‘Composing with Hares’

Photograph © Bill Carslake (Cairngorms, 2018)
Place writing

In 2018/19 I took two solo camping trips in the Cairngorms and one in the Peak District to research mountain hares for a composition, supported by the Finzi Trust. The composition is called Disco Ball – Mountain Hare. It is for orchestra; and there is a version in progress for violin, cello, piano and clarinet. The orchestral premiere was on 22 January 2022.

I wrote an extended travel essay called Composing with Hares about the process of camping and composing in the largest subarctic landscape in the UK. You can read extracts from this below. The disco ball metaphor was suggested by Anna Fleming (Time on Rock, Canongate 2022). Our conversation in the Cairngorms features in her essay, Dances with Hares, in the anthology, Women on Nature, edited by Katharine Norbury.

As we sup tea in the cold wind, Bill asks, “How would you represent a mountain hare on the stage?” I pause, turning the unusual question over like a pebble in my mind and a surprising metaphor leaps out. A disco ball. Hares catch the eye in a dazzle of (almost ridiculous) movement. The hare’s myriad nature – running, hiding, watching, relaxing, frisking, quaking, yawning, bathing – are flashes of a thousand glittering faces. And beneath this reflective exterior, something is hidden. There is always an aspect of the hare that remains unseen, unknown. They are creatures of the mountain.

(Extract, Anna Fleming, Dances with Hares, from Women on Nature, edited by Katharine Norbury, Unbound 2021)

In a 13th century poem about hares, translated in the 20th century by Seamus Heaney as The Names of the Hare, seventy-seven names are given for the brown hare, Lepus europeaus. Whether it is in awe or jest is unclear, but it gives an idea of the hare’s status in western folklore. Amazingly the heart weight in relation to body weight in both brown and mountain hares is bigger than in most animals, including humans, dogs, cheetahs, lions and whales. This large heart allows them to start fast and stay fast for a long time. At 40 miles per hour their front legs don’t even touch the ground! This heart could also be the source of their fabled intelligence and wisdom. In the beautiful Buddhist tale of the Selfless Hare the Bodhisattva is reborn as a hare. The hare takes a leap of faith into a fire to offer his body as food to Sakra, Lord of the Devas. The astonished Sakra puts the fire out and rewards the hare by painting it on the moon, so that its bravery shines everywhere.

1) When it stops, it is your nonchalant drummer beating with its paws on the ground – we still don’t fully understand why. Feel and hear the footpad tap on a slightly caking peat surface… Now imagine having the hearing of those great, swivelling ears. Consider that the hill is endless drums. Peat skin taut above sloshy, resonant mass; or thin peat clinging to echoing rock. How deep does the mountain hare hear and tell? Take the dome of St Paul’s. Upend it, submerge it, and whisper in the gallery with your feet. Now smell in colour, and see in detail a mountain and heather-filled orb of a couple of kilometres. With your big amber eyes on your elegant head you can almost see the full round. What a session!

2) In winter the plateau can be one of the most exposed and seething skins in the mountain body of the UK. You walk, but the wind will throw you to the ground. Sometimes you will crawl. Imagine for a moment that you are sitting with a mountain hare on the aperture edge of a Bunsen burner on maximum power. In your terror, as you try to maintain your hold, you can feel the assault on your always-open ears. Your nose’s inability to close doesn’t help. In winds as powerful and constant as this it is a wonder that the mountain hare sits calmly beside you, flattening into the iron. In its ‘form’ on the Cairngorm plateau – by the subtlest body alignment – it experiences such quietness that it becomes the eye of the storm. Some years ago, in a strong wind on a mountain in Glen Cannich I laid my head in a hare form and was astonished to find pin-drop silence.

3) For a virtuoso of concealment like the hare, the open ‘tundra’ landscape of the plateau is home and hiding. I could see plenty of pellets. Away from the tourist trail and un-trampled by humans, these remote tops provide less food, but for the variety of vegetation they are hard to match. There are miniature willow and birch trees which, at a height of one inch, hold out tiny red and gold autumn leaves to catch the light and breeze. Yellow grasses whistle above squat banks of red sorghum moss that glows like coral. Scattered rocks sport bleached lichen and glint with embedded flecks of quartz. It’s a bedazzling beauty when the sun’s at play. A heavenly field. What a place for a first sight! But after walking two miles further eastwards I was still – to my eyes at least – alone on the hill.

4) [Referencing the memorial service in Notre Dame after the Paris bombings.] Paris was numb. Gradually [the organist] Latry released low, husky, indeterminate waves into the quiet. He graded these until recognisable pitch and volume held us. Now music and urgency increased, and over 6,000 people within Notre Dame felt into it. The playing grew in speed and richness until the sound had a dangerous edge. The colours darkened, the volume increased, and it became the angriest, most violent music I have ever heard. I felt furious in it, and knew I wasn’t alone. Just when you were wishing the anger and pain would end, imperceptibly the sounds softened, curved and became solemn and warm. A beautiful melody emerged from the texture, becoming less clothed, less weighed-down and simpler as it soared. Now it was song-like and, after a brief, missed heartbeat, it was joined by the choir who, we realised, were processing down the side aisle. Thousands of us had been guided and allowed to grieve.

Yes, I know, God’s silence never breaks, but is that really a problem?
There are thousands of voices, after all. 

(Mary Oliver, Whistling Swans, extract.)