“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!
Back in June we announced the winners of our Seastories Competition, which was open to young people in the Northern Isles, Faroe Islands, Iceland and Greenland.
As we approach our online concert for Orkney International Science Festival this Friday, it’s time to introduce you to the fabulous tunes that our winners and runners up wrote on the theme of the sea.
Cumliewick Shore by Victoria Byrne-McCombie
First up is accordionist Victoria Byrne-McCombie. As we will be performing “Sagas and Seascapes” live in Shetland Museum Boat Hall on the 25th September, we decided to award a special prize to the best tune from Shetland, with the winner playing with us live in concert. You can buy tickets for the concert on Eventbrite here.
Victoria’s piece, Cumliewick Shore, depicts a beach near Sandwick on Shetland Mainland. Victoria said, “When I was thinking about the theme of the sea I was trying to think of a way that I could interpret the theme into a tune and I thought of the melodic tide and how it moves in, the way it comes in and out, so I knew here that I wanted to have a note through the tune that keeps coming back to and that was like the melodic movement of the tide. For the second part I took the same note of E as the structure but went higher and started changing the rhythm as the sea is much stronger than people think and the tide can change and weather (especially in Shetland!) at any time.”
Victoria also sent us “Just another double-peg day”, a double-peg day being the term the Northern Isles use for a windy day, which she will also play at our concert.
Korona Trot by Anni Helena Lamhauge
Coincidentally, our overall winner is also an accordionist. Anni Helena Lamhauge lives in the Faroe Islands and her winning piece, “Korona Trot” was written as she looked out over the sea from her home as she quarantined. The title is a play on words as “trot” in Faroese means to be tired of something. You’ll be able to watch Anni Helena playing her tune in our online concert, “Sagas and Seascapes”, on Friday 3rd September from 21:00BST.
Anni Helena also sent us a second tune, Tra Le Linee, which is a characterful minor key waltz.
Fjøra by Ronja Gaard Hansen
Finally, our runner up and youngest finalist is Ronja Gaard Hansen, also from the Faroe Islands. Ronja’s waltz for fiddle and piano, “Fjøra” (seashore), reminds her of happy days spent down by the sea on the long summer days.
If you live in the East of Scotland and are aged 12-16, I will be running another “Seastories” workshop with artist Orla Stevens in conjunction with Hospitalfield and Aproxima Arts in Arbroath next Sunday, 5th September. More information and details of how to sign up here.
There’s lots going on with Nordic Viola this month. First of all, one year after it was meant to happen, our “Histories and Herstories” concert will be streaming online for the University of the Highlands and Islands’ Institute of Northern Studies on 16th April from 4:15pm. The concert is part of the 5th International St. Magnus Conference, which this year focuses on the role of women in island life and features speakers from all around the North Atlantic as well as further afield.
Our programme of music by women composers ranges from traditional tunes from Orkney (Fiona Driver), Shetland (Margaret Robertson) and Iceland (arranged by Jocelyn Hagen) to new music from Greenland in our commission from Arnannguaq Gerstrøm that depicts winter in the Arctic. There’s also music reflecting on climate change and the landscape by Lisa Robertson, and migration, human and avian, by Anna Appleby. Other composers include Gemma McGregor and Lillie Harris.
This concert proved to be one of the most popular events in Orkney International Science Festival’s 2020 festival. As well as the music, people commented on the beautiful images of the Far North in the video. Here’s a little taster featuring the Faroe Islands in Mjørkaflókar, composed by me and students from Anderson High School in Shetland. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2sakvHqCVPM
If you didn’t hear the concert last time, make sure you set a reminder by clicking on this link for the 16th at 4:15 BST. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZosZA_ZG_fM If you heard it and enjoyed it, please share far and wide with your friends and acquaintances!
Our second concert this month is for the Art-Making in the Anthropocene Series hosted by the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.
Art-Making in the Anthropocene is a series of 8 free online talks/discussions and an online concert, which bring together Scottish and international artists, activists, and academics from across disciplines to explore what art-making can be in this time of ecological emergency.
