Faber & Faber, £20

The Big Music, By Kirsty Gunn

This masterly work of fiction illuminates the music, and magic, of the bagpipes

Kirsty Gunn has set herself a fearsome task. Writing about music, which lies at the heart of this "novel" (the quote marks are hers), is so difficult that almost everyone who tries, fails. And hers is a music which many find inaccessible, and some have never even heard of: the piobaireachd, the formal music of the Highland bagpipes. To take that, and to show us at its heart a love-song and a lullaby: she is a brave woman even to try.

The result isn't what you'd call a success; not even a qualified success. The result is a masterpiece. Gunn solves the problem she has set herself, not by writing about the music but, by some strange meticulous magic, writing within it.

Her story and the Céol Mòr - the Big Music of the title, grave, formal and intricate – inhabit each other. Rhythm and melody and the grace-notes at the heart of the piobaireachd echo back and forth with her gentle, moving narrative and glittering technical interpolations on the Great Music itself: who did it, how it's done, what it's about. We are not so much instructed as initiated.

The story itself is blurred, luminous, a tightly-disciplined poem as well as a set of variations upon a theme. It's uncertain who the narrator is, or whether this is a decorated history, or simply a fine instance of passing off fiction as documented fact in order to draw attention to its fictive slipperiness. There's a terrible temptation to find out, to check things on the internet, but to do so would be to miss the point. It would be like trying to understand Moby-Dick by swotting up flensing methodology and the Nantucket tide-tables.

The Big Music begins with a section headed Urlar: the "ground" or opening tune of piobaireachd, where it's a deceptively simple melodic figure. The urlar is echoed both in the rhythms and the import of her opening sentence: "The hills only come back the same: I don't mind..."

And there it is: John Sutherland, the (perhaps last) hereditary piper of the Grey House, walking into the Sutherland hills with a small child not his own, under his arm like the bag of his pipes. "He needs her for the tune..." That tune is his final composition, the Lament for Himself. His last word: the story of his life, in music. As we must all, in the end, lament for ourselves.

Even if you know nothing about the Big Music, the idea sends a shiver up the spine. Laments, summonings, salutes: these are the forms of the piobaireachd. Structurally, like the "novel" itself, they are a series of variations on the urlar. Because the pipes are always in tension with their endless lungs, their inability to articulate silence, they substitute the articulation of figure: complex clusters of grace notes, their time borrowed from the preceding note, so fast that they blur the ear as they land on the next note of the tune.

The Big Music has suffered at the hands of 18th-century Romanticism and of 19th-century Balmorality. The truth is that it is an intricate aesthetic system based on a centuries-old folk art, tunes handed down through the mnemonic singing called canntaireachd, or from teacher to student, "at the end of his chanter". As Gunn attributes to "the piper and composer RJC Gunn" (perhaps her father?), "this is the foundation of canntaireachd: the singing down of a tune, and often yes, a quiet and gentle singing. Remember, too, that one of the greatest piobaireachd ever written… is also a beautiful and very sad song. One hears the voice in it when it is well played."

He (or she) is speaking of the "Lament for the Children", written around 1650 by Padruig Mor MacCrimmon of Skye after seven of his eight sons died in what was probably a smallpox epidemic. I heard this once, played at sunset by a piper who I hadn't expected to hear when I pulled over to look at the map, pacing the flagstones of an old house by a loch: "Hard music. Hard on the piper. Hard on all of us."

But, also, hidden inside it, as there is hidden inside the book, is "a Lullaby... The smallest, gentlest song against the ground, against the broad and mindless hills like quietness set into the great layout of a tune."

I mentioned Moby-Dick earlier and there are similarities: the inter-grafting of desperately human stories against a grand harsh environment, with a magical series of variations and digressions on a single theme. Like a lullaby, the book hypnotises and tips over into sleep. In sleep it assembles itself into a deep and beautiful structure of love, loss and the irresistible continuity of music and time.

What's true? What's not? It doesn't matter. Some things certainly are "true", like The Kilberry Book of Céol Mòr – I have a copy – with such pieces as "The Desperate Battle", "King's Taxes", and "Unjust Incarceration". But whether or not Gunn's father was the piper "she" claims, I don't know. If he was, then she learned magic from the end of his chanter. The last variation is the "Crunluath a Mach": the last crown. Then the piper walks slowly away, returning to the beginning of his tune. I cannot think of a more entirely original, enchanting and enchanted book.

Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl

First look at Oscar winner as transgender artistfilm
Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015 Bringing you all the news from the 87th Academy Awards

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars ceremony 2015 will take place at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles
Oscars 2015A quiz to whet your appetite for tonight’s 87th Academy Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Sigourney Weaver, as Ripley, in Alien; critics have branded the naming of action movie network Movies4Men as “offensive” and “demographic box-ticking gone mad”.
TVNaming of action movie network Movies4Men sparks outrage
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
Kristen Stewart reacts after receiving the Best Actress in a Supporting Role award for her role in 'Sils Maria' at the 40th annual Cesar awards
A lost Sherlock Holmes story has been unearthed
arts + ents Walter Elliot, an 80-year-old historian, found it in his attic,
Arts and Entertainment
Margot Robbie rose to fame starring alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

Film Hollywood's new leading lady talks about her Ramsay Street days

Arts and Entertainment
Right note: Sam Haywood with Simon Usborne page turning
musicSimon Usborne discovers it is under threat from the accursed iPad
Arts and Entertainment
A life-size sculpture by Nick Reynolds depicting singer Pete Doherty on a crucifix hangs in St Marylebone church
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Escalating tension: Tang Wei and Chris Hemsworth in ‘Blackhat’
filmReview: Chris Hemsworth stars as a convicted hacker in Blackhat
Arts and Entertainment

Oscar voter speaks out

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars race for Best Picture will be the battle between Boyhood and Birdman

Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy), Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rylance)
tvReview: Wolf Hall
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Meighan of Kasabian collects the Best Album Award
Arts and Entertainment
Best supporting stylist: the late L’Wren Scott dressed Nicole Kidman in 1997
Arts and Entertainment
Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan as Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey


Arts and Entertainment
Mick Carter (Danny Dyer) and Peggy Mitchell (Barbara Windsor)
tv occurred in the crucial final scene
Arts and Entertainment
Glasgow wanted to demolish its Red Road flats last year
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

    Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

    Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
    How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

    Time to play God

    Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
    MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

    MacGyver returns, but with a difference

    Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
    Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

    Tunnel renaissance

    Why cities are hiding roads underground
    'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

    Boys to men

    The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
    Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

    Crufts 2015

    Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
    10 best projectors

    How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

    Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
    Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

    Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

    Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
    Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

    Monaco: the making of Wenger

    Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

    Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

    Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

    This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
    'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

    Homage or plagiarism?

    'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
    Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower