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.

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Summer nights: ‘Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp’
TVBut what do we Brits really know about them?
Arts and Entertainment
Dr Michael Mosley is a game presenter

TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

    Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
    House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

    The honours that shame Britain

    Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
    When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

    'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

    Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
    International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

    International Tap Festival comes to the UK

    Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
    War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
    Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

    'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

    Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
    Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

    BBC heads to the Californian coast

    The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
    Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

    Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

    Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
    Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

    Car hacking scandal

    Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
    10 best placemats

    Take your seat: 10 best placemats

    Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
    Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
    Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

    Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

    Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
    Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

    Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

    The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
    Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

    Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

    His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

    Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future