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 Related to the viol family, it was superseded by the more powerful-sounding violin family, but it is seeing a renaissance in contemporary music.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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
AlongsideAutumn – 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.
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.
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.
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.
“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
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
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
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!
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’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. “