Thursday, 18 December 2014

Wish list

November 14
I am raking autumn leaves when father
asks me to give him
my wish list for Christmas
carefully acknowledging each leaf in my pile

This Christmas I want magic
like golden foliage twirling
a twinkling cover of brown earth

This Christmas I want the magic
of opening a present
and feeling like a child
ripping off ribbons and paper
to see whether Father Christmas
has acknowledged his letter

Yet I know,
if I don’t give a list
another pair of socks
will be added to the pile
that I will rake next autumn.

Copyright poem Petra Vergunst

Monday, 3 November 2014

The Miller o' Hirn

A miller, his wife, his son, the mill wheel - and a composer. The ingredients key to Family Business, a contemporary reinterpretation of four of James Scott Skinner’s strathspeys commissioned by sound for soundlab. The music takes performers and listeners on a visit to the Mill o’ Hirn to meet the miller and his family and the Banchory-born fiddle player and composer. Like the original strathspeys are shared informally amongst communities involving various instrumentations, Family Business is composed as a flexible score to cater for the ever-changing group of people who make up soundlab, Aberdeen’s new music ensemble led by clarinettist Jo Nicholson. The work culminates in a session in which the musicians improvise on the original strathspey to emulate the constant renewal and reinvigoration of traditional music by communities past and present. 
Family Business is part of a series of composition projects through which I hope to highlight the rootedness of traditional music in communities and places and the dynamic music scene resulting from this, and the inspiration that contemporary classical music can take from this.

Drawing on the four strathspeys by James Scott Skinner and the nursery rhyme The Miller of Dee, the actual score I composed consists of a structure for improvisation. soundlab had its first rehearsal of the work yesterday and I am very enthused to see how the piece has shaped up. A big thanks to Jo Nicholson and the wonderful musicians, and a big thanks to sound for giving me the opportunity to write and stage this work.

The performance of Family Business will be on Sunday 16 November at 4 pm at the Phoenix Hall at Newton Dee Village, Bieldside, Aberdeen. The event is free and tickets are not required. 

Copyright text and images Petra Vergunst

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Poetry walk pictures

My friend Yiannitsa Cegarra took some pictures during the poetry walk at Bennachie. In her photos she wanted to respond to some of the poems I was reading. Thanks Yiann!


One in the late summer birch wood
Knee-deep in heather flowers

the trees' small heart-shaped leaves
glistened at the sun after a summer shower.

Beneath it a spider cobweb
spun between blaeberry twigs
hung heavy with heaven raindrop pearls.

I remember this in the same way
as the shelled settlement

a few strides further up the path
so as to not to forget

what kindled the squatters' fire.

Copyright poem Petra Vergunst, copyright images Yiannitsa Cegarra

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Family Business

A composer, a miller, his wife and son, and the mill wheel – the ingredients of a new piece I’m composing for soundlab, Aberdeen’s new music ensemble led by clarinettist Jo Nicholson for a performance on Sunday 16 November.

On of the most interesting moments during my project Burn of Sound at Muir of Dinnet was when during a walk I took my participants to the viewpoint from where one can look over Loch Kinord. It was here that we met Paul Anderson who, for the project Atomic Doric that he was involved in, was composing a number of fiddle tunes inspired by the loch. He generously played some of his tunes for us.

This was a chance encounter that set me thinking. If Paul Anderson, a celebrated fiddle player and composer, found inspiration for his music in the area in which he lives, who was I then as a composer of contemporary classical music? The classical music tradition that informed my composition training suddenly seemed remote in both time and space. When we listen to a Haydn string quartet the music stems from a society and time distant from us. Moreover, here was Paul Anderson performing his music within touching distance, happily chatting with us in between tunes. No raised concert stage epitomising the untouchability and celebrity of performers of classical music as I was familiar with. Though I had long been aware of the different socio-cultural, geographical and historical relations in traditional and classical music, it was this meeting that really brought home it significance for me and questioned who I wanted to be as a composer.

The questions raised were still fresh in my mind when I spoke to sound last year about composing something for soundlab. With James Scott Skinner being a fiddle player and composer from Banchory the idea seemed obvious: what I would be looking for was a contemporary reinterpretation of some of James Scott Skinner’s music to highlight the way traditional music is inspired by our own environs and society and I was going to use this to revitalise my own contemporary classical music. In exploring the life and music of James Scott Skinner I was soon struck by a set of four strathspeys dedicated to the miller of Hirn, his wife, his son and the mill wheel. Hirn being just a few miles northeast of Banchory, I imagined the composer visiting his miller friend of many occasions.  

