Isle of Coll Music Group September 2019

Invigorated after sharing ideas of cultural practice in the rural economy at Shoormal Conference in Shetland, I travelled straight to Coll, one of Scotland’s smaller island communities, to perform with Helen Brew (flute), David Hubbard (bassoon) and David Martin (viola).

It was never going to be a straightforward journey, but after two days of precious little sleep and several hours of, at times, frustrating travel, we were richly rewarded by Coll at it’s Mediterranean best! I love the ruggedness of the Far North, but who’s going to complain about azure seas and autumn temperatures nudging the 20c mark in the west of Scotland? Great, too, to finally take this particular group of musicians, who’ve been there with me since Nordic Viola was formed, off the mainland to enjoy some time together in the sort of place that inspires our music-making.

What a beautiful hall to make music in, too! An Cridhe is a modern facility with a beautiful acoustic. It’s also the hub of community life: you can buy local crafts and produce, meet friends, have a cup of tea and shelter from the weather – necessary on day 2!!

Our programme was a mixture of music we know well and some new pieces, such as the Danish String Quartet’s beautiful arrangement of the “Unst Boat Song” (click on link for short video) from Shetland, given a slightly different flavour in this colourful combination of flute, 2 violas and bassoon. Also Emily Doolittle’s “Social Sounds from Whales at Night.” I’m playing this piece a lot this year – it’s very moving to duet with a whale and audiences love listening to it, too.

We also played a new set of Icelandic folk songs, originally arranged for piano by Snorri Sigfús Birgisson which I have scored for our group of four. These tunes encompass a wonderfully wide range of emotions from a playful, pizzicato duo for two violas through two melancholy tunes, so typically Icelandic in their harmonic language, through to the rumbustuous Skuli Fogeti.

From the Faroes we had William Heinesen’s “Variations on a Faroese Hymn Tune” and Kári Bæk’s lively “Fragment.”

It was a particular pleasure to welcome a group of anthropology students on a field trip from Durham University to our concert and I think they enjoyed hearing about Greenlandic life and listening to Arnannguaq Gerstrøm’s piece commissioned by us, “Ukioq.” (Lovely, too, to see the Durham students giving something back to the community that hosted them for 10 days with a free ceilidh.)

David and I were camping and woke up to a flame red sunrise. Beautiful, but you know what they say about red sky in the morning…. Buoyed up by a communal fry-up, we split up to explore the island, by bike, running and even wild swimming! Out on the massive sand dunes we gazed over at neighbouring Tiree and over the sea to Staffa. Meanwhile, Helen was swimming with seals. The Shepherd’s Warning caught up with us on the way back to Arinagour as we got a good soaking, but it had dried up by the time we got the ferry back to Oban. Not the beautiful sunny crossing we got on the way over, but with atmospheric cloudscapes and shafts of weak sun spotlighting the grey water.

Many thanks to Janet and Alison from Isle of Coll Music Group for looking after us so well, even taking the Hubbard family on a sightseeing tour of the island. Also to Enterprise Music Scotland and Creative Scotland for supporting the concert. Without them it would be impossible for small rural communities to experience professional music-making.

Shoormal Conference Shetland

Sometimes it feels like the places I love most don’t want to let me go. The time I almost missed my plane after a month in Nuuk, Greenland, and then had to wait 13 hours in driving snow in Kangerlussuaq prior to flying to Copenhagen. As I write this, I’m gazing longingly at Fitful Head in Shetland bathed in sunshine whilst I sit at Sumburgh Airport waiting for fog to clear in Glasgow.

It’s been a wonderful and energising week here at the University of the Highlands and Islands’ Shoormal Conference. Somewhat paradoxically as I’m dead tired from a 9 till 9 schedule and my mind is buzzing.

“Shoormal” is the old Norn word for the space between the sea and the shoreline and the conference explored themes looking to the future and the spaces between with regard to the creative economy in rural areas.

Nordic Viola was there to demonstrate our work in schools taking our Orkney workshops as a case study. Working alongside Gemma McGregor, we presented 4 soundscapes from the Far North: the sea crashing on the cliffs at Mykines in the Faroes, an icy walk and an Inuit drum dance from Greenland, and geese from Iceland. As we did in Orkney, we asked our audience to reflect on aspects of the sounds that were familiar to them or resonated with their own experience. The vote from the floor was to improvise a piece based on the geese.

