James Dickinson: Primrose Hill – Winter

Programme Notes

The view atop Primrose Hill, on which this painting is based, has a clear view of London’s industrial skyline, which juxtaposes the more natural parkland in the foreground. I wanted to evoke Auerbach’s more bleak vision of their coexistence by creating conflicts between natural and synthetic sound worlds, whilst emulating Auerbach’s aggressive painting technique. The piece is in three sections: the first is to symbolise the listener approaching the hill, the second is to depict the view itself, and the third, briefer section is a reflection; the listener departs from the hill, contemplating the marred countryside from impending human manufacture.

About the Piece

I was initially drawn to Auerbach’s work due to its position in the Barber Institute – its placement amongst far older works immediately stood out to me, but also drew me towards its interpretive aims. In other words, Primrose Hill – Winter’s establishment as a far more abstract work than its fellow paintings offered far more interpretive freedom, but I still wanted to closely abide by Auerbach’s own intentions in my piece.

My subsequent visit to Primrose Hill itself was extremely helpful as an insight into Auerbach’s artistic purpose. Not only did I realise and understand the work in visual sense from the visit, but also I was able to grasp parallels between the painting and my field recordings on site. I noticed in particular an ever-present traffic noise, which always seemed to overpower the contrasting peacefulness (such as birdsong and rustling trees); almost as if it had been directly multi-tracked onto the parkland.

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Primrose Hill at noon, © Pixabay

From here, I wanted my work to focus on this conflict in particular, with wider implications of the contrast between nature and industry. The actual view from Primrose Hill itself implies a coexistent juxtaposition of the two, but Auerbach’s aggressive painting style and the overbearing soundscape of the park implies otherwise. Therefore, I decided to incorporate this relationship by developing a narrative from the perspective of the listener; walking up the hill with the expectation of a park-like stillness, but instead discovering the overbearing city in the distance. The piece, therefore, is in a loose ternary form. The briefer first and last sections depict approaching and departing from the hill, with the latter serving as a reflection, having experienced the view itself:

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Fig. 1: Thematic presentation in Primrose Hill – Winter

The first A section utilises various sine waves, which symbolise the glimmers of white on the painting, most likely to represent the lamp posts on the footpath. In addition, I make use of footstep sounds recorded from the gravel path at Primrose Hill itself. My aims with this section (and its later reprise at 4’32”) were not only to emulate the break of dawn, being the time of painting, but also to give the aforementioned sense of peaceful coexistence between natural and synthetic sound. This theme was also used in order to foreshadow the later conflict between the two entities in the B section. This introductory section also incorporates clipping and glitch noise via splicing, in order to again foreshadow the gradual deterioration of the countryside in favour of the city.

The B section is in two subsections; the first serves as a pre-empt to the ‘storm’ in the second. By taking various wind samples from my source recording, I was able to create a vast soundscape by gradually increasing the frequency of their sounding and decreasing their length, labelled as “Shuffle Wind” in the above table. Not only does this appropriately represent an approaching storm (symbolic of looming conflict), but it was also used to emulate Auerbach’s aggressive, ‘swooping’ painting style (sample embedded below). This texture alternates with a sudden spliced traffic noise, followed by a ‘boom’ sound created from a bass drum and tubular bell sample (the latter alluding to the distant tolling from Big Ben), in order to represent the looming cityscape.

This pattern, alongside further clipping, builds in intensity until the second, ‘storm’ subsection, whereby the wind gradually combines with traffic noise to create an extremely dense and climactic texture. As previously mentioned, the third section is a reprisal of the first A section; similar motivic ideas are used but with subtle distortion and clipping, symbolising the marred countryside from the prior conflict. The gradual diminution of the lamp post motif at the end is a final representation of this concluding disfigurement.

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