A story of notes

The Big Music, by Kirsty Gunn, Faber & Faber RRP£20, 472 pages

Samuel Beckett was citing Proust’s artistic credo when he said “the tasks and duties of a writer are those of a translator”, with the understanding that the text being translated exists inside the artist.

This remarkable novel by New Zealand-born writer Kirsty Gunn takes the mission literally, presenting itself as the prose embodiment of a piobaireachd (pronounced pe-brohh) – or piece of bagpipe music – known in the Highlands of Scotland, where such music originated, as Ceol Mor or “The Big Music”. It’s not the most promising of set-ups for those, like me, with scant knowledge of bagpipe music, and even less appreciation of it. Let’s face it, the “strange, mismatched scale” of the bagpipes, as Gunn describes it, can be alarming to unaccustomed ears. And there is some trickery to deal with: in a foreword, Gunn presents what follows as her “arrangement” of “papers” that came her way while researching a short story set in the Highlands.

Given that Gunn teaches creative writing at the University of Dundee, and that she thanks real people for their help in making sense of these “papers” – including the director of the Scottish Arts Council and two Virginia Woolf scholars – it’s a convincing conceit.

It’s only when one begins the first chapter – or “movement” – that one starts to suspect. The poetic force of the writing is not the appropriated work of a hitherto undiscovered piper from the past but that of a novelist of some distinction – one attempting to recreate, no less, the inimical sound of bagpipe music, and the shape of Ceol Mor, in words.

It’s an ambition that harks back to the great modernists of the 20th century and The Big Music certainly demands that readers put themselves into the same headspace as they would before embarking on a novel by, say, William Faulkner, James Joyce or Woolf. As with those modernists, there is also a story here, a moving one, involving emotionally distant fathers and self-exiled sons, of bagpipe music being handed down through generations, along with loves that cannot, or will not, be expressed. All wrapped up in the great themes of Ceol Mor itself – abandonment, longing and loneliness.

The story begins with old John Callum MacKay Sutherland, sixth in a line of Sutherland pipers, striding over the moor to his “Little Hut” to finish what will be his last composition, “Lament to Himself”. In his arms he carries a three-month-old baby, stolen from her cot while the rest of the household slept. Sutherland believes the baby, and this chase across the moor, will give him the remaining ingredients for his lament, the “fine sound of the skylarks coming through the air now and then like little strokes of colour, little High ‘E’ notes striking through the light And the sound of his taking of her, the ‘A’, and the drop from the horror of what he’s done – to ‘G’”.

These quasi-literal translations of landscape and emotions to music apply to characters too: Margaret, Sutherland’s housekeeper and lifelong lover, is denoted by a High “A”, a note that must be “reached for”. But it is in the rhythm of Gunn’s intensely poetic sentences that the music is really conveyed to the reader. In Ceol Mor, a main theme, or “ground” is introduced at the beginning and then repeated with variations. In Gunn’s prose version, single words (“Margaret”), are repeated, as are whole refrains (“I’ll not be back!”) and speech patterns (“Is why he lives now...” as the beginning of a sentence). The story keeps circling back on itself as well, through different characters’ perspectives.

Gunn points up these stylistic effects in footnotes that, though academic in tone, reveal themselves as part of the conceit, as they, too, repeat themselves, insisting over and over again on the significance of, for instance, the Grey House, where the Sutherlands lived and developed their piping school. Indeed, this novel offers a remarkable study in the power of repetition – how words and phrases, repeated, take on a larger life, like chants or mantras.

One wearies a little of the repetition towards the end, and the dominance of sound means that other senses are neglected. There are few smells or tastes in this book, and we don’t glean much about the landscape beyond its “indifference”, its peat and its heather.

But perhaps this is missing the point. Reading The Big Music is intended to be a musical experience – concerned, as music is, with mood and emotion. And anything that bagpipe music doesn’t do, The Big Music won’t do either. Gunn is to be applauded for her ambition – and for making this reader, at least, not just open to the idea of bagpipe music but eager to try out her newly informed ears.

Susan Elderkin is author of ‘The Voices’ (Harper Perennial)

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