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The Big Music

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'The hills only come back the same: I don't mind . . .' begins Kirsty Gunn's The Big Music, a novel that takes us to a new understanding of how fiction can affect us. Presented as a collection of found papers, appendices and notes, The Big Music tells the story of John Sutherland of 'The Grey House', who is dying and creating in the last days of his life a musical compositi 'The hills only come back the same: I don't mind . . .' begins Kirsty Gunn's The Big Music, a novel that takes us to a new understanding of how fiction can affect us. Presented as a collection of found papers, appendices and notes, The Big Music tells the story of John Sutherland of 'The Grey House', who is dying and creating in the last days of his life a musical composition that will define it. Yet he has little idea of how his tune will echo or play out into the world - and as the book moves inevitably through its themes of death and birth, change and stasis, the sound of his solitary story comes to merge and connect with those around him. In this work of fiction, Kirsty Gunn has created something as real as music or as a dream. Not so much a novel as a place the reader comes to inhabit and to know, The Big Music is a literary work of undeniable originality and power.


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'The hills only come back the same: I don't mind . . .' begins Kirsty Gunn's The Big Music, a novel that takes us to a new understanding of how fiction can affect us. Presented as a collection of found papers, appendices and notes, The Big Music tells the story of John Sutherland of 'The Grey House', who is dying and creating in the last days of his life a musical compositi 'The hills only come back the same: I don't mind . . .' begins Kirsty Gunn's The Big Music, a novel that takes us to a new understanding of how fiction can affect us. Presented as a collection of found papers, appendices and notes, The Big Music tells the story of John Sutherland of 'The Grey House', who is dying and creating in the last days of his life a musical composition that will define it. Yet he has little idea of how his tune will echo or play out into the world - and as the book moves inevitably through its themes of death and birth, change and stasis, the sound of his solitary story comes to merge and connect with those around him. In this work of fiction, Kirsty Gunn has created something as real as music or as a dream. Not so much a novel as a place the reader comes to inhabit and to know, The Big Music is a literary work of undeniable originality and power.

30 review for The Big Music

  1. 4 out of 5

    Warwick

    What we have here is a wonderful, ambitious idea for a novel, which unfortunately fails on almost every level. Its subject is piobaireachd – pronounced, and usually spelled, pibroch – which, I need scarcely remind you, is the grand classical tradition of Highland bagpipe music. Piobaireachd is a complicated genre: it builds from a simple urlar, or ‘ground’-theme, and expands to take in a series of dazzlingly complex embellishments through a number of set interlinked movements, before gradually dy What we have here is a wonderful, ambitious idea for a novel, which unfortunately fails on almost every level. Its subject is piobaireachd – pronounced, and usually spelled, pibroch – which, I need scarcely remind you, is the grand classical tradition of Highland bagpipe music. Piobaireachd is a complicated genre: it builds from a simple urlar, or ‘ground’-theme, and expands to take in a series of dazzlingly complex embellishments through a number of set interlinked movements, before gradually dying away again in a show of the player's virtuosity and skill. Kirsty Gunn's conceit here is to tell a story of piobaireachd which is also in itself a demonstration of the tradition: its form matches its content. A thematic, gentle introduction, a series of increasingly complex embellishments, and all coming back full circle to form a satisfying, ‘melodic’ whole. This sounds amazing, right? The problem is that she forgot about the story. If you put this 450-page book through an industrial juicer, you'd probably squeeze enough narrative out of it for a brief piece of short fiction. Instead, what we have is a vast metafictional apparatus – dozens of footnotes, ‘found’ papers, maps, transcripts, interminable appendices – which totters around a narrative that's barely there. It's like seeing an enormous construction of scaffolding used to prop up a Wendy house. Again and again Gunn repeats herself in the most tedious way. I, a lover of footnotes, came to loathe the very sight of the asterisk, by whose baleful redirections she insisted over and again that ‘Appendix 10a/ii and pp. 201-6 below may also be of interest here’, suggestions that recur with appalling frequency, sometimes three times on a single page. The appendices themselves resemble the kind of notes a writer might compile while preparing a novel and which Gunn has simply dumped on the reader wholesale; they go into ludicrous, unwanted detail on the setting of the book and its history, geography and geology (‘The Scottish Highlands are largely composed of ancient rocks from the Cambrian and Precambrian periods…’). Any subtlety in the formal experimentation is nullified by the brash way it's signposted in the text itself, so that more inevitable footnotes will tell you flat out that a particular phrase or word has recurred from earlier in the novel, giving the page number where appropriate, and explaining patiently how this repetition is supposed to mirror some technique of the master piper. Nothing is allowed to surprise you. The very least you expect from a book like this is some evocative descriptions of the landscape, but it's really very little to get excited about. The mood seems to be modelled on Lewis Grassic Gibbon and Neil Gunn (no relation), but without reaching anything like the same level. Kirsty Gunn also sets herself up for a fall by continually reminding us that later movements of the piobaireachd, such as the crunluath, represent the peak of the player's virtuosity and technical skill: in fact, when we get there, we are only given a few more embedded quotations and historical notes. The actual writing style remains plodding and – to me, anyway – frankly boring. It has been said that one definition of a gentleman is someone that can play the bagpipes and doesn't. Kirsty Gunn has written a most ungentlemanly novel.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Wayne

