A year ago, Ruta Vitkauskaite launched her Modern Chants programme online as part of Book Week Scotland. Ruta, Gemma McGregor and Emily Doolittle wrote music for myself and clarinettist Joanna Nicholson inspired by the natural world and Gaelic and Norse culture. The music was spun together with poetry by Dawn Wood. As many of you know, Gemma and Emily are composers I’ve worked with often before with Nordic Viola, so it was exciting to work with them again in a project led by someone else and Ruta, as well as being fronm another northern country, Lithuania, was a composer I’d heard a lot about and was eager to work with.
Following our online performance, Ruta, Dawn and engineer Chris Adams worked together to weave all the components in Modern Chants together to form a stunning Soundwalk, which was premiered in March this year in conjunction with Sound Scotland. In my opinion, the Soundwalk is even more beautiful than the original Modern Chants performance and I’m so excited that, once again, we’ll be part of Book Week Scotland on Sunday 20th November at 11am with a repeat of the Soundwalk with the Bard of the Birds.
The event starts on Zoom with an introduction from The Bard of the Birds. You will then be invited to take a walk (approx. 45 min) around your area. You don’t need to travel to any particular location. On your walk, you will listen to a soundtrack which will give you various instructions to follow and invites you to pay attention to particular details. Guided by the Bard of the Birds you will be asked to collect impressions, thoughts, ideas, colours, shapes, or even objects you find along your walk. When you return from your walk, we will meet you back on Zoom and invite you to share your experiences with us.
If you can’t join us for the event itself, it’s still worth signing up for free, as you can download the soundwalk to listen at your leisure. Speaking from my own experience, it’s at least as beautiful taking some time out at home on a dark night and chilling out to the lovely sounds and letting your imagination run wild.
The Soundwalk will be a special experience for me this time as, rather than walking from my own home, I’ll be presenting and walking from Birsay in Orkney, where I’ve already been out and about enjoying the wind, sunshine and very special light you get in the north at this time of year!
It’s been an exceptionally busy month for Nordic Viola which has seen me travel the length of the UK, with Nordic Viola’s most southerly concerts to date!
At the very end of September I renewed my partnership with Icelandic pianist, Arnhildur Valgarđsdóttir, with a programme of music entitled “A Journey Around the North Atlantic” for the Orkney Norway Friendship Association. At the heart of the programme were the two sonatas we performed in Seyđisfjörđur in the summer; Jón Thorarinsson’s Sonata and Adrian Vernon Fish’s Greenland-inspired Qaanaaq. We also included music closely connected to the heritage of Iceland and Orkney; Gemma McGregor’s Raven Banner and Heyr Himna Smiđur (“Hear, smith of the heavens”) a famous hymn tune by þorkell Sigurbjörnsson to words by Kolbeinn Tumason The programme opened with a March by Orkney resident Tom Deyell, which he wrote for the Shetland Folk Society Tune Competition.
We had a fabulous audience, which included travellers from Norway and Canada and we very much enjoyed swapping stories whilst being entertained by the fabulous young musicians from the Stromness Strathspey and Reel Society.
Arnhildur introduced us to some tales from the Sagas. What we forgot to talk about was her ancestral links to Orkney. She can trace her family line back to Rognvald Eysteinsson, also an ancestor of St. Magnus. Arnhildur’s family line traces back to Icelandic chieftain Hrollaug before branching off at Thordis (see below). Arnhildur was excited to visit Orkney and we enjoyed an afternoon exploring history in St. Magnus’ Cathedral, Kirkwall.
We had some true Orcadian weather (read 70mph gusts and lashing rain!) so I spent the morning of the concert in Stromness Museum, learning more about Orkney’s exploration and trading in the Arctic – sure that will find its way into a project someday.
Northern Stories Festival- Lyth Arts
I’ve been following the great work done by Charlotte Mountford at Lyth Arts in Caithness for sometime now, so when the opportunity came to take Sagas and Seascapes to the Northern Stories Festival, which was exploring Caithness’ Norse heritage, I absolutely jumped at the chance.
On this occasion I was presenting a screening of the Sagas and Seascapes film as per the original version for Orkney International Science Festival in 2021, but also including live performances of William Heinesen’s Variations on a Faroese Hymn Tune, Kári Bæk’s Wogen and The Drummer, the Scottish traditional tune that inspired the Danish Dromer. I also took Orla’s paintings with me.
Lyth Arts is a totally rejuvenating place for an artist to stay – at least for one who needs space around them! It is set in the flatlands of Caithness between Wick and Thurso, backing onto the peatlands of the Flow Country. Set up originally by local artist William Wilson, it has space for exhibitions and workshops as well as a small theatre. Artists are accommodated in the adjacent house and it’s a great place to meet and share ideas.
