Histories and Herstories Composers part 4

Lillie Harris

Lillie Harris Photo ©Kevin Leighton

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.

You can find out more about Lillie and her music here: https://www.lillieharris.com/about

Histories and Herstories Composers part 3

Gemma McGregor

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.

Gemma graduated with a doctorate in music composition from the University of Aberdeen in July 2017. A recipient of the Ogston Postgraduate Scholarship and the W.R. Aim Memorial Prize, Gemma has received commissions, awards and residencies from Creative Scotland, Heritage Scotland, Hinrichsen Foundation, St Magnus Festival, Aberdeen Sound Festival, Heriot-Watt University, and the Ralph Vaughan Williams Trust. Gemma began her third opera during Made at The Red House residency, Aldeburgh in August, 2019.

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.

MAGNUS:

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.

THE BARD:

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.

THE BARD: 

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…

You can find out more about Gemma and her music here: https://gemmamcgregor.com/ There is a list of works and her music can be purchased through the Scottish Music Centre. http://scottishmusiccentre.com/

Histories and Herstories Composers Part 2

Anderson High School with Katherine Wren

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.

Anderson HS, Leriwck, Shetland

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.

Faroe Islands

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.

Histories and Herstories – Meet the Composers

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.

Margaret Robertson

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.

If you’re interested in learning fiddle from one of Shetland’s finest players or in buying any of Margaret’s tune books, then click here: https://www.facebook.com/margaret.hjalti/

Thoughts of Shetland and learning the Viola d’amore.

Next Saturday I should have been travelling out to Shetland prior to playing in the 5th International St. Magnus Conference hosted by the University of the Highland Islands but…. Well, you know the rest!

Actually, I’m one of the luckier ones – the conference has been postponed lock, stock and barrel until April 2021 and I’ve been able to pay my musicians for rehearsals and rebook them for next year. I’ve also been really heartened from some of the lovely messages I’ve had from friends and connections in Shetland. It is truly a special place.

I’m also planning on visiting the islands in September for a couple of concerts – fingers are tightly crossed for that.

So how to fill the time self-isolating? Well there are many, many exciting projects for Nordic Viola in the pipeline with some very new and different ideas. I’ll share some of these with you over time, although obviously it’s very difficult to put a timescale on anything right now. At least I should have plenty of work lined up and ready to go.

In the meantime, I’ve been learning to play the Viola d’amore. I got one of these beautiful and unusual instruments for my birthday back in November and I’ve barely had time to explore it.

The first time I heard this instrument live was in Sound Festival in Aberdeen in 2018 played by Garth Knox, one of the instrument’s greatest modern advocates. I was immediately attracted by its resonance and unusual tone colour. The d’amore has 6 or 7 sounding strings (mine has 6) and a corresponding number of sympathetic strings which, as Garth puts it, “sing along” when they hear a note they like. The most common tuning is D, A, D, F (sharp), D, A so, as you can imagine, it likes D major/minor! The instrument is first mentioned in 1679 and its heyday was during the Baroque period. Related to the viol family, it was superseded by the more powerful-sounding violin family, but it is seeing a renaissance in contemporary music.

Another reason that I was attracted to the viola d’amore is the things it has in common with the Hardanger Fiddle or “hardingfele” in Norwegian. Earliest mention of the Hardanger is roughly contemporary with that of the d’amore – 1651. It has 4 (sometimes 5) sounding strings. The most common tuning is ADAE, but there is a whole tradition of different tunings, each signifying something different in the culture. See here if you are interested. The instrument is traditionally used for dancing. Hardingfeler can be played for gammaldans (waltz, reinlender/schottis, pols, etc.), but are most associated with Norwegian bygdedans (regional dances) such as springar and gangar. These dances are found in areas such as Hallingdal, Telemark, Setesdal, Valdres, and on the west coast of Norway in Voss, Jølster, and Sogn.

Both instruments, due to their flatter bridges and, in the case of the d’amore with its 6 strings, the closeness of the strings, tend to favour music with drones and chords. Which brings me to the other great attraction of the d’amore for me – a means of interpreting Shetland fiddle music through the medium of an instrument and sound that I relate to strongly: the d’amore definitely feels and sounds closer to the viola than to the violin/fiddle.

