Nordic Viola reflects on female experience of landscapes and community from the Northern Isles to Greenland in music by women composers for string quartet. Highlights include ‘Machair’ by Highland composer Lisa Robertson and music influenced by Orcadian history and the Hardanger fiddle style by Gemma McGregor. Greenland’s only classical composer, Arnannguaq Gerstrøm, reflects on winter whilst English composer Lillie Harris depicts the full fury of a Shetland storm. Anna Appleby’s evocative ‘Hrakningar’ includes migrating geese from Iceland, and American Jocelyn Hagen offers a new take on the haunting Icelandic lullaby ‘Sofðu Unga’. There are new tunes reflecting on motherhood and the wild Orcadian weather by traditional fiddlers Margaret Robertson (Shetland) and Fiona Driver (Orkney)
As well as the music, you can meet many of our composers talking about the themes and landscapes that inspire their work and, indeed, see some of those landscapes for yourself in the beautiful video work put together by Craig Sinclair Video. We’re also joined in performance by two students from Tórshavn Music School in the Faroe Islands.
After you have enjoyed our performance on 4th September, if you would like to support us in paying our musicians and composers fairly and also help us extend our reach through education work, you can donate the price of a coffee (or more if you’d like to!) at https://www.buymeacoffee.com/NordicViola or paypal.me/katherinewren1
In partnership with UHI’s Institute of Northern Studies and funded by Creative Scotland, Ambache Charitable Trust, RVW Trust and the Year of Coasts and Waters.
I first met fiddle player Fiona Driver when she and husband Trevor Hunter, (one of Shetland’s most respected fiddlers) came to Nordic Viola’s concert with Gemma McGregor in Kirkwall, Orkney and subsequent after-party. Fiona and Trevor are two of the most open-minded musicians I know, enjoying traditional, classical and contemporary music and generously passing on their love of music to the younger generation.
The morning after the concert I got to appreciate Fiona’s playing first hand as we had a session with Gemma playing through reams of Orkney tunes. And so I got to learn a little more about the most famous Orkney tune-writers as well as learning about fiddle style by playing alongside Fiona.
Fiona is a fine tune-writer in her own right. I always think the mark of a good melody is one that’ll stand on its own with no accompaniment and possibly also one that’ll transfer across instruments. Both of these things struck me immediately when I heard Fiona play “Suilven,” named after the iconic mountain in NW Scotland, accompanied by a lone F# pedal point.
“Wild November”, which we play in our “Histories and Herstories” programme, is another such tune. Written after a wild November storm, Fiona herself said that this tune just flowed out in one go. Distinctive and energetic, by turns slow and languid and driving and dancelike it seems to ooze the enjoyment and total absorption in her music-making that’s so apparent in Fiona’s performing. You can hear Fiona performing with Nordic Viola here:
Fiona also put together a CD “Orkney at Dawn” which grew out of her degree project with UHI. This CD is a beautiful record of Orkney’s extraordinarily diverse birdlife and is also incredibly soothing to listen to.
I met Arnannguaq Gerstrøm when I was in Nuuk, the capital of Greenland, in February 2017. Arnannguaq is an accomplished flautist, conductor and composer. She grew up in the Greenlandic towns of Ilulissat (by the World Heritage Site of Disko Bay, famed for its icebergs issuing from the Ice Fjord) and Nuuk, where she now lives.
As well as being a fine musician, Arnannguaq is also a great and eloquent ambassador for her country. I spent many absorbing hours talking to her over fabulous homecooked food about Greenland’s music and music-makers. We also talked about many aspects of life in modern Greenland in this increasingly outward-looking country. Whilst Greenland is modernising at a rapid pace, it is also proud of its culture and traditions.
On returning to Scotland, I commissioned Arnannguaq to write a piece for viola, flute and bassoon as a companion piece to Faroese composer Kári Bæk’s “Vár Trio.” Vár means Spring and Arnannguaq chose to write Ukioq (Winter). Inspired by the spirit, nature and forces of winter in the Arctic surroundings of Greenland. The early Inuit believed that nature was endowed with the spirits. Every single stone, piece of straw, animal and organism was alive and had a soul. They also believed that the human soul could migrate from animal to animal, and this led to a lot of imaginative stories.