We were then joined by fellow musicians Renzo Spiteri, Morag Currie and Natalie Cairns-Ratter to put together some sounds. We demonstrated how the process encourages students to reflect on sound and the environment, sound production and timbre and structure in music. It is also a process that requires co-operation and empathy between participants as they learn to respond to each other’s sounds and to signal stages of the performance to each other. (Naturally these are skills that our conference volunteers already possess to a high degree, but it is important to recognise the role this plays in an educational setting and the value of music in the curriculum).

We ended the session by playing the results from previous workshops in Orkney and Shetland. We included a recording from the Sumartónar Festival in the Faroes where students from Torshavn Music School joined us in performing a piece composed by students from Anderson High in Lerwick, showing how products of workshops can be used to make connections between areas across the North Atlantic.

The following day Gemma and I gave a performance on flute, viola, piano, small percussion and electronics. Taking our audience on a journey connecting the islands of the North Atlantic through environment, seafaring and legend, we demonstrated the wide palate of sounds to be made from 2 musicians and equipment that can be carried on a standard baggage allowance – assuming access to a piano, that is. The performance included the premiere of Nordic Viola’s latest commission: “Carry His Relics” for flute and viola, a reflection by Gemma McGregor on the St. Magnus Way in Orkney. I also performed Lagarfljót, a piece for viola and electronics inspired by my visit to East Iceland earlier this year.

On Thursday night we could finally relax and enjoy performances by the musicians who’d so generously joined us for our workshop. Morag Currie’s “Idea of North” is a multimedia composition for fiddle, viola and Ableton Live digital workstation with visual imagery and selected prose. Many of the inspirations are similar to those in my project, but whereas my principle musical influence comes from contemporary music infused with traditional music, Morag’s is the other way round. I loved the beautiful imagery in Morag’s screenwork, too. Ableton Live is new software to me and is something I would like to investigate.

My first encounter with Renzo Spiteri and Gaby was actually being tossed around on the Northlink ferry on Monday night. Renzo very courageously relocated to Shetland on Monday at the same time as diving straight in with a performance of “Stillness”, a solo performance of sounds, field recordings from Shetland and electronics. I loved how Renzo found rhythm in natural sound and how he amplified the timbres inherent in these sounds through his improvisation. For me, his real love for these islands was very apparent in his work.

Natalie Cairns-Ratter is also a performer but she was at Shoormal to talk about Music and Communication Skills, particularly relating to children with ASD-Autism Spectrum Disorder. Preparation for our workshop meant I didn’t get to Natalie’s session but I had several conversations with her where her passion for her work and for music provision in Shetland were evident. I really hope I can return to Shetland and work alongside her sometime soon.

This is the first time I’ve attended an interdisciplinary conference and I found it a very stimulating experience. Nordic Viola is inspired by landscape, culture and heritage from the region and it was inspiring to learn how artists from other disciplines have responded to this stimulus. I also learned so much from academics specialising in this area and I’m sure I’ll be tapping into their research for future projects. Real standouts for me were Dr. Andrew Jennings on an exploration of Shetland’s place names and identity and Dr. Antonia Thomas‘ talk on Art and Archaeology. As a trained linguist and translator I share Andrew’s fascination with links to Old Norse. I’d never really reflected on the links between art and archaeology before, so Antonia’s talk left me with much to reflect on.

Finally I must offer a big thank you to UHI for putting such a stimulating programme together. Thanks also to all at Mareel for their professionalism. We were so well looked after and the tech staff had everything covered before we even had chance to ask! I’ve a feeling I’ll be back in Shetland soon – once I’ve managed to leave, that is!





New Commission from Gemma McGregor

Last November I travelled to Orkney with Nordic Viola to give a concert with Anne Bünemann, Peter Hunt and local composer Gemma McGregor. I spent the week working with Gemma, giving workshops in local schools and learning about Orkney and its music.

One of my stated aims was to ultimately commission a piece from Gemma and this came to fruition last weekend when I returned to Orkney to rehearse the new piece for viola and flute called “Carry His Relics” which we will be performing for the first time in Shetland on Thursday 19th October at Mareel in Lerwick as part of the University of the Highlands and Islands’ Shoormal Conference which they are running in conjunction with Shetland Arts.

