A Closer Listen, September 17th 2015

Mark Lyken | Emma Dove: Mirror Lands (Deluxe Edition)

One of our favorite field recording works of last year, Mark Lyken and Emma Dove‘s Mirror Lands, is about to get the deluxe treatment from Time Released Sound. Those who missed it last time will have another shot this Sunday! To celebrate the re-release, we’ve slightly edited our initial review to reflect the new edition.

We last encountered Mark Lyken and Emma Dove with their installation-based EP and video The Terrestrial Sea. Their new work expands on that prior release and continues an investigation of the sonic and visual properties of Scotland’s Black Isle.

Time Released Sound is presenting the work in two versions: a regular and a deluxe edition. Both editions include the soundtrack and a link to the film, while the deluxe edition includes additional ephemera (shown above): vintage prints, maps and pages from travel books, all honoring the location of the film.

The film is directed and lensed by Lyken and Dove, who share soundtrack duties as well. While the soundtrack stands on its own, it makes a lot more sense in the larger context. Sea birds cry and swoop against a black backdrop before the piano and narration are introduced. A distant train whistle competes with a cell phone. Now there is conversation and rain. At the two-minute mark, the visual element fills in a gap: we are listening to wind turbines. On the album, the first track is called “Crom Queen” and is separated by silence from the second; in the film, the mix is continuous. A narrative blend of history and memory provides a home-spun sense. Already at this point, the score of the film is diverging from the film. Many viewers and listeners will be torn, needing to experience both versions before expressing a preference. The camera dives into soft silt, then frames rolls of hay; ambient music fades to field recordings. The sound mix is incredible.

This is not a documentary in the strictest sense, but more of an impressionistic collage, with many dialogue-free stretches. Lauren MacColl speaks of a sense of calm in opposition to the “rugged” west coast, concluding “it has a certain peace for me”. An aerial interlude brings this point home. A simple shot of shoreline spectators does the same thing; there’s something universally soothing about the sight and sound of surf, however small. A goat will break the mood a few minutes later, but it’s a small sacrifice to experience such a sweet wonder. Scene by scene the film unfolds, with only light musical accompaniment to augment the field recordings: never invasive, integrated so well it seems like part of the landscape.

Yes, there are bagpipes. But some unintentional humor is connected with their appearance. In the 27th minute of the film, the bagpipes play in the distance, a fog horn sounds up front and an ocean liner appears on screen. One wonders where the musicians are. Then one hears these words: “We try not to get too close to them ... but we do get closer than other people can. They spend the majority of their time underwater. People ask me if I would ever want to swim with them. I don’t think I ever will ... some of them can weigh up to 500 kilos.” Oh, those Scottish bagpipers! Wait ... she’s talking about dolphins!

One of the most impressive images is that of tall trees, seen from the ground, swaying in the wind. One thinks, “I want to see those trees.” But Mirror Lands is more than just an invitation to visit the Scottish Highlands; most of us have tall trees too (except in Iceland). Instead, it’s an invitation to give the landscape a closer look and yes, a closer listen. Whenever we encounter videos and sounds of this nature, we tend to think of how wonderful another place is, but Lyken and Dove demonstrate how one’s natural habitat can be turned into a wonderland. All one needs are the right eyes and the right ears.

by Richard Allen