    I had high hopes for "The Big Music", but it fell flat pretty much across the board. This book has a very thin plot. After the first 30 or 40 pages, not much really happens. The reader learns a lot about the history of a house in the Highlands, some about the characters, and a little about bagpipe music. The characters were mildly interesting, but none were particularly sympathetic. In fact, I actively disliked the two major characters. I kept hoping that I'd be given a reason to care about at lea I had high hopes for "The Big Music", but it fell flat pretty much across the board. This book has a very thin plot. After the first 30 or 40 pages, not much really happens. The reader learns a lot about the history of a house in the Highlands, some about the characters, and a little about bagpipe music. The characters were mildly interesting, but none were particularly sympathetic. In fact, I actively disliked the two major characters. I kept hoping that I'd be given a reason to care about at least one of them, but it never happened. Iain was the closest I came to caring about, and that's just because I really disliked how poorly everyone treated him. This book needs a good editor. Even a mediocre editor would have helped a great deal. The most egregious problem was the huge amount of repetition, especially in the repetitive end-notes. The same points are repeated over and over in the end-notes, as well as in the story. It might be easier to follow the story, such as it is, if you read the end-notes after reading each section. Piobaireachd is used as a framework for the book. Unfortunately, some of the info given about piobaireachd is wrong or misleading. Gunn clearly did a huge amount of research, but I didn't get the feeling she ever got a good understanding of pipe music. If a non-piper reads this book, they'll certainly learn more about pipe music than they knew before starting, but bad info will be mixed with the good. (I am a piper and I play piobaireachd, so I am not speaking from a position of ignorance.) It was said somewhere in the book or end-notes (probably 15 times) that the music for John's lament was in one of the many appendices. At first, I thought when I finished the book that I'd give the tune a play. By the end, I didn't care enough to even pull out a practice chanter to play a single line. A big deal is made about this being a Modernist book. I don't know what this actually means, but if this book is a good example of Modernist literature, then I don't think I'll be looking for more.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Jake Goretzki