Gemma describes her piece as follows:

‘Carry His Relics’ describes the journey mentioned at the end of the Orkneyinga Saga when the followers of St Magnus carried his remains from Christkirk, Birsay, along the coast to the capital town of Kirkjuvagr. St Magnus is the patron saint of Orkney. He was murdered on 16th April, 1117. Twenty years after Magnus’ death, a farmer called Gunni, from the Orkney island of Westray, reported that Magnus had appeared to him in a dream and instructed him to tell Bishop William that he wanted his relics moved. Gunni reported his dream and permission was granted. After the procession along the coast of Orkney, Magnus’ remains were interred at St Olaf’s Kirk, although they were later moved to St Magnus Cathedral. Many miracles had been reported by those who had prayed to St Magnus for help. The joyful processional melodies make reference to both Magnus’ Viking culture and his Christian beliefs by using traditional Orcadian and Norwegian style music and by quoting from 12th century plainchants that may have been sung by the followers of Magnus. The fifty-five mile long route taken by the pilgrims subsequently became a devotional walk but fell out of use centuries ago. The St Magnus Way was cleared and reopened in 2017 to mark the 900th anniversary of the martyrdom of St Magnus.

Nordic Viola in Coll

Nordic Viola’s first visit to the Hebrides! Come and join us for a September weekend on this beautiful island in the West of Scotland.

Coll is renowned for its nature and we will be celebrating this in music. Migrating geese were one of the enduring memories of my time in Egilsstaðir, East Iceland and it is around this time of year that Barnacle and White-fronted Geese are starting to arrive in Coll from Iceland and Greenland. Anna Appleby’s piece “Hrakningar” (listen here), commissioned by Nordic Viola and Sound Festival in Aberdeen describes the geese migrating whilst also looking at the wider issue of migration. Here’s Anna’s programme note:

“Hrakningar is an Icelandic word used to describe being buffeted by a storm or wind, blown somewhere against your will, and is also used to refer to dangerous events that happen to a person.

Hrakningar juxtaposes the freedom of migrating birds with the prejudice that refugees face when seeking a better life. The piece incorporates calls from the species of geese that travel between Iceland and Scotland as part of their yearly cycle, including Pink-Footed Geese, Brant (or Brent) Geese and Greylag Geese. They arrive in Scotland in Autumn and leave for Iceland in Spring each year. Geese face harsh conditions when travelling but their journeys are accepted and often celebrated while humans are expected to conform to imposed boundaries and borders. “

Coll is also known for its marine mammals and, after David and I were lucky enough to watch whales swimming off the coast of Greenland this summer, I will be particularly looking forward to playing Emily Doolittle’s “Social Sounds from Whales at Night” (listen here) where, essentially, I get to duet with humpback whales. It’s a very beautiful and moving piece.

We’ll also be including music from the Faroe Islands, Greenland and the Northern Isles of Scotland.

Ferry times mean that we’ll also have a bit of time to explore the island and to meet and socialise with our audience. Why not come over and spend a long weekend with us?

Greenland in Summer

From the moment I departed Greenland on 2nd March 2017 I’ve been yearning to go back, so it was with great excitement that I landed again in Nuuk airport, this time with husband and fellow viola player, David.

Nuuk was, of course, looking very different from when I left it – then it was covered in deep snow and we had temperatures down to -24C, this time it was the height of summer with temperatures into the +20s! The plus point of that was the prospect of exploring some of the backcountry on foot and by boat.

We weren’t performing on this occasion, but it would, of course, be impossible to visit Greenland and not be influenced by its vibrant culture and stunning landscapes.

Music

One of my aims of the trip was to get my hands on some more Greenlandic musical material and also learn a little bit more about the stories behind the music. A real find was a CD of Traditional Greenlandic Music recorded between 1905 and 1984 and collected by Danish ethnomusicologist Michael Hauser. The CD has music from all around the country and also from the Inuit of Canada. Songs from the drum dance tradition, innerutit, include songs expressing moods and feelings (anersaatit), songs for children (aqaatit), competitive songs from the Thule region in the far north (mumerutit) and the duel songs from East Greenland (pisit). It is one of these last group that forms the basis of an improvisation that I have performed on previous occasions. You can also watch an East Greenlander from Kulusuk performing here.

