The Big Music by Kirsty Gunn


The origins of Coel Mor, classical bagpipe music, reach back into a largely unknown history throughout which the oral mnemonic teaching method of canntaireachd, the singing of the composition to commit it to memory, was considered a more accurate and enduring form of musical “notation” than a written score. This suggests that the laments, summonings, and salutes of this highly formalized musical tradition, in which the slightest variation or embellishment transports precise meaning, might have constituted its own language for recording history; might, like the poetry of the bards, have once been a vehicle for passing down tales of genealogy and clan lore. Indeed, writers, among them Proust, have frequently pondered the idea that music, somewhere in its ancient origins, could once have been a medium for a more direct form of communication among humans and for recording information in a manner that was somehow fundamentally truer than spoken or written language—in other words, that at some stage of our prehistory, the development of speech and the evolution of music were parallel endeavors with an open outcome.

Published in the spring 2013 issue of Quarterly Conversation.

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