People often think of Arctic winters as being harsh and inhospitable and of course they can be exactly that. However, what I love about Arnannguaq’s piece is that, as well as mimicking the sounds of wind and ice, she illustrates the “sparkle” of a Greenlandic winter – the crystal clear days I remember from my time there, where the bright snow contrasts with the sapphire blue of the sea and the pale blue arctic sky, the sheer joy of being outside in the lengthening days of late winter absorbing the beauty of the landscape around me.
Arnannguaq finds inspiration in nature and once spent 4 nights on icecap along with 30 Greenlandic dogs, collecting material for her works.
Ukioq was premiered in Dunblane Cathedral in October 2017 and later performed as part of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra’s Chamber Series in January 2018, with the composer present at the performance on a weekend where we even managed to summon up some Greenlandic weather for Arnannguaq: temperatures down to minus 10C and knee-high snow.
As with many of the female composers in this “Histories and Herstories” series, Arnannguaq has played a leading role in her community. After her studies abroad, Arnannguaq moved back to Greenland. From 2004-2014 she worked at the Musikskolen in Nuuk which she led for a while. The music school continues to thrive and has expanded to the East of the country, with a branch in Tasiilaq. As well as providing a musical education, it also has an important social function for its young students.
In 2013 Arnannguaq was appointed Cultural Ambassador of Kommuneqarfik Sermersooq and in 2014 she was accepted in the Far North artist network as a composer. In 2014 she also founded the Erinniat Ensemble in Greenland with the purpose of performing new music.
In her compositions Arnannguaq explores her mixed roots from Europe and the Inuit culture, transforming the rhythm and melodies into completely new soundscapes.
As with many island women I’ve met during my project, alongside her career in music, Arnannguaq holds a number of business positions, including being managing director of the family company Usisaat and co-owning the companies AJLA Nordic and MATU security. She sets great store in these posts in developing her staff – much as she did previously with her charges in the music school.
If you enjoyed listening to Arnannguaq’s Trio, try listening to her orchestral piece “Seqinniarfik”, which depicts the first sunrise after a long winter in Ilulissat.
Lisa Robertson is a composer from the West Highlands of Scotland. Although her community on the Morvern Peninsula is technically on the mainland, many aspects of life there are similar to life in the Northern Isles. The easiest way to get there is by ferry, (Corran ferry near Fort William or via the Isle of Mull). It is a coastal landscape with a similar ecology. The landscape is frequenty battered by storms and extreme weather, building a resilience into the close-knit communities. The sea is central to life here, providing jobs in fishing, tourism and transport and this fosters a strong sense of the importance of environmental protection for the communities.
The sea features strongly culturally, too, as does traditional music-making. These, along with seabirds, are the elements that figure most prominently in Lisa’s piece “Machair” for string quartet.
Machair is low-lying pastureland in the north-west of Scotland and Ireland. There is a balance between the wildness of nature and the managed traditional grazing that happens on the land. In many ways it is symbolic of mankind working with, rather than against nature. As it is low-lying, it is vulnerable to climate change and rising sea levels
In her piece, Lisa reflects this interaction between mankind and nature by combining human and natural sound. She transcribed the calls of twite, dunlin, lapwing, redshank and sanderling and took material from the Gaelic song, “Oh who will take this yearning from me.” In this song, the female singer tells of how the people who wronged her would like to see her taken “down the Machair”, or to the graveyard. The players are asked to hum, linking human with natural sounds. The final element in the music is a dark and foreboding gesture in the cello that appears periodically in the music. This represents the threat of climate change.
I was introduced to “Sofðu Unga Ástin Min” by my friend and pianist Arnhildur Valgarðsdóttir when we played together in Reykjavik last year. In pre-Christian times, before the year 1000, children from large families struggling to feed many mouths would be left outside to die in the cold. This sad yet beautiful melody may have been sung by a mother as she bade farewell to her child. If you want to know more, Arnhildur talks about this song in this radio programme, part of Linda Buckley’s award-winning “Mother’s Blood, Sister Songs” series for Athena Media.
