Polderthink


“In natural beauty, natural and historical elements interact in a musical and kaleidoscopically changing fashion. Each can step in for the other, and it is in this constant fluctuation, not in any unequivocal order of relationships, that natural beauty lives… [Art] is not the imitation of nature, but the imitation of natural beauty.” – Theodor Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, p.92

“Photography affects us like a phenomenon in nature, like a flower or a snowflake” – André Bazin, (The Ontology of the Photographic Image’, in What is Cinema? Vol. I, p.13)

Stolen earth, recovered from marsh and swamp and ocean, stretches out in all directions. It is almost eerily flat. Trees and roadsigns teeter and lean on the sheer banks of the channel; houses, hunched low against the wind, are set further back. The process, refined over centuries, is well known: build a dike, pump out as much water as you can, then dig narrow channels into which the remaining water can drain. A kind of game: don’t let the water levels get too high (flooding) or too low (drying out). And don’t let any small furry creatures dig holes in your precious dike.

This is a polder, a landscape as Dutch as the meadow is English or the wilderness is Canadian. All three are products of human intervention and maintenance, poems written with axes and mechanical diggers and diesel-fuelled pumps, as well as with words. Yet what the mind reads as man-made, the senses interpret differently – receiving it as entirely natural. A break or a disagreement between the understanding (it is artificial) and sensory perception (but it is there). A polder is a photograph.

Growth, erosion, weathering, migration; management, cultivation, recreation. These processes shape the polder. They combine, swap roles, oppose and amplify one another in ways that complicate the distinction between ‘natural’ and ‘man-made’. Much recent experimental music seeks to engage with this ambiguity, this porosity, seeping into the narrow channels that run between natural environment and human intervention. This is not a documentary aesthetic, nor a sigh of nostalgia. It engages with the complexities of the perception, representation, and appropriation of nature, while acknowledging that which falls outside of human comprehension or control – i.e., contingency and chance. The space inhabited by this music is thus polder-like: organically inspired yet consciously managed, organised by a certain logic yet always precarious, always on the edge of being swept away. Trace its outline, which reads as a question: how can we be in the world?

A sea of green, running all the way to the horizon. Blue-grey sky: a stark contrast. Those little flecks of white dotted about at random intervals are probably birds; the larger ones, sheep. The longer you look, the more details emerge. That triangle must be a roof, and that white rectangle looks like a house. You can pick out individual trees now. A road crosses the horizon; there is a lorry on it. Coming into focus. “In A Place Of Such Graceful Shapes” (2011) by Taylor Deupree and Marcus Fischer is like this. The long-form title track begins in a drifting, undifferentiated haze: formless, patternless, archetypally ’natural’. Slowly, hints of structure – melodies, rhythms, repetitions – begin to emerge. Yet these shapes are still vague and rudimentary, still half-hidden in the distance. This movement is by no means definitive. Of course, the opening ambience is designed to appear unordered, while the closing melody is deliberately bathed in a warm, ‘organic’-sounding glow. Nature and society are both mechanically inscribed. Yet these representations are under constant threat of chaotic flood on the one hand, and dry, barren rigidity on the other. The unstable boundaries between these two dangers resemble those of the polder.

A young tree stands silhouetted against the sun, black leafless branches singed by a brilliant burnt-out ball of white. A tarmac road leads off into the distance. On the left hand side, there is the faint outline of a house amidst the bushes; on the right side, a channel of water. Here is Chihei Hatakeyama’s “A Long Journey” (2010) – high-pitched tones and slow, drowsy warmth. The (literal, recorded) sounds of rain and waves. But the road brings the humans: voices, transport, the creaking and clattering of hinges and cutlery; fragments of melody, tonal clarity, structured repetitions. It is difficult to distinguish nature from artifice. Everything gets mixed up. Which blue, glimmering line is the road, and which is the water? Was that snatch of distant voice human in origin, or avian? Who is imitating who? The sounds produced by humans mingle and blend with those of the natural environment. One could say a unity is reached. Not a harmonious totality, but a constantly shifting accumulation of uncertainties, ambiguities, and thresholds. Not unity, but its representation as music. A polder is likewise such a representation: it presents the image of a harmony between the human and the natural, but this image can only be produced and maintained through careful intervention. A polder is a photograph of something that does not exist.

“I don’t know where to go, but we could just head off, like, o-on a sight-see.” These words are heard twice on Hatakeyama’s piece “The Distant Sound of a Bustle”. This state of not knowing where to go, of not being able to locate or orient oneself, is produced in the listener whenever music is allowed to move in the direction of contingency, formlessness, or ambiguity. And when one steps out onto a polder – at least one of the older, traditional kind, such as the 17th Century Beemster Polder – it immediately becomes apparent that there is, in fact, nowhere to go. The road does not lead anywhere. The natural and the artificial appear as one seamless, immersive whole, and orientation by reference to one or the other becomes impossible. And yet, within this space there are thresholds where one meets the other – where a channel meets the mouth of a footbridge, or 90-degree angles are smoothed off by water and wind – that are repeated and dispersed throughout the polder, producing a measure of continuity in space and time. Repetition and dispersion within a continuous field – these are key formal characteristics of the polder aesthetic, and are also to be found in the music discussed here.

A broken steel gate lies almost flat against edge of a bridge. Hoofprints in the mud indicate cows on the way to pasture, or maybe to the barns on the far side of the field. A polder has clear practical value. You start with a lake or marsh or swamp, and end up with land you can build on, cultivate, use to graze livestock, or sculpt into more manageable ‘reservations’ with aesthetic and recreational value. The dikes form defensive sea walls, making the chaotic randomness of our lives seem that little bit less chaotic and random. Yet as a kind of representation the polder performs another function: it shows us how another person imagined the world could and should be. It is seeing through another person’s eyes, repeating their gaze, glimpsing their hopes, dreams, and concerns. History is restated and restated again, a material act of remembering. Someone, at some point, decided that things could be different, could be better.

You take aim, and press the button. A red light begins to blink. What you capture is not the thing you were aiming at, but its trace on disk. You do not need the bounce of the meters to tell you what is being recorded. You know it is sound, because you hear it. A polder is a photograph of something that exists only in photographs. Compose, focus, straighten, click. The whirr of a CD in a CD player.

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