The Musical Landscapes of Sam Richards


1.      Choose a landscape. It may be one you like, or it may be chosen by chance, or it may simply be a convenient one. You may wish to have a few walks or trips out in the car to decide. When you have chosen it find it on an Ordnance Survey Map.

2. Draw a straight line on your map, connecting two points.

3. Go for a walk along your straight line. Take a compass. If you encounter obstacles find a way round them, through them, under them, over them. As you go listen for any sounds you can hear. Sometimes stop and close your eyes. Try to imagine what sounds you would like to associate with this landscape. Are they electronic, synthesised, entirely natural, conventional musical instruments, instruments you may have to invent? Are they sounds that haven’t been invented yet? Make notes if necessary.

 4. With a fine pen, reinforce on your map where the contour lines cross your straight line. Note how many meters they represent. Then decide how long your piece of music is going to last, and make the line represent that length of time. Thus space is becoming time.

Exmoor Map

So read the first four steps of Sam Richards’ Landscape Music. It was the basis for a piece of musical composition that he developed for the area between Brendon Barton, Brendon, and Acklands, near Challacombe on Exmoor in 1990. But as you will have noticed it also offers a method that can be applied to any landscape anywhere. We could all take this idea and add our own variations on the theme for our own landscapes.

We discovered this piece and a sheaf of others in an archive in Dorset recently and thought they might be of interest to readers of The Clearing. Richards’ work serves as an unusual but very striking collision of two worlds: the avant-garde tradition of music with its propensity for risk and experimentation and vernacular folk traditions with their emphasis on community and their often playful relationship to landscape and place. These two have more in common that you might think, and Richards’ work draws out this potential in various ways. He goes on with ‘Step 5’ of Landscape Music:

5. Your line on your map now represents a time length. Make calculations so that, for example, 4 millimetres represents 30 seconds. The exact calculations will vary for each interpretation. Then place a ruler along your line and measure the distance between each occurrence of contour lines. Make notes of these distances. Perhaps an easy way would be on a chart. You have now worked out the time lengths between each change of sound.

 6. Now find out the lowest and the highest contour lines, and calculate some kind of logical series of musical pitches to correspond.

 7. Associate appropriate musical pitches with the points where the contours cross the line on the map, and indicate the timing of the appearance of each pitch. From this you can construct a musical score as a guide.

Exmoor Landscape Musical Notes

Landscape Music was performed in May 1990 at the Lynton and Lynmouth Festival of the Arts and Countryside in Lynton Town Hall. As the lower notes play on under the variation in the higher notes, the topography of a landscape emerges aurally with an almost sculptural body of sound, marrying the bulk of landform to the accumulation of musical notes. It is not so much the sound of the landscape (though this could be introduced later, in some formulation of the method) as sound, music, modelled on the landscape.

The poet Alice Oswald has described attempting to write poetry by way of a process of ‘echolocation’, a metaphor that dredges the semantics of language to bring the sonic richness to the surface. Echolocation also gets to the precise intersection of landmass and duration, the walker here travelling over the mapped route like the bounced sound waves of a sonar device. Shape and mass come to us developed into a temporal form, but one which is then fleshed out with a choice of instruments and sounds determined by the composer’s physical and imaginative presence in the landscape.

Exmoor Landscape Music1

In his teens, Sam Richards’ interest in music was ignited by John Cage, Cornelius Cardew, the Fluxus Group and AMM. Living in London during the 1960s, he was involved with performances, collaborations and the musical happenings at the Arts Lab in Drury Lane. But in 1967 and ‘68 he studied under the French avant-gardist Michel Decoust in Dartington, Devon. This encouraged him to move permanently to Devon, in 1969, where he still lives today.

This was a time which saw the beginnings of ‘environmental art’ in London. Not then the environmental art that we might recognise today, but art that was rethinking its relationship to its own environments. In 1969 Peter Joseph and Timothy Drever had challenged the art world for being bound up with commodity fetishism, suggesting that this ‘increasingly isolates the artist from the public’, channelling work ‘at best into a museum, at worst into an investor’s cellar’. They were calling for a movement in the arts that would serve as ‘a bridge to the real world’. Stuart Brisley was asking: ‘[t]o what extent does the artist maintain responsibility for the implications within his artistic processes beyond production?’ Richard Long and Hamish Fulton were beginning to propose that a walk in a remote location could be considered as a form of conceptual sculpture, rethinking the way that proportion, form, duration and the body interacted beyond a gallery environment.

Broadly speaking there was a careful interrogation of the relationship between the modernist and avant-garde traditions, as they were being continued into the late twentieth century, and what Raymond Williams has called the ‘persistent intellectual hegemony of the metropolis’. Richards’ move to Devon brought him into contact with the oral song and music traditions of Exmoor and Dartmoor children’s lore, Gypsies and farming communities. He developed an interest in, and has dedicated much of his life to, the vernacular tradition of music or, as he puts it, simply, ‘the music people create when they are relatively distant from formal and/or commercial forces’. This mixture between the experimental tradition of the twentieth century avant-garde and the regionally located folk traditions of a rural area was, and we feel still is today, very fertile ground.

Richards saw potential to bring the two together for mutual benefit, locating the experiments of the avant-garde in the more ubiquitous contexts of folk music, connecting them more sociably with the life, culture and concerns of a given community. And just as the abstraction of the avant-garde is challenged to become more socially engaged, so the conservative tendencies that can exist within such rural contexts might also be challenged to be more open to the experimental, contributing to and even steering the experiment themselves.

One project planned but never executed was Morchard Map, a musical Parish Map of the mid-Devon village of Morchard Bishop in the tradition of the arts and environmental charity Common Ground’s Parish Maps. As the brief describes ‘working with children and adults we will be devising musical moments as direct illustrations of local feelings about the village, its features and its people. Techniques of scoring will include many devices created by post war experimental composition: graphics, word scores, indeterminacy, as well as staff notation.’

You can imagine the composition that might have resulted with collaged textures of song, speech, story, melody, rhythm and voice, distinctive and emerging from the people themselves with the help of a very resident composer. Richards goes into greater depth regarding this method of working in his book Sonic Harvest, asking how music might ‘assimilate or express the concepts of democracy, equality and community’. What Morchard Map proposed was a way of deploying radical techniques of experimentation to equip a community to represent their place in such a way that puts the place and the people first. Here are ways of making the music yours, it says, and making it new. Landscape Music and the plans for Morchard Map offer us surprising ways of experiencing or contemplating a place. They are lenses or filters through which our sense of that place is refreshed and enriched. But they also tell their very particular story of a historical moment when traditions overlapped.

No view, no map, no life lived in a place is the final story. No totality exists, nor will it ever. As the great author of the Irish landscape Tim Robinson describes, with a self-effacing wryness, on the cliffs of the Aran Islands: ‘once again I have failed to be in this strange place […] So I promise to come back and try again, to approach it from a different angle, take it by storm or moonlight, bring a measuring tape or a bottle of wine.’ The joy of a place is in this impossibility to produce the final word on it, and the playful continuation of the relationship that this suggests generation after generation.


You can find out more about Sam’s work at


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