Our concert features music with a connection to the environment and humankind’s relationship with it. All the composers have a strong connection to Scotland. Some of them are old friends of ours, but we also issued a call for scores and we’re excited to bring you some new voices from the thriving contemporary music scene here in Scotland.
We’re also partnering with the Ear to the Ground Podcast who interviewed our composers for the concert and who will be presenting an issue of the podcast focusing on the ideas behind the concert. I’ll share the links with you, as well as more information on the composers and music, nearer the time.
Art-Making in the Anthropocene is supported by:
Aud by Linda Buckley
Finally, a taster of news about an exciting project that we’ll be working on between May and September this year.
This week I received our new commission from Linda Buckley, supported by PRSF Women Make Music. Aud is a new piece for clarinet, violin, viola, cello and electronics and it will form the centrepiece of our new programme, “Sagas and Seascapes.” It depicts Aud’s journey from Ireland, via Orkney to Iceland, where she was one of the early women settlers. Featuring an atmospheric electronic track and with music brimming with energy, we can’t wait to start work on it.
Much more news to follow on “Sagas and Seascapes” in May. Add your email address below to subscribe and you’ll be amongst the first to hear about our exciting plans!
On International Women’s Day we are pleased to announce that our concert of music by women composers from the islands of the North Atlantic, “Histories and Herstories” will be featured in this year’s 5th International St. Magnus Conference hosted by the Institute of Northern Studies at the University of the Highlands and Islands. The concert will be streamed on Friday 16th April at 16:15 BST at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZosZA_ZG_fM
The concert links into themes explored in the conference looking at the role women have played in society from the Hebrides, Northern Isles and on to the Faroes, Iceland and Greenland from Medieval times to the present day. The conference link is here.
Shetland fiddler Margaret Robertson reflects on what it means to “always be a mother” in her piece Mother’s Love, written for a close friend who had recently lost a son. Figuratively speaking, Margaret is also a mother to “her gals”, the fiddlers of Edinburgh Tattoo band Hjaltibonhoga and we celebrate this in Windy Wellington” and St. Kilda Beach, written for Hjaltibonhoga’s trips to Australia and New Zealand. There are men in the band too, of course, but it is interesting to reflect on how Shetland fiddling, traditionally a pursuit of the menfolk, has become so popular with women and girls in our times, thanks in no small part to Margaret’s role as a teacher.
Margaret has been an invaluable source of information and inspiration in my work, too, and Mjørkaflókar, one of Nordic Viola’s most iconic pieces, was workshopped with Margaret’s pupils at Anderson High School, Lerwick, Shetland in 2016. In this concert it is performed with two students from Tórshavn Music School in the Faroes.
The hardship of motherhood in medieval times is represented in Jocelyn Hagen’s stunning arrangement of Sofðu Unga Ástin Min. In this traditional Icelandic lullaby, a mother sings to her child before leaving them out in the cold to die. Mothers struggling with too many mouths to feed in the harsh winters of Iceland would sometimes have to make this heart-rending choice.
The harsh winter weather of the Northern Isles of Scotland is represented in Lillie Harris’ AND for solo viola, a response to Jen Hadfield’s poem, “Blashey Wadder” from Nigh-No-Place (Bloodaxe Books, 2008) Fiona Driver’s Wild November depicts the swirl of a windy late autumn day in Orkney. Winter can also be a time of great beauty and is celebrated in the Arctic regions. Arnannguaq Gerstrøm’s Ukioq is inspired by the spirit, nature and forces of winter in Greenland.
Like Margaret, Arnannguaq is a prominent leader in her home in Nuuk, Greenland. She led the Nuuk Music School for a time and is now influential as a business leader where she places great emphasis on developing her staff. Alongside this, she continues to compose and make music as an ambassador for the culture of her country.
