Archive Documents

Stonypath Sunrise…

... and Victory March for Little Sparta (1991)

for english horn/oboe, viola, harp, and percussion

by Robert Carl.

Dedicated to Ian Finlay.

Written for the harpist Elizabeth Morse and friends.

The art of Ian Hamilton Finlay is unique, and has come to haunt me over the last few years. Finlay is a Scottish poet, conceptual artist, and gardener, and outside of Edinburgh he has blended these talents into his best known work, the “Stonypath” garden on his estate. This is a world of literary pun and allusion, classical reference, and pastoral landscape, a dreamworld that is a perfect aesthetic kingdom for its maker. I have not been to Stonypath, though I have read a good deal about it and seen many photographs, both in exhibitions and catalogues. Thus, this piece, an evocation of its world, is very much an imaginary undertaking, a flight of fancy unfettered by real experience.

Finlay has built a temple to his vision on the grounds, and dubbed the whole enterprise “Little Sparta”. A series of serious scrapes with the Scottish revenue service over its legal status have led to the “Little Spartan Wars”, complete with raids by the authorities and resistance by a group of supporters known as the Saint-Just Vigilantes. In his constant struggle to preserve and enhance his aesthetic domain, against both the forces of nature and society, Finlay is very much the classic figure of the heroic, embattled artist. Finlay speaks of a “neoclassical rearmament”, a return to texts and art of antiquity; but this is not a nostalgic dream – rather, it is a comprehensive and often ambiguous critique of the sources of Western culture, a reanimation of mythology so that we understand its power and continuing hold over our political, social, and cultural discourse. In a similar vein, I have retuned to Plato’s critique of music (his views of the relative virtues of Phrygian and Lydian modes in Book III of The Republic), and a sound inspired by a Homeric world (shawm, lyre, kitara, and percussion) as inspiration for this work.

Finlay’s art can be disturbing, and at times I am not sure what to make of it. His recurrent use of images and texts from the French Revolution and other authoritarian movements, without a clear indication of his own stance towards them, can make one uneasy. In that sense, even as I celebrate Stonypath, my music may establish a certain distance from it as well. But then that is perhaps a logial outgrowh of Finlay’s approach, which creates a complex web of reference open to multiple readings. No matter how polemical, his work remains fundamentally poetical. And in this spirit, I wish his artistic territory long life and security from the storms that rage about it.

Robert Carl (1991)