DISCUSSED IN THIS ESSAY:The Big Music by Kirsty Gunn. Faber and Faber. 490pp., $12.89.
The opening lines of incantatory prose in The Big Music evoke the austere beauty of the northern reaches of the Scottish Highlands, its vast landscape of hills and moorland and the seemingly endless, silent space stretching out beneath an ever-changing sky. We are made to feel a sense of human non-belonging in this stark environment, an understanding of oneself as fundamentally alien no matter how familiar the land might be or become, even after a lifetime. Then comes another level of distancing, as the author wonders aloud how best to begin: with “a few words and the scrap of a tune put down for the back of the book in some attempt to catch the opening of the thing, how it might start.” Before long, scholarly-sounding footnotes appear that elucidate the meaning of various Gaelic terms and refer the reader to a set of appendices at the back of the book that contain maps, musical scores, transcripts from radio interviews, bibliographies, and various other documents pertaining to the history and structure of a type of music that explicate its complexity and gradually reveal its austere beauty. The reader soon understands that this is no ordinary novel: the aesthetic project at the heart of Kirsty Gunn’s recent work aims to recreate one form of art out of another, to develop a prose that mirrors the compositional form of the piobaireachd (pronounced pee-brohh), the Gaelic name for the classical bagpipe music of the Scottish Highlands.
The basic conceit of the book is to present itself as a compendium of found papers only partially converted into narrative form. Journal entries, files, transcribed dialogues, fragments of stories, and accounts of a family’s domestic history comprise the material from which The Big Music has been distilled—or so we are told. Fact and fiction blur as non-existent mountains are added to existing landscapes, family lineages are invented, academic research is simulated or actually conducted, and permanent archives are established in universities to conjure a world that might have been. We learn about a family that held fast to a swath of land during the great Scottish Clearances of the 18th and 19th centuries that drove untold thousands of poor rural Scots to the coastal areas and the Lowlands and abroad to Nova Scotia, that exercised foresight and prudence in managing their business affairs while at the same time upholding a musical tradition throughout seven generations, and that produced a lineage of men who were unable to express or even to know their own feelings—except, that is, in music.
Gunn takes this real and invented history and weaves a nuanced tale of fathers and sons, mothers and daughters that is patterned after the piobaireachd or Coel Mor, literally the “Big Music” of the classical Scottish bagpipe tradition, which consists of the following movements: the Urlar or opening movement, literally the ground laid as the basic musical theme; the Taorluath, which develops the theme’s complexity and is either identical with or includes the Leumlath or “Stag’s Leap,” a daring departure from the theme and a metaphor for creativity; the Crunluath or “Crowning,” a play of embellishments on the theme; and the Crunluath A Mach, the “Showing of the Crown” and a display of the piper’s virtuosity. The piece ends with a return to the opening theme of the Urlar. It is a musical form with a pentatonic scale, played exclusively on the great Highland bagpipe; it produces a timeless, haunting sound that seems to rise up from the landscape itself. And as the essential story of The Big Music emerges, meanders around itself, and gradually intertwines with new narrative strands, it is precisely this sound that Gunn seeks to recreate in her own spare and haunting prose.
Old John Callum MacKay Sutherland, sixth in a line of pipers, nearing the end of his life, takes a baby from its cradle and makes for the hills early one morning in an effort to finish a musical composition he has only conceived in part. His plan is to take her along the sligheach or secret way to a hut he’s built in a hidden part of the hills for the purpose of working in peace. His composition is called “Lament for Himself”; it is The Big Music of his life, and he needs the child to complete it, for new life to carry on after he has gone. In the old man’s musical imagination, schooled on the Coel Mor tradition, each note clearly stands for a person or event and embodies a kind of principle that interacts with the other notes of the composition. As he makes his way up the hill with the baby in his arms, the music he’s written begins to merge with his gait, his breath, with every thought he thinks and every move he makes.
John’s own note is the high “A,” which returns to itself again and again in keeping with his lifelong emotional isolation; gradually, a high “E,” the “echoing” note on the bagpipe scale, develops into a gentle theme for the baby, a kind of lullaby. Everything seems to be falling into place, when all at once the voice of the mother intrudes and a high “G” dropping to a low “G” awakens him to the horror of abducting an infant in its “crazy reach of notes, in that awful space between them.” It is only when he perceives himself through the lens of his own composition that John understands the ramifications of what he is doing—although the notes themselves have been written weeks before the actual deed. In other words, the music evinces what can only be called a prophetic quality as John gradually comes to grasp the meaning of what his composition is communicating to him from the depths of his own being.