I was sharing with accordionist Neil Sutcliffe (coincidentally a friend of Orla’s) and Danish Storyteller Svend-Erik Engh as well as Svend’s partner, Alice, also a storyteller. I attended their workshop in the morning where I learned lots about how to tell a story engagingly before I joined the musicians in improvising along to the words.
Back in Thurso I had a couple of days to absorb myself in the landscapes that constantly inspire my music. I’m more used to seeing the Caithness coast from the Orkney boat but I think a new love affair has begun. The perilous coastline is riddled with hidden geos (rocky inlets), caves and blowholes. I also got to see an upwards waterfall (blown upwards by the wind)! You need your wits about you exploring those cliffs but the yield is a wealth of exciting colours, shapes and sounds. This was all topped off by the sight of a full moon reflecting on the water across Thurso Bay after an earlier golden sunset.
More museum time was had at the North Coast Visitor Centre. The expected displays on Norse and Pictish culture were there, but also absorbing panels on the ecology of the Flow Country. Every time I travel through that area it draws me in with its isolated peaks, saturated ground that now and again breaks out into a small lochan. On the surface of it, it looks barren, but it’s teeming with birdlife and, at ground level, the delicate sphagnum mosses are full of colour with their intricate little leaves. Autumn is one of the most beautiful times to see it with the russet-red dying bracken set against gunmetal skies, laden with heavy downpours.
Into late October and a change of pianist on the stool as I joined Kevin Duggan for three concerts down in the south-west of England. We started with two concerts in Glastonbury and Midsomer Norton performing much of the programme I’d played with Arnhildur, but adding in Rebecca Clarke’s characterful and varied Shorter Pieces and a new piece by Kevin based on Icelandic hymn tune, Almáttigur Guð.
Kevin is a native of Somerset and proved a wonderful guide, taking us out into the Mendips and introducing us to some of the prehistoric archaeological sites of Wiltshire. There is a connection to Orkney here, as it has been mooted that the ancient Orcadians may have travelled south and passed on their architectural skills gleaned from building edifices such as the Ring of Brodgar and Skara Brae to those constructing the likes of Stonehenge and West Kennet Longbarrow. In the dark warmth out of a hefty downpour, it felt right to get the viola out for a quick improvisation to these ancient peoples.
Our final performance was at Dunsden Church near Reading at the behest of composer Adrian Vernon Fish, who wrote Qaanaaq.
Being with people who know, love and have connections in Greenland is always a special experience for me as there are not so many people in this country that I can talk to and who I know have experienced what it is to spend time there living and working with Greenlanders. I felt a real responsibility to communicate the emotions and tell the stories that Adrian crafted so well in his Qaanaaq Sonata: the intense outpouring of the Aria and the helter-skelter chaos of the dogsled ride, Qimmusseq before the final Piseq or drum dance, which for me exemplifies the slower pace of life and patience of Greenlanders.
Before Qaanaaq and as a tribute both to Greenland and to Adrian who shares a love of that country with me, I played a short improvisation on an East Greenland Entertaining Song.
It was a wonderful, moving occasion and a concert that’ll stay in my mind for a long time.
Sagas and Seascapes will be part of the Northern Stories Festival at Lyth Arts in Caithness on Tuesday 18th October at 8pm. Northern Stories Festival 2022 is a spectacular celebration of the stories of the Far North of Scotland, taking place across Caithness this October.
Nordic Viola will screen Craig Sinclair’sSagas and Seascapes film alongside live performance by Katherine Wren on viola of Variations on a Faroese Hymn Tune by William Heinesen, Wogen by Kári Bæk and TheDrummer, a traditional Scottish Tune that inspired the Danish tune arr. by the Danish String Quartet The Dromer, which features at the end of the film.
Norse stories form the inspiration for this programme. Award-winning Irish composer Linda Buckley’s Aud draws on the Icelandic Sagas. Lillie Harris’ Elsewhen seeks to capture the strangeness, wonder, and melancholy of Orkney’s ancient sites, whilst in Carry His Relics, Orkney composer Gemma McGregor describes a journey along the St Magnus Way.
Orla Stevens‘ art from the project, inspired by music from Gemma McGregor, Lillie Harris and Linda Buckley, will also be on display at Lyth Arts.
Northern Stories Festival 2022 is a spectacular celebration of the stories of the Far North of Scotland, taking place across Caithness this October.
‘Sharing the stories of the Far North of Scotland.’
Celebrating our ancient Nordic connections and our close ties to North America, the festival will connect the lochs and coastline of the North Highlands, the fjords of Norway and the Great Lakes of Canada.
An exciting programme of online and in-person events will include an international line-up of performers and story-tellers from the Highlands, Scandinavia and Canada. With talks, workshops, films and exhibitions, there will be something for all the family to get involved in.
Don’t forget, too, that Katherine and Arnhildur Valgarðsdóttir (piano) will be performing for the Orkney-Norway Friendship Association in Stromness Town Hall on 30th September at 7:30pm. More information on that here.