Looking around the internet for a version of “Sofðu Unga Ástin Min” I came across a beautiful version by Jocelyn Hagen, which you can hear here.
This was commissioned by the North Dakota State University Challey School of Music for the NDSU Concert Choir and their conductor, Dr. Jo Ann Miller, who has Icelandic roots. I’m very grateful to Jocelyn for allowing me to arrange this version of “Sofðu Unga” for string quartet.
Jocelyn Hagen composes music that has been described as “simply magical” (Fanfare Magazine) and “dramatic and deeply moving” (Star Tribune, Minneapolis/St. Paul). She is a pioneer in the field of composition, pushing the expectations of musicians and audiences with large-scale multimedia works, electro-acoustic music, dance, opera, and publishing. Her first forays into composition were via songwriting, still very evident in her work. Most of her compositions are for the voice: solo, chamber and choral. Her melodic music is rhythmically driven and texturally complex, rich in colour and deeply heartfelt.
In 2019, choirs and orchestras across the country are premiering her multimedia symphony The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci that includes video projections created by a team of visual artists, highlighting da Vinci’s spectacular drawings, inventions, and texts. Hagen describes her process of composing for choir, orchestra and film simultaneously in a Tedx Talk given at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, now available on YouTube. Her dance opera collaboration with choreographer Penelope Freeh, Test Pilot, received the 2017 American Prize in the musical theatre/opera division as well as a Sage Award for “Outstanding Design.” The panel declared the work “a tour de force of originality.”
In 2013 Hagen released an EP entitled MASHUP, in which she performs Debussy’s “Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum” while singing Ed Sheeran’s “The A Team.” She is also one half of the band Nation, an a cappella duo with composer/performer Timothy C. Takach, and together they perform and serve as clinicians for choirs from all over the world.
Hagen’s commissions include Conspirare, the Minnesota Opera, the Minnesota Orchestra, the American Choral Directors Associations of Minnesota, Georgia, Connecticut and Texas, the North Dakota Music Teachers Association, Cantus, the Boston Brass, the Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra and the St. Olaf Band, among many others. Her work is independently published through JH Music, as well as through Graphite Publishing, G. Schirmer, Fred Bock Music Publishing, Santa Barbara Music Publishing, and Boosey and Hawkes.
You can find out much more about Jocelyn and her music here. If you would like to buy a copy of her wonderfully haunting choral version of “Sofðu Unga”, you can purchase it from this page. For the string quartet version, contact me directly or get in touch with Jocelyn from her website.
As with Lillie Harris, I first met Anna Appleby through the RSNO Composers’ Hub. It’s probably fair to say that “Hrakningar” grew out of someone else’s joke: Anna was in Reykjavik, where one of her choral pieces was being performed and she posted a short video of the geese on Tjörnin, the lake in the park near the centre of Reykjavik. One of her friends suggested she should write a piece incorporating their sound.
The geese have always been a potent symbol for me as their noisy conversation woke me early every morning as I camped next to the Lagarfljót in East Iceland. After a month on the road, my mind was on travelling back to Scotland, just like the geese. I was intrigued to see who got there first: it was me by a short head but I remember the strong emotions I felt one day out on the bike when a large skein of geese settled onto the field next to me. Every year now I await their migration in both directions between Iceland and Scotland. There was a special poignancy this year when they left as Scotland entered lockdown- almost like they were jumping ship.
With so much symbolism attached to the geese for me, you can imagine it was important to find the right composer for this commission and I knew that Anna understood how Iceland felt in winter.
Nordic Viola had been invited to play in Sound Festival in November 2018, which would feature the viola as part of their endangered instrument series as well as the music of women composers, and so I approached Fiona Robertson about jointly commissioning Anna to write us a piece.
In Anna’s words:
“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. 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.”
Working with Anna was a collaborative process. Whilst I very much wanted her to write the piece she wanted to write, I did enjoy watching the piece develop as she sent sketches of the work in progress. I remember hearing the electronic soundtrack early in the process and being captivated by the eery, echoey sound of the geese. Somehow I can’t hear that track without thinking of the northern lights flickering overhead – you can practically feel the electricity in the air in this soundtrack. It sounds like a cliché, but then the northern lights were every bit as much of a feature of my time in East Iceland as the geese were.
