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A sudden cartography of song

[This is the text to a piece I created together with the Cambridge composer Jeremy Thurlow. It was based around ideas of non-wordy beauty exemplified by babies babbling, birds flocking and singing and the elegance of deaf sign language. These were captured in the video that I made for the 25 minutes of brilliance that Jeremy composed for 4 voices. On the first performance on the 9th June 2007 at Wiltons Music Hall it was sung by Edward Grint, Julian Stocker, Frances Jellard and Ildiko Allen. They sang exquisitely. ]

Section 1


It’s true, the skylark really does have a beautiful song. down on the Hampshire coast where I grew up,  the blue summer air was woven with it. High above the gorsey shingle of the MOD firing range: burbles and whirrs, pearling upwards up a faultless wire.

But I never knew what I was hearing. I knew the word skylark, I’d read the famous poem, I’d even written poems mentioning them myself. But never realized that those clicks and whirrs down by the beach were them. Were skylarks.

How odd. Totally disconnected.

And did I love them more that afternoon on Winchester Hill in my late teens when a girlfriend lay back against the chalk and said: ‘listen to the skylarks’?

No, actually. I was going to lie to you and say that the final union of word and bird made me cry. But back then I was probably worrying about my skin or wondering if I should come out to her…

Word and bird. That’s a topic.


O how lovely to have one’s words transubstantiated into song. Freed from the awkwardness of having to dangle meaning out infront like a flag, words can slip into the shadows and watch, shy and happy, as a new purely musical meaning fans out blossoms into the air.

Words and music are like map and landscape.

Maps are wonderful for getting around. They’re beautiful too. The concise lines of an ordinance survey map have a calligraphic poetry to them. But we don’t arrive in Grasmere, look around and say: ‘But the map says this road should be bright red and these trees regularly spaced triangular conifers.’ Nor do we  feel cheated when a 15th century village church is not a black sphere with a cross on top.

Out walking we know the map is just paper. It’s the landscape that is beautiful.

But thought is a map. Words are a map. And we complain all the time when the landscape of our life doesn’t conform to the map of words. ‘That’s not how a boyfriend behaves.’ ‘This is not something I would do.’ And most of all: ‘It’s not fair.’


Words rain down like quicksetting concrete on the infant head.

A 6 month-old baby begins to divide the world into mother and non-mother. By the time she’s two, then the sense of ‘mine’ arises. ‘There are these things that are mine. And those things that are not. These things I like and those things I fear’. Words are a handy cribsheet  to remind her of  these likes and dislikes. By three, she’ll know almost a thousand words and at five she’ll be delighting in her mastery of them, telling stories to anyone who’ll listen. By the time we’re teeenage the handy reminders have hardened into inviolable maps. ‘I am seventeen. I know everything. I have picked up the words I need and will stay with them close to my chest for another twenty years. Perhaps longer, before I realise I’ve been holding the wrong words, sticking the wrong map over everything.

It could be the map that says I am alone in the world and I must struggle in solitude. Or the map that says other people will always sort things for me. It could be the map that says other people are a resource that I must constantly harvest. It could be the map that says I am a giver. I can’t ask for anything. It could be the map that says I’m the Chosen One. Or the one that says I’m nothing.

Section 2


Song learning is thought to have two distinct stages which begin 3-8 weeks after hatching.

The first phase is called subsong.  It is characteristically atonal, and noisy with no repeated units and no recognizable syllables.  This is a time for motor practice in coordinating the movements of the syrinx, respiratory system, tongue and beak.

The second phase  is called plastic song.  Birds in plastic song often sing the right parts in random order. Themes are present but they are produced in bouts of one type, then another.

Finally, crystallized song sees the mature song syntax appearing correctly. The order of song themes is always precise.

If a bird is deafened when very young, it never progresses beyond early subsong. it will develop a song which is abnormal when compared to its conspecifics, but it will still be beautiful.


When you slow down a choir of crickets to a human speed – that is, by the ratio of a cricket’s life to a human’s –  then it sounds like an angelic choir, singing glory, bathed in light.

What if we did that every evening? Emptied our throats of words… and sang. At sunset. Together.

Section 3


a. Nietzsche says that even when someone’s lying you can see they are also telling the truth by the shape of their mouth.  Does this mean that deaf people using sign language find it harder to lie effectively? Because they can’t hide behind words. Because people have to look at their bodies.

This mean’s ‘I’m happy’ [signs it]. This doesn’t. [signs it angrily].

b. I once watched a group of deaf students coming out of a talk at NYU. There was a woman on top of the steps who was signing with spectacular anger. Yet all the people listening were calm, smiling. I couldn’t make out what was happening until I saw the woman break out into a smile. Ah: reported speech.

c. One of the good things about being deaf is that you can sign in concerts without disturbing anyone.

I was in the Philharmonie in Berlin one winter listening to Bruckner and I coasted through one of the longer movements entranced by the sight of four people in the front row signing – their hands lit up by light from the stage.  They were quite animated and I wanted so badly know whether they thought the orchestra was any good.

d. It’s true the deaf can read but words are written-down sounds which deaf people have never heard – which makes them drearily abstract. It would be like Hearing People using a language consisting entirely of phone numbers. How much nicer to be represented by a gesture than a word. [signs A-L-I-S-T-A-I-R]. That’s my name. And every time I sign it, you have to look at me. [signs it again]

e. Most telling of all, deaf sign language has no past tense and no future tense. Everything is told in the present. Now that’s a topic.


An English writer from the turn of the century describes a fantastical kingdom, high in the mountains where there are no words. It’s an urbane and sophisticated civilisation where the adults spend most of their afternoons in busy teahouses, communicating in fluid gestures and with the tiniest nuances of their faces. The only sound to be heard is that of hands in the air and the clinking of china.

People from the valley live in blissful specificity. Since every person, animal or meadow flower can be judged on their unique merit – it makes no sense to give them names. There’s that bird and this one. Same markings and song but clearly different birds.

The children don’t have names either because they know each other by sight.

And when passing a stranger, people have to put down what they’re carrying and look that person in the eye to hold a conversation.

Once a year in summer, the Wordless Folk come together in a great silent gathering under the sky, chuckling with their hands and wreathing their faces with delighted smiles, unpacking picnics, laying out rugs.

When everyone has arrived and the sun has begun to sink behind the mountains  – they sing.

They open their throats and sing.

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