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!
I am delighted and proud to announce that Nordic Viola’s Sagas and Seascapes has been selected as part of the Made In Scotland Showcase at Edinburgh Festival Fringe and we will be performing at the Scottish Storytelling Centre from 15th-17th August at 8:30pm. There will be also be an online screening of the film via the SSC website on 18th August at 7pm, followed by a Zoom Q and A with the principal creators on the project.
The programme also features music from the Faroes by Eli Tausen á Lava and Kári Bæk. Orla Stevens has produced new artwork to asccompany Eli’s Søgnin um Kópakonuna í 10 Myndum (The Tale of the Sealwoman in 10 Pictures) which will be seen for the first time at the Fringe.
Visit our sister site, https://www.sagasandseascapes.com/ to book tickets and for much more interesting content on the project. You can also sign up to the newsletter to keep abreast of all the news in the run-up to Edinburgh. Tickets can also be booked here
You can here excerpts from the music we’ll be performing here:
Back in 2016, Seyđisfjörđur in East Iceland was the first stop on my sabbatical. Chosen on the suggestion of friend and Iceland expert, Cathy Harlow because of it’s rich and varied cultural life, (and also for its direct services to the Faroe Islands, which I visited on the same trip) the people in the village welcomed me into their community. I gave short performances in the schools, masterclasses in nearby Egilsstađir and also performed in the magnificent Bláakirkjan (blue church) with local violist, Charles Ross. Bláakirkjan is the most iconic building in Seyđisfjörđur, its colourful blue and white facade standing at the end of the rainbow road. Inside, it is a bright and intimate space, built of wood and gently resonant.
I therefore can’t wait to return to Seyđisfjörđur to perform in the Bláakirkjan summer concert series on 6th July. The series has become one of the major cultural events in East Iceland. It offers a varied programme of music where you can see many of the country’s most interesting musicians as well as international artists. I’ll be performing with Arnhildur Valgarđsdóttir, who I also met in 2016 in Reykjavik. Adda trained in Scotland and currently works as a highly respected pianist, organist and choirmaster in Reykjavik. In fact, if you live in Central Scotland, you’ll be able to catch her on tour with her choir this August.
We’ll be taking our audience on a journey round the North Atlantic, starting in Orkney with Gemma McGregor’s Hardanger-fiddle-inspired “Joy” and Peter Maxwell Davies’ much-loved “Farewell to Stromness.”
After a reflective pause on our journey with Arvo Pärt’s “Spiegel im Spiegel”, we visit our host country with Jón Thorarinsson’s short viola sonata. Thorarinsson studied music at the Reykjavík Music School and with Paul Hindemith at Yale University. He was head teacher from 1947 to 1968 at the Reykjavík Music School, head of Sjónvarpi’s art and entertainment department from 1968 to 1979, as well as numerous other projects in the field of music. Full of character, this sonata shows off the singing tone of the viola with long, cantabile lines, a passionate, at times bleak second movement and a final Rondo with lively jazz rhythms.
Adrian Vernon Fish’s Qaanaaq Sonata is a much more substantial piece. It’s inspired by the main town of that name in the northern part of the Avannaata municipality in northwestern Greenland. Adrian and I share a love of Greenland and Adrian’s music depicts so much about life there: the beauty, but also the barrenness and harshness of the landscape, the warmth and humour of the people and the rollicking energy of a dogsled ride that Adrian was lucky enough to experience there.
That’ll be the end of our official programme, but we might just have a little treat from Shetland to throw in at the end, too.
Once the concert is over, I’m looking forward to exploring the hills around Seyđisfjörđur: the high mountain lakes and the streams of waterfalls tumbling down the valleys. The eerie green murk of the Lagarfljót up at Egilsstađir and the unique woodland along the lochside at Hallormsstaðaskógur Doubtless there’ll be more inspiration to be gathered there for future projects!
We have some very exciting news for you today. Sagas and Seascapes will be going to Edinburgh Festival Fringe this summer for three performances from 15th-17th August at the Scottish Storytelling Centre on the Royal Mile. We will be part of a prestigious showcase of Scottish art, but I’ll save details of that for the official launch date of 31st May. Subscribe below to make sure we keep you up to date!
A chance to support us and collect some special rewards
Of course, more than anything, we hope you’ll be able to travel to Edinburgh to hear us play live in August, but we’d also like to invite you to play a key roll in our journey. We are running a crowdfunding campaign to raise £2000 between now and 2nd May to commission new art by Orla Stevens to accompany Eli Tausen’s wonderful Søgnin um Kópakonuna í 10 Myndum (The Tale of the Sealwoman in 10 Pictures) and also to support our musicians in rehearsal and for all the additional costs involved in taking 6 musicians through to Edinburgh.
We have a few exclusive gifts at all levels of donation. Everyone who donates will be mentioned in our programme for the event. We also have everything from merchandise to signed posters to give away. If you are able to support us with a larger sum, we have limited edition prints of the new artworks that Orla will produce for the show for you and the offer of an open rehearsal where you can meet our musicians. These higher value offers are limited, so jump in quickly!
