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