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 Related to the viol family, it was superseded by the more powerful-sounding violin family, but it is seeing a renaissance in contemporary music.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