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The inspirations of place


Photo of La Jolla by SD Dirk flickr.com/photos/dirkhansen/

One of the key moments for me in thinking about the relationship between music and place occurred when I was providing performance histories for works to be played by the former ABC orchestras in Australia. I realised that whereas the first performances of earlier repertoire might have taken place in Munich or Mannheim, they could now just as easily take place in Milwaukee or Melbourne. The world map illustrated starkly classical music’s broadening appeal.

Los Angeles throws up some of the most interesting relationships between music and place, I’ve found. Specific locations within the city are associated with distinctive styles and periods – it’s almost as if the city conceals archeological musical layers. As someone who works in classical music, I am fascinated by the European composers who lived here in the 1930s and 40s and made the coastal plain a virtual outpost of Germany’s Weimar Republic. Think of the people who used to go to Salka Viertel’s Santa Monica soirées – Thomas Mann, Einstein, Arnold Schoenberg, Bertolt Brecht…

But it’s not just classical music, either. From the mid-1960s to the early 1970s some of the greatest popular music of the 20th century came from a precisely defined Los Angeles locality – Laurel Canyon.

Laurel Canyon winds through the Hollywood Hills between Sunset Boulevard and the San Fernando Valley to the north. Talking to Vanity Fair for a 2015 article on the Canyon, Glenn Frey, the Detroit-born co-creator of The Eagles, said that ‘there’s houses built up on stilts on the hillside and there’s palm trees and yuccas and eucalyptus and vegetation I’d never seen before in my life. It was a little magical hillside canyon.’ It was also, back then, full of houses clustered in cosy proximity. ‘My dining room looked out over Frank Zappa’s duck pond,’ said Joni Mitchell in that same article by Lisa Robinson. Songs such as David Crosby’s Guinnevere were written here and Joni Mitchell paid tribute to the Canyon in songs like Ladies of the Canyon (‘Trina wears her wampum beads…’). Yes, it was a very mung beans and mushrooms kind of place where a canyon lady might wear wampum, the traditional shell beads of the Eastern Woodlands tribes.

There are other musically significant locations in Los Angeles. Topanga Canyon further west (named from the Tongva Indian word for ‘place above’), also played host to a historic phase of contemporary music. It is rumoured that Jim Morrison of The Doors was inspired to write Roadhouse Blues after driving up the Canyon to play at The Topanga Corral. And Silver Lake, only a few miles from Downtown, was once in the running for Rock’n’Roll capital of the world. Silver Lake? I’ve never thought it sounded very Rock’n’Roll. But even now with its designer coffee, it’s still residually grungy.

Does music reflect its place? I guess it depends on how. Did the music that came out of Laurel Canyon reflect the appearance and climate of the canyon or did Sunset Boulevard and its environs reshape the Second Viennese School? ‘Does music reflect place?’ is a question that Australians might want to answer with a ‘yes’. We’d like to think our unique landscape guarantees our music some particular distinction. It certainly inspires our visual artists, and after all, many of us are somewhat familiar with the ‘songlines’, the ancient Central Australian chants which map our country with a web of epics that tell of the Aboriginal ancestral heroes and the geographic features they created as they pursued their travels in the ‘Dreamtime’. But of course, the songlines come with words (albeit encrypted to bamboozle the uninitiated). Do the sounds themselves tell us much? And I’ve been wary of linking music to the visuals of place ever since I read that the stasis of the didjeridu drone is analogous to the monotony of Australia’s landscape. That observation can be challenged on at least two fronts: the drone is actually varying rhythmic patterns and Australia has one of the most floristically-rich biotas in the world.

I started thinking about the influence of place again recently after visiting the affluent beachside community of La Jolla, north of San Diego. I know the Czech composer Bohuslav Martinů wrote a sinfonietta for the local Musical Society in 1950. Did Sinfonietta La Jolla reflect the sun and surf and almost-perennial warmth of this part of Southern California? Can you hear musical representation of the thousands of docile leopard sharks who come into the shallow waters off Spindrift Drive each summer? No, apparently Martinů just fulfilled the Musical Society’s request for something tuneful and approachable. Which is pretty Californian if you think about it.

When Albert Goldberg, the music critic for the Los Angeles Times, asked European émigrés in 1950 how separation from their homeland had affected the character and quality of their work, Stravinsky snapped, ‘I do not think that this subject is really worth a column of your pen.’ Schoenberg answered that ‘two times two equals four in every climate.’ And maybe much music is just as expressive of a period, if you think about it. The music of Laurel Canyon might remind you (if can remember) of Kent State, flower power, Richard Nixon and the draft.

But I’ve come to think there is at least one sense in which place is deeply important. Think of all the musicians (and other artists) who congregated in Paris in the early years of the 20th century, many of them studying with Nadia Boulanger and learning what eventually became the neo-classical style; think of Viertel’s or the Feuchtwangers’ salons on the Pacific Coast where people like Brecht and Hanns Eisler hung out; or Laurel Canyon where musicians would drop in on each other and test-run their songs – those places where musicians would gather together and mutually inspire each other as easily as they might borrow a cup of milk.

Earlier this year, when I was researching the Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s Hollywood Rhapsody program, I spoke to Don Williams, brother of the film composer, John, about growing up in North Hollywood in the 40s and 50s. The picture he painted of buzzing activity was impressive:

Hank [Mancini, composer of Moon River and The Pink Panther theme] lived on the same street we did, but it …wasn’t just Hank – oh my god, the list of people who lived on that street alone is ridiculous – Pete Candoli the trumpet player lived next door, Jack Echols the baritone sax player from Lucy’s band lived across the street. Hoyt Bohannon [who had played in the Paul Whiteman Band] lived two doors down from Hank. And then there was a saxophone player from Columbia, Chuck Butler. I could go on. Disney guys and Fox guys….It was a musical suburb.

It’s no wonder the composer of Star Wars became a musician if he grew up in an environment like that.

There’s been a strain in Australian music-making that likes to think we can replicate the experience or appearance of place in music. Percy Grainger conceived his Free Music inspired by the rises and falls of the Adelaide Hills or the sound of the wind howling through telegraph wires along remote Australian country roads. His Free Music is fascinating when you hear it reproduced as on YouTube, and you get a lump in your throat if you stop to think it’s a genuine Australian contribution to experimental music. But emotionally, I’ll admit, I’m more moved when I hear his Irish Tune from County Derry. Then I realise it came out of the energy and enthusiasm and disputes and debates of the British Folk-Song Revival.

Does place influence music? Perhaps. But perhaps mostly when it’s a place where musicians can all get together and inspire each other.

Gordon Kalton Williams, © 2016