Gunn’s aesthetic project reminds us that every art is essentially a translation from something inchoate within the artist’s consciousness into a form that can communicate content to others. And one of the book’s themes is the price this devotion exacts from the artist’s closest relationships. But there is another implication, resonating as it were between the lines. The origins of Coel Mor, classical bagpipe music, reach back into a largely unknown history throughout which the oral mnemonic teaching method of canntaireachd, the singing of the composition to commit it to memory, was considered a more accurate and enduring form of musical “notation” than a written score. This suggests that the laments, summonings, and salutes of this highly formalized musical tradition, in which the slightest variation or embellishment transports precise meaning, might have constituted its own language for recording history; might, like the poetry of the bards, have once been a vehicle for passing down tales of genealogy and clan lore. Indeed, writers, among them Proust, have frequently pondered the idea that music, somewhere in its ancient origins, could once have been a medium for a more direct form of communication among humans and for recording information in a manner that was somehow fundamentally truer than spoken or written language—in other words, that at some stage of our prehistory, the development of speech and the evolution of music were parallel endeavors with an open outcome.
Piobaireachd is the tradition that has defined and bound the Sutherland family for seven generations. It is also what has driven the pipers, all of them men, apart. Fathers absorbed in their music, largely inaccessible to their sons and passing both their remoteness and their talent down to them; mothers running entire households, giving whatever they can of themselves to offset the emotional loss. At the core of a great musical legacy that has prevailed against considerable odds is a sense of failed lives, of loneliness. John Sutherland’s Lament is not only for an old man about to leave this life, but also for everything he’s let slip past him. The opening bars of the Urlar or first movement are the “resigned inhalation and exhalation of a single man, lying in the dark and awaiting, at the end of his life, his death.” Again and again, he returns to the “Piper’s note,” the “A,” as “the sound of someone who’s not been able to remove himself from his own mind to see the ways and needs of others, for one minute, not for one minute.” Yet despite this, the high “G”—the note of sorrow—is always followed by the note of love, the “F.” Although he never fully realizes it, when John Sutherland returns to the place he was born, he is drawn back not by a house or a landscape, but by the only woman he has ever loved—the woman he should have made his wife—and by a daughter and granddaughter he never knew were his.
In The Big Music, the character that finally emerges as the narrator is the daughter, Helen MacKay. While Helen, herself a writer and scholar, is not necessarily the author’s alter ego, it’s clear that Gunn, in the meta-narrative emerging from the book’s appendices, uses Helen’s literary endeavors to provide essential information concerning the multiple levels on which The Big Music can be considered. One level is indicated by Helen’s (and Gunn’s) professed interest in literary modernism. Form and content converge in the modernist work; Gunn quotes T.S. Eliot in his foreword to Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood, which describes the modernist novel as “another kind of fiction that is nothing like a conventional story (…) but, like a poem, can be intricately and fully ‘written.’” When a human being becomes a fixed coordinate more real than a stretch of deeply familiar land or a family estate one was born on, the idea of location or place becomes elusive, more a quality or a state of being than a definition. And indeed, Gunn presents the narrative itself as a place, that is, as a space to inhabit rather than a representation that requires an outside reality to verify it.
Helen holds a doctorate in literature. There is mention of scholarly papers she is planning or has already written on the subject of women’s narratives, e.g., “The Metaphor of Lullaby” in Studies in the Maternal, or “The Lullaby as a Feminist Metaphor in Highland Literature.” Thus, in addition to her project of reviving the modernist novel, Gunn has woven a discreet subtext into her narrative as Helen investigates the feminist theoretical writing that has arisen around Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield, two writers she (like Gunn) has a special affinity for. For even as the story of the male artist and heir to a centuries-old tradition is underpinned by the story of his illegitimate (and unacknowledged) daughter whose academic career is curtailed when she returns home to bring up her child, Helen succeeds in drawing the map of her magnum opus as she weaves her father’s incomplete creative vision into her own. In other words, concealed within the narrative of the male genius is a far subtler study of the female artist and creative genius whose achievement is generally overlooked or ignored. It is on this level that Gunn asks how gender studies can provide a context for a deeper comprehension of the female role in literature and to rethink prevailing notions of the feminine and the creative. At the same time, to understand the coordinates of a woman like Helen’s mother, the housekeeper Margaret—all of whose life seems to have been given over to domestic servitude—is to reexamine and reconsider the invisibility of women and motherhood throughout history. As she contemplates her own life and the lives of her mother and grandmother, all of them bound together by an unspoken tradition of resisting the female role as it is generally defined and raising their children without a husband, she sees a larger narrative at work that spans generations. “The history of women in these places is always a quiet story, it’s quietly told,” Helen writes.
What strength is. And love. To be strong . . . but with an understanding, too, of that which is tentative and can be frail. Therefore to treasure love and return to it, going back and back again to that invisible thing, even when it has no currency in the world, when some may say it has given you nothing, says Margaret’s story in the end, return, to find the richness there.
It is the music underlying everything we do, the blood that flows through the arteries of our soul, the force that fuels the creative impulse, the singular thing that lends meaning to our lives.
Andrea Scrima is a writer, artist, and translator. Her first book, A Lesser Day, was published by Spuyten Duyvil Press (Brooklyn, New York, 2010). She is senior editor for the online journal Hyperion: On the Future of Aesthetics, has written for The Brooklyn Rail and The Rumpus, and blogs at Stories I tell myself when I can’t get to sleep at night.
The Cuillin Hills on the Isle of Skye, photo by A. Scrima
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