Recording, Weaving and Thinking Gardens

I have had a few days away from my studio to put the finishing touch to my work on tapestry artist Jilly Edwards exhibition Sense of Place: a woven record of a journey. As the exhibition is 350 miles away in South Devon I made my own journey last week across one of the loveliest parts of England in springtime, Worcester and Gloucestershire. These are the counties most associated with fruit growing in the UK and this past week was probably the zenith of blossom time. It’s also been my joy on this journey to visit three exceptional gardens and two remarkable buildings. As I attempt to write about all this I realise I have hardly begun to process all I’ve seen and experienced; it will probably be weeks before I can make proper sense and order of the pictures and ideas in my head.

Three colours of Hyacinthoides @ Hestercombe


Before I went away I recorded the music for Sense of Place and, with the help of my assistant Phil, created the soundtrack for Jilly’s exhibition. I finished writing the concert score a fortnight ago, leaving me just a week to learn to play it (!),  followed by a week to transform it into a score suitable to be projected from the six digital picture frames positioned discretely in the rooms of High Cross House. I’d hoped to have two days at High Cross itself to record in the peace of the Devon countryside, but work on other projects meant I had only a day to spare. So I decided to stay in Wakefield and record in the Project Space at Westgate Studios. This is a white box of a room with excellent lighting and a resonant wooden floor. It is quiet but not soundproof, so when the sirens of the emergency services go off in the city it’s another take to make.

Recording Sense of Place at Westgate Studios Project Space


Right from the start of nearly 8 hours of recording I discovered that it was difficult not to want to project this music as I would in a live performance. My intention for the recorded music for the installation was to focus on coaxing intimate, gentle sounds from the concert score, sounds that would float around the viewer to amplify qualities of the woven work. Getting myself tuned into this mode of playing was more difficult than I had imagined. I spent nearly two hours just getting something close to the right sound and texture I had in my head. Back in the distant past I have a memory of working with the guitarist Paul Edwards on recording Andy Jackson’s remarkable Goose and the Blackbird. Paul spent a whole day getting the sound he wanted from his electric guitar. I seem to remember something complicated was arrived at that involved placing an amplifier in a toilet down the corridor from the studio. I had psyched myself up to go straight in to recording this long and demanding work and by mid afternoon, when Paul had spent 6 hours searching for the ‘right sound’, I became desperate and abandoned my part in things for the day.

The published concert score of Sense of Place


When the recording of Sense of Place was over I was so exhausted I sat in a daze for a couple of hours, gradually reviving over several pots of tea. The next few days saw the whole project move into the hands of my assistant as he used a variety of electroacoustic techniques to extend each of the four movements to double their length and make the recording sound right for the very lo-fi digital frames. In the photo below – taken from outside – you can see one of these frames on the windowsill of the sitting room with its custom-made furniture.

Score and digital image frame in the sitting room at High Cross House


While I waited for this electroacoustic editing to happen I started to receive from photographer Mei Lim her luminous images of the interior of High Cross populated with Jilly’s tapestry pieces. No woolly pictures on the wall here, but many wonderful 3-dimensional woven objects that seem so sympathetic with their chosen locations. Many of Mei’s photographs manage to capture the way light and colour from outside the house play variously on the tapestries and the furniture inside. With these images the whole rationale for Sense of Place gradually began to appear.

Jilly's woven work in situ at High Cross House


By the weekend I was able to bring my working life back into some kind of order and begin to remember who and where I was before I started writing Sense of Place. With just 24 hours left, before I had to get in the car to travel down to Devon, the sonic and photographic installation was finished, the score (edited for the nth time) published and  printed, and the necessary interpretation material for the exhibition gathered together. I set off on Bank Holiday Monday for a gentle motorway drive to Taunton – to visit the gardens of Hestercombe.

