My string quartet was inspired by Bruce Chatwin’s 1986 book The Songlines. Songlines (also called Dreaming Tracks) are routes Australian Aborigines believe were taken by the spirit ancestors who called creation into existence, giving each mountain, river, plant and animal its name as they traversed the earth and sky. These tracks are not preserved by markings or maps, but in songs that when recited guide the singer as they rename each feature of the land, the song and the journey progressing together. While The Songlines is primarily a travelogue recounting the author’s experience in remote parts of Australia, what makes it such a brilliant book is the way Chatwin often diverges from the topic to speculate on man’s nomadic past, the nature of restlessness and the poetry and universal appeal of ancient animist beliefs. The idea of the Songlines themselves is deeply moving, but Chatwin’s wider web of historical and cultural connections makes this faraway tradition seem very near.
The form of my Songlines echoes this contemplative, free-flowing narrative. It is in a single continuous movement that seamlessly transitions from a simple melody into various diverging musical ideas. Everything in the work (from the lyrical, intense opening to the light, dancing middle section and the wild, energetic music at the end) somehow comes from the melody heard at the beginning. As in the Songlines of the Aborigines, this song can be thought of as a map, guiding the music as it traverses different landscapes.