Time is bearing another son
– Dylan Thomas, Ballad of the Long-Legged Bait
Music came. Not music with an instrument- not even a clear form- but musical sounds and vague sonic apparitions all the same. Months later, I sit here in my music studio with more than 40 pages of A4 score of the 1st movement of what will be my 7th String Quartet. This is (so far) a music which combines stillness with movement; that synthesises between long lines of held virtually unwavering sound and darting decorative dashes of brilliantly coloured musical ‘cells’ and motifs. Weeks and months of recall and re-listening (as well as looking) have connected a Cumbrian ‘now’ with a Western Australian ‘then’.
How can it be that a visit to a strange place can cause me to make music like this? What made the music, the place or the composer? I think the answer is obvious- it’s a matter of finding ways to belong to what is being perceived. I don’t write music unaided. I can’t ‘think music’ into being. Somehow, maybe in and with a very ancient part of my brain- as old as stromatolites- I sensed the forms and incidents of that magic place. The best I can do is to witness and recount: inspire with all my senses.
I lived in Eastern Australia from 1983 to 1995 and flew over its vastness- from the west to the east- scores of times. Not once- during years spent criss-crossing the eastern and southern coastlines of Queensland, New South Wales, South Australia and Tasmania: from humid dripping near-jungle to cold mountains breathed-on by winds from Antarctica- did I find myself alighting in Western Australia. I flew like a migrating bird from one ‘home’ to a stranger ‘home’ but didn’t land to feed on the creative nutrients of the great West Coast. 23 years after leaving Australia to return to the UK and my beloved Cumbria, I made that migration again but this time alighted in this unknown and un-experienced land for the first time!
Leaving Freemantle in a borrowed (thanks Virginia!) 4X Drive, we drove north for more than a thousand kilometres along roads without bends; bordered on each side by soil as red as blood and stitched with a tapestry of flowering shrubs and trees of magnificent unfamiliarity and diversity. Nothing, however, could have prepared me for the strangeness: the utter memory-wrenching half-dream of an earth-ancientness than Shark Bay in general and the Hamelin Pool in particular.
Under a sky as big as the universe but blue-without-stars, the ocean rolled shimmering in aquamarine and jade-green to a beach as white as powdered bones. We came: we were drawn to come: to this part of Shark Bay to look at the most ancient form of life on earth. Too primitive to be simply an algae or plant: bacteria or chemical half-life-construct, Stromatolites represent a kind of snap-shot of what the earth looked-like 3.5 billion years ago! (yes I know…too many digits to make any sense at all…..)
You are forbidden of course to walk-on or touch these ancient life-treasures (this is one of only TWO colonies of these amazing and rather disturbing life-forms in the whole world). The whole colony of stromatolites ( my computer dictionary doesn’t recognise the word!), is in an area about the size of an English country-village cricket field. The life-forms look like Mandelbrot-sets. They are raised on platforms of their own hundred-thousand-plus-year history: dark rust and dock-red ‘islands’ of life; utterly unmoving and impenetrably illusive as a recognisable form of living-thing.
They look like an archaeological remnant of an ancient floor and carpet in the palace of a long-dead archaic kingdom.
The ocean pulsates and wavers but without a wave- blue over blue over white. So we are walking (Heather and I alone) along a well-crafted board-walk which allows us to drift with a casual step some metre above the stromatolites. The total stillness of the organisms and the scant scatter of ripples on the surface of the sea would be an epitome of ‘still yet moving’ (Eliot of course!), but for the incredible activity of Australian swallows who nest under the wooden supports of the board walk.
Their arabesques, their brisk melismas are in stark but beautiful contrast with the stillness and stasis of the ocean and stromatolites.