At the corporate level, we can feature your business logo in our publicity and websites for £200. Or perhaps you’d like to see your own community benefit? For £500 we are able to offer an art/music workshop for the school or community group of your own choice.
A reflective post today looking back on the initial shock of the music world closing down in March 2020 and how, with a little bit of help from the RPS Enterprise Fund in association with Harriet’s Trust, Nordic Viola found new and exciting ways of working and of reaching our audiences around Scotland, the North Atlantic and beyond.
Entering the pandemic and a crash course in digital production
As covid began its grip on the world, Nordic Viola were just on the verge of travelling to Shetland for the University of the Highlands and Islands‘ “Histories and Herstories” Conference. I remember sitting on stage with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra as we entered lockdown wondering how my project, formed in travel, could ever survive such a thing. But musicians are resourceful people and our project was very quickly repurposed to become a digital concert for the Orkney International Science Festival instead.
But where to begin? I could make rudimentary recordings but I was clueless about video. Step in Creative Scotland who provided me with top notch support and encouraged me to aim high and work with a top quality video professional. And so began what would become a fruitful partnership with Craig Sinclair Video.
Me and my team of wonderful and resourceful musicians (violinists Emily Nenniger, Anne Bünemann and cellist Ruth Rowlands) swiftly learned to record in our own homes and Craig and I set about interviewing composers online before Craig offered us remote support to film our own performances which he then pieced together with stock footage of the North Atlantic region (filming his own footage being forbidden in lockdown!).
And so our first digital concert was born.
A world opens up
Very quickly I learned that, far from being the end of Nordic Viola, this was actually a new beginning. Touring abroad is an expensive business, environmentally as well as financially, but now we had a way of reaching audiences far and wide from the safety and comfort of our own homes. Not only that, but I had a way for the composers to speak directly to audiences, putting a face and a personality behind the music.
So far, so good, but using professionals for every short piece of video is an expensive business. I needed to learn how to make my own content, saving my financial resources for larger-scale performances, and I needed better equipment to do it. Step in the Royal Philharmonic Society Enterprise Fund. This amazing organisation exists to create opportunities for musicians to excel and champions the vital role that music plays in everybody’s lives. They are a relatively small organisation with a very big heart indeed. TheRPS Enterprise Fund offered individual performers and chamber music groups the means to strengthen and transform the extent of their creativity, connectivity, profile and revenue, encouraging us to think entrepreneurially.
Sagas and Seascapes
Following on from our first collaboration with Orkney International Science Festival, in 2021 we embarked on a much more ambitious project, Sagas and Seascapes. This project brought in many professionals from other fields and involved the creation of artwork for the project from Orla Stevens. Hedd Morfett-Jones and Simon Lowden from the RSNO recorded our performances in Glasgow and Craig was able to do his own filming on location in Orkney with me and the composers. It seemed the perfect project for me to take as a basis for developing my own technical skills.
The first part of my learning was to watch the professionals at work. I learned how Hedd ran a recording a session, how audio and video worked together and and picked Hedd and Craig’s brains about equipment and software.
On-location in Orkney, I happily handed over the reins of project management to Craig and watched how he pre-interviewed the composers, planned a shoot and managed the team on location.
Sagas and Seascapes was an ambitious programme and I learned a fair bit about people-management, too, as everything came together and deadlines needed to be met! After a week of working through the night, adrenaline was running high as Sags and Seascapes premiered at the science festival!
Meanwhile, my new microphones and audio interface were proving their worth. I was literally 24 hours away from performing live at the Scottish Awards for New Music when I got pinged! And so, as I awaited my PCR result, I got down to recording Eddie McGuire‘s Legend and Electra Perivolaris‘ Geese Flying Over My Head and into the Distance in audio and video. Without this equipment, I’d have lost a fee and left New Music Scotland with a gap to fill on very short notice. Thank you RPS!
Video Training Course
With the year’s big project in the bag, it was time to learn more formally from Craig how to produce my own small-scale video. Craig devised a 4-part course covering pre-production, filming, editing and distribution. Following an intense 4-hour online session where I learned how to identify the needs of my audience, plan my filming and interviewing and set up my camera properly, we moved onto the fun part – filming!
I wanted the session to produce something engaging and useful to myself and others, so we decided to invite our project artist, Orla Stevens, along, so that we could learn together and also produce a film that we could both use to publicise our work.
In the editing session, I learned so much about working quickly and efficiently with my material. I moved from randomly grabbing bits of material and putting it together in a haphazard way to learning to plan the shape of my video, gather together the material in advance and really tell a story. I also learned just how much B-Roll film you need to cover an interview – thanks to Craig for letting me use some of his Orkney footage and to Orla for filming the paintings! Baby steps, but I’m secretly very pleased with my first “proper” little film.