Mankind’s interaction with the landscape and nature are important elements in Anna Appleby’s Hrakningar and Lisa Robertson’s Machair. Anna uses the metaphor of geese migrating from Iceland to Scotland to reflect on attitudes to human migration and uses an other-worldly blend of goose calls and electronics alongside a trio of flute, viola and bassoon. “Machair” depicts this beautiful and fragile landform of the West Coast of Scotland. Lisa includes the human voice humming fragments of a Gaelic song as she reflects on how climate change is impacting on coastal landscapes.
Gemma McGregor is another longstanding partner of Nordic Viola and her piece Joy draws in elements of Hardanger Fiddle style from Norway which has always had a strong influence in traditional music in Orkney and Shetland. Gemma, too, plays a strong role in the musical life of her island home. She has been commissioned by the St. Magnus Festival in Orkney and plays with and leads several ensembles in the islands. She also lectures on women composers and teaches composition at the University of Aberdeen.
You can find out much more about the individual composers elsewhere in the blog and find links to their music.
“Histories and Herstories” is performed by violinists Emily Nenniger and Anne Bünemann, myself, Katherine Wren on viola and Ruth Rowlands on cello. Helen Brew (flute) and David Hubbard (bassoon) join me in “Ukioq” and “Hrakningar” and Janet Larsson (flute) and David Martin (viola) perform in “Mjørkaflókar.” We very much hope you can join us on 16th April as we close out the conference.
Nordic Viola is grateful for the support provided for this production by Creative Scotland, The Ambache Trust, raising the profile of women composers, and the RVW Trust. Thanks also to Craig Sinclair Video. Our concert is part of Scotland’s Year of Coasts and Waters 2020/21.
This concert is free to access but if you would like to support us in paying our musicians and composers fairly and to extend the reach of our education work, you can donate via Buy me a coffee or Paypal.me You can also keep up to date with our work by scrolling down to the bottom of our home page and entering your email address. Thank you for your support.
Today (16th April) is St. Magnus Day. Nordic Viola should have been performing in the 5th International St. Magnus Conference in Shetland and composer Gemma McGregor should have been directing a concert in St. Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall, Orkney with “The Orkney Schola” in a programme of 12th century plainchant on texts about the miracles that occurred at the site of Magnus’ grave in Birsay before his remains were moved to Kirkwall. This building was founded in 1137 by the Viking, Earl Rognvald, in honour of his uncle St Magnus who was martyred here in Orkney, as documented in the “Orkneyinga Saga.” The Cathedral contains the relics of the Saint.
Gemma McGregor is a composer, performer and curator from Orkney who is interested in depicting consciousness and exploring images of time and place in layers of sound. In addition to writing contemporary choral and instrumental music, she has been part of many interdisciplinary performances and collaborations, has created sound-art and written music for film.
Like many of our featured composers, Gemma is highly active in her island community. As well as directing The Orkney Schola she is director and curator of The Experimental Music Project, producing performances and installations at the Pier Arts Centre, Stromness, Orkney. She has also undertaken research into the traditional music of Orkney.
In 2011, Watercolour Studios released “From Nothing”, an album of Gemma’s chamber music. It can be purchased here. Her choral music has been performed by the St Magnus Cathedral Choir and the Quodlibet Chorale and workshopped by the BBC Singers and the Dunedin Consort.
I first met Gemma at the “Sounding the North” Conference hosted by Aberdeen University and Sound Festival in 2017, where we were both presenting. Since then, Gemma and I have worked together extensively, performing with Nordic Viola in Orkney and co-presenting at the “Shoormal” Conference for the University of the Highlands and Islands in Shetland in autumn 2019. At this conference, Gemma and I premiered “Carry His Relics” for flute and viola, a commission for Nordic Viola based on the St. Magnus Way.
Gemma’s second opera, The Story of Magnus Erlendsson, (for ten soloists, double chorus and ten piece ensemble), was commissioned by St Magnus Festival as part of the Magnus900 anniversary celebrations in 2017 and was nominated for a Scottish New Music Award. Our featured piece “Betrayal”, is taken from this opera. Magnus and his cousin Haakon ruled Orkney jointly. Eventually however, the followers of the two earls fell out, and the sides met at the Thing (assembly) on the Orkney mainland, ready to do battle. Peace was negotiated and the Earls arranged to meet each other on the island of Egilsay at Easter, each bringing only two ships.