Shetland fiddle music shows several influences related to its seafaring history. There are tunes brought from Ireland, North America, Germany and Greenland but also a very strong Scandinavian influence. The influence of the Hardanger fiddle is not hard to discern. Shetland fiddle music includes the use of ringing strings, octaves and other double stops, syncopated rhythms and strong accents, cross bowings, scordatura tunings (tunings different from standard tuning) and changes of key within the tunes.

So, how am I getting on? You can hear my first efforts below. Firstly a meditation and improvisation on “Da Day Dawn”, a tune I first heard played by young Shetland fiddler Anya Johnston. “Da Day Dawn” an old Shetland fiddle tune which (as John Purser notes in his book Scotland’s Music) was traditionally played at the Winter solstice to mark the dawn of the lengthening days. And secondly “The Merry Boys of Greenland”, a reference to the many whaling crews that travelled from Shetland to Greenland.

Concert Postponements

It is with great regret that we have had to cancel our concert for UHI in Shetland on 16th April and also our open rehearsal in Kinbuck, Perthshire on 29th March due to COVID-19.

However, we are pleased to say that the UHI conference will go ahead in 2021 with the same programme and we have once again been invited to bring our “Histories and Her-stories” programme to the conference.

The announcement from UHI Institute of Northern Studies is as follows:

Regretfully, the 5th St Magnus Conference, scheduled to take place April 15-18 in Lerwick, Shetland, has been cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Although Shetland remains at low risk, there have been a number of cases and the community is worried about the situation. In order to play our part in slowing the spread of this virus, we have decided, with great regret, that we cannot go ahead with the conference this Spring.

The conference Island Histories and Herstories will now take place in Lerwick, Shetland, April 14-16, 2021.

Nordic Viola also hopes to bring a free event to Kinbuck in the autumn to thank all our supporters in our home region. Please click on the link at the side of the page to follow the blog and keep up to date with news. We have lots of new ideas to carry forward into 2021 and lots of time just now to develop them!

I would also like to offer a big thank you to my funders, all of whom have very generously offered to carry over funding to next year’s event.

Raising the profile of music by women

Nordic Viola shortlisted in Scottish Awards for New Music 2020

I am delighted to announce that for the second year running, Nordic Viola has been shortlisted for the RCS Award for Making It Happen in the Scottish Awards for New Music 2020 alongside “The Night With… :” curated by Matthew Whiteside and Diversions, led by Ben Lunn

The 2020 Scottish Awards for New Music will take place at 7pm on 14th April in the V&A Dundee. More information on the awards can be found here.

Histories and Herstories Update!

Rehearsals are now well underway for our performance in Shetland at the University of the Highlands and Islands’ Institute of Northern Studies 5th International St. Magnus Conference. The concert is now open to the public by donation and we hope to welcome many friends, old and new, from Shetland, Orkney and further afield, residents, conference delegates and tourists alike!

Open Rehearsal

We also know that we have many friends in the Stirling area and the central belt, several of whom have been asking me when we will next be performing closer to home. Because of that, we have decided to open one of our rehearsals to the public to allow you to watch how we put a piece of music together and to ask us any questions you like about our work!

The rehearsal will take place in the beautiful Kinbuck Community Centre close to Dunblane on Sunday 29th March at 2-4pm. You are welcome to drop in for as long or short a period of time as you like. Children of any age are especially welcome – there’s even a small playpark in the grounds for the wee ones!

Please do feel free to chat to us about any aspect of our work, whether it’s our unique programme of music by women composers from the islands, our travels, our education work, the composers and other musicians we work with, really anything you’re curious about!

Refreshments will be available with donations going towards our education work.

Raising the profile of women composers

Histories and Her-stories – Institute of Northern Studies, University of the Highlands and Islands

Island life would have been impossible without the equal contribution of both women and men. Women have often taken leading roles in island communities, running them when their men have been off-island seeking employment, as fishermen, whalers, serving in the navy or as merchant seamen.

In partnership with UHI’s “Institute of Northern Studies” 5th International St Magnus Conference, Nordic Viola present reflections on female experience of landscapes, motherhood and social gatherings around the North Atlantic region in music by women composers for string quartet. The programme includes “Machair” by young Highland composer Lisa Robertson (shortlisted in Scottish Awards for New Music 2019), previous commissions from Greenlandic composer Arnannguaq Gerstrøm, Lillie Harris and Anna Appleby traditional music from Iceland arranged by American Jocelyn Hagen, new music by traditional fiddlers Margaret Robertson (Shetland) and Fiona Driver (Orkney) and, following Nordic Viola’s collaboration in Orkney 2018, music influenced by Orcadian history and Hardanger fiddle style by Gemma McGregor.