Family Business is composed for soundlab, a contemporary music group with a flexible group of musicians playing a wide range of orchestral, traditional and lesser known instruments (including voice). The work will be programmed alongside some traditional tunes and we are looking for some traditional musicians to join soundlab for this performance to help us get to grips with strathspeys and reels. If you want to join us, please contact Anne Watson at There will be a rehearsal on Sunday 2 November from 10 am to 2 pm with a further rehearsal and performance taking place on Sunday 16 November from 12 noon to 5 pm. Both the rehearsal and performance will be at the Phoenix Community Centre, Newton Dee Village, Bieldside.

Copyright text and image Petra Vergunst

Saturday, 20 September 2014

Have: Not Have

Though Whispers in the Woods is behind me, the project has raised many questions that will stay with me for some time. The Colonists settled on land to which their communities had access, but lairds eventually divided this land between them, in turn dispossessing the Colonists from land to which their community had access. These questions about possession and dispossession are important  in our private lives as well. What does our home mean to us and how do we feel when we’re dispossessed? What does the watch we inherited from our grandmother mean to us and how do we feel when we lose it?

In Have: Not Have I hope to explore some of these questions – not least within the context of consumerism. On our travels we buy souvenirs, for ourselves or to give them to neighbours for  looking after our plants while we were away. Many of these souvenirs we eventually throw away. Why did we buy them and why did they lose their meaning? Likewise, we rush to get our Christmas shopping done, anticipate how others will react to the presents we buy them, but often find it hard to find the ultimate present. What really is meaningful to us and to what extent can this be expressed through objects?
She looked at the shape of the p
at the end of her name –
the key in the palm of her hand

She had felt the pen
scratch the paper –
deposit time

The lines and curves that filled the blank space
incised sunset garden suppers
friends around kitchen tables
her bike in the shed for Sunday rides

She put down her pen
turned over the paper
read the Braille inscription.

Copyright text and poem Petra Vergunst

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Whispers in the Woods

Here some photos of the Whispers in the Woods events last Saturday.

A big thank you to The Hope Scott Trust, Forestry Commission Scotland, sound, The Bailies of Bennachie, The Dee String Quartet and The New Words Festival for generously supporting the project.

Griselda McGregor wrote a review of the event which can be found on the New Words 2014 website.

On 6 September shmuFM's Literature Show was dedicated to this project. As part of the programme I read quite a few of the poems from my pamphlet Whispers in the Woods. You can listen back to this programme here.

If you wanted to order a copy of my pamphlet (£5 incl. p&p), please send me an email at

Monday, 11 August 2014

Taking a stance

Like the chicken and the egg, it is often hard to determine whether the words or music come first in my projects. In my string quartet Whispers in the Woods I imagine what a day on the hill for 19th-century squatters would have been like. I imagine they might have heard birdsong when gathering water from the well, worked the fields listening to the thuds and sharp sounds of the quarry, gathered at night to share tales, songs and music. Last April I started writing a number of sketches for treble recorder to capture my initial thoughts, and unravelled and recomposed these into a string quartet in May and June.

Though I usually write poetry before putting any notes down, this time round I felt unable to write anything  for quite some time. This writing block only faded when I realised that I hesitated making the broad feelings and atmospheres in the music explicit and was struggling to find a way to do this truthfully. The story of the hill is highly political. Though perhaps not as violent as elsewhere, the story of The Colony is one of a Clearance: some people for whom the farming communities could no longer cater moved to the slopes of the commonty, after several decades landowners divided the land between them and forced the squatters to pay rent, the crofters eventually felt forced to leave. To be truthful I not only had to understand my own response to what happened at the hill, but I also had to visit the Bennachie Centre, walk the Colony Trail, and read books. Rather than regretting this clearance, I wanted to tell the story of what life on the hill would have been like and what would have happened if the hill had remained a commonty. Whereas the music allowed me to stay with broad atmospheres and emotional responses, the poem's inherent need for being explicit meant that I was ureged to investigate the history and take a stance.

Art – be it music composition, writing poetry or drawing – can be seen as a way of engaging with the world. For me, it doesn’t stop there. Art is also a way of making sense of that world and my own response towards it. Often, as in Three, I use creative writing to capture an image or atmosphere to guide my composition. In Whispers in the Woods, however, I have used my recorder sketches for the composition to identify the focus on my work and used poetry to generate content.