We look forward to seeing you at one or both of these events.
And so our run of Sagas and Seascapes at the Scottish Storytelling Centre as part of the Made In Scotland Showcase has come to an end and what a great run of performances we had! Three nights of practically full houses, each with their own energy. All were made to feel very welcome and we had Audio Description and captions available at our relaxed performance, which for me was the show with the most intimate vibe and connection with the audience.
It was amazing to see Craig Sinclair’s beautiful film in high definition on the big screen and people loved watching Orla Stevens creating the beautiful paintings which we had on show in the courtyard.
Click here to find out what others said about our performances.
Northern Edgelands by Orla Stevens
Orla’s trip to Orkney to film with Nordic Viola was just the start of her relationship with Orkney and sparked a whole series of works, now on show at the Macrobert Arts Centre at Stirling University until 25th September. It’s a beautiful show in a beautiful space and comes highly recommended. You can also view our Sagas and Seascapes film there.
Sagas and Seascapes goes to Caithness
Full details are yet to be released, but the film version of Sagas and Seascapes will be going to Caithness very soon, accompanied by Orla’s beautiful paintings. I will play a couple of pieces live and tell the stories behind our work.
I’m particularly excited to take this work to Caithness as it is, of course, part of our central character Aud’s story. It was in Caithness that her son, Thorstein was killed by the Scots and from where she set sail to Orkney en route to West Iceland. I’ll update you with performance details when they’re announced. In the meantime, enjoy “Aud” by Linda Buckley with art by Orla Stevens and film by Craig Sinclair.
I first came across “Elsewhen” by Lillie Harris when she wrote it for the St. Magnus Composers’ course in 2017 and I knew straight away that I wanted to programme it with Nordic Viola. It is so evocative of the ancient monuments, and in particular of the Stones of Stenness, with its sense of mystery and eeriness. There’s something quite unsettling about the music or, as Orkney Arts Society put it, “There is edge here – edges, edginess, margins and menace under the surface.”
I’ll leave you with Lillie now to explain a little bit more about the piece, working alongside Orla Stevens on the art and, in general, about her collaboration with Nordic Viola.
Ancient sites are intriguing: they offer us amazement at the sheer age of artefacts, many mysteries of why things were that way, and the sense of a delicate thread connecting us now, to those people then. Our interactions with these relics helps us build an image of our past, but there is only so much we can learn from what remains – the rest is lost to time.
In ‘Elsewhen’ I have sought to capture the strangeness, wonder, and melancholy of objects and sites that exist out of time: they retain traces and memories of the past, but have outlived those for whom they were built, and have been left behind.
In the countdown to Sagas and Seascapes at the Fringe, each day this week I’m going to give you a short video introduction to each of the pieces in the programme.
First up is “Carry His Relics” by Gemma McGregor.
‘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.
So here we are, just over 2 weeks to our performance of Sagas and Seascapes as part of Made in Scotland at The Scottish Storytelling Centre at Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Performances are 15th-17th August at 20:30 and tickets are available now here. If you live too far away to travel to Edinburgh, then you can join in, too, with an online screening on 18th August at 19:00 followed by a live Q and A with me, Orla and three of the composers, Gemma McGregor, Lillie Harris and Eli Tausen á Lava. It’s free but ticketed, with tickets available here.
This will be our biggest performance of this programme to date. The music will be performed live with Craig Sinclair‘s beautiful film for the first time. The film includes Orla Steven’s specially commissioned artwork, spectacular film of Orkney and beyond and interviews with Orla and composers Gemma McGregor, Lillie Harris, Eli Tausen á Lava and Linda Buckley. This year there is new film footage with Eli’s Søgnin um Kópakonuna í 10 Myndum (The Tale of the Sealwoman in 10 pictures).
To find out more about what makes our performance so special, watch this video from Ed McKeon of Third Ear Music:
I know some of you particularly enjoy news of Nordic Viola’s travels in the Far North. I have plenty of news and reflections from my recent trip to Iceland and, in between all the Edinburgh planning, I’ll try to give you a longer read and some scenery, too!
We’re really looking forward to seeing you in Edinburgh. Bring along your stories of the Far North – we love hearing other people’s tales of the Far North, and some of them might even find their way into a future performance!
If you’re making a holiday out of your trip to Edinburgh this summer and can make it over to Stirling, or indeed you live in our area, then Orla Stevens also has a solo exhibition of her Orkney-inspired work at the MacRobert Arts Centre at Stirling University. It runs from 20th August for around a month.
Finally, don’t forget to have a quick look at our Sagas and Seascapes website which has loads of interesting features from our composers and artists. I’ve really enjoyed reading their perspectives on our work together.
