But Will a Scotsman Never frae this Vile Growth be Freed
William Sweeney first orchestrated A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle in 1992, during one of Tramway's golden ages when the West Coast became a powerhouse for original performance. I am currently sitting in the Red Note Ensemble's last rehearsals for their recreation of this important work, that matches Hugh MacDiarmid's scornful Scots epic with Sweeney's post-modern orchestration. If MacDiarmid's state of the nation address is firmly rooted in the first stirrings of Scottish modern cultural identity, its lurching analysis of presbyterian ills, the abusive relationship with England and the spiritual aspirations of a language firmly rooted in the physical world retains a vibrant political and emotional resonance.
MacDiarmid is a Scottish heir to the great modernist experimentations of Joyce and Beckett, and his manipulation of Scots takes it beyond the usual "cult of Burns" sentimentality- a cult the poem explicitly rejects- and uses it to diamond cut the tensions between the sexual and the sacred, horror and redemption, vulgarity and philosophy. Sweeney's orchestration- typically dense and layered, opting for viola over violin and heavy bass clarinets- captures the drunken sway of the poem. By turns referencing the greats of twentieth century classical music- Debussy, Stravinsky, even atonal magician Schoenberg- and swinging into intoxicated parodies of Scottish folk, carnival tunes, Mungus jazz and even hip-hop, the score is energetic, rushing along the spoken word passages and deftly illustrating the shifts of mood, tome and inspiration.
MacDiarmid's poetry does pose difficulties of understanding: the dialect is increasingly archaic and, combined with poetry's natural compression, intellectually challenging. The score, whether lumbering drukenly through the mists of providing ominous intensity, offers a way into this meditation on national identity. Red Note's decision to revive the work- currently touring Scotland- at a time when nationalism has been reduced to a trite tribalism, is a brave statement of faith in a culturally defined sense of nationhood.
Inevitably,a pessimism fills much of the poem: the narrator is drunk, frustrated, horny and comic. The attacks on Calvinism's ability to tie up the human spirit, the mythical allusions and the connections to a European philosophical tradition may be dated, but remain a fascinating analysis of Scottish defeatism. Yet even as he castigates the spirit that had hobbled Caledonia, MacDiarmid is forging a Scottish epic poetry that can stand along the works of Homer, Dante, Joyce and Virgil: a baton picked up by Alastair Grey's Lanark. More recently, this particular score recalls a time when Tramway was recognised as an international venue, with Glasgow exuberant following 1990's cultural celebrations.
"Like love frae lust and God frae men," MacDiarmid urges optimism in the depths of despair, a natural alchemy that finds the grace in critical anger and drunken rage: the fierceness of his intelligence shining like lightning from shook foil in between the intoxicated rolling and the bitter thoughts.