Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Said in stone

Neil M. Gunn’s novel Highland River tells the story of a northern river that is the pivot around which the central character’s Kenn’s physical and spiritual development resolves. On their way to poach salmon upstream the young Kenn and his older brother Angus pass the ruins of some old croft houses. Angus tells Kenn that the shallow hollows in the land at a little distance from each other show that the land has been cultivated and that the short white wall in the distance is a burying ground.

“The folk who lived here long ago. They lived in the ruins there, and in other ruins you’ll see. They poached the river many a time, I bet!” 

For Angus the abandoned croft houses evoked memories, enhanced by his imagination, of the people who inhabited the moorland in the past, and he passed this collective memory on to his younger brother. In his Foreword to the catalogue of Will MacLean’s Collected Works 1970-2010, Duncan MacMillan writes that memory is the moving part where time past and time present intersect. The old croft houses remind Angus of the people who lived there in the past, and the lives they lived. By imagining that these people must have poached salmon many a time just like the two brothers are about to do, these snapshots of collective memory gain renewed significance in the present. It seems as if the very stones of the abandoned site have messages written in them which can be deciphered by those who know how to read the landscape.

Stones lay scattered all across the Scottish landscape - ruined crofts, dykes, churches, bridges, stone circles. This year I intend to uncover some of the memories and imaginations such stones evoke through musical, visual and written media. Not only do I want to read some of the stories embodied in stone, I also want to develop my understanding of the way memory links past and present, and the way working across various arts disciplines can help me in this arts-led enquiry (see also my blogs Composition, Repetition, and Taking Inspiration from Sally Beamish). 

Expressing myself musically, visually and verbally will give me insight in the crossovers between the ways different forms of arts think about what they do and how they do it. In comparison to the visual arts and writing, music is often thought of as being an abstract art and therefore most suitable to appeal to people’s emotions and imagination. In his book The Music of Painting, Peter Vergo explains how this quality, as well as the structured approach of musical composition, appeals to many painters. As a composer of music my interest is in the reverse: how thinking visually and verbally can provide an extra dimension to music composition. 

As a student with the Open College of the Arts I've noticed that drawing and painting students keep sketchbooks in which they explore ideas on a regular basis, even if this does not feed directly into a drawing or painting they're working on. In contrast, composers seem to sketch mainly to feed into particular compositions. I want to borrow from the visual arts the idea of keeping a sketchbook to record my field work. My musical, visual, verbal and conceptual observations will all feed into my larger enquiry, and this in turn will provide context and inspiration, and hopefully some starting points for specific musical compositions.

For now, I’ll follow in the footsteps of Kenn and Angus, be it with camera and sketchbook in hand, to uncover some of the memories and imaginations the stones scattered across the landscape evoke.

Copryight text and image Petra Vergunst

Links to other blogs for the project Said in Stone:

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Frozen river

 A walk along the river in the midst of winter. The sun will soon disappear behind the hills. The air is thin. Upstream, deep snow covers the slopes towards the river. Here, footsteps have smoothened the snow on the river path. Still silence. No mid-register gurgling of the water that gives a glimpse of the inner voice of the river. Only when one tunes in to it, one hears the higher-pitched lisping of the ice. The strong current prevents the river from freezing over. Instead, ice crystals float on the currents. Underlying voices reveal themselves by continuously changing the ice crystal’s orientation on their journey downstream. Circles embedded in a line. 


The inspiration for Frozen River, a composition for glockenspiel. piano and cello, comes from one of composer Petra Vergunst’s many wintry walks along the river Dee in the Northeast of Scotland. She uses the glockenspiel and whole-tone scale to evoke the experience of the thin air on a cold mid-winter afternoon whilst the cello captures the voice of the river.  

Composer Petra Vergunst works as a community musician whilst studying Advanced Music with the Open College of the Arts. Interested in a wide range of environmental, social and cultural issues, and working across the arts, Petra often combines her musical compositions with narrated and/or sung texts to express the experiences and thoughts behind her compositions. To reinforce the narrative character of her music she likes to resemble her musical utterances with spoken ones, and arranges them in the form of a dialogue. Conscious choices of traditional key relations and/or atonal techniques, sometimes in combination, help her express underlying intentions.

In the arrangement for flute, trumpet and cello, Frozen Rover was played by The Red Note Ensemble at Noisy Nights in Edinburgh and Aberdeen. In an arrangement for glockenspiel, piano and cello, the composition came runner-up in a competition by the Open College of the Arts Student Association.

Copyright text and music Petra Vergunst