On the gritty slopes
saws rasp, grind, rage
clearing one tree, another, then another
until all are razed.

Left at the edge of the path
two cherry trees, some holly, laurel
stubborn survivors of evictions, clear fellings
once blossoming in a garden
of the lodger who
when he lowered his bucket in the well
explored the echoes of the fertile valleys
that were not his.

You can listen to me talk about Whispers in the Woods on the Literature Show at shmuFM on Saturday 6 September at 6 pm.

The project Whispers in the Woods has been generously supported by The Hope Scott Trust, Forestry Commission Scotland, sound and The Bailies of Bennachie.

Copyright text, poem and image Petra Vergunst

Monday, 16 June 2014

Letter to Alice

Two poems have influenced my project Sharing at the Shoreline in particular. Alice Oswald’s poem Dart presents a sound-map of the river Dart based on the language of people who live and work on along it. On our journey from source to mouth we meet a walker, a fisherman and bailiff, a waternymph, a dreamer, a stonewaller, a ferryman, a sealwatcher. What excites me in this booklong poem is the way Oswald creates a rich experiential image of the river by letting many different people – and mythical figures - speak.

The second poem is Solway by Kenneth Steven, published in his collection Iona. In this poem, ‘The sailors climb aboard the land / The voices rise and fall along the road’ while ‘Long across the bay is England / Lying still at anchor, far and blue’. It is a poem I often return to for the different kind of experience it offers, it contains a perspective I had not thought of myself.

To create a similar dialogue and to open myself up to perspectives I would not otherwise think of, I have held a number of poetry workshops and walks. During the workshop in the Tolbooth Museum in Stonehaven a fisherman told me that what drew him to the sea was the challenge. During the walk at Forvie we spoke about seals and one participant wrote about a seal's feelings and thoughts when a person approached her: ‘What do you want, what will you do?’. During the workshop with the Stonehaven Writing Group a participant spoke about his experiences of the coast as an RAF pilot whilst other participants wrote about lighthouse-high waves and put on a seal skin of to become a sea mermaid.

Gradually, I have come to realise that my poems reveal my dialogue with the landscape and and my responses to what I read, see and hear about the Aberdeenshire coast. In Johnshaven, for example, I was struck by the symbolism of a collection of anchors lying in front of the disused lifeboat station. When I started my walk I read a newspaper story about a sea angler who had drowned. The week before I had been watching a sea angler whilst a seagull on a rock on the opposite site of the cove was angling for the same fish. The article put this image in perspective. Likewise, a chance viewing of a film at the Aberdeen Maritime Museum about coastal salmon fishing around Forvie provided the storyline for the salmon nets I had passed between Aberdeen and Newburgh.

A form of poetry that I feel particularly attracted to is dramatic monologue. Spoken, and addressed to someone else, I value the opportunity it provides to construct an argument by letting the speaker respond to (implied) actions and reactions from the addressee. A letter can be seen as a specific form of dramatic monologue. In my poem Letter to Alice I have juxtaposed my own experiences of the coast as a walker against those of a salmon fisherman.
Letter to Alice
What is sand and salt water to
The bodies of a walker, a fisherman, a bird?
I have been asking myself this question ever since
I started walking the coastline north.
The knife I spoke about is blunt,
Its edge softened by sand and salt.
My feet not cut
But massaged by sand, rasping and raw.
You walked the riverbanks, heard the currents gather stories.
I walk in the turbulence where your stories
Meet horizons that won’t alter
Until I face the afternoon sun past Fraserburgh.
Sand and salt water are in my step
But never will I return to the same grain of sand,
The same rock pool, the same gully.

How different sand and salt water are to
The salmon fisherman whose path I crossed this morning!
He knows the movements of the moon, the waves, the wind.
His feet tell him about the depths of the sea,
The shapes of sandbanks, the pull of currents. He can
Read the tides from the sway
Of his nets between the poles he staked.
Like your path, my path follows the edge of the water,
The salmon fisherman crosses the beach
And enters. The water pulls
Around his ankles, his calves, his knees, his waist – deeper still
To check his nets for migrating salmon.
My gaze cuts out a narrow path between land and sea, but
The eyes of a salmon fisherman
Cannot affirm a safe pathway.

What is sand and salt water to
The bodies of a walker, a fisherman, a bird?
I am learning, Alice.

Copyright text, image and poem Petra Vergunst