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(This is a lightly edited transcript of a filmed interview that can be watched by clicking on the image above.)
Vivien Williams: Hello, I’m Vivien Williams and I am a research assistant at the University of Glasgow where I also completed recently a Ph.D on the cultural history of the bagpipe in Britain. The bagpipe is something I have been interested in since I was about sixteen. I’ve been developing this kind of interest, which is why I’m here today to talk with Kirsty Gunn about her novel, The Big Music.
Kirsty Gunn: And hello, I am Kirsty Gunn and I am a writer of fiction – long fiction and short fiction. I teach [the MLitt in] Writing Study and Practice here at the University of Dundee. It’s my great pleasure to be in conversation with Vivien about my book, The Big Music, that was written around and about, and to sound like, I hope, the piobaireachd.
VW: It’s often known as the classical music of the bagpipe, isn’t it? Kirsty, what you’ve done with your book is that you have essentially brought to life a piobaireachd by writing it in words. So The Big Music is piobaireachd in words, which is almost like the twenty-first century version of some previous literary avant-garde experiments… We can think of Duncan Ban MacIntyre and the “Praise to Ben Dorain”, for example, or Alasdair mac Mhaighstir Alasdair, who were poets who themselves wrote poems, structuring them as a piobaireachd. So a piobaireachd is very much a theme on variation, isn’t it, for the bagpipe? And [yet]… while a poem can be perhaps read in the time that a piobaireachd can last, the approach with a novel [must be]… slightly different. How do you feel that the novel factor interacts [with the piobaireachd form, contributes to it]?
KG: That’s a really beautiful way to open this discussion, Vivien, because I think this issue of time and of experience, as you say, is central to the whole ethos of the piobaireachd. Because the piobaireachd is this beautiful musical form that takes a great deal of consideration and concentration, but, as you say, this is one specific moment in time, the hearing of this music… whereas, to read a novel, is a series of interrupted moods… However, there are ways in fiction that we can continue that atmosphere, keep the sounds of the notes alive in our minds in similar ways that you might say that the bagpipe itself achieves. So, we have a limited scale, we have certain repetitions of musical ideas, we have, of course, in the case of the bagpipes, the mighty drone that is providing a sort of long breve beneath the music of the words…. I was interested in all of these things in the writing of the book… [and] even though the reader has to interrupt him or herself somehow that ongoing sound and musical idea could continue.
VW: In that way, with the breaks in the experience [of] picking up the novel and reading, and then interrupting, you have the notes… reverberating almost in you, in your experience as you read it. Now one striking thing about the narrative technique that you use is you have a very interesting way of using first person [which] then switches into third person. Then you have different voices that keep coming into the novel and woven together. Sometimes it’s almost difficult to discern between reality and fiction, and this relates to the theme of The Big Music itself because there is some reality, there is some fiction… it’s difficult to understand what the boundaries are in the novel. Is this a way of “speaking piobaireachd” for you?
KG: I love that phrase, “speaking piobaireachd”. That’s a perfect expression for what I’m trying to achieve. What we’re talking about is a kind of magic, isn’t it? You know, better than most, about the mysteries and depths of this musical form. And the fact is that when you’re around the pipes being beautifully played, one of the great piobaireachds… generated in the space around you, you are in a magic place. I mean there are parts in the book, and in sections of the appendices and reference notes where I refer to certain magical nights of the big music being played. Now, that kind of magic, I think is something that interests me as a writer altogether. That that kind of reverberation, again to use your lovely word, might come off the page and play with us. So the issues of what is real and what isn’t ‒ is this character the same as that character there, and what am I [as a reader] to make of that ‒ all of this kind of… making strange, we might say, that kind of magical experience is key to my literary interests. But of course these come to bear mightily in a book that is about and tries to be, in itself, piobaireachd.
VW: Well, yes, and also from using the cue of what you mentioned of the appendices, your book is structured in such a way that it is a continuous cross-reference between various sections of the book, references to the appendices that includes maps, includes reported speech, dialogues, interviews and history of the land. In this way, it’s a complex kind of read which really gives a three-dimensional feel to the reading experience. That’s my view, how I interpreted it; but I would like to hear your point of view about it ‒ this structure which really unpacks the piobaireachd as a musical genre, unpacks the tradition of piping in Scotland, unpacks the history of the land, the history of the characters, the people. It sort of gives the people back to the land, let’s say. I saw it as a way of demystifying so many notions that are supposedly common knowledge about the bagpipe, about bagpiping and about Scotland and Scottish traditions, but that are actually sometimes superficial and not entirely accurate. So I interpreted [your book]… as really a way to show what’s in the tradition of piping to the wider audience.
KG: Gosh, I think that was absolutely part of it, you know. I mean, like everything I write, and again to go back to this magic idea, there is something mysterious at the heart of the project that generates it. And for me, I guess, you might say the mystery was the mystery of the music and that is at the beginning of the book. But, I have to agree with you, certainly a large part of my desire to make this book was to bring this aspect of Scottish culture out into the light because, as you say, the bagpipes generally are a misunderstood instrument. People have all kinds of… notions… about the instrument itself, and then we’ve got the music. For most people, they think they know the pipes because they’ve heard, I don’t know, “Scotland The Brave” being played in Waverley Gardens during the Festival or something of that sort. Whereas in actual fact, there’s this extraordinarily complicated musical form associated with it. And yes, that was part of my “unpacking”, to use your word. I wanted to create an experience, a reading experience that gave all that information as part of your read.
