I first came across the term ‘The Big Music’ with reference to The Waterboys in the early 1980s. It was the name of a track on their 1984 album, ‘A Pagan Place’ and I think it was Mike Scott, in an interview from that time, who explained this was what the band aimed to make; music that looked at the wonders of the natural world, and tried to capture that in an ‘epic’ manner. This label was soon applied to other bands such as Echo and the Bunnymen, U2, Simple Minds (before all three upped the levels of production), Hothouse Flowers and In Tua Nua, but no-one would come as close to fulfilling Scott’s template as those early Waterboys’ albums.
Reading the opening of Kirsty Gunn’s equally epic novel ‘The Big Music’ I had an inkling of where the music obsessed Scott may have been inspired to talk this way in the first place. Gunn uses the term as a definition of pìobaireachd, a classical composition form of the Highland bagpipe. If I can quote from the book;
“It is music that is written to be played outside or in a wide open space that may best set off its sound and range and scale, addressing large themes of loss and longing, of recognition and salute and farewell…And so is music that cannot make itself be small.”
Large in scale, all encompassing, and ‘addressing themes of loss and longing’, that is at the heart of ‘The Big Music’, and is a perfect description of Gunn’s novel. It is one of the most ambitious to feature on these pages, and it is not only about music, but is inspired by music; in the rhythm of the language, and in the lives of the characters. It is a lament for the past, for the passing of time, and for the loss of a culture, (of which music is only a part), which is unavoidable as a consequence.
By concentrating on the much maligned bagpipe, you may think that this sounds as if it is a novel obsessed with its own Scottishness, but all of the above will be applicable to other cultures wherever they are found, and it should be noted, although not overplayed, that Gunn is originally from New Zealand. What it does create is an unforgettable sense of place by looking not only at the people, but the landscape which shaped them, and the culture which arose from both.
The central character is John Sutherland, and the novel opens with him striding the hills of Sutherland in the Highlands with a tune in his head and a baby in his arms. He feels that this course of action is the only way he can capture the tune as he needs to. From this arresting introduction Gunn creates a world which the reader has to inhabit as completely as John does, as he recounts a personal and shared history that he fears will be lost as he nears the end of his own life.
There’s only one song to be used as our musical interlude; of course, it is ‘The Big Music’ by The Waterboys, and there are few bands I would rather listen to:
As a bonus, here is a short film inspired by Gunn’s novel, read by Brian Cox, and which gives you an idea of the wonderful expressive nature of the text:
There has been a lot of talk recently about the best Scottish novels, and if Kirsty Gunn’s ‘The Big Music’ isn’t on everyone’s list then I can only assume it is because those people haven’t read it yet. It is breathtaking in its attention to detail, and the prose has a wonderful lyricism which matches the novels themes. Other voices from members of John’s family punctuate his story, and their reaction to what unfolds adds layers of emotion and perspective to proceedings. Lovers of footnotes and appendices are in for a treat, and they fill in the gaps in terms of history, geography and even geology. There is also a List of Additional Materials, and you don’t have to know your lullaby from your lament or your taorluath from your urlar as there is a glossary of terms as well.
Complex and involving, and demanding of its readers, ‘The Big Music’ makes you reconsider your own relationship with music, your culture and your country, both past and present.
All of these columns can now be found in one place over at Indelible Ink.
Next Month’s Novel: Margaret Elphinstone’s ‘Hy Brasil’ is that rarest of beasts, a Scottish magical-realist novel, and is a must read for lovers of Robert Louis Stevenson, as it includes piracy, smuggling, political intrigue and romance set against an exotic backdrop.
Other literary references include Shakespeare, Conan Doyle and James Hogg, but you do not need to know these to enjoy the book. It is a delight from start to finish, and can be read on any level you wish. As unexpected as it is welcome, ‘Hy Brasil’ adds yet another layer of intrigue to the complex picture that makes up Scottish literature.