Community work is important to her and she has been composer in residence with Streetwise Opera in Manchester and artist in residence with Quay Voices. She also works teaching and mentoring young composers.
Key awards include the GDST Trailblazer Award in 2018 and 2nd prize in the Royal Northern Sinfonia‘s “Mozarts of Tomorrow” competition in January 2016.
Unusually in this era of specialisation, Anna is also an accomplished visual artist and writer.
Some composers just have a feel for the North. Lillie Harris is one of these. I commissioned her to write “AND”, inspired by Jen Hadfield’s poem “Blashey Wadder”, in 2016. At that point she’d barely travelled north of Glasgow, where we’d met when Lillie was part of the RSNO Composers Hub.
Granted, Jen Hadfield’s vivid description of a Shetland storm provides plenty of inspiration, and Lillie has a real feel for words, but it was only when she subsequently visited Shetland with me that she understood just how precisely she’d captured the tumultuous weather in music – and all for a solo viola! Lillie landed at Sumburgh Airport at the tail end of just such a storm as she joined me in Shetland in November 2016. She got off lightly – as I left Baltasound in Unst, Shetland’s most northerly isle, I nearly chopped my leg off with the car door! Driving across the neighbouring island of Yell was a white-knuckle ride. I wasn’t even sure Lillie’s plane would land as I approached Sumburgh, but land it did – fortunately there was a tailwind rather than a headwind.
Lillie joined me for a week in Baltasound and Lerwick, where we gave the premiere performances of “AND” as well as working together in Baltasound Junior High School in an improvisation workshop.
“AND” was the first piece I commissioned and a big learning process for me. Working with a composer is an intense and rewarding experience. No-one has ever played the music before (obviously!) which means there is no precedent, no prior performances to work from. The piece exists in the composer’s mind and together you work on realising that vision. I feel a great responsibility especially in the first performance of a new piece. I want to do it full justice so that the audience appreciate the new work: after all, I am the mouthpiece for the composer. It’s interesting seeing a new piece mature and, as Lillie says, at some point, you have to let it fly and let the performer interpret it in their way. After hearing me perform it in Shetland, Lillie didn’t hear me play “AND” again until January 2018, by which point I’d really got inside the piece and made it my own. The more I play it, the more I love it – the feeling of tension, of something in the air at the opening, the double stops that sound like the wind whistling through a gap in the window and the storm unleashed, whirling around at the climax of the piece.
Shetland gave Lillie a real taste of the north and in 2017 she was back to the Northern Isles, this time in Orkney, for the St. Magnus Festival Composers’ Course. There she wrote “Elsewhen” for sextet, inspired by the ancient monuments of Orkney. It’s a wonderfully evocative and slightly eery piece. Once again Lillie had captured the spirit of the north. “Elsewhen” is in Nordic Viola’s plans for the future and we look forward to introducing this piece to you.
Today (16th April) is St. Magnus Day. Nordic Viola should have been performing in the 5th International St. Magnus Conference in Shetland and composer Gemma McGregor should have been directing a concert in St. Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall, Orkney with “The Orkney Schola” in a programme of 12th century plainchant on texts about the miracles that occurred at the site of Magnus’ grave in Birsay before his remains were moved to Kirkwall. This building was founded in 1137 by the Viking, Earl Rognvald, in honour of his uncle St Magnus who was martyred here in Orkney, as documented in the “Orkneyinga Saga.” The Cathedral contains the relics of the Saint.
Gemma McGregor is a composer, performer and curator from Orkney who is interested in depicting consciousness and exploring images of time and place in layers of sound. In addition to writing contemporary choral and instrumental music, she has been part of many interdisciplinary performances and collaborations, has created sound-art and written music for film.
Like many of our featured composers, Gemma is highly active in her island community. As well as directing The Orkney Schola she is director and curator of The Experimental Music Project, producing performances and installations at the Pier Arts Centre, Stromness, Orkney. She has also undertaken research into the traditional music of Orkney.
In 2011, Watercolour Studios released “From Nothing”, an album of Gemma’s chamber music. It can be purchased here. Her choral music has been performed by the St Magnus Cathedral Choir and the Quodlibet Chorale and workshopped by the BBC Singers and the Dunedin Consort.