Most of the songs are strophic and conform to a local style, though there are often suffixes that allow for personal expression.

Turning to music of a more modern style, David and I were lucky enough to attend the dress rehearsal at the National Theatre of a performance of songs by Laarseeraq Svendsen, courtesy of my violinist friend, Hanne Saandvig Immanuelsen. The music was a light jazzy style, and, whilst the songs were performed in Greenlandic, it wasn’t hard to see characters you’d recognise almost anywhere. The light-hearted humour came across from the wonderfully engaging singers and I also enjoyed songs about the Northern Lights and other aspects of Greenlandic nature. The production toured Southern Greenland and culminated with the annual festival “Grønland i Tivoli” in Copenhagen on 30th/31st July.

Culture and History

With an eye on Scotland’s Year of Coasts and Waters in 2020, one of the topics I’m particularly interested in just now is the whaling industry stretching back to the 18th century and its links all the way across the North Sea and North Atlantic from Hull in my birth-county of Yorkshire, England, up the east coast of Scotland, through the Northern Isles and Faroes and on to Greenland. As the museum in Ilulissat stated, “Blubber=Money”! Blubber was used for lamp oil and cooking and fur from hunted animals was used in clothing.

But it’s not blubber I’m interested in, but rather the musical links. Sailors from Denmark and Scotland took their fiddles with them and danced and celebrated with the local people, exchanging dances including polkas. There are several Shetland tunes referring to Greenland (The Merry Boys of Greenland and Widefjord) and the Greenlandic polkas would certainly not seem so alien to Orcadians. When I was in Orkney I had met Len Wilson who had several relatives who sailed on the whalers to Greenland, so it’s interesting to visit the coastlines up the west coast of Greenland where these men journeyed and took their fiddles. There’s an excellent book on this subject by Shetland fiddle player, Maurice Henderson.

Nature and Landscape

Nowadays, of course, commercial whaling has vanished. Whale is still an essential food source for Greenlanders but it is hunted to strict quotas. Like any of us, the Greenlanders are also in awe of these beautiful creatures and just as likely to watch them swimming in Nuuk Fjord or Disko Bay. I’ve waited a long time to see a whale and so it was an incredible feeling to finally see these magnificent animals at the Ice Fjord in Ilulissat. I was also pleased to see them in the way I wanted to – quietly with just the two of us rather than in a large tourist group. I’m pretty sure we were watching humpbacks, though minkes and fin whales also visit these waters. They are big and yet graceful, slipping through the water in a soft arc, brandishing their large tails. I love the noise they make as they blow. A gentle yet powerful sound which I could hear from my tent 15mins walk away in the middle of the night!

Emily Doolittle’s piece “Social Sounds from Whales at Night” is already one of my favourite pieces to perform – I’m not quite sure how it’ll feel to duet with a humpback now I’ve actually seen one – even more moving, I’d imagine. I plan to play this piece again both in Coll on 21st September and at the Shoormal Conference in Shetland earlier that week.

Another inspiring sound was that of the ice fjord. The enormous icebergs in the UNESCO World Heritage site at Ilulissat become grounded as they reach the end of the 1000m deep fjord and get trapped on the lip of the trench, which is just a few hundred metres deep. Some of these icebergs are as big as an island, so you can imagine the forces acting on them, especially considering the glacier moves at a rate of 30-40m a day – exceptionally fast in glacial terms. The ice is constantly creaking and groaning and every now and again, something large fractures, letting off a “thundercrack.” When the balance shifts in an iceberg, it topples, displacing water, sometimes to the point of creating a mini-Tsunami.

Finally, the sound of dogs howling is synonymous with settlements north of the Arctic Circle in Greenland. It’s by no means constant, but come feeding time, all hell breaks loose! Throughout the day and night, small skirmishes break out in the packs, leading to more baying. Some people find it hard to sleep with this noise, but personally I love lying in my tent in the broad daylight of an arctic “night” listening to the sounds around as life never stops in the high-energy 24 hour daylight.

