Unconsciously, I’d left the postcard of Anders Zorn’s painting ‘Vallkulla’ that I’d bought in Mora, in the book ‘Through Vegetal Being’ by Luce Irigaray and Michael Marder – a book that leapt out at me from a shelf in a Stockholm bookshop – I had put the postcard on the page starting a chapter titled ‘Encountering another human in the woods’…
I spent two hot and dry months in the countryside in Västernorrland, in Sweden, working on farms. I stayed for one month in a village where in the 17th century, 71 people (65 women & 6 men) were accused of being witches and were beheaded and burnt.
I heard kulning – traditional cow herding calls – for the first time in a beautiful concert by Ulrika Bodén, in a 13th century church that wore its pre-reformation ornately decorated walls, positively pagan as nature symbolism sprung out of the wood and stone. Afterwards I went home full with inspiration.
I unconsciously began thinking of ways to synthesize these impressions, knowing that these powerful songs of female cow herders and the persecuted women (and men) of the witch trials were somehow connected.
As it happened, I’d already begun work on a piece of music setting words by Virginia Woolf (from The Waves) and Thomas Hardy (Tess of the d’Urbervilles). It was a coincidence that the character of Tess is a milk maid, which gave me the license to write a solo soprano melody that was inspired by kulning. I’d taken a passage from the Hardy, which luridly describes the tragically fated Tess moving through an overgrown garden at twilight. The passage from Woolf’s novel describes darkness enveloping a landscape, covering everything eventually. Though on the one hand it is a poetic description of nightfall, I also naturally interpret it in light of Woolf’s personal history of early sexual abuse and a life shaped by depression, ending sadly with her suicide.
Over the following months I worked my impressions into a piece called ‘Evening Prayers, for choir and baroque ensemble.
Waves of darkness in
the garden, damp and rank
with juicy grass,
darkness in the air,
mists of pollen;
tall blooming weeds,
weeds of red
and purple hues,
covering houses, hills, trees,
as waves of water wash round
the sides of some sunken ship,
gathering cuckoo-spittle on skirts,
staining hands with thistle-milk
darkness washed down streets,
round single figures,
engulfing them; blotting out couples,
conscious of neither time nor space,
floating pollen seemed to be notes made visible,
dampness of the garden,
weeping of the garden’s sensibility,
darkness rolled its waves along grassy rides,
enveloping the solitary thorn tree,
the empty snail shells at its foot,
darkness blew along upland slopes,
where snow lodges for ever,
near nightfall, rank-smelling weed-flowers glowed,
valleys full of running streams,
yellow vine leaves,
waves of colour mixed with waves of sound.