VW: I want to have an overview of piobaireachd structure. We also find the piobaireachd structure reflected and explained very well and copiously in your notes. So, piobaireachd as a piece of music, has a variation [on a theme] structure. The theme is the urlar, which essentially lays the ground of the melody, then the melody in the various following sections of a piobaireachd; we have a taorluath and then the crunluath and then the final a mach section. The melody is then picked up and elaborated into further variations which by the a mach section, pretty much make the melody stray so much from the original that it’s difficult to discern the little cues, the little hints of the urlar that come through in the piobaireachd itself. The way I’ve interpreted this in your novel is [relates to] the repetition of various sentences, various phrases like, “I don’t mind” or like “Hush”. There are little concepts and little phrases that are repeated throughout your novel and which, for me, constitute the urlar sort of coming out, re-emerging throughout the various sections. Is that how you interpret it as well?
KG: Absolutely, and that was my intention. It was to create, if you like, a collection or a pattern of notes in that urlar, in the opening section, and to have that be repeated as a theme. And, as you say, as the embellishments increase, by the time we get to the a mach movement, where is that original melody? And as you say, its shape is almost the absence of it. It’s a kind of beautiful, and I love this Japanese word, satori, which means absent centre. So, yes, to hear it there… [even though] in fact that it’s not there… is such an extraordinary aesthetic idea, as is this idea of reflexivity in itself. I’ve talked to my father who’s a piper, about this a lot ‒ the idea of the a mach movement [as]… something that is both reflecting and reflexive. It is there to show off the extraordinary technical content of the music itself and also the ability of the piper. And may I also say, Vivien, that beautiful moment when piobaireachd is being performed, the a mach is often the moment when the piper comes to a place of stillness. And often the head is bowed as well. So it’s this kind of gesture of humility and a kind of an absence. We’re returning again to this concept of satori. All of these things, I was hoping to achieve in the structure of the book and the way we read it.
VW: Well, that’s interesting though, you mention the fact that the a mach is, we can say, the part of the piobaireachd where the piper has to express himself… [to] elaborate in his personal way, [to] put himself into the piobaireachd. One would then expect that if the a mach is the section of the piobaireachd where it’s the piper’s turn to express himself, [and] the piper in your book is John Callum, the man who composed the excerpt of piobaireachd on which the novel is pretty much based… given also your explanation of what the a mach stands for, one would almost expect as a reader, to find the a mach section dedicated to a solo, let’s say, in words, by John Callum. But it’s not. So what are you doing there?
KG: Well, I guess what I’m trying to achieve is that satori. So by bringing in everything else except him, we have him [John Callum] both at the heart of our project but also absent from it. And of course this is also part of a literary idea ‒ to replace that self with another self. So the agency for the book, instead of coming from this central patriarch, comes from a woman who is a daughter and a mother.
VW: A woman. Exactly… would it be inappropriate to say it’s a feminist twist that you give to the piping tradition which is very much seen as a male performing world.
VW: In this case, the one who’s elaborating the melody in words is Helen.
VW: So would you see that in terms of feminism, as a feminist twist? Or..
KG: Yes, I mean why not? Why not grab that word and use it? It’s interesting, isn’t it? Because even as I grab that word and use it, [and] I agree with you, the pipes, the piobaireachd (we’re talking about a male world), I am of the generation, am old-fashioned enough to have been brought up by a father who plays this traditional music. I have never heard a woman play piobaireachd that I thought had the same presence or meaning as the male who plays that music. So, this is… the very opposite of a feminist reading of the book. But I want the book to be capacious in these ways. In the ways that the form itself is capacious. That it might allow for some kind of privileging of the male while also letting the women in. And there’s something about this, you know, this table [of male names], the generations of, you know, that famous phrase ‒ it takes seven generations to make a piper and so on. I love this idea [of]… generations. There are also seven generations of women who are also making the pipers. This… capaciousness, I think, is elemental and so important in creative arts and in our thinking about the imagination. The imagination is unbounded. And it takes us to all kinds of dangerous and antisocial places and difficult places. But, yes, to allow for a Helen as well as a John Callum, I’m allowing for matriarchy and patriarchy.