Postscript

Last night I went to a performance of “Kiinalik” at the Edinburgh Festival by Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory and Evalyn Parry. These remarkable artists come from two opposites sides of Canada: Toronto and Nunavut and Laakkuluk is half-British, half-Greenlandic. In just under 2 hours they explored issues relating to the colonisation of the Arctic, climate change and intertwined histories. It culminated in an immensely powerful Uaajeerneq (Mask Dance) by Laakkuluk. She describes uaajeerneq as playing with “four main themes: our humility as human beings in the vastness of the universe and our connection to our ancestors, sex, fear, and hilarity”. I was privileged to share the performance with a close friend and this performance said more about the issues confronting the Arctic (and, by extension, all of us) than I ever could attempt. It was one of the most sincere performances, full of integrity, I have ever witnessed. Despite having visited Greenland on several occasions now, it left me with a lot of food for thought.

Nordic Viola Summer 2019

Greenland

It’s going to be a busy summer for Nordic Viola. Well, when I say summer, I really mean up until the autumn equinox. After all, that’s the period when the further north you are, the more daylight you have.

In fact, we’ll start with 24 hours’ daylight in Ilulissat (and also Nuuk) in Greenland. We’ll be on holiday rather than performing, but visiting World Heritage Site Disko Bay with its famous icebergs is sure to be inspirational. I’ll also be on the lookout for new music and hope to catch up with some friends whilst we’re in Nuuk.

Out of the Box, Inverness Cathedral, 26th July

At the end of July, David Martin and I will be performing as part of Fiona Driver’s “Out of the Box” concert in Inverness Cathedral. I first met Fiona and husband Trevor in Orkney last year. Fiona and Trevor are top class fiddle players from the Northern Isles but are also good classical players and enjoy good music of any type. Reflecting their open-minded approach to music of all genres Fiona has assembled a group of interesting musicians currently working in the north. “Out of the Box” will feature traditional music from Fiona and Trevor. Representing the younger generation of Shetland fiddlers will be rising star Anya Johnston. Finally there is David Chadwick playing the Nyckelharpa, a Swedish folk instrument. I’m really looking forward to seeing this unusual instrument at close quarters and you can get a sneak preview here.

David Martin and I will be playing a set of Icelandic folk tunes, Judith Weir’s “Sleep Sound ida Morning” from “Atlantic Drift” and “Lullaby”, which is an early piece by Sibelius. We’ve also invited Fiona to join us in my piece “Mjørkaflókar“, inspired by the Faroes and her trio “Hoy’s Dark and Lofty Isle”.

You can find out much more about the concert and perfomers and also hear some of their music here.

Shoormal Conference “New Coasts and Shorelines: Shifting sands in the creative economy” Shetland 18th-20th September

In September I’ll be returning to Shetland and working again with composer Gemma McGregor from Orkney. We’ll be presenting and performing at the Shoormal Conference, hosted by University of the Highlands and Islands and Shetland Arts at the Mareel Centre in Lerwick.

“Shoormal” is a Shetlandic word for the shoreline or high water mark, reflecting the conference’s focus on islands, culture and heritage and young people. Gemma and I will be talking about our creative workshops in Orkney last year and will demonstrate how to create a piece inspired by the landscape and natural sound.

Our concert will feature written and improvised works for viola and flute by ourselves and other composers from the North Atlantic.The conference also looks at innovation, challenges and opportunities of working in the islands and so we will be illustrating ways of creating a broad palate of sound from limited resources and within the restrictions of flying on small planes in remote regions. We will follow the performance with a short discussion of the issues that musicians encounter when performing in remote areas.

Isle of Coll Music Group, 21st September

Putting into practice some of the issues we explored in Shetland, I’ll immediately head west to the Isle of Coll with old friends David Martin (viola) David Hubbard ( bassoon) and Helen Brew (flute). We’ll be playing music from all around the North Atlantic and I’ll post more on the programme nearer the time. To whet your appetite, here’s our absolute favourite, “Uyeasound Nocturne” by Adrian Vernon Fish and Emily Doolittle’s evocative “Social Sounds from Whales at Night.” In fact, I hope we might get to spot some whales off the coast of Coll whilst we’re there.

If you’ve never been to Coll, why not come and join us on the 7:15 boat from Oban on 21st September, spend the day exploring this small island and then come to our concert. You’ll then have Sunday morning to see more of the island or hop over to neighbouring island, Tiree, before heading back to the mainland.

Hope to meet some of you on the boat!