    I liked this far more than I expected to, opening it to discover another of those 'found text' literary conceits of sorts. As someone who is a 'fighter, not a skimmer' with reading, I feel duty bound to read every single footnote - and, boy, do footnotes enrage me. (I appear to be the only person in the known world who thought Nabokov's 'Pale Fire' was a self-indulgent, one-trick stunt designed to give readers neck ache and anxieties about memory loss). It's rather readable and touching. I thoug I liked this far more than I expected to, opening it to discover another of those 'found text' literary conceits of sorts. As someone who is a 'fighter, not a skimmer' with reading, I feel duty bound to read every single footnote - and, boy, do footnotes enrage me. (I appear to be the only person in the known world who thought Nabokov's 'Pale Fire' was a self-indulgent, one-trick stunt designed to give readers neck ache and anxieties about memory loss). It's rather readable and touching. I thought I'd be here for a fortnight, so it's a testament to the force of the writing, setting and building up of a kind of mystery - there's a touch of bleak Scottish darkness in there, arguably (think e.g. Iain Banks) - that it moves as well as it does. A lot of this is powerful stuff: tradition, family, landscape, memory...etc. And in a way, it can be pretty fascinating, in the way that anyone's passion for something, up close - geeky, completist and collector - can be charming and fascinating. I found myself wanting too to seek out 'The Silver Darlings' (listen to the Ewan MacColl radio ballads and try not to feel a comparable charm). But. But. I think we need some perspective here. That appendix - is one supposed to dismiss that? - is exhaustingly tedious and repetitive, and felt like a numbing 45-minute summary of actions you're forced to sit through at the end of a Residents' Association meeting - just when you thought we were done. The detail, the detail. I'd rather like to imagine that Kirsty Gunn is calling our bluff a little here. On the one hand, she's laying before us a culture and a dynasty. On the other hand, I'd like to think she's also making a point about the futility of a lot of human fixations and traditions - that nothing matters that much and that nothing deserves the obsessive attention that Piobaireachd is given by our Sutherland lads. I don't know. On a level it all felt terrifically trainspotterish and tedious. I'm reminded of Graham Fellows, describing the elderly pub clientele who inspired his comedy alter ego John Shuttleworth: "These old men who kept mice and used to get very angry about things that just didn't matter". That. This may be going too far, but I'd to think there is a dose of satire intended around all that accumulated detail. I mean, for crying out loud: there are even references to documents covering the recipes and bed linen routines of the Grey House. Would we scrutinise the soups and bedding to that level in the life archive of Mozart? Or John Lennon? I think not. Isn't our 'compiler', surely, to be considered a little touched themselves? So, pretty fascinating and powerful - but those appendices could have done with a little more kindness to the reader. I'd also add that many of the reviews in the blurb also make strong play of how the novel's structure traces the Piobaireachd itself. Right. This is exactly the sort of smartypants hook that so easily beguiles literary critics (in a similar fashion, remember how they got a massive stiffie about 'The Luminaries' tracing the lunar cycles with its shortening chapters). Yes, alright. But I bet you didn't read all of the appendices like I did, son. And I'm no expert in Piobaireachd, but I do know that it doesn't sign off with a 55 minute lecture about how to clean a bagpipe and which shops in Edinburgh sell bagpipes. Let's not over-egg structure. All told, fine, beautifully researched work. But - like the bagpipes - no small relief when it finally fell silent.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Mary McCallum

    Stunning tour de force - a book where the writing and structure and vision are as musical as the theme. Deeply Scottish. Unforgettable.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Bert

    (*)**(*) Once, long ago, in my late teens, Kristy Gunn triggered something in me. Though I don't know why and how, her first books that got translated into Dutch have been an influence and inspiration on my writing. When I first learned about The Big Music and the praise it got, I looked for it everywhere. It took me a few years before I actually picked it up and started reading it. Again it almost took me two years to finish it. And, to be honest, I haven't finished it completely. This book, th (*)**(*) Once, long ago, in my late teens, Kristy Gunn triggered something in me. Though I don't know why and how, her first books that got translated into Dutch have been an influence and inspiration on my writing. When I first learned about The Big Music and the praise it got, I looked for it everywhere. It took me a few years before I actually picked it up and started reading it. Again it almost took me two years to finish it. And, to be honest, I haven't finished it completely. This book, this tour de force of writing, it was too much for me. I started to skip reading all the footnotes, I ignored most of the appendices,... to find my own rhythm in the book, of the book. Gunn tried to write within music, and for that she deserves all praise. But it was hard to get in. I loved the idea, I loved the structure, I wanted so hard to feel the music... but I did not. At least not before I finally discovered what Gunn was trying to achieve. Slowly I realised which part of the music was meant for me and I started listening more focused. Although the main theme of the Big Music is intertwined with my own theme during the long period I've been reading it, it didn't affect me as much as it probably should. Therefore this work confuses me. A lot. I think I've been beaten by a book. And maybe I've been so plenty of times in my life of reading. But it's undoubtedly the first time I have been knocked out. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lXJ64...