Following rehearsals in school, Nordic Viola will be joined by fiddle students from Anderson High School in “Mjørkaflókar” a piece about Shetland and the Faroes they created in workshops with Katherine Wren in 2016, which was performed by music students in the Faroe Islands in 2018.

The concert is open to the public and takes place on 16th April 2020 at 7pm in Islesburgh Community Centre, Lerwick. The performance will last an hour and entry is by donation.

Supported by the National Lottery through Creative Scotland, the Ambache Trust, raising the profile of music by women and UHI’s Institute of Northern Studies. Part of Scotland’s Year of Coasts and Waters 2020.

Review of 2019 and onwards into 2020 – Scotland’s “Year of Coasts and Waters”

2019 has been the busiest year yet for Nordic Viola as the project continues to grow and make new connections around the North Atlantic. This year has seen an increasing number of collaborations with other artists working in the region and Nordic Viola is increasingly becoming a point of information and liaison for other musicians and composers.

Iceland

The first event of the year was a week in Iceland in March/April working with two musicians I met back in 2016 and who I’ve been desperate to work with again.

Firstly, Charles Ross, fellow viola player, composer and improviser. Charles has an incredible way of looking at the viola not as a traditional string instrument but as a source of sound to be exploited in any number of different ways. He has a very acute sense of timbre in music and is a very skilled improviser. There is a naivety and joyousness in much of his music, perhaps born of his interest in improvisation in world music.

We performed together in Mengi, Reykjavik and at Slátarhusið, Egilsstaðir in East Iceland. Somewhat nerve-wrackingly, the weather conspired against us in Reykjavik, meaning that we were on stage live with no rehearsal. It made for a very exciting and intense performance, though. We had much more time in Egilsstaðir, allowing us to perform with pre-recorded electronic tracks, introduce more sound effects and instruments and to better structure our work.

Whilst in Egilsstaðir I visited the music school again to give a masterclass to senior pupils, meeting old and new friends alike. It was also a great pleasure to hear Kristófer Gauti Thórhallsson, who I coached back in 2016, playing a movement from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons with the Austerlands Symphony Orchestra. Music is really thriving in East Iceland, thanks in part to the leadership of Soley Thrastardóttir, head of the music school.

Arnhildur Valgarðsdóttir has been a great friend to me whenever I’ve visited Reykjavik and a performance together was long overdue. We performed a viola/piano tour of the North Atlantic with music by Gemma McGregor, Peter Maxwell Davies (both Orkney), Adrian Vernon Fish (Qaanaaq, a sonata inspired by Greenland) and Oliver Kentish (Iceland).

Dunblane

In June I repeated this programme with Kevin Duggan in Dunblane Cathedral and I hope to be able to tour this popular programme with both Adda and Kevin in the next couple of years.

The Dunblane concert was a particularly joyous occasion for me as I finally got to welcome Adrian Vernon Fish to one of our concerts. Adrian and I have been in touch since Nordic Viola began as we share a deep love for Greenland and he has been a source of inspiration and advice to me from the start. Apart from Qaanaaq, a viola sonata that really deserves to be out there in the wider world, his “Uyeasound” Nocturne has become one of our favourite pieces.

I also welcomed Gemma McGregor to Dunblane to hear her piece, “Joy” for solo viola. We had worked together in Orkney in 2018 and this was a chance to catch up and discuss a new commission (more on that later) as well as trawling through my now extensive collection of Far North CDs.

Scotland New Music Awards

In May I was honoured to be shortlisted for the New Music Scotland  “Making it Happen Award” alongside eventual winners the Nevis Ensemble and Glasgow Experimental Music Series. It was incredibly inspiring to share an evening with a full house of inspirational musicians – the contemporary music scene in Scotland is thriving at the moment. Stories were shared with old friends and new alliances were formed.