In words from the opera libretto:
Magnus and his men reach Egilsay drenched and tired.
When Magnus sees Haakon sailing up with eight ships, instead of just two
he understands immediately the arithmetic of death.
I will cry out!
I find my voice,
in this day of my distress!
I have been betrayed.
Has my God forgotten me?
Let this cup of suffering
pass from me;
let not my will
but your will be done.
Magnus leads his men up to the church,
where he will pass a troubled, yet clarifying night.
His men offer to defend him,
but Magnus forbids them to do so.
“I’m not risking your lives to save my own,
And if there’s to be no peace between me and my kinsmen,
then things must go according to the will of God.”
Like his Lord, the Galilean,
Magnus will meet his fate undefended.
Earl Magnus stands at history’s door.
His sword is in its sheath, his psalter in his hand.
He is a Christ-lover, this strong Viking,
this gentle Viking who sings psalms while battle rages,
this Viking man of Orkney’s destiny.
The treacherous Haakon will face his cousin Magnus
as Egilsay’s Easter sun becomes more dark, and darker still…
The next in my series of featured women composers from our Histories and Herstories concert is actually a group of composers and, I’ll own up, does also include a young man! They are pupils from Anderson High School in Lerwick, Shetland and they also have a link to my last featured composer, Margaret Robertson, as they were her fiddle students.
Back in November 2016 I spent three evenings working in Anderson High School on a series of improvisations based on Nordic tunes. This was a new way of working for the students and they were initially sceptical. However, after playing back a recording of their initial efforts on day 1, they embraced the projet wholeheartedly.
Our piece “Mjørkaflókar” was the outcome of this work and it has become one of Nordic Viola’s most emblematic pieces, combining traditional music, new ways of making music, involving young people and making connections between regions of the North Atlantic.
The title, “Mjørkaflókar” is a Faroese word meaning “foggy banks of cloud”, the type you get swirling around the islands on a high pressure weather day.
We took a fragment of a “Skjaldur” (Faroese children’s rhymes) called “Eg sat mær uppi í Hási”. First of all we built up a texture using the main notes of the melody. A solo violin then introduces the melody before 3 groups of fiddles play it as a round. The music then subsides to the opening texture. We talked about the piece we had created and how it represented the fact that, whilst Shetland and the Faroes are geographically and culturally close, it is virtually impossible to travel directly between the islands, something felt quite stongly by both island communities.
The piece now exists in two forms – the original semi-improvised version and a fully written out version. We have performed in several occasions, the most notable being in the Faroes’ “Sumartónar” festival in July 2018 when we were joined by two students of Jóna Jacobsen from Tórshavn music school, Nancy Nónskarð Dam and Bergur Davidsen. They were really touched to receive this gift from their counterparts in Shetland.
The recording is from this performance:
Next Thursday we should have been performing “Mjørkaflókar” with younger students from Anderson High School. Hopefully next April we will, finally, be able to bring “Mjørkaflókar” home for it’s first public performance in Shetland.
I should should have been in Shetland for the next two weeks with my colleagues Emily Nenniger, Anne Bünemann and Ruth Rowlands joining me to perform at UHI’s 5th International St. Magnus Conference. Reflecting the conference’s theme, our concert is entitled “Histories and Herstories” and comprises music by female composers.
All being well, we will perform this concert in April next year, but in the meantime, over the next few weeks I thought I’d introduce you to the composers. Some of these come from the islands of the North Atlantic, others are inspired by the music and landscapes of the region. They all have a story to tell and are emblematic of the way women have contributed to island life. All these composers are freelancers, so please do look them up and consider supporting their work during this difficult period.
I first met Margaret Robertson in November 2016 during my sabbatical in Shetland. I worked with her students at Anderson High School in Lerwick – more on that in the next blog – and learned much about the Shetland school of fiddle playing form her.
Margaret was born into