It goes without saying that COVID-19 has had a massive impact on Nordic Viola, as it has on everybody in the arts: cancelled and rescheduled gigs, lost income, inability to travel… the list goes on. However, amidst the chaos, new opportunities are slowly emerging.
As a full-time orchestral musician, my schedules are normally so intense that I have little time available to develop new projects, ways of working and to build new skills. The last few months have offered me the rare and valued opportunity to explore new avenues and to build on new and existing partnerships.
The first of these projects is just starting to bear fruit. At the very start of 2020 I started working with clarinettist, composer and improviser Alex South and poet Lesley Harrison. The way this group came together is really testament to what Nordic Viola is about: making connections and telling stories across the north.
I first met Lesley at UHI’s “Shoormal” Conference in Shetland, September 2019. We share a deep love for the Far North, its landscapes, culture and wildlife and both of us have spent long periods of time visiting the islands of the North Atlantic. Alex was introduced to me by composer Emily Doolittle, a Canadian composer based in Scotland interested in Zoömusicology: the study of the music-like aspects of sound communication among non-human animals. Like Lesley, Alex is interested in whales and their music and is currently carrying out doctoral research into the relationship between humpback whale song and human music at the University of St Andrews and the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. Both Alex and I have an interest in developing new music through improvisation.
In January, when Alex and I first met to improvise together, we had no idea that our aim of creating new music around Lesley’s wonderfully evocative poems was about to be made a whole load harder. By March we were, of course, completely unable to meet and work together. The three of us live in different regions and Alex and I normally travel everywhere by public transport or bike. The one thing we did have in our favour was time, and so we took to Zoom to gradually figure out the direction our work was to take.
The creation of a large body of improvised work is never an easy task. What form would our performance take? What role would the words take? Would they be more or less present? Would Lesley read them? Would they be in printed form? How much music would we write down and how much would be left to free improvisation? Should there be a visual element to our performance? What themes should we draw out of Lesley’s poems?
Ideas were bandied back and forth, and germs of musical ideas started to be generated and shared via the cloud. At this point I have to say a big thank you to Pete Stollery and Fiona Robertson at “Sound” in Aberdeen for running their Performer/Composer workshops. These offered me a framework and deadlines in which to get some ideas down on paper as well as a forum in which to listen, learn and develop in what’s become a close-knit and supportive group of music creators and performers.
Eventually, during what now feels like a remarkably free summer, a moment of lightness in the darkness of the past 6 months, Alex and I were able to work together in person. I cannot describe to you how amazing and utterly immersive it was to be able to make music freely through improvising with another person in the same room. Very moving, actually. Maybe that’s why some pure magic happened in that studio in September.
Getting used to working with Zoom has also opened our eyes to new ideas of how to work over long distances. A year ago, would we have thought to invite Lesley into our session when she was 100 miles or so away? If we had, would it have felt as normal as it does now? It was such a worthwhile thing to do. Most immediately, the performer in me really misses playing to people live. Playing live to someone with Lesley’s perception and ability to turn those perceptions into words that further inspire is special. I also really value the trust she invests in us to interpret her words musically and I feel immensely honoured and humbled to know that our playing has inspired her to write new words.
And so, after many months of working in what you could describe as adverse circumstances (or were they ultimately constraints that imposed a new discipline on us?), we’re nearly ready to launch “CETACEA” onto the public stage at GIOFest in Glasgow which runs online from 26th-28th November.
Many of the questions I raised earlier about our working process remain unanswered as we continue to build to a full-length event, but we did decide to only use the text overtly where it really added to the music. To that end, I want to leave you with Lesley’s poem so that you, like us, can take it as your starting point before listening to our performance in a couple of weeks’ time.
an exhibition by Marina Rees, using the bones of a long-finned pilot whale carcass recovered from Skjálfadi Bay. Húsavík Whale Museum, Iceland.
a bleached whale
an old sea mammal
lying on a beach
wind blowing through its rotted sinews
long, low tones
degraded by the air.
how sound becomes colour :
the wind over water
the blue black silver of the fjord
in the meat of its spine,
its winglike arms almost blue.
falling like a flare
again, and now again
the vast dark hung with
ropes of song
(‘whale drift’) a windfall
sound substance :
minute adjustments of
pitch and ornament
the clicking patterns
the cervical block
a plain of lunar
knocks and hollows
o cathedral :
like an aurora,
kindling the dark
the slow turn
of bulks in darkness