What I learned and where we go from here!
There were so many things I learned along the path from having absolutely no idea where to start with producing a video concert to taking on a project with the scope of Sagas and Seascapes and, finally, making my own tiny outdoor filming project and interview.
Here are my takeaways:
Record absolutely everything – you never know when you might need it!
Invest in quality equipment, especially microphones – it really does make a difference
For big, important digital projects, employ professionals – it’s worth the money
BUT don’t be afraid to try new things yourself – it’s fun, you learn a lot and make new connections
Share with your colleagues. Knowing I was part of a group of musicians handpicked by the RPS for their enterprising attitude was empowering and inspiring and gave me the confidence to go for it
Help others – I hope I can continue that sharing with my close colleagues, helping with equipment and sharing my experiences from working with such an amazing team of creative people.
And a few useful links for my Scottish colleagues in particular:
Craig Sinclair Video – first and foremost if you need someone to produce film for you, but also for some top-notch tuition and mentoring!
Sound Scotland – This innovative new music organisation does much to encourage creativity amongst musicians and also offers support and new opportunities through peer group meetings such as their fortnightly Cofveve sessions.
New Music Scotland – organisation supporting composers and performers working in New Music – training sessions, resources, a meeting point.
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.
Following Nordic Viola’s last appearance at Sound Festival in October 2018, I will be returning to Sound Festival next week with some new collaborations.
Alex South and I gave our first live performance together in July with “Whale Song” at Arbroath 2020+1. On 21st October we’ll be bringing more music inspired by Lesley Harrison‘s poetry to Aberdeen. Our improvisation, CETACEA, was produced during Lockdown. Alex subsequently set it to video for GIOFest with film of pilot whales by Alexander and Nicole Gratovsky. This will be CETACEA’s first live performance. We will also perform “In the Black Holes of the Ocean” which we premiered in Arbroath.
Alex also premieres a new piece by Oliver Searle, “From the Coast”, supported by the Hope Scott Trust, and I will be performing Karen Power’s “Sonic Cradle” inspired by the composer’s residency in Svalbard.
The following evening I will join with Gareth Brady and Clara-Jane Maunder to perform new works written in lockdown during a series of workshops for composer-performers hosted by Sound Scotland. Under the guidance of Pete Stollery and various “visiting” composers, this supportive group of musicians got together to explore new ways of developing their creative skills and learning new composing techniques. My own composition, “Vast Superficies”, is once again inspired by the poetry of Lesley Harrison. It is drawn from lines in “The Voyage of the Fox” and depicts the cruel arctic environment with recorded sound from Greenland and an open, improvised score for bass clarinet and viola. https://sound-scotland.co.uk/event/late-night-sound-session-fri
To round out the week, I will be working with composing students at Aberdeen University in a workshop hosted by John de Simone on writing for viola.
“Aud”, supported by the PRS Foundation Women Make Music programme, will be receiving its live premiere. Written by Linda Buckley during lockdown, “Aud”, in telling the tale of the 9th Century heroine of the Sagas, also reflects on the emotions evoked by travel; the uncertainties, the sense of adventure the feeling, perhaps, of leaving something behind.
New pieces for us in this programme are Orcadian Gemma McGregor’s “Our Lady of Sorrows and Danger”, based on a poem by Ron Ferguson and Finnish composer Aulis Sallinen’s “Sea of Peace.”
Traditional voices from established and new musicians from Shetland depict Shetland’s seascapes and its people. Margaret Robertson’s tender air to mothers everywhere opens the programme. Young people are central to our work and we’re delighted to welcome accordionist Victoria Byrne-McCombie, who was one of the competition winners in our international Seastories Competition with her winning tunes. Victoria will be introduced by10-year-old Isla Jamieson’s poem “You are beautiful, Shetland” which I came across online last year.
Much older, traditional stories told in Icelandic folk melodies end our programme.
If you would like to have a wee taster of our programme, I’ve put together a short playlist on Soundcloud for you.
During the week I’m also looking forward to an online workshop with pupils from Anderson High School on a Seastories theme. Last time I worked with the school, we developed one of Nordic Viola’s most popular pieces, “Mjørkaflókar”, so I’m excited to see what we can produce this time!
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.
Alex and I have composed new pieces around the poetry from Lesley’s recent collection, ‘Disappearance’. This performance explores the theme of the voyage of the 19th-century whalers to the polar seas, and the cultural aftermath of the whaling industry.
Our music includes sounds recorded on location in Greenland and Iceland melded with our improvisations and including live electronics. The programme is framed by traditional tunes from the North Atlantic Whalers who travelled from Shetland.
A special screening of CETACEA will follow the live performance.The trio’s music and words meet with marine biologist Michael Scheer’s recordings of pilot whales and Alexander and Nicole Gratovsky’s underwater footage to create the piece CETACEA. This film proved to be one of the most popular events in GIOFest last November. You can listen to the music below: