Landscape as a form of inspiration for music is not new. Composers have been fascinated with nature and have tried to capture its essence since the very dawn of communication, striving to somehow conjure up images of distant places (or, indeed, near places) and accurately describe them. Some are more successful than others. Richard Skelton’s work, which emulates the grey and barren landscape of Lancashire and the west coast of Ireland, is the stand out example in recent memory. His influence can be felt on a whole host of artists. And perhaps Hampshire’s Alex Smalley has taken a small note from his book on his latest album, his fourth, Home. Inspired by his travels abroad, this is a warm and exotic rumination on the landscapes and environments that Smalley has visited.
Researching the places named in the song titles becomes something of a geography lesson with each piece of music based on a specific location. The album opens with ‘La Sanda Verde’ which is a privately run eco-tourism resort in Bolivia. The music explodes with a crackle and whipcrack shots, as if the journey to this place is chaotic, noisy and disorientating. However, it quickly moves into a series of subtle tones and rising waves of strings and vocals. The music is almost mournful, as if Smalley is disappointed that these exotic flora and fauna can only exist in these privately run enclaves.
The vocals are provided by soprano Patricia Boynton and her voice is a beautiful instrument in its own right. ‘Isla Del Sol’, Island of the Sun, is located on the southern part of Lake Titicaca in Bolivia. In the religion of the Inca’s it is believed their sun god was born here. And it’s this religious connotation that prevails. Boynton’s voice, coupled with the free flowing strings, gives the track a lofty, spiritual sound, as if the music resides in a cathedral, living and breathing in an cavernous nave. It’s a thrillingly emotive and rousing piece of music, the instruments chiming together in perfect unison. ‘Pampas (Rurre)’ follows a similar structure: the strings soar whilst the piano delicately and faultlessly plays around Boynton’s angelic voice which rises and rises skywards. ‘Salkantay Trail’, a trail through old Inca territory, evokes high mountains, snow capped peaks and an air of gentle calm and composure,as if at these lofty heights, all mundane and earthly cares are forgotten and lost in the enormity of the perspective.
‘Camino De Las Yungas’ has a darker air to it, reflecting the locations rather insalubrious moniker of the “world’s most dangerous road”. Between 200 and 300 travellers are killed on it each year, and crosses litter its length marking the casualties. Boynton’s extraordinary voice is put to good use here again, the angelic tones guiding these lost souls to their rightful place. The strings no longer soar, but are tighter and deeper warning of the dangerous sheer drops. Here the piano acts as a guide picking a simple and delicate path and taking care of the weary traveller.
After been taken on this exhausting journey around South America, it seems fitting that the album is simply called Home. It’s on return to familiar grounds that you get the chance to view your travels with perspective. These might be more rose-tinted than some of his contemporaries, but Home doesn’t suffer for this. The music makes me want to visit these exotic places, to breath the same air and gaze upon these amazing vistas for myself. The music is so emotive and descriptive that you can do little else but be inspired. Smalley can rightly be added to the list of successful composers who’ve managed to not only be inspired by nature, but accurately communicate it as well.