  6. 4 out of 5

    Paul

    The second book by Kirsty Gunn that I have read and the second time that I have felt the premise was far more interesting than the execution. The idea is that from the found papers of a master bagpiper someone has pulled them all together to tell the story of fathers and sons, and musical inspiration. The goal is to write a modernist novel in the style of classical bagpipe music, a pibroch, an elaborate set of notes working on a repeated theme. Intriguing, no? However, over 470 pages we learn not The second book by Kirsty Gunn that I have read and the second time that I have felt the premise was far more interesting than the execution. The idea is that from the found papers of a master bagpiper someone has pulled them all together to tell the story of fathers and sons, and musical inspiration. The goal is to write a modernist novel in the style of classical bagpipe music, a pibroch, an elaborate set of notes working on a repeated theme. Intriguing, no? However, over 470 pages we learn nothing of bagpipe music, feel nothing of the remote northeast of Scotland where the book is set and at no point feel immersed in a pibroch rendered in literary form. The interminable footnotes and fake and real appendices appear designed to show off the fantastic efforts that the author has gone to in the research, as the main story is clearly unable to convey any of this. The footnotes act like someone repeatedly pressing the pause button to stop you getting any sense of flow or music in the writing, and are tedious, pretentious and repetitive. The story itself is an anemic affair. A wealthy, elderly investment banker back in the ancestral home, a former piping school, hinted at affairs, incest and father-son connections. The family we learn made their money "through cleverness and foresight" during the Highland Clearances. Bully for them. Where namesake Neil Gunn (who is name-checked a couple of times in the text) managed to evoke a sense of place in his novels set in this area, and of real people, here we have no rounded characters, and a nondescript location in a bubble, often referred to as empty and bleak ("the implacable hills, the empty skies"). I enjoy big books about nothing. I enjoy modernist writing. However this went nowhere, was endlessly self-referential, and no sense of genuine history, location, music or emotion leaked onto the pages.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Jack Deighton