I first met Gemma at the “Sounding the North” Conference hosted by Aberdeen University and Sound Festival in 2017, where we were both presenting. Since then, Gemma and I have worked together extensively, performing with Nordic Viola in Orkney and co-presenting at the “Shoormal” Conference for the University of the Highlands and Islands in Shetland in autumn 2019. At this conference, Gemma and I premiered “Carry His Relics” for flute and viola, a commission for Nordic Viola based on the St. Magnus Way.
Gemma’s second opera, The Story of Magnus Erlendsson, (for ten soloists, double chorus and ten piece ensemble), was commissioned by St Magnus Festival as part of the Magnus900 anniversary celebrations in 2017 and was nominated for a Scottish New Music Award. Our featured piece “Betrayal”, is taken from this opera. Magnus and his cousin Haakon ruled Orkney jointly. Eventually however, the followers of the two earls fell out, and the sides met at the Thing (assembly) on the Orkney mainland, ready to do battle. Peace was negotiated and the Earls arranged to meet each other on the island of Egilsay at Easter, each bringing only two ships.
In words from the opera libretto:
Magnus and his men reach Egilsay drenched and tired.
When Magnus sees Haakon sailing up with eight ships, instead of just two
he understands immediately the arithmetic of death.
I will cry out!
I find my voice,
in this day of my distress!
I have been betrayed.
Has my God forgotten me?
Let this cup of suffering
pass from me;
let not my will
but your will be done.
Magnus leads his men up to the church,
where he will pass a troubled, yet clarifying night.
His men offer to defend him,
but Magnus forbids them to do so.
“I’m not risking your lives to save my own,
And if there’s to be no peace between me and my kinsmen,
then things must go according to the will of God.”
Like his Lord, the Galilean,
Magnus will meet his fate undefended.
Earl Magnus stands at history’s door.
His sword is in its sheath, his psalter in his hand.
He is a Christ-lover, this strong Viking,
this gentle Viking who sings psalms while battle rages,
this Viking man of Orkney’s destiny.
The treacherous Haakon will face his cousin Magnus
as Egilsay’s Easter sun becomes more dark, and darker still…
The next in my series of featured women composers from our Histories and Herstories concert is actually a group of composers and, I’ll own up, does also include a young man! They are pupils from Anderson High School in Lerwick, Shetland and they also have a link to my last featured composer, Margaret Robertson, as they were her fiddle students.
Back in November 2016 I spent three evenings working in Anderson High School on a series of improvisations based on Nordic tunes. This was a new way of working for the students and they were initially sceptical. However, after playing back a recording of their initial efforts on day 1, they embraced the projet wholeheartedly.
Our piece “Mjørkaflókar” was the outcome of this work and it has become one of Nordic Viola’s most emblematic pieces, combining traditional music, new ways of making music, involving young people and making connections between regions of the North Atlantic.
The title, “Mjørkaflókar” is a Faroese word meaning “foggy banks of cloud”, the type you get swirling around the islands on a high pressure weather day.
We took a fragment of a “Skjaldur” (Faroese children’s rhymes) called “Eg sat mær uppi í Hási”. First of all we built up a texture using the main notes of the melody. A solo violin then introduces the melody before 3 groups of fiddles play it as a round. The music then subsides to the opening texture. We talked about the piece we had created and how it represented the fact that, whilst Shetland and the Faroes are geographically and culturally close, it is virtually impossible to travel directly between the islands, something felt quite stongly by both island communities.
The piece now exists in two forms – the original semi-improvised version and a fully written out version. We have performed in several occasions, the most notable being in the Faroes’ “Sumartónar” festival in July 2018 when we were joined by two students of Jóna Jacobsen from Tórshavn music school, Nancy Nónskarð Dam and Bergur Davidsen. They were really touched to receive this gift from their counterparts in Shetland.
The recording is from this performance:
Next Thursday we should have been performing “Mjørkaflókar” with younger students from Anderson High School. Hopefully next April we will, finally, be able to bring “Mjørkaflókar” home for it’s first public performance in Shetland.