Dunblane Cathedral

A big thanks to all who came to our Dunblane Cathedral concert on Sunday. We had a great turnout of all ages.

It was a particular pleasure to welcome Gemma McGregor, composer of “Joy” and Adrian Vernon Fish, composer of “Qaanaaq”. Gemma and I worked together in Orkney last November, but I’ve waited a long time to meet Adrian. I was first in contact with him before I travelled to Greenland in 2017 and, as well as his beautiful music, he also gave me some valued advice and connections to friends over in Greenland. It was therefore wonderful to finally meet him.

We also performed works by Peter Maxwell Davies, Arvo Pärt and Oliver Kentish on our journey through Orkney, Iceland, and Greenland via Estonia!

I really enjoyed working with Kevin Duggan, not least because he shares my fascination with the Far North, having worked in Denmark for several years.

I have plans to work with all 3 musicians again, so watch this space!

Thanks, too, to Dunblane Cathedral for allowing us to play in this beautiful building.

Dunblane Cathedral Concert 2nd June

From Orkney to Greenland via Iceland. It’s a journey that Dunblane resident and RSNO viola player Katherine Wren has become very familiar with. In fact, she has recently returned from a tour in Iceland where she performed with pianist Arnhildur Valgarðsdóttir, herself trained at what was then the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama (now RCS).

On Sunday 2nd June at 12:30, Katherine will join with Dunblane Cathedral organist, Kevin Duggan, to perform the programme she played in Iceland. The two musicians share a love and fascination with the music of the north and their programme is rich in melodies inspired by traditional music and cultures of the Far North.

Their programme opens with music from Orkney: Gemma McGregor’s “Joy,” influenced by the Norwegian Hardanger fiddle and Peter Maxwell Davies’ ever popular “Farewell to Stromness.” Arvo Pärt’s simple and meditative “Spiegel im Spiegel” is followed by British composer Adrian Vernon Fish’s viola sonata “Qaanaaq,” which depicts a settlement in the far north of Greenland. By turns richly romantic and boisterous, this piece paints a picture of the vast landscapes in Greenland as well as a rather energetic sleddog team and went down a storm in Iceland! Click on the hyperlinks above to hear some excerpts!

The concert ends with a set of variations on an Icelandic folk melody, “Kvinnan Fróma,” by English-Icelandic composer Oliver Kentish.

The concert will last approx 50 mins and admission is free with a retiring collection.

Egilsstaðir Concert

After a week in the capital, I was really excited to head north-east to Egilsstaðir to meet old friends from 2016 and to “repeat” (can you repeat an improvised concert, I wonder?!) our Reykjavik concert with Charles Ross.

Whilst Egilsstaðir is just a small town of a couple of thousand inhabitants, there is plenty going on culturally. I spent my first afternoon listening to the Sinfóníuhljómsveit Austurlands (East Iceland Symphony Orchestra). The real stand-out performance for me was young violinist Kristófer Gauti Thórhallsson playing a movement from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. I’d coached Kristófer back in 2016 in Egilsstaðir Music School. Accompanied by a small group from the orchestra directed by Charles on “theorbo” (10-string guitar) continuo, this was wonderful energetic, idiomatic playing.

No orchestral concert would be complete without a couple of drinks afterwards and it was a great chance for me to learn a bit more Icelandic and speak a little with some very patient teachers. (Orchestral conversations the world over tend to follow common themes, so I could guess a lot!)

Monday was a free day and I made the most of the spring weather. However the weather can be fickle in Iceland, especially as the seasons turn and I woke up on Tuesday to driving snow. It was cosy sitting in the cottage catching up on work, drinking coffee and keeping the cats and dog company, though! And I got my first taste of driving on ice tyres for real on my way to work, which was fun.

After the obligatory session in the hot tubs I was coaching in the music school with some old faces as well as some new ones. I really enjoy group masterclasses and it’s a pleasure to work with a group of mutually supportive students on technique.

That evening Charles and I performed in Slátarhusið. This time we had some time to rehearse and experiment with new sounds, allowing us a more structured approach than our very spontaneous gig in Reykjavik! A local gig for Charles allowed us to use more instruments. A particular favourite of mine from our 2016 concert in Seyðisfjörður is the Siberian fiddle. I love using the larger, more resonant viola to gently pick up on the sounds this small, delicate instrument makes. That particular set ended with some fine throat-singing from Charles – ironically enough aided by the aftermath of a bad cough, which made for some low frequencies! You can hear it here.

