The title Sky-burial is taken from Kathleen Jamie’s extended narrative poem tracking the journey and ceremony of a woman being carried through her dying and her death. I discovered this text in 1999 and knew then that it would become a major piece. I spent six years searching for the right musical environment for the text, which needed to be evocative, strange, hallucinatory, deep, the meanings veiled and elusive. The quartet’s music is the landscape through which the voice travels, starting with a lush, complex river valley, moving up a long dry stone path leading out onto open moorland where the final ritual takes place. The shifts in landscape are marked by moments of quiet humming, sometimes from the quartet as well as the singer.
After moving through the first two musical landscapes, the journey through the text pauses and the voice revisits lines that have already been sung. I am interested in the way the eye moves around the poem whilst reading. Sometimes words, lines and phrases are reread. Sometimes whole passages are reread. The line: king and queen calling/ repulsed boundmade me reread, first the single words, then the line, the stanza and then back to the opening section. At this point the music mirrors my eyes’ movements around the words. The text loops around, but is revisited in a new, more transcendental, less feverish musical mood. The voice now sings the words to lyrical lines based around open fifths, over a rich harmonic sequence tempered by an insistent heartbeat figure in the strings.
The arrival onto the ‘high moor’ signals the beginning of the central climax where the ceremonial ritual takes place: women in a ring, raise your arms, part the blue sky…. This is followed by a more everyday description of the people making their way home, centred around a child’s question: where do they go, the dead?
In the final section the voice returns to the same fragments of melody as at the opening of the piece. The woman continues to observe her surroundings within the landscape: midsummer on the high moor/…the wind unravels me/ winter birds will arrive. In the final transcendentalmoments the words are over. The music disappears, unfolding into timeless rotations of tremolandififths, with the voice humming quietly to end.