A book about composing with mountain hares in the Cairngorms

Photograph © Bill Carslake (Cairngorms, 2018)
Place writing

In 2018/19 Bill 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 Timidus, after the Latin name for the mountain hare, and is for violin, cello, piano and clarinet. The book is an account of the travels, meetings and composition process, and a personal response to the largest arctic landscape in the UK.

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 recording 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 glowing like coral, offset by bleached lichen on scattered rocks that glint with embedded flecks of quartz. It’s a bedazzling beauty when the sun is 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) Paris was numb. Gradually 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 were pushed to feel. The playing grew in speed and richness and, alarmingly, the sound took on a dangerous edge. The colours turned to ferocity, until it was the loudest, angriest and most cutting music I have ever heard. I felt furious inside it, and I wasn’t alone in fury. Just when you were wishing the anger and pain would end, imperceptibly the sounds softened, curved, 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. This is what music, a skein of geese, or poetry can do. 

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.)