The nice thing about small, informal venues is that they’re conducive to chatting with the audience afterwards. We enjoyed showing people how we made sound and people were able to try out some of the instruments and effects for themselves, with Briet Finsdóttir proving particularly adept on a small African fiddle!

It was good to talk to Slátarhusið’s director, Kristin, a graduate of the the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama (now RCS). She has big plans for the venue, a space which has so much potential.

As well as making music, I had plenty of time to enjoy the wonderful open landscape around Egilsstaðir. I drove down the Fljótsdal to Hallormsstaðaskógur, one of Iceland’s biggest forests. (Yes, Iceland does have trees, contrary to popular belief). I enjoyed walking down the Lagarfljót (the big lake running through the valley) and didn’t see a soul and heard no man-made sound. Just the lapping water, cloudless blue skies and a snow-decked Snaefell (Iceland’s highest mountain outside the glacier areas) in the distance.

When I last visited Egilsstaðir, it was ablaze with autumn colour. As it emerges from winter, it looks very different. After months of snow, the vegetation is all dead. In fact, the day after this walk it was back under snow! That doesn’t make it any less beautiful, though. The mountains are decked in pure white snow, beautiful against the pale blue sky and even the dead vegetation is a burnished yellow that sets off beautifully the white mountains and blue sky.

In autumn the geese had been gathering noisily for their long flight south. (The inspiration for my beautiful commission by Anna Appleby, “Hrakningar”). The first few days this time I was really missing them, but as I walked next to the groaning ice flowing out of the lake, small groups of them were returning, gossiping away. I also loved the eery sounds of the elegant whooper swans in flight.

I’m always asked if I saw the Northern Lights. I’ve always been lucky and yes, once more they made an appearance on my concert night. It doesn’t matter how many times you see them, they are still fascinating to watch as they slowly shift and morph into different shapes.

Reykjavik Concerts

It’s two years since I was last in Iceland and, as I made the familiar journey across the bleak lava fields between Keflavik and the capital, it felt good to be back.

As ever when I’m travelling, it was straight to work. Pianist Arnhildur Valgarðsdóttir and I have known each other for almost 3 years, but this was the first time we’d played together. With our concert approaching at the end of the week, what better way to get used to each other than to get stuck in with an informal lunchtime concert for the senior members of Fella- og Hólakirkja’s congregation. We played a mixture of music from Orkney, Shetland and Iceland and there was much interesting discussion afterwards on the common cultural and linguistic links (old Norn, now extinct, is related to the Norse languages). Exactly what Nordic Viola is all about.

Wednesday proved to be an interesting day in many respects! After a rehearsal with Arnhildur, it was time to turn my thoughts to the evening concert in Mengi.

When I’d arrived on Monday, the weather was benign, but things were getting interesting on Wednesday. Huge convective weather systems as the warm and cold air currents battled for supremacy meant squally winds and violent snow and hail showers. Not exactly the weather to be landing a tiny, 30-seater plane! And so it was that I got a call from Charles Ross, my fellow viola player and composer, telling me that there was no prospect of them leaving Egilsstaðir in East Iceland anytime soon. Time for some emergency planning just in case I needed to improvise solo for 45 minutes!

I headed down to Mengi in the afternoon to meet the staff and set up the electronics etc. Mengi is one of the coolest venues in Reykjavik. It is home to experimental music and art and has seen some of the biggest names in Icelandic contemporary music pass through its doors. It is an intimate, informal space with a wonderful acoustic and a highly interesting and eclectic record store at the front of the shop. If you’re in Reykjavik, stop by on Oðinsgata and see what’s going on. I guarantee you’ll find something interesting and thought-provoking.

After much crossing of fingers the news came through that Charles was on his way, though he would only arrive 15 mins before we were due to play. Reykjavik City Airport is so near town that I heard the plane coming in to land and breathed a sigh of relief.

There’s nothing more exciting than doing an improvisation gig on the hoof. We had each brought some ideas to work with but didn’t have much time to discuss them. That demands a lot of trust. I confess to being a little surprised (pleasantly so!) when Charles started playing back my sound processed through the computer for me to react and improvise with. It’s slightly unnerving but a beautiful thing to do. Listen here. Definitely a new idea for me to work with back home.