VW: Sure. And as you mentioned, there were the generations of pipers. I have here the table of pipers at the Grey House. And one of the things that is noticeable, we have John Roderick MacKay, Roderick John Sutherland, John Elder Roderick Callum Sutherland, John Callum Mackay Sutherland. So you have all these names, which are… traditionally names that have been sent down from generation to generation, but even the weaving in of these names within the novel creates this echoing kind of effect which reminded me of Wuthering Heights… very similar names or people sharing the same name which creates a very bizarre feeling of instability, of not knowing where you’re…
KG: I like that. But also this concept of, perhaps, a collective self. And again we see this in the tradition of piobaireachd and the pipes, this same kind of – I’m using that word again – humility, I’m thinking of this word, satori, because there is an absence of the ego. There is the irrelevance of the player set next to the tune…. [In] our understanding of how… the form of piobaireachd has been passed down from generation to generation, there’s an enormous sense of collective responsibility around that. So we don’t have one individual claiming for himself particular privileges of performance or knowledge or expertise. But we have instead this beautiful generosity. That to me is very interesting. I mean the great MacCrimmon tradition and so on, sits so squarely in the centre of the piobaireachd tradition that barely anyone can get close to it, let alone set their name to it. So, yes, part of that “coming down the generations” [is]… because they’re all the same. We are all the same.
VW: Thinking about piobaireachd, then… because of the scale of the bagpipe, we only have nine notes in the… great Highland bagpipe scale, the whole world, the whole narrative of a piobaireachd has to be formed within this limited framework of these nine notes. I don’t know what your opinion is but I found that there were perhaps nine main characters in your novel. I don’t know if this is me reading so much in to it or if it was a conscious choice. But I was thinking of the characters, John, Callum, Margaret, Helen, Iain, Katherine Anna, and John’s father, John’s mother and Callum’s wife who are really, I found, the characters who made the story progress. Was that a conscious decision for you or not?
KG: It’s such an interesting question and one that has huge implications in terms of the discussion about creativity and how the imagination works. As I say, I wanted to make a book that sounded like the piobaireachd. I knew I had these characters. And I also knew from my reading and discussions that there is an idea – not held by everybody – but there is an idea that certain notes in that piobaireachd scale relate to certain emotions, feeling states. So, it was, I guess, a year or two in – the book took a long time to write – I realised, oh, yes, my characters do have a note and a sound and yes, I am dealing entirely with that scale and that kind of limitation, in a way, that would allow me a kind of infinity…. But it wasn’t [there]… when I set up to write the book. I knew I was going to work with piobaireachd structure [but] I hadn’t figured out right at the beginning that I was going to use the literal scale as well. But it’s something about modernist practice. You know, by making the work we listen to it, and we learn from it. And as I started to move into my drafts, I could hear that’s what the story wanted to tell me.
VW: I was wondering whether perhaps each character might have their specific note. Because as you say, there’s this kind of synaesthesia in the bagpipe scale whereby – you also give details in your appendices about what each note signifies ‒ piper is really using each note to convey a certain meaning. So, for example, the F, is the note of love and so forth. And we can see certain excerpts throughout your book where you identify certain characters with a certain note or with a certain scheme of notes, a certain frame of notes. But apart from the framework of the nine notes, another striking feature of the great Highland bagpipe and, indeed, most bagpipes, is the drone. So, the drone which provides the background, this constant background over which everything is then narrated, and so I interpreted the drone of the book as the landscape. If you think on how a piobaireachd begins, how a piper would pick up the bagpipe, inflate the bag, and the first thing that sounds is the drone, [even] before he can articulate the notes from the chanter. And this is what I find in the very beginning, the first movement, the urlar. We have, “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.” So, you start off your novel with a description of the landscape as music. So is that also how you had seen the drone? As the landscape?
KG: Absolutely. That’s it exactly. That sense of a base note, a certainty, something from which, no matter how far we stray or appear to stray, we will never leave and are rooted to… that was core to the project. And indeed, that word urlar, our first movement, means “ground” too, doesn’t it? So this is when the composition is laying out its intentions and its shape, if you like, so I have this opportunity as a writer to make my place of the book. So we have this particular part of Sutherland and everything is – although the book refers to other places and so on – everything somehow comes back and collects around that.
VW: Yes, and so because, as you say, the area you are speaking about is Sutherland ‒ but the surname of the main family that you are speaking of is also Sutherland. So it’s as if, really, the people go back to the land and they are all part of one whole which becomes, in a way, the drone of everything. Whatever happens in their lives, they are still inextricably connected to the land and the landscape.
KG: Yes, that sense of inevitability, that idea of return, that sense of homing, of the music being homed somewhere, centred somewhere – these are all key to the principles of the book. And, Vivien, to go back to your earlier remark about… the structure of the music and so on [that] brings about certain effects, whether they are to do with character or what that character does, this is, a kind of what I’ve learned to call a logoedic effect, which we see in some classical writing – prose, always, quite long prose. We have the awareness, the self-consciousness of using certain phrases and rhythms, certain repetitions, in particular ways to gain an effect ‒ a particular emotional effect. In the same way that we might hear a semibreve as having a particular part to play in terms of our emotional response to that. Or the way an A flat doesn’t have the same brightness as the D. These kinds of things as well.
VW: Well, thank you very much, Kirsty, for this lovely session. It’s been very informative for me, especially, as I said, in the light of my interest in the bagpipe. This really expands the idea of the scope of the bagpipe and its tradition, and its potential in the modern world ‒ its validity in the twenty-first century. So thank you for your novel and thank you for today and thank you all for listening.
KG: And thank you, Vivien. And thank you for listening. What a pleasure it’s been.