    This is a variation on the ‘found manuscript’ novel - or in this case manuscripts, being the papers left behind by bagpiper John Callum MacKay Sutherland in the little hut he had built for himself in the hills beyond the Grey House at Ailte vhor Alech (the End of the Road) in Rogart, Sutherland, (turn left somewhere between Golspie and Brora and keep going to the unmarked fork in the road then follow it to the right.) This is the house, expanded and extended over the years, where the Sutherland This is a variation on the ‘found manuscript’ novel - or in this case manuscripts, being the papers left behind by bagpiper John Callum MacKay Sutherland in the little hut he had built for himself in the hills beyond the Grey House at Ailte vhor Alech (the End of the Road) in Rogart, Sutherland, (turn left somewhere between Golspie and Brora and keep going to the unmarked fork in the road then follow it to the right.) This is the house, expanded and extended over the years, where the Sutherland piping dynasty set up its school of bagpiping and later, in an attic room, also a proper school for children from the area, now all defunct. Other relics, transcripts of radio and TV broadcasts and illustrative extracts from monthly journals contribute to the overall mix. The human story in the book concentrates on the latest Sutherlands to be brought up in the House, those from the twentieth century to now, the aforementioned John Callum MacKay Sutherland and his son Callum Innes MacKay Sutherland. Both had left this Highland home to pursue careers in London, both were/are drawn back to confront the imminent death of a parent, in John’s case his mother’s and in Callum’s his father’s. The novel itself begins early one morning with John taking from her cot Katherine Anna, the grand-daughter of his housekeeper Margaret, and spiriting her away with him. He intends to take her to the little hut as inspiration for part of the final piobaireachd he is composing. This act of kidnapping persuades the household - Margaret, her husband Iain Cowie, and daughter Helen - that Callum must be summoned back from London. It becomes obvious (though heavily foregrounded earlier in the footnotes by invocations to note the increasing intrusion of the word ‘I’ to the text) that the guiding hand in the assembly of the text is meant to be that of Helen. This is highlighted by the information that the title of her dissertation was, “The Use of Personal Papers, Journals and other Writings in the Creation of Modernist and Contemporary Fiction.” The family dynamics are complicated. Margaret and John had had a long-standing affair that produced Helen. While John was away down south Margaret had married Iain who now looks on Helen as his own daughter and on John’s return to the house resolutely tried to avoid any knowledge of his wife’s past (and rekindled) affair with Helen’s true father. Helen and Callum had become lovers when she was seventeen – some time before they both moved away for further education. Thankfully Katherine Anna is not Callum’s child. The narration is not straightforward. It often adopts that form of Highland speech heavily influenced by Gaelic (to which is not difficult to accommodate) but it is interspersed with passages on the history of the Sutherlands, the Grey House itself, and of bagpiping. And it has copious footnotes. Now; I love a footnote. But there are footnotes and footnotes. In a novel they are ideally used sparingly but here they appear very frequently - almost, but not quite, on every page, sometimes three or more to contend with. There is such a thing as overkill. Moreover, many of these impart the same information as previous ones or recapitulate something that has already appeared in the text. In some of them, too, there are comments on the text, as if the author is telling us how to interpret it, what to look for, which smacks of hubris and reads as if the author does not respect us as readers. However, The Big Music is a bold venture. It attempts to set out in novelistic form the characteristics of the apotheosis of the art of bagpiping, the piobaireachd (usually rendered in English as pibroch,) while also making the case that it is an extremely complicated and worthy musical form, requiring a large amount of training by previous pipers as its essence is not truly captured by any musical notation. To that end we have sections of the overall story relating to the structure of piobaireachd, the ground, Urlar, a variational development, Taorluath, more variation, Crunluath (the Crown,) and a conclusion, Crunluath A Mach, which returns to the Urlar and ideally fades away as the piper recedes over the horizon. But therein lies its main flaw. The playing of piobaireachd necessarily entails repetition, of notes and phrases. While some recapitulation and some emphasis by repetition may be necessary in a novel, it ought not to be taken to extremes. “Running over the same old ground” is not generally desirable. Mirroring piobaireachd unfortunately obliges it. That tendency in this novel may not quite be ad nauseam but certainly leans towards ad irritatem. Occasionally the footnotes contain snippets that read as comments on the text. In piobearachd “Like in a story, one may return to a central idea that is never quite resolved, as in a fable or a myth there may seem to be an ending but the ending is not there.” A piobeareachd has no formal conclusion and in its performance, “The two extremes to be avoided are dragging and hurrying. …. Steadiness is more important than speed.” This commenting is made explicit when we are told “the idea of music that sits behind the words, of entire lines and phrases that sound rather than represent … Is at the very heart of the project here in hand.” We are told that at the heart of John McKay Sutherland’s attitude to the music of his forefathers is “A loneliness that some might describe as a quality of mind that won’t let anyone in, come close. A loneliness that may be described as a quality of heart that can’t admit love.” I read this as a reflection of the influence of Calvinism on the Scottish male’s soul. In this context the observation that “The history of women in these places is always a quiet story, it’s quietly told” holds a harsh mirror up to history. As a novel The Big Music certainly has ambition – especially in its attempt to extend the limits of the form. In its execution, though, it strays too far from the reason why people engage with novels. Its concentration on its characters - well drawn as most of them are - is too episodic, too sparse, too smirred, to resonate as it might. A note on the book’s title. Within the piping fraternity piobaireachd is known as the big music, Ceol Mor (as opposed to strathspeys, reels etc which are regarded as Ceol Beag, little music.)

  8. 5 out of 5

    Mahood & Worm

    stunning. syntax bends to the will of the music that is inseparable from the story. why this is so difficult to find in the U.S. i don't know. amazing achievement, a world in itself, you have to live in it to listen to it. once you are there, in the pages, the bagpipe drones will wash over you, and suddenly within bookends you are in enormous fields, and you don't so much read histories as let them envelop you in all their beauty. appendices abound, footnotes, maps, etc., but, as "Gunn" says ear stunning. syntax bends to the will of the music that is inseparable from the story. why this is so difficult to find in the U.S. i don't know. amazing achievement, a world in itself, you have to live in it to listen to it. once you are there, in the pages, the bagpipe drones will wash over you, and suddenly within bookends you are in enormous fields, and you don't so much read histories as let them envelop you in all their beauty. appendices abound, footnotes, maps, etc., but, as "Gunn" says early on in the foreword, in other words, these are just more doors through which to step into this place, because this is a place, it feels like. i can think only of Richard Skelton, who describes landscape in music, when i listen to these words as i read them. when you can, read this aloud.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Antonia

    This has had really good reviews but I don't think it works at all. I felt the structure was contrived and led to too much repetition of material. I wanted to know more about the relationships and characters. The footnotes were distracting. It was a real struggle to finish it. This has had really good reviews but I don't think it works at all. I felt the structure was contrived and led to too much repetition of material. I wanted to know more about the relationships and characters. The footnotes were distracting. It was a real struggle to finish it.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Lorraine McCann

