June 05, 2006


In theory, at least, the whole of Australia could be read as a musical score. There was hardly a rock or creek in the country that could not or had not been sung. One should perhaps visualise the Songlines as a spaghetti of Illiads and Odysseys, writhing this way and that, in which every 'episode' was readable in terms of geology.


It was one thing to persuade a surveyor that a heap of boulders were the eggs of the Rainbow Snake, or a lump of reddish sandstone was the liver of a speared kangaroo. It was something else to convince him that a featureless stretch of gravel was the musical equivalent of Beethoven's Opus 111.

By singing the world into existence, he said, the Ancestors had been poets in the original sense of poesis, meaning 'creation'. No Aboriginal could conceive that the created world was in any way imperfect. His religious life had a single aim: to keep the land the way it was and should be. The man who went 'Walkabout' was making a ritual journey. He trod in the footprints of his Ancestor. He sang the Ancestor's stanzas without changing a word or note — and so recreated the Creation.
Bruce Chatwin, Songlines.


Hucbald said...

Look everybody! Bruce is certifiable! He's insane!

Yeah, I usually think dirt roads when I listen to late Beethoven quartets too.

God. What a bunch of inanity.

Adam Baratz said...

I think you're illustrating one of the points from the quote...

The idea that intrigued me was that it's a culture that uses song as one of its principal ways of interacting with the physical landscape. They have a kind of synesthesia with the two. If you held your environment as highly as they do, you probably would consider some stretches to be as masterful as Beethoven.

One bizarre property of their songs is that if you get two people from tribes (I don't know if that's the proper term) in completely different parts of the country, they can identify the landscape someone is singing about without a hitch. One hypothesis is that the songs are assembled from short motives that directly relate to physical features. If you know what a place looks like, you know where they're singing about.