Sun on Stone: Releasing the Sound of Calling Cows Home

July 9, 2015

I’ve been anticipating all this week another chance to hear Sally Beamish discuss her composition, The Imagined Sound of Sun on Stone for saxophone and chamber orchestra, on the Radio 3 programme, ‘Composer of the Week’. It was wonderful to hear it again today, for the first time since March 1st 2012, when the programme was first broadcast. A spontaneous, recorded response to this initial broadcast can be found on this post:

While I was listening, parked in a lay-by near East Stratton where I’d often observe buzzards, there was something about Beamish’s discussion of a particular composition… that prompted me to turn the volume right up as the music was about to start, grab my camera, leap out and start filming the buzzards which were soaring overhead. That something must have been the striking observation she made about the Winter Solstice sun illuminating the passage of a Neolithic tomb in Orkney

The context for me hearing The Imagined Sound today was quite different. Instead of the plaintive mewling of buzzards wheeling over the woods and fields in the heart of Hampshire, the experience of Beamish’s composition today was punctuated by the shrill squeals of oystercatchers flitting along the shore of Tipner Lake and the more distant staccato clatter of gunfire on a Navy firing range. Most crucial this time round, however, was that I was primed to listen to Beamish’s introduction to her work, such that I was able to recognise aspects of it which resonated with me in previously unrealised ways. Essentially, it has shed fresh light on the connections between what I have written (here and here) about megaliths, cows and pastoral cosmologies, and materials I am working on now pertaining to transformative performance within the space of illuminated chambered tombs.


Men and women with the herds, Dalarna, Sweden 1901 Wikimedia Commons

What passed me by on first hearing, was that the soundworld that Sally Beamish wished to invoke through The Imagined was that of people in the Neolithic calling the cows home. The imagination of ‘what has been’, in order to realise it in the ‘now’, rests on two conceits:

  • that the matrix of stone somehow absorbs sound
  • that the absorbed sound locked into this matrix can be released by a shaft of sunlight striking the stone

The core motif of The Imagined is the Winter Solstice sunrise which illuminates the Neolithic tomb at Maes Howe, Orkney. The beam of light which enters the passage and strikes the back of the tomb is visualised as like a stylus ‘playing’ the sound out of the stone.

What I really missed on first listening was Beamish’s revelation that the opening saxophone is playing an old Swedish kulning, a herding call. Kulning is

a form of singing used mainly by herding girls (and occasionally herdsmen), who live in the mountain fäbodar (mountain villages) during the spring and summer months. The term kulning is generally used to describe all kinds of Scandinavian high pitched herding calls, but it specifically refers to “cow calls” and is a term specifically from the region of Dalarna.
(Sionann in Ui Fhlaithbheartaig 2015: 3).
Here’s a cow’s chant from Lofoten in Norway.

With a fuller understanding of The Imagined Sound of Sun on Stone, I’ve come to realise just how relevant it is to the world of the Haugtussa, the Glaistig and other female guardians of the herds. It has also enlivened some forgotten associations between them and a current preoccupation of mine: the space of the Neolithic chambered tomb as a context for socially transformative performance of the kind envisaged by Walter Benjamin:

Countering Adorno’s description of his critical route as emergence from a darkened cave into a natural space where things appear as they really are, Benjamin evokes the image of the flash ‘Fludd of truth’ (1616) of the equinoxes at Knowth: ‘”Theory… breaks like a single ray of light into an artificially darkened chamber,” thereby placing his spectators, and possibly himself, in the camera obscura where phantasmagorical projection occurs’ (Cohen 1993: 257).

(Crook 2015).


H.L.Sionann in Ui Fhlaithbheartaig (Sheila Louise Wright). 2015. To Call the Cows Home: A Selection of Swedish Kulning. An Entry for An Tir Bardic Championship AS 49 (2015)

http://www.academia.edu/10950469/To_Call_the_Cows_Home_A_Selection_of_Swedish_Kulning Retrieved 9/7/2015

S.Crook (forthcoming) A Petroglyphic Monad: The Constellation of Megalithic Art, Finnegans Wake, and Benjamin’s Arcades Project.

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