    I quibbled with myself whether to give four or five stars. The issue is the appendixes and other apparatus, but the truth is you don't need to read them and I even wonder if Kirsty Gunn is fully aware of that. It could well be almost a tongue-in-cheek dare to the reader. See, a lot of playful endnotes and footnotes don't go the whole way with faux scholarship (and some of this isn't faux at all), but she does. But the story is what matters, and KG is a great storyteller. It could be that I relat I quibbled with myself whether to give four or five stars. The issue is the appendixes and other apparatus, but the truth is you don't need to read them and I even wonder if Kirsty Gunn is fully aware of that. It could well be almost a tongue-in-cheek dare to the reader. See, a lot of playful endnotes and footnotes don't go the whole way with faux scholarship (and some of this isn't faux at all), but she does. But the story is what matters, and KG is a great storyteller. It could be that I related to the main characters in this book because I'm Scottish and because fractured, emotionally distant men are not exactly rare in the cold reaches of this Calvanist land - whatever the reason, I found The Big Music both mesmeric in its connection to the land and deeply moving in its depiction of how it might be to live in these wilds. An astonishing achievement in fiction. Full disclosure: I copy edited this book but I don't receive any money from it once its published.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Anne

    A difficult read but nevertheless rewarding. (memo to self: time to read some crime novels that don't tax the brain so much?!!!) A difficult read but nevertheless rewarding. (memo to self: time to read some crime novels that don't tax the brain so much?!!!)

  12. 5 out of 5

    Alison

    So disappointing. A really great idea to structure a book around bagpipe composition, but it’s so clunky with too too many footnotes accompanied by cliched story.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Jud Barry

    The book was a failure, and I loved it. Full review here. The book was a failure, and I loved it. Full review here.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Beverley

    The Big Music by Kirsty Gunn. I really enjoyed the flow of this book and i really wish the author hadn't included so much background information, but just introduced the fact that it was based on real people and places and then added all the information at the back. There are many many footnotes, almost on every page i do not think they are needed.I got to about half way through and then skipped a number of historical chapters that didn't seem to have anything to do with the story and added noth The Big Music by Kirsty Gunn. I really enjoyed the flow of this book and i really wish the author hadn't included so much background information, but just introduced the fact that it was based on real people and places and then added all the information at the back. There are many many footnotes, almost on every page i do not think they are needed.I got to about half way through and then skipped a number of historical chapters that didn't seem to have anything to do with the story and added nothing to it either, just to find the end of the story. The Big Music could actually have been called 'The Last Lament' as that is what it is actually is. The Sutherland family set up home between the hills in Scotland several generations ago and became a hostelry for travelling sheep herders going to market, but they also did something else. The Sutherland's or John Sutherland set up a music school and would teach the generations to come how to play the bagpipes. This particular story is about the seventh John Sutherland who after years of wandering around the country returns home to live out his life and write his 'last lament'. The 'last lament' includes a note or notes for each person in John's life and even some events and it was to be played at his funeral and was. We learn about the past, the present and in some ways the future of the Grey House or the 'house at the end of the road' because there was nothing else after it, or around it, it was just there. You are taken on a journey through time and space in away. Kirsty Gunn writes in such a way that I could feel the wind in my face and then hear the dogs barking and i was there, right there in that Grey House hearing the Last Lament too. It didn't need the extra bits and it would be interesting, to me, to see if i can find another book by the same author.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Sean O'kane

