MUSIC AND THE EARTH SPIRIT
By Bob Dickinson, published by Capall Bann at £9.95. 156pp. ISBN 186163112-X (Reviewed by Jeremy Harte)
Some years ago, the planet which we call Earth Mysteries split up into several fragments. Bob Dickinson happened to be sitting on the one which emphasised the importance of experiencing the landscape, not theorising or telling stories or drawing lines on representations of it. He knows that the world is willing to talk to us, if only we would listen. But this is talk without words, a kind of language that we do not understand very well.
Dickinson should, if anyone does. A practised climber and general outdoor type, he has gone out into the landscape and explored while other people sat indoors, shuffling piles of books around. He returns from his auditory journey to remind us that the creative utterance by which all things came into being was not a word, but a sound.
And this book is about sound: despite the title, it is not about anything which an ordinary person would call music. Dickinson's frame of reference moves smoothly from the Palaeolithic to John Cage, disregarding anything that lies in between - such as the entire history of Western music. Given a CD of the Brandenburg Concertos, the man would try rustling it through the fallen leaves of autumn. This is impressive. It takes a highly trained musical intelligence to be as naïve as all that.
Music and the Earth Spirit touches on many things - places haunted by fairy music, the origins of the didgeridoo, Aeolian harps, echoing caves and (inevitably) shamanic drumming. But Dickinson's true goal, set out in an ascending scale of auditory pathworkings, is to hear Nature in itself, not as a repository of human meanings but as the pure experience, 'naked on the grass'. This is not how most people engage with fields and trees and hills in the English countryside; in fact it is not an English aesthetic at all, but is much closer to the American ideal of wilderness. Bang! Down comes The Lark Ascending. What Dickinson wants instead is an auditory experience of landscape without words, without tunes, without meanings. Only running water and whistling reeds: pulse, breath. You may find this a punishingly austere discipline of the senses. You may find it a sudden liberation. Perhaps those are two sides of the same thing.
Few of us have attained the aesthetic purity which finds the wind in the trees to be more musical than a brass band. Simplicity like this comes at the end of a long cultural journey. Are we right in reading it into the sound-culture of primitives? There is a big difference between banging a drum because that's all there is in your world, and banging a drum as a deliberate alternative to Danny Boy. It would be rewarding to hear what shamans, men of high degree and other Womad types think about their music themselves - not what the modern Romantic sensibility gets out of it.
Certainly there are other ways of talking about sound in the landscape, other books yet to be written. John Billingsley has been collecting the music of particular places, and Paul Devereux has published some preliminary studies on the acoustics of sacred structure. Music and the Earth Spirit is not definitive, and has features which will annoy book-shufflers of all persuasions. Robert Graves and Carlos Castaneda are not normally regarded as reliable historical authors. This work has evidently been germinating over ten years, so why is its anthropology and history being supported by second and third-hand citations? Bob Dickinson doesn't care. He's out there on a bay surrounded by towering cliffs, striking two pebbles together. Click. The sigh of the retreating sea. Click. Click.