Extract from The Big Music

Read an extract from “The Big Music” by Kirsty Gunn, published by Faber & Faber on 5th July 2012.

Urlar: Opening Movement 

one/first paper

The hills only come back the same: I don’t mind, and all the flat moorland and the sky. I don’t mind they say, and the water says it too, those black falls that are rimmed with peat, and the mountains in the distance to the west say it, and to the north . . . As though the whole empty wasted lovely space is calling back at him in the silence that is around him, to this man out here in the midst of it, in the midst of all these hills and all the air. That his presence means nothing, that he could walk for miles into these same hills, in bad weather or in fine, could fall down and not get up again, could go crying into the peat with music for his thoughts maybe, and ideas for a tune, but none of it according him a place here, amongst the grasses and the water and the sky . . . Still it would come back to him the same in the silence, in the fineness of the air . . . I don’t mind, I don’t mind, I don’t mind. 

Is what there is 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. With this image of a man, born 83 years ago down out of these same hills, and how he might think now how the land doesn’t mind him, never has. Here he is walking in up the strath towards that far bend in the river and the loudest note could sound in his head and him follow it with a sequence and still this country, his country, would keep its own stillness and only give back to him the louder quiet, like the name of the tune itself could be I don’t mind, is what he’ll call it, ‘Lament for Himself’.[1]

It’s early morning but the sun is already well settled in the sky and there is no cloud near to cover it. Only a thin wind comes off the hill and makes it cooler than it was a second ago, but then it stops and it’s warm again. The man shifts the baby he’s carrying in his arms. In the wrappings and the cloth she’s quite difficult to hold. Still, he moves her again, lifting her higher into the crook of his elbow, and she doesn’t cry or twist, the ‘E’ note coming clear all around her, high and pure and steady, even now with her eyes closed. She’ll be all ‘E’ into ‘G’ notes just, the little theme he wants for her, the lullaby. So who cares if the cloths about her are flapping in the air? That carrying her’s not like the taking up of a parcel as he thought it would be? He needs her for the tune, even so. For listen: the sequence going now, from the ‘E’ to ‘G’ to ‘E’ to ‘A’ and repeat, you hear it? Johnnie does. The tune that’s new life coming out of old and the drone going heavy below . . .

Of course he needs to keep the child with him for the tune. And get that bit down he just heard onto a paper and quickly before it’s lost – but no time for it now. For they’ll be up by now, back at the house, going into his bedroom and realising he’s gone, seeing in the child’s mother’s room the empty basket. So he’ll need to keep walking, and faster if he can, with his good stride. Cutting down off the bank and onto the flat, heading westwards, no change of pace for a man practised all his life to show rigour in his walking, never idle on the grass. Take the stride on the flat just the same as on the steep hill, boy. Don’t think about stopping. The pattern of the walk lays down your ground.[2] Just as the sage-coloured grass at his feet can’t be anything than that colour this time of year, late summer by now you might say because of how warm it’s been sometimes and the air so clear but in the month’s heart is resting autumn, and just as that grass underfoot has that small bite to it still says a good summer’s past and the deer will be down right enough later in the month just for to tear at the sweetness and substance of the grass . . . So the tune will stay and you can’t change it, the ground laid out for the deer to come down.

He glances around to get his bearings though he barely needs to. There’s the river at his left, his ben[3] side, and he’ll be crossing it in a second to strike over the flat towards the base of Luath, take the small path up the side of the east face where it forms protection. The climbing of that part will be the steepest and most hard, then he’ll cut up the green face and over the top and down, and he’ll be running then, he thinks, oh, Johnnie. For won’t he then be free?

He looks down into his arm. She’s awake, the child is, giving him that fixed look but not judging, deep and thoughtful as though she’s from another world, as well she has been for she’s been with her mother . . .

‘Hush.” He whispers quietly like he’s seen her do, the baby’s mother, pokes in one of the little cloths to keep her from the breeze. ‘You know fine’ he answers her ‘what I’m doing with you here.’

[1] ‘Lament for Himself’ appears in various versions throughout the Appendices attached to this book but in the first instance is represented here as opening ‘remarks’, that is, the outline of a sequence of notes that introduce the main theme of isolation. This is created by a set of open intervals ‘B’ to ‘E’, ‘A’ to ‘A’, ‘B’ to ‘E’, ‘A’ to ‘A’ etc. that appear to sit against the emptiness of the background of the drone, the base line ‘A’ note. Appendix 10/i contains more details of this sequence, and manuscript.

[2] The Gaelic word ‘urlar’, the first movement of a piobaireachd, translates as ‘ground’ and lays down all the musical ideas of what will follow. Appendix 1l has more details of Piobaireachd structure and form.

[3] Common usage – ‘ben’ meaning at the back, or to the side, in this sense, it’s the favoured side of the hill. The Glossary has a list of Gaelic words and expressions used in this book.