    Awarding this – The New Zealand Book of the Year 2013 – a mere three stars out of five is, I admit, a frustrating admission for me given the universal acclaim the book has had since publication. There are parts of this book that are breath-taking, sublime, innovative and fascinating as Gunn takes us around the Highlands on this long-lost piping odyssey. But, as the book progresses it becomes apparent that the driving plot has been deliberately stalled in favour of indulging in the many view poin Awarding this – The New Zealand Book of the Year 2013 – a mere three stars out of five is, I admit, a frustrating admission for me given the universal acclaim the book has had since publication. There are parts of this book that are breath-taking, sublime, innovative and fascinating as Gunn takes us around the Highlands on this long-lost piping odyssey. But, as the book progresses it becomes apparent that the driving plot has been deliberately stalled in favour of indulging in the many view points of the ‘present’ of the novel that could easily be described in a few lines. Yes, there are allusions to the past before the foreground of the present but again, these are repeated over and over so they too are indulged beyond tolerability. The addition of non-fictional asides on the technicalities of the music itself become too intrusive into the story are occasionally distracting when one is trying hard to focus on the meat of the novel itself. But on the other hand, *I liked it*. Even in its self-indulgence, there was much to admire and praise: the drama of the initial ‘snatch’; the poetry of the landscape she invokes; the power & lineage of the music; and the wonderfully rounded out real-life characters. It’s still a novel I would highly recommended to read given its challenging ethos but it’s a shame – for me – that after the first 200 pages I was frustrated that it seemed to be repeating itself given how much I really was gripped before then.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Kathleen Dixon

    This book has a fabulous title, and I thought it sounded fascinating - a story told by means of 'a collection of found papers, appendices and notes', and with the lives of people and the creation of music all intertwined. But after a hundred pages, and then at least a dozen samplings throughout the rest of the book, I had to abandon it: the end was predictable (and yes, I sampled the last pages and I had predicted correctly). there were no surprises along the way - I'd read a passage and quite li This book has a fabulous title, and I thought it sounded fascinating - a story told by means of 'a collection of found papers, appendices and notes', and with the lives of people and the creation of music all intertwined. But after a hundred pages, and then at least a dozen samplings throughout the rest of the book, I had to abandon it: the end was predictable (and yes, I sampled the last pages and I had predicted correctly). there were no surprises along the way - I'd read a passage and quite like knowing a bit more of the family history, and go back to the page I'd got up to, but then get bogged down again. though I enjoyed the immediacy of the writing style, I also found it too repetitve. And yes, this is the way we are in real life in our thoughts - we come back to the same things over and over .... , but I wasn't caught up in any of these people enough to want to dwell in their minds.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Philippa

    More of a PhD than a novel, and because of that, boring. I wanted a story. I really wanted to like this, but it was a struggle after the first 80 or 100 pages. I had to make myself finish it, and was skim-reading at the end. The author has a poetic style and skilfully evoked the bleak beauty and loneliness of the Scottish Highlands. She has clearly done a colossal amount of research for this novel, and it is obviously meant to break the rules of novel writing, but what worked for the Times Liter More of a PhD than a novel, and because of that, boring. I wanted a story. I really wanted to like this, but it was a struggle after the first 80 or 100 pages. I had to make myself finish it, and was skim-reading at the end. The author has a poetic style and skilfully evoked the bleak beauty and loneliness of the Scottish Highlands. She has clearly done a colossal amount of research for this novel, and it is obviously meant to break the rules of novel writing, but what worked for the Times Literary Supplement reviewer ("One of the finest novels of the past decade") doesn't work for me. I didn't feel sympathetic or warm towards any of the characters; there was too much psychic distance. The constant repetition was just annoying.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Jean

    This is a beautiful, poetic book, which fuses the history of pipe music in Sutherland with a modern love story. Kirsty Gunn's writing has real resonance and a profound understanding of Gaelic tradition. She grew up with a piper father and that firsthand knowledge gives her work a rare emotional depth. I found this book moving for personal reasons - my own father was very interested. in Gaelic culture and introduced me to the songs of the Hebrides when I was young. But the love story, with its ev This is a beautiful, poetic book, which fuses the history of pipe music in Sutherland with a modern love story. Kirsty Gunn's writing has real resonance and a profound understanding of Gaelic tradition. She grew up with a piper father and that firsthand knowledge gives her work a rare emotional depth. I found this book moving for personal reasons - my own father was very interested. in Gaelic culture and introduced me to the songs of the Hebrides when I was young. But the love story, with its evocation of the unexpressed emotion buried under everyday life, was also very touching.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Rosyosy

    It took some time to get through, but it is a rather good epic tale about a family of pipers over the generations. Certainly get a feel for place, and isolation of the Highlands and of course the soul that is the music. The narrative is experimental and this I found, slowed me down, but nonetheless, worth taking time over. One for the shelf to refer to again and again for inspiration. Reminded me a wee bit of The Flounder. Highland Libraries needs to get more copies in though, it's very much in d It took some time to get through, but it is a rather good epic tale about a family of pipers over the generations. Certainly get a feel for place, and isolation of the Highlands and of course the soul that is the music. The narrative is experimental and this I found, slowed me down, but nonetheless, worth taking time over. One for the shelf to refer to again and again for inspiration. Reminded me a wee bit of The Flounder. Highland Libraries needs to get more copies in though, it's very much in demand!