Last week I travelled up to Orkney – not with Nordic Viola this time, but with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra for the St. Magnus Festival. Nevertheless, with our performance of Sagas and Seascapes at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe as part of the Made In Scotland Showcase just 2 months away, returning to Orkney a year after we filmed there was an emotional experience.
Passing the Old Man of Hoy which features in our film of Linda Buckley’s Aud and then rounding the corner of Hoy and seeing the mountains exactly as captured in Orla Steven’s painting to Elsewhen by Lillie Harris.
On Sunday I had time to travel to Rousay, a new island for me. The weather was wild, with gale force winds. I found myself wondering how Aud would have experienced this coastline back in the 9th century, what her emotions were as she passed the imposing cliffs on her way to a new life in Iceland.
Cycling on the south side of Rousay, we looked across Eynhallow sound towards the Broch of Gurness where Gemma McGregor reflected on the journey of St. Magnus to his death in Egilsay. The tidal races through the sound are famously fast, and we were treated to a view of them in full flow. Travelling back to Tingwall on the mainland, I saw St. Magnus’ Chruch on Egilsay for the first time. You can read more about the influence of Magnus’ story on Gemma McGregor over on our sister site, sagasandseascapes.com
I felt the ghosts of these ancient peoples all around me after working so intensively with Craig Sinclair over the last few weeks on new film for our first multimedia live performance of Sagas and Seascapes at the Scottish Storytelling Centre 15th-17th August. Book your tickets here. If you can’t make it to Edinburgh, we will also be screening it online on 18th August. Tickets are free here. The screening will be followed by a zoom Q and A with the composrs, artist Orla Stevens and myself.
Recital in Iceland
After briefly touching base, I’ll be travelling to Iceland for the first time since 2019 to perform in the Summer Concert Series at the beautiful Bláakirkjan in Seyđisfjörđur in the East Fjords on 6th July. I’m really looking forward to performing again with pianist Arnhildur Valgarđsdóttir in what I’m sure will be a special event. The last time I played in this gorgeous church with a wonderful acoustic was right at the start of my travels with Nordic Viola in 2016. Back then, I had no idea that Nordic Viola would grow into the project that it is now.
I’ve been enjoying repertoire new and old as I practise for the concert. I’ve been getting to know Jón Thorarinsson’s sonata, which was written originally for clarinet. It’s a delightful three-movement work, full of melody and some jaunty rhythms. Thorarinsson was actually born in Eiðar near Egilsstaðir, just up the road from Seyðisfjörður and a place I know very well!
On a much larger scale is Adrian Vernon Fish’s “Qaanaaq Sonata” inspired by the eponymous settlement in North Greenland. It’s a monumental work which challenges both players and moves from the starkness of the Arctic landscape, through a warm, lyrical melody ( melody is a real feature of Adrian’s music) and onto a wild and exhilarating dog-sled ride in a rather funky 13/8 rhythm. As I play, my thoughts will be with one of the driving forces in music education in Greenland, Per Rosing, who is currently in hospital in Denmark.
Whilst l’m in the East Fjords, I hope to have a few days’ holiday in Borgafjörđur Eystri on the north east coast and to catch up with friends in Egilsstađir.
I know many of you really enjoy following Nordic Viola’s trips to the Far North. It’s been a long hiatus and I hope you’ll enjoy hooking up with me and learning more about the music, cultures and landscapes of this most stunning and intriguing part of our beautiful planet. I can’t wait to travel North once more!
Linda’s evocative score reimagines the journey of Aud the Deep-Minded from Norway and Ireland via Caithness, Orkney and Faroe to Iceland, where she was one of the early settlers in the 9th century. Linda wrote the piece during lockdown and, as well as telling the ancient story of Aud, the music is full of a sense of yearning to travel again to the Far North.
Lillie Harris’Elsewhen explores the mystery of the ancient standing stones of Orkney. You can hear Lillie talking about the piece onsite in Orkney here.
The programme is bookended by the Danish String Quartet’s delightful arrangements of the Unst Boat Song from Shetland and The Dromer, a Danish folk dance based on the Scottish reel “The Drummer.” Both these tunes are taken from the Danish String Quartet’s Last Leaf album.
I’m sure that a lot of you will be intrigued by the beautiful paintings above. They were specially commissioned by Nordic Viola for our Sagas and Seascapes series from Orla Stevens. Orla is currently resident in Callander, but grew up in Dunblane. She travelled with myself and the composers to Orkney to explore the landscapes and concepts behind the music.
Orla’s beautiful prints connected to the music will be available to order at the concert, alongside greetings cards with her beautiful images. If you can’t wait that long, you can also order them here.
Our documentary/concert film “Sagas and Seascapes”, featuring interviews with the composers, stunning film footage and artwork produced specifically for the film, as well as two world premieres was streamed by Orkney International Science Festival last Friday.
It’s now available to view at your leisure on YouTube.