Out of the Box

July saw my first concert of the year guesting on another project. Fiona Driver’s “Out of the Box” concert in Inverness Cathedral featured a group of musicians inspired in various ways by traditional music of the north. Fiona and husband Trevor Hunter are two of the driving forces in fiddle music from Orkney and Shetland and are now practising their art in Inverness. We were joined by Lea MacLeod on pipes and flute, Anya Johnston on fiddle and Dave Chadwick on the incredible Swedish Nyckelharpa. David Martin and I played some folk tunes from Iceland and then joined in a trio with Fiona to play her “Hoy’s Dark and Lonely Isle” and my “Mjørkaflókar”, inspired by Orkney and the Faroes respectively.

I hope to invite Fiona down to Dunblane sometime on a new and similar collaboration.

Flitting around the islands

September proved to be an incredibly busy month for Nordic Viola. First up was the “Shoormal Conference” on rural creativity at the University of the Highlands and Islands in the beautiful Mareel Centre in Lerwick, Shetland. I teamed up with Orkney composer and flautist Gemma McGregor for this project to talk about our work in Orkney last year. We gave a presentation entitled From the Northern Isles to Greenland: Exploring environment and culture through improvisation and sonic art, reflecting on our work with school children in Kirkwall and Stromness last year.

One of the aims of my Orkney residency last year was to commission Gemma and our concert at the conference, Nordic Viola: A Journey Around the North Atlantic in Words and Music, saw the premiere of her new piece for viola and flute based on the St. Magnus Way, “Carry His Relics”. The focus of the concert was on showcasing how a rich palette of sound can be generated from limited resources when travelling in remote rural areas.

Putting theory into practice, Nordic Viola’s next outing was to the Isle of Coll Music Group with flautist Helen Brew, fellow violist David Martin and bassoonist David Hubbard. Coll is an island in the Inner Hebrides off the west coast of Scotland and we were blessed with some surprisingly mediterranean weather! Music included a new arrangement of the Unst Boat Song by the Danish String Quartet and Emily Doolittle’s “Social Sounds From Whales at Night” which has proved a big hit in my concerts this year.

Alongside Autumn – A Composer’s Walk

October saw another new collaboration with composer Matilda Brown in Durness on the north coast of Scotland. Matilda had journeyed right through Scotland from Annan in Dumfriesshire to Durness entirely on foot, performing and composing as she went. We share a lot of the same inspirations in our music and I found sharing in the end of Matilda’s journey an incredibly moving and inspiring experience. We’re both looking forward to working together in the future.

2020 and beyond!

The rest of the autumn has been about planning ahead for 2020 and beyond and we have some very exciting plans, many growing out of new connections made this year.

Histories and Herstories

The Shoormal Conference proved to be especially profitable in building new partnerships, not least with the University of the Highlands and Islands themselves and my first project will be a programme of female composers writing about island life as part of the Histories and Herstories Conference in April. I am delighted that pupils from Anderson High School will be joining us in performance.

Year of Coasts and Waters

Event Scotland’s theme for 2020 is tailor-made for us and we will be touring a programme entitled “Sagas and Seascapes” to the Orkney Science Festival, Shetland and Dunblane. The programme looks at the many cultural links around the North Atlantic and especially shared stories such as the Icelandic “Njál’s Saga” and the “Orkneyinga Saga”. We’re also very excited about performing the rarely heard Septet version of Sibelius’ “En Saga” in Dunblane and about a new commission – more will be revealed as the year progresses! We will also be enjoying depictions of landscapes from the sea cliffs of the Faroes and the ancient monuments of Orkney to name but two.

Cross-disciplinary collaborations

Shoormal opened new opportunities for me to work with Nordic Viola in tandem with other art forms. At the moment these are in a developmental stage but I’m looking forward to preventing some new and innovative performance formats in the 2020/21 season. Together with composer Renzo Spiteri (now resident in Shetland) and visual artist Orla Stevens I am developing a project inspired by the Northern and Western Isles and beyond looking at the transitions from darkness to light at northern latitudes.

I have always been fascinated by words and am therefore excited to be working with Lesley Harrison. One of her publications, “Beyond the Map” charts an imaginary journey following the early whalers up the east coast of Scotland to the Northern Isles and up to Greenland. The parallels with my own project are obvious and I look forward to developing an event with Lesley and other musicians such as Alex South and Emily Doolittle who are interested in whale song.

Nordic Viola seems to be developing at a rapid rate at the moment and I look forward to sharing the journey with you as these new projects and partnerships develop.