  20. 4 out of 5

    Ann Glamuzina

    I love Kirsty Gunn's writing - it is poetic and beautiful. This is a demanding book - took me a while to get into the right head space, but once there I enjoyed the multi-generational story immensely. To say that The Big Music is about Pipe music is like saying that Animal Farm is about animals! It is so much more and the sense of longing and loneliness I felt reading this wonderful book are a testament to the Gunn's talent. It is worth the effort, and if you haven't I'd recommend her novel Rain I love Kirsty Gunn's writing - it is poetic and beautiful. This is a demanding book - took me a while to get into the right head space, but once there I enjoyed the multi-generational story immensely. To say that The Big Music is about Pipe music is like saying that Animal Farm is about animals! It is so much more and the sense of longing and loneliness I felt reading this wonderful book are a testament to the Gunn's talent. It is worth the effort, and if you haven't I'd recommend her novel Rain - a simpler book perhaps, but no less beautiful.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Sam

    I really loved this book when I started it, but felt that it lost me a bit as it went on. The writing is beautiful though, and I enjoyed the modernist experimentation of it - the use of footnotes and 'found' materials really made you question the whole of idea of what is true in a narrative. It reminded me a little of Nabakov's Pale Fire, but the characters were just that little bit less engaging. I really loved this book when I started it, but felt that it lost me a bit as it went on. The writing is beautiful though, and I enjoyed the modernist experimentation of it - the use of footnotes and 'found' materials really made you question the whole of idea of what is true in a narrative. It reminded me a little of Nabakov's Pale Fire, but the characters were just that little bit less engaging.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Christina Roy

    One could say that it's about a style of bagpipe music, but it's much much more than that. Where to start? I suggest reading the Table of Pipers, the definition of Big Music and the Foreword, then go to the Appendices for a while, then go back to the beginning. They are Sutherlands, from Sutherlans, and they all have the same first names, but just keep your wits about you and the words will dissolve into music. Magnificent. One could say that it's about a style of bagpipe music, but it's much much more than that. Where to start? I suggest reading the Table of Pipers, the definition of Big Music and the Foreword, then go to the Appendices for a while, then go back to the beginning. They are Sutherlands, from Sutherlans, and they all have the same first names, but just keep your wits about you and the words will dissolve into music. Magnificent.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Alison Cleary

    This one book of the year last year in NZ awards - but I had heard nothing about it - so was intrigued - written by a NZ/Scot who lives overseas - set in Scottish highlands - with money from Scottish Book Council - interesting! Unique fictional look at Scottish social history of the bagpipes and the masters who write the highly structured music for them.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Paultaylor

    Strange, very strange. A novel about a fictitious family of upwardly mobile highlanders made good. Spanning three centuries and five generations a very proficient spoof history but not an engaging story. Rather like the concept albums of the seventies super groups; of academic interest only.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Christopher

    Read my review of Kirsty Gunn's magnificent achievement here: http://cphowe.wordpress.com/2012/07/1... Read my review of Kirsty Gunn's magnificent achievement here: http://cphowe.wordpress.com/2012/07/1...

  26. 4 out of 5

    James Orton

    An epic story of a family that revolves around the creation of Piobaireachd or 'The Big Music'. Immense and very involving, this is a book to get lost in. An epic story of a family that revolves around the creation of Piobaireachd or 'The Big Music'. Immense and very involving, this is a book to get lost in.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Katie Heron

    Not for the faint hearted. But a real achievement to write and also to read. It's taken me a long time but I'm glad I persevered. Not for the faint hearted. But a real achievement to write and also to read. It's taken me a long time but I'm glad I persevered.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Helen

    Gave up on this. Perhaps another time.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Stantontas

    This got called back to the library the day after I started it. Not sure about the self-consciously postmodern scholarly shell to it but should give it another go someday.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Katherine

    I couldn't finish it. Too many notes and comments etc. I couldn't finish it. Too many notes and comments etc.

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