The Edwardian Garden at Hestercombe


In my early twenties I had the good fortune to know the landscape painter Tim Gibbs. I rented his remote house on the Essex / Cambridgeshire border and observed on his regular visits how this painter had established a garden to paint. It seemed incredibly hands off and accidental (although I know now it probably wasn’t). He’d suddenly appear from his studio life in London and wander around his acre of garden pulling things out from time to time. He would occasionally plant something and do a little weeding, sketch a bit, stand in contemplation for some considerable time, then go home. Weeks later visiting him in London I would see a new large luminous painting hung in his living room and realise it was the outcome of this gentle low intervention gardening.

The garden at Great Becketts by Tim Gibbs


Over the years I’ve often considered the garden as a kind of metaphor for multi-dimensional structuring in music, and my notebooks are littered with attempts to explore this idea. What attracted me were the effects of differences in scale, where every intimate corner can instantly become part of an enveloping vista. In orchestral composition particularly, such changes are commonplace and often most emotionally charged. But it wasn’t until I started to draw and paint myself did the garden become a creative source, a space for both creative activity, contemplation, and most recently, wonder.

I’ve had the joy of knowing two women in my life for whom gardening is an ever-present preoccupation, personal obligation and absorbing passion. It is in their blood, so much a part of them I can’t imagine what each would be like without the gardening gene (both are offspring of serious gardeners). Margaret used to bring her seed catalogues to bed and lie awake thinking about which antique rose to nurture against the wall of our tiny front garden. Regular family trips to Kew were threaded through our daughters’ childhood. Alice (who collaborated with me on Fifteen Images) is equally consumed by her garden, not just as a life companion, but more recently as a resource for much of her creative thinking and making. As signs of new life appear I find her dreaming about the mystery of tulips or pricking out seedlings.  Recently she’s been looking beyond her own garden to the larger mysteries of garden design and how artists use their own gardens to explore the interaction of form, colour and texture. I’ve found myself labelling this ‘expressive gardening’ before realising that it is a commonly used term to describe a mid 18th century development in gardening practice. The doyen of garden history and aesthetics of this period Professor John Dixon Hunt of the University of Pennsylvania says in an essay in Streatfield’s Art and Nature, ‘The garden no longer had to be deciphered but instead was turned into a space which could express the beholder’s own feelings. It was therefore experienced differently according to the prevailing mood. A walk through the garden thus became a very personal affair and provided opportunity for introspection’. You can read more about the expressive garden and its link to literature here.

 As I slowly turn my attention back to thoughts of tapestry weaving I’ve been looking again at the textural weaving of William Jeffries for whom the garden seems a continual source of subject and motive. His work focuses on the texture of surface, the use of complex knotting, and map-like organisation of form and visual rhythm – a sort of aerial view of his subject. Sue Lawty introduced this weaver to me and I discovered his studio is right next to Kew Gardens! I’ve also had on my desk a book Jilly kindly passed on to me called Small Woven Tapestries by Mary Rhodes. This has a wealth of practical guidance in tapestry weaving, but notably includes three valuable chapters on design and texture and colour. So many of her examples come from the observation of plants and flowers and present the techniques that make representations of these possible and effective. I’ve had this book on my shelves for some months thinking the title referred to examples of work rather than how to do it!

Detail from a textured tapestry by William Jeffries


My own garden is a public one, the Rose Garden of Thornes Park, Wakefield. This I visit most days, in the early morning and around sunset. It’s a five-minute bike ride from my office, and this year it has become an important constant in my rather stressful life. Just last week I started to sketch again and found myself drawing the rose trestle walk, recently rebuilt and its rose canopy replanted. I’m also back on the case with my parterre project and have begun making experiments with the paper yarn I’ve acquired to use for a warp against raffia and recycled carpet wool in the weft.

The Rose Garden at Thornes Park


As you will realise by now the Devon trip is going to result in several blog instalments. There is just so much to remember and reflect about. So next time I’ll start straight in with my afternoon visit to Hestercombe . . .

Shadows on a young beech at Hestercombe


One Response to “Recording, Weaving and Thinking Gardens”

  1. Katrina Says:

    Lovely posting – very inspiring, nature continues to be such a ‘tour de force’ when it comes to inspiring artists.

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