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 Related to the viol family, it was superseded by the more powerful-sounding violin family, but it is seeing a renaissance in contemporary music.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