Can Music Represent Gardens?

by John Powell, Visiting Research Fellow in the School of Architecture and the Built Environment, University of Adelaide



Let me introduce myself. My name is John Powell and I come to the blog with a primary interest in the fine arts within the Western tradition. My background is in music, landscape architecture and philosophy and, in my research, I enjoy looking for (dis)connections between those disciplines.1

In this post I will explain a little about my present area of research. To begin, I invite you have a look/listen to some of the video below. It shows the fountains playing in the gardens of the Villa d’Este in Tivoli, near Rome, and also contains a performance of Franz Liszt’s piano piece The Fountains of the Villa d’Este.

Some questions

The video and music raise several interesting questions. Let’s start with two philosophical ones about representation: Can gardens represent anything other than themselves? And, can music represent anything other than itself?2 And, if the answers to these questions are even a tentative “perhaps”, then we can go one step further and ask: can music represent gardens? And can gardens represent music?3 In this post, I will develop some ideas around answering the first part of this last question.

Experiencing gardens and music

We experience gardens primarily through the sense of sight but also through the senses of smell, touch, and kinaesthesia, with taste and hearing playing subsidiary roles. By contrast, we experience music almost exclusively through hearing, although kinaesthesia and sight do play subsidiary roles. To put it plainly, a blind person is typically unable to grasp the essence of a garden and a deaf person (pace Evelyn Glennie) typically cannot experience music in a conventional way.

Experiencing gardens through music

So, trying to communicate in the language of music what a garden is, what emotions and thoughts it provokes, what physical layout it has, and what an experience of it amounts to seems an extremely challenging task. Yet composers as diverse as Liszt, Falla, Delius, Cage, Ives, and Takemitsu have attempted to do so, and some would argue they have succeeded. These and other composers in the Western “classical” tradition have sometimes even set out to describe in their music particular gardens, and the experiences associated with them, and they have found inspiration in gardens in Europe, UK, USA. and Japan, but not, as far as I am aware, in Australasia.

Experiencing gardens and music through time

Gardens and music are both temporal arts.4 Gardens change over time and it takes time for us to experience them; and music is, of course, the temporal art par excellence. So, if music is successful in representing gardens, how does a composer manage to represent these temporal dimensions of gardens? Is music able to represent time(s) external to its own progress and, in particular, times related to the existence of physical places and our experiences of those places? Or, failing that, does a composer simply represent a static “picture” of a garden, thereby missing out on one of gardens’ most important characteristics.


All the questions above hinge on questions of ekphrasis; that is, the understanding or re-presentation of one art form in the framework, constraints, and opportunities of a different (art) medium. We are so used to photographic, filmic, and written accounts of gardens that we seldom question their existence, “accuracy”, or relevance. What I want to do now in my research is to thoroughly question the success or otherwise of musical ekphrastic accounts of gardens. Can a composer successfully represent a garden? Or is she deluded in trying to do so? Or are we listeners deluded when we appear to hear the scents, hear the colours, hear the sun, hear the flowers, and hear time passing in a garden?

Stay posted!

[1] For some earlier research on music and gardens see:  Ismay Barwell and John Powell. “Gardens, Music, and Time.” In Gardening: Cultivating Wisdom, 136-47. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010.

[2] Liszt’s inscription on the score made it clear his intention was not simply to compose a sound picture of these fountains, but these gardens and the music are a well-known pairing and a useful place to start.

[3] The Toronto Music Garden, inspired by Bach’s Suite in G major for cello, as performed by Yo Yo Ma, is one well known example of a garden representing music. Many years ago, I read of another such garden, based, if my memory serves me correctly, on a passacaglia by Britten. I have lost track of this garden. If anyone knows of it can they please let me know.

[4] For investigations into gardens’ temporality see: John Powell. “What Is Temporal Art? A Persistent Question Revisited.”  Contemporary Aesthetics 13(2015); Dancing with Time: The Garden as Art. Oxford: Peter Lang, 2019.

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