Livingston Examines the Poetics of Music in Emerson Project

Nathaniel Livingston '14 with his advisor Prof. Lydia Hamessley.
Nathaniel Livingston '14 with his advisor Prof. Lydia Hamessley.

If you’ve been on Hamilton’s campus this summer, you may have heard the sound of bagpipes drifting over Minor Field. Nathaniel Livingston ’14 has been playing them as part of his Emerson Foundation project, “Performing the Poetics of Music.” Through his project, he is researching the ancient instruments and epics of Scotland and Finland and exploring a long-standing interest in the intersection of music and poetry.

Livingston has been playing the bagpipes since seventh grade and welcomes his Emerson project as an opportunity to return to playing frequently. He recently attended the Highland Games, a celebration of Scottish and Celtic culture, in Ithaca and won second place in the piping competition. He explained his affinity for the bagpipes, commenting, “I think it’s a very musical and poetic instrument.”

In addition to playing, Livingston has been studying Pibroch, the ancient music of the Scottish Highland bagpipes. Pibroch includes its own language, called Canntaireachd, a system of oral or written notations that gives one syllable for each note played. He noted, “It’s a very explicit example of how music is connected to words and poetry.” A creative writing major and long-time music lover, Livingston has always felt that connection. He explained, “Whenever I write, it’s a musical activity, and whenever I play music, it’s always a poetic activity.”

He is also exploring that relationship by researching The Kalevala, a work of epic poetry compiled from Finnish folklore and ballads. Livingston is also learning to play the kantele, a plucked string instrument that would have been played to accompany ballads in Finland. Through researching Finnish oral tradition and getting a feel for what the kantele is like to perform, he hopes to gain an understanding of how the Finnish ballads would have sounded. “I’m interested in how oral traditions use musical gestures to persist and convey cultural significance,” Livingston explained.

In an effort to to more fully comprehend the contexts of the two musical traditions, Livingston is also researching Scottish and Finnish history.  He was surprised by “how natural it seems to explore music through history.” He credits his advisor, Professor of Music Lydia Hamessley, with helping to advance his thinking, commenting that she has been “most helpful in guiding my research and helping me think of this as a historical question as well.”

As the final part of his project, Livingston is writing and recording an album, incorporating the kantele, bagpipes, violin, drums and other instruments. He is writing his own lyrics, through which he sometimes tells a story and sometimes aims to convey an abstract feeling about what it means to create a performance. He views lyrics as “poetry that’s one with the music” and is enthusiastic about incorporating what he’s learned as a creative writing major. Livingston is dedicated to putting his heart into his recording. He asserted, “Each practice should be a performance ... it has to come from somewhere.”

To bring more feeling into the music, Livingston has been recording in locations such as the chapel and graveyard in addition to the WHCL studio. He observed, “Where you record is important. Places have feelings; they can inspire you and mingle with the music in the air.” Livingston is planning to give a performance of his music this fall, in which he’ll share the understanding of music and poetry he has developed this summer.

Livingston is a graduate of The Woodlands High School in Woodlands, Texas.

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