How does the Sussex landscape inspire you?

by Guest Author Arts Spotlight on Sound

Artists, authors, poets, and composers have for centuries been inspired by the local coastline, the South Downs, its natural environment, and the Sussex Weald.

Having grown up in the shadow of the Downs, composer, Nathan James, has long been inspired by these local landscapes, and is now embarking on an Arts Council-funded project to write a cantata based on the ancient and mysterious hill-figure, the Long Man of Wilmington.

‘On Windover Hill’ will be a nine-movement choral and orchestral piece, setting texts that will present an audience with many of the stories and theories surrounding the figure and its environment. Perhaps however, the most interesting aspect to come of the whole project is its research that is uncovering forgotten Sussex individuals, who have themselves been inspired by the Sussex environment.

There are many poets who are synonymous with the Downs, including Kipling, Belloc, and Blake, but Nathan has been keen to find alternative and often ignored poets, from whom he can draw unbiased inspiration.

Artwork by Carolyn Trant

“Up from the hollow and onto the hill, the long gaunt hill that slopes from the sea, with grey green curves and never a tree”; lines written by Amy Sawyer in 1928, which Nathan will be setting to music, music which itself will be inspired by the undulating curvature of the Downs. Grace Pursglove, writing in the 1930s, entitled her volume ‘Poems from a Sussex Pen’; poems which expand on her love of the South Downs and their “mystical call” to her; “Cheerfully, now for ages stand, sentinels of the South. Mercifully placed there by His hand, watching the Cuckmere’s mouth”.

Local authors, Justin Hopper (The Old Weird Albion), Peter Martin (Kindred Spaces), and Philip Carr-Gomm (The Druid Way) have also added to the wealth of writings about the South Downs, which have in turn inspired Nathan’s cantata to be written.

Throughout his project, Nathan is working to identify particular works by local artists who have recently represented the South Downs, and is featuring them on his website and Instagram by way of a demonstration and promotion of what the local environment has to offer creatively. These range from the watercolours of Ashley Hylands, to the pastels of Sarah Gregson, the prints of Carolyn Trant, to the etchings of Erin MacAirt. The landscape also inspires the work of potters and silversmiths, examples of which have been found in art galleries not just in Sussex but across the country.

Musically, the South Downs has a rich heritage, not just of folk songs, but by the number of composers who have been moved by the local landscape, including Frank Bridge (Friston), Arnold Bax (Worthing), and John Ireland (Washington). Other names to have been familiar with the Sussex coastline include Benjamin Britten and Edward Elgar, both of whom were frequent visitors to our county. There are however, lesser known composers who lived and died in Sussex, whose names are less well-known, and who deserve recognition. With the help of the Royal College of Music, Nathan is currently researching the music of Avril Coleridge-Taylor (daughter of Samuel) who lived in Seaford until her death in 1998. She is best known for her ‘A Sussex Landscape’ for orchestra, which was itself inspired by “Into Your Sussex Quietness I Came”, a poem from 1940 by John Drinkwater.

Ruth Gipps, maverick post-war composer and conductor, was born in Bexhill in 1921 and still has many works unpublished and unperformed. It is hoped that alongside ‘On Windover Hill’, a piece by these women, inspired by the Sussex landscape as they were, can be performed.

‘On Windover Hill’ will then, be an example of how music can be influenced, not only by primary inspiration from the natural environment, but by secondary inspiration; poetry, prose, art, and music, that has itself been inspired by the landscape. It will demonstrate the power nature has over our consciousness and creativity if we only stop, look, and listen to the wonderful countryside in which we are lucky enough to live. It will be premiered at Boxgrove Priory, Chichester, on March 7th 2020, by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Harlequin Chamber Choir, directed by Amy Bebbington.

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