A Fragment of the Whole: A Fragment of the Whole: Musical and Literary Incompletion in Kirsty Gunn's novel The Big Music

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as kirsty gunn writes in the foreword to her 2012 book, the big music, the story came to her as a file of motley papers of textual and musical fragments, and the only way she could make sense of the material was to adapt it to the structure of the piobaireachd. As the classical compositional form of the highland bagpipe, a piobaireachd is a piece of music played in the style of ceòl mór, which translates into english as the titular ‘big music’. It is structured as a theme followed by a varying number of variations that become increasingly complex until the tune returns, at the end of the piece, to the opening theme. At the centre of gunn’s often fragmented narrative is a piobaireachd that is incomplete. 83-year-old protagonist and piper john sutherland wants to compose a piobaireachd called “lament for himself”, but he dies before the piece is finished. While every piobaireachd returns in conclusion to its opening theme and thereby completes a musical circle, the narrative’s central lament remains incomplete. The story itself, however, following the piobaireachd’s structure, closes with the very words with which it begins and thus concludes its narrative circle. But the text contains its own fragments: the narrative becomes increasingly fractured; it is interspersed with annotations by the author; and the rich additional material that precedes and succeeds the story blurs the boundaries between fiction and non-fiction. The book itself thereby defies easy categorisation and includes literal fragments of musical scores and textual notes, both fictional and factual. Fragmentation, both literary and musical, thus calls into question the very nature of music and text alike. But as the music provides structure to the text and thereby combines its various fragments, so the text provides meaning to the fragmented lament and, in closing as it begins, completes it.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationArts of Incompletion
Subtitle of host publicationFragments, Drafts, Revisions in Words and Music
EditorsWalter Bernhart, Axel Englund
ISBN (Electronic)978-90-04-46712-5
ISBN (Print)978-90-04-46711-8
Publication statusPublished - 2021

Publication series

SeriesWorld and Music Studies

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