Charles has a wonderful way of looking at the viola as a vehicle for sound and not just a “classical” string instrument. Flying obviously means you’re limited in what you can bring and he has some truly ingenious solutions: amplifying the viola with an old-fashioned telephone receiver and a small speaker, using a feather instead of a bow and making vibrations by tying a bow hair onto the string and pulling it through rosined fingers to name but a few. The range of sounds he produces is incredible. Kolfreyjustaðir.

As well as the fully improvised pieces, I also performed Kristian Blak’s “Drrrunnn”, a semi-improvised score for viola and seabirds from Mykines in the Faroes and Scots-Canadian composer Emily Doolittle’s “Social Sounds from Whales at Night.” I actually find this a really moving piece to play. After a gradual crescendo of whale and water sounds, I play a two-note phrase which is then unexpectedly answered by a whale, at which point we engage in a duet. Even though it’s a recording, it’s quite humbling to duet with these magnificent and intelligent ocean mammals.

After the concert there was the chance to meet and chat to the audience, including Justin Batchelor, a film documentary maker on his way up to north-west Iceland. Many thanks, too, to Justin for allowing me to use his photos of our gig above. It was also a chance to catch up with composers Gunnar Andreas Kristinsson, who I had previously met in Aberdeen, and Jesper Pedersen.

The following day I woke up to snow. After another morning rehearsing I headed for town and the Maritime Museum. 2020 will be Scotland’s Year of Coasts and Waters, so it was an opportunity to do some research on life on the sea in Iceland, looking for links between Scotland and the north, but also conflicts – the cod wars of the 1970s, for example. With the sun coming out later, I enjoyed a crisp, snowy walk round the harbour.

No trip to Iceland is complete without a swim and a session in the hot tubs and it seemed as good a way as any to prepare for the evening concert in Fella- og Hólakirkja. This church has a wonderful, warm and generous acoustic that also allows you to play really quietly and is lucky enough to enjoy a Steinway grand! I loved filling the building with the beautiful, long melody of the second movement of Adrian Vernon Fish’s fabulous viola sonata, “Qaanaaq”, inspired by the eponymous settlement in north Greenland.

In fact, this piece proved quite a hit with the audience. The impassioned outpouring of the second movement is preceded by the stern, angular lines and almost threatening air of the first movement. The scherzo, in 13/8, is great fun. Full of bounding energy, you can easily imagine a sleddog team exuberantly flying along over the ice on a crisp, cold day. The final movement is a reflection on a Greenlandic drum dance and also cleverly alludes back to the preceding movements. I’ll be performing this piece again in Dunblane Cathedral on 2nd June at 12:30, so if you’re anywhere nearby, come and listen to this music!

I opened the concert with Orkney composer Gemma McGregor’s “Joy.” It’s inspired by the Norwegian Hardanger fiddle and is wonderfully free and, well, joyous!

The concert closed with British-Icelandic composer Oliver Kentish’s witty variations on an Icelandic tune, “Kvinnan Fróma.” Well, actually, that wasn’t quite the end, as we played Adrian’s wistful arrangement of the Unst Boat Song, Starka Virna Vestalie, from Shetland. And I discovered that the Icelandic name for these islands is the same as the old Northern Isles name: Hjaltland.

One important part of the Nordic Viola project is sharing practice with other artists and so I enjoyed my final free day in Reykjavik watching my hosts at work. Firstly Ásta accompanying some very talented young violinists in a competition. We were discussing music education in our respective countries and I mentioned that music funding in the UK often comes under pressure compared to core subjects. Ásta commented that the arts are core subjects – quite.

Later that afternoon, Ásta’s husband Trausti was directing a set of Samuel Beckett’s plays, which he’d translated into Icelandic. I’m ashamed to say I’ve never seen this great writer’s work, but they sounded great in translation – all credit to Trausti – and I intend to buy a copy of the plays and fill the gap in my knowledge! It was also inspiring to see another small-scale project done so well.

I rounded off the week by heading down to Mengi again for the launch of a new CD from composer and bass player Bára Gísladóttir, an exciting voice on the contemporary music scene in Iceland.