I should should have been in Shetland for the next two weeks with my colleagues Emily Nenniger, Anne Bünemann and Ruth Rowlands joining me to perform at UHI’s 5th International St. Magnus Conference. Reflecting the conference’s theme, our concert is entitled “Histories and Herstories” and comprises music by female composers.
All being well, we will perform this concert in April next year, but in the meantime, over the next few weeks I thought I’d introduce you to the composers. Some of these come from the islands of the North Atlantic, others are inspired by the music and landscapes of the region. They all have a story to tell and are emblematic of the way women have contributed to island life. All these composers are freelancers, so please do look them up and consider supporting their work during this difficult period.
I first met Margaret Robertson in November 2016 during my sabbatical in Shetland. I worked with her students at Anderson High School in Lerwick – more on that in the next blog – and learned much about the Shetland school of fiddle playing form her.
Margaret was born into one of the most musical families on the Island of Yell, Shetland. Her maternal family tree is directly descended from Brucie Danielson, the forefather of the Cullivoe traditional style. Brucie taught local players, among them Margaret’s Grandfather Simpson Henderson, his brother Willie Barclay Henderson and their brother in law Bobby Jamieson. Simpson later married Brucie’s niece. On her father’s side she is at least the third generation of fiddlers, in turn both her sons (Ross (of Peatbog Faeries) and Ryan Couper) are fiddlers and her daughter plays saxophone and piano.
Margaret began lessons at school with the late Dr Tom Anderson and then studied with Trevor Hunter. Under Trevor’s guidance she won the first Shetland Young Fiddler of the Year competition in 1982. He also encouraged her to join the Shetland Fiddlers Society to learn more of the older traditional tunes also giving her the title of depute leader.
Upon leaving school, Margaret was approached by Shetland Island Council’s Education Department to teach fiddle in more of the outlying schools. This involved many out of school tutoring groups the most successful of which was the group ‘High Strings’ formed from the timetable at Anderson High. This group toured regularly, released three albums and has seen many of Shetland’s most celebrated fiddlers pass through its ranks.
In April 2013 an email was sent round Shetland fiddle instructors to gauge interest in performing at The Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo with a group of fiddlers from the islands. Local instructors, Margaret Robertson and Pauleen Wiseman, met with Clara Wheelan and Steve Walsh of the tattoo production team to find out more about the event. Margaret visited Edinburgh in August that year to experience a day’s rehearsals and the show live. The detail was to have 40 Shetland fiddlers perform each show for a run of 25 shows during the 2014 tattoo.
Postal invitations were sent to almost 200 Shetland fiddlers in the January of 2014 with a response of 97 fiddle players on a rota in order to meet the expectations. The group performed a set of local well-known tunes to meet the theme of ‘Our Home, Friends and Family’. The music and costumes, designed by Shetland Knitwear company Nielanell, conveyed the Mirrie Dancers (Aurora Borealis) in the sky across the world linking Scots scattered worldwide to their homeland. By the end of August that year the new Shetland County group named Hjaltibonhoga (Old Norse for ‘Shetland, my spiritual home’) had performed to almost 250,000 of a live audience with a BBC worldwide viewing public in excess of 1 billion.
7 years on, “Hjaltibonhoga” is now the Edinburgh Tattoo’s resident fiddle band and have performed at Tattoos all over the world.
Margaret is now living in Central Scotland and continues to teach traditional fiddle and piano accompaniment as well as running “Hjaltibonhoga.”
Margaret was inducted into the Scottish Traditional Music Hall of Fame in 2018, which she described as a “huge honour”. Organisers Hands Up For Trad said she is an “inspirational figure on the Shetland music scene as a fiddler, pianist, teacher and composer”.
In Shetland we’ll be playing three of Margaret’s new tunes, “Mother’s Love”, “St. Kilda Beach” and “Windy Wellington.” In the meantime, here are two tunes from “The Wilderness Collection” arranged for flute, two violas and bassoon, played by Helen Brew (flute) Katherine Wren and David Martin (violas) and David Hubbard (bassoon). “The Wilderness” is named after Margaret’s Grandad’s house and “Shaela” is named after the group her daughter played in and is a dialect word describing light summer mist.