for organ
10 mins.
April 2009

In memory of Cuckoo (1991-1996), a tiny person with a huge spirit

Programme notes

Between 1992 and 1996 I lived on a hill in rural Ghana. I bought land near a village in the Akuapem hills about twenty miles from Accra; and with the help of the chief, elders and villagers I built a house in a walled garden with a small farm around it (cassava, yam, plantain, a flock of sheep, and a few goats).

During my time there I had three dogs. Two were litter-brothers, whom I named Logo and Ligi (in the Gå language, Logo-ligi means Zig-zag). Physically almost identical, they were opposites in character: Logo confident, Ligi very shy. I also had a sweet-natured female dog called Betty. The oddest addition to the family was a tiny spot-nosed monkey who was brought to me one evening in 1992. His mother had been shot for bush-meat (that scourge of tropical forests). He was an unweaned baby in a state of catatonic shock. I named him Cuckoo. All I could do was offer him milk and rice, talk to him gently, and hope he would pull through.

And pull through he certainly did: once over the loss of his mother, he treated me as his parent. He was also good friends with the dogs – especially with Betty: he would curl up on her tummy in the shade during the hot afternoons. We spent many happy days together exploring the countryside. As soon as we set out, Cuckoo would drop from my shoulder to the ground and leap on to Betty’s (or Ligi’s) back. Nobody taught him this: it was entirely instinctive. When we came into villages, the children would cluster round to watch him, and he never failed to put on a show for them.

A close and trusting relationship with a monkey is unique. A dog looks up to you as its leader; a cat keeps its distance; but a monkey treats you as an equal. Even the eye-contact is different: a cat looks away, a dog looks expectant of orders or food; but a monkey looks directly at you with tolerant amusement. Mutual grooming being hard-wired into his genes, Cuckoo would check my scalp, ears and gums for parasites, probing them with his tiny black fingers, which had prints just as clear as mine. I wrote most of my third string quartet by the light of a paraffin-lamp with Cuckoo asleep on my shoulder. He was a real friend, and I have missed him horribly ever since his death in 1996. His life was too short; but I think it was happy.

So Zig-zag is a tribute to a gentle and loving person who happened to be a cercopithecus nictitans rather than a homo sapiens.  It lasts ten minutes, and is a series of increasingly mad variations on an idea which alludes to Cuckoo’s name. My aim was to convey in music Cuckoo’s wildly unpredictable movements, and to use the range of the organ’s sonorities to convey physical vitality – which I also attempted in 1983 in Riff-raff (to which this new piece, though very different, makes a nod in its title and opening).

Zig-zag was commissioned by Leeds Catholic Cathedral, with funds from Leeds Cathedral Choir Support Group, Eric Thompson Organ Trust, RVW Trust, and the Earl and Countess of Harewood. It was rejected by Leeds Cathedral as “unsuitable” – perhaps because the Catholic Church dislikes monkeys, but more probably because I had recently protested against the then Pope’s (failed) attempt to interfere with British adoption law. Zig-zag was first performed in Westminster Abbey on May 16th 2010 by  James McVinney.

Giles Swayne 2010