Academic journal article Antipodes

Sound and Music in the Works of Randolph Stow

Academic journal article Antipodes

Sound and Music in the Works of Randolph Stow

Article excerpt

MUSIC RESONATES THROUGH THE WORKS OF RANDOLPH STOW (1935-2010), with landscape, sounds, and words entwined across his elegant and lyrical output. Just as the author describes Shakespeare as having "words for every emotion" (Stow, A Haunted Land 41), so has Stow a song for every situation, with specific pieces of music used to locate fiction in time and place. He researched myth and folklore, from aboriginal legends to English folk tales and Scottish songs, and this interest is reflected in his novels. Pipers, hymns, and drums reverberate through his words, while clocks tick their way across his output, with "small determined feet, like a Lilliputian sentry on patrol" (161). Stow was a keyboard player, and therefore understood the theoretical workings of music. He listened widely, mainly to pieces from the Western classical tradition, yet also appreciated the power of a traditional song. There are numerous references to his musical background across his surviving letters, which give a sense of his perspective, from his consideration of performances of Mozart in Fremantle in 1830 (Stow, Papers, letter to sister, 19 December 1980) to comments on his own abilities: "I realized I've always played the piano as if it were a harpsichord" (Papers, letter to mother, 21 July 1962). He attended many musical events, embracing such diverse occasions as Bach's St. John Passion in Aldeburgh (Papers, letter to mother, 29 April 1980), hillbilly sessions in the Kimberleys, and squeezies at Koogareena. The result is that music in performance has a strong presence in his writings, from domestic gatherings to country music, Christian worship and indigenous rituals.

Patrick White exploited recorded music as a stimulus in his writing, speaking on a number of occasions of using musical works as a structural aid in his writing: a recording of one of Bartók's violin concertos helped him to find the right ending for Voss, for example (White 141). Similarly, Stow worked with a gramophone beside him, though never claimed to draw on particular pieces in quite the same manner as White.

Stow was born in Geraldton in Western Australia, where the trees are "crippled and stooped by the southerly" (Stow, The Merry-Go-Round 16). Both sides of the author's family were fifthgeneration Australians with English roots, originating from Suffolk and Essex. Following his education at school in Perth, Stow enrolled to study first Law, then French and English at the University of Western Australia. He had a natural flair for assimilating new languages, also learning Dutch, Indonesian, and Russian. After completing his undergraduate studies, Stow worked as a storeman at the Forrest River mission near Wyndham before returning to study anthropology and linguistics at the University of Sydney in 1958. In 1959 he traveled to Papua New Guinea as a cadet patrol officer, based mainly in the Trobriand Islands, where he contracted malaria. He taught in Britain, at the University of Leeds in 1962, and in 1964 and 1965 traveled through the USA. In 1966, Stow met Peter Maxwell Davies (h. 1934), then composer-in-residence at the University of Adelaide. By then he had settled permanently in England, following in the footsteps of another musical writer, Peter Porter (1929-2011), who had emigrated from Australia in 1951. During the next few years Stow traveled widely in Europe and Asia. In 1969, he moved to East Bergholt in Suffolk, initially to Fishpond Cottage, and from there to Dairy Farm Cottage in the same village, subsequently moving to Old Harwich in Essex, where he lived from 1981 until his death in 2010.

Stow's first novel, A Haunted Land (1956), is set in a sonorous, "plover-haunted" (103) Western Australian landscape, thrumming with the sounds of old mills and cockatoos, distant clangs and hoots. Motionlessness and silence feature across Stow's works: here the trees "sighed and sobbed a little in the coming breeze, but beyond them and above there was a great stillness" (43). …

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