The Place Where You Go to Listen
His software is tuned to seismology and light,
to weather readings and the covert
stirrings of magnetism. The composer has no
vibrating strings, no horsehair, maple,
ebony, to manufacture sounds;
no lungs empty and resound
through brass chambers. No conductor
embodies the score. There is no score –
at least, no way to read ahead, no notes
staved in ink. The only instruments
are those measuring the world outside:
natural phenomena, translated,
synthesised in real time, forming tones
like organ chords, like choirs that can sustain
beyond the duration of breath.
The phosphorescent bloom
of the Aurora Borealis
is a chamber orchestra of bells, echoing
into stillness. A new moon’s a melody
thin but definite as a scythe.
In a room in the Museum of the North
in Fairbanks, Alaska, speakers convey
this infinite, unfathomable music.
You wish this really was the earth’s song
overheard. You wish the music spoke
with subterranean depth, as if magma knew
what meaning was and the sea was self-aware,
articulate. But you’re miles away, at home,
listening to the music on the radio, and so
you imagine figures in this soundscape:
tourists lower rucksacks, sit and listen,
or else glance through the door before hurrying
anywhere else. To deep tectonic bass
a teenage couple kiss. The sonorous expanse
of sunrise ushers in a cleaner,
pushing a mop, humming. But still
you have that feeling you sometimes get
in the garden, when the dusk light
changes suddenly and you’re left
uncannied, touched by a subliminal tone
as just for a moment you forget to take
it all for granted: this place you cultivate,
the taut surface of things as you want them to be,
gives way to a vertiginous world.
You can’t outrun your knowledge that the soil,
as it crumbles from your garden fork,
is multitudes, is life and its decaying echoes.
Earth stiffens your fingers and more creatures
than you’ll ever see pool in the lines
of your hand. You want to retreat
into your body’s fixity, as if your skin
was a wall that could be tested with a pinch,
but the body’s a truth as fluid as
the Northern Lights, as their ever-
unfolding music. Your cells, like a landscape,
sustain on rhythms out of your control.
Your genome’s not a soloist, forging
an individual music from the notes
laid down for it – selfhood is philharmonics,
the body home to a hundred trillion forms
of life in a galactic symbiosis.
Is our music, so immediate and strange,
the way we sing this otherness? For the Greeks,
music was the child of memory
and the weather. You wonder how she learned –
did her father, in a storm, hold her shoulder
as she practised arpeggios, his inscrutable cloak
billowing all around? Or was it that,
when he breathed and her body became life,
his breath was a symphony and she sang along?
It’s late. You turn off the radio and listen:
you wear the sound of the sea like a coat,
more comforting than silence.
Garry MacKenzie’s poems have been published in magazines and anthologies including Dark Mountain 10, The Scores, Northwords Now and the Scottish Book Trust’s New Writing 2009-10. He’s won awards including the Wigtown Poetry Competition, the Robert McLellan Poetry Award and a Scottish Book Trust New Writer’s Award. He’s also recently published a non-fiction book, Scotland: A Literary Guide for Travellers (I.B. Tauris, 2016).