside was suffering materially. Even wealthy landowners had their bucolic lives affected by taxes imposed by David Lloyd George in his People’s Budget of 1910. Yet a wistfulness remained in Williams despite himself, King writes. He was “nostalgic for a prelapsarian landscape, an idea of a pastoral idyll of Albion which the Great War had nullified permanently”.

This longing continued through the decades that followed for many other musicians, whose stories King excavates. Here are folk singers, psychedelic rock bands, jazz musicians and pop megastars, as well as composers – and ravers. King belongs in that latter camp, and his hazy memories of the 1992 week-long free festival at Castlemorton in the Malverns (“Elgar Country”, he explains) speak much about the freedoms music imparts in the open air, which later bore today’s commercial festival culture. This connection works whether it’s made through booming sound systems or soft Glyndebourne gardens.

When King writes specifically about music, his book veers closely in subject matter to Rob Young’s superlative Electric Eden, the 2010 history of psychedelic pastoralism in music from folk-rock to Kate Bush to Talk Talk and back again. King tackles Ewan MacColl’s “The Manchester Rambler”, Bush’s “Cloudbusting” and Gavin Bryars’s “Sinking of the Titanic” with similar intent. But his book becomes something quite different, and necessarily so, when it digs deeper into the land and the social history embedded in it.

For example, music isn’t mentioned much at all when King strays off, in a Sebaldian style, to explore British people’s political connections to the countryside, and agriculture’s relationship with science. We discover fascism finding a home in the romanticisation of the rural (Oswald Mosley rears his blackshirted self, as he does with terrifying regularity today), and the 1932 mass trespass at Kinder Scout in the Peak District that led to the creation of the Ramblers’ Association. Music appears briefly in discussions of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (her 1962 treatise against the use of the insecticide DDT – referred to eight years later in Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi”) and the quiet revolutions at Greenham Common (punctuated occasionally by feminist folk song).

At one point, there is a chapter about Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood as an example of “pastoral modernism” in which the land is only mentioned briefly, before Stan Tracey’s jazz suite based on the play is discussed, as are Tracey’s and many other jazz greats’ apprenticeships playing on ocean-liners. King is wandering off, as lovers of landscape tend to do, into peculiar valleys of remembrance. These diversions work if you allow yourself to be swept up the regular momentum of King’s meanderings. It’s as if you’re with him, boots on, conversation rolling with the dips and the levels.

And throughout, King is at pains not to idealise the landscape itself. Pointing out its arbitrary cruelties has another effect though: it makes moments of beauty within it all the more affecting. You feel this in the moment King describes the beautiful soundtrack of Ken Loach’s film Kes, played by Jamaican jazz flautist Harold McNair, who endured a similarly tough early life to the film’s 15-year-old protagonist, Billy Casper.

As the music plays, here is an “atmosphere suggestive of a serenity unobtainable to the characters”, one that “alleviates the earthbound reality of waterlogged football pitches and shifts at the pithead”. And as we think of it, we see Billy’s kestrel like Vaughan Williams’s lark, flying high, although many of us know the sad end to his journey. But for a moment, everything else is possible. For a moment, those big skies are ours. 

The Lark Ascending: The Music of the British Landscape
Richard King
Faber & Faber, 368pp, £14.99

This article appears in the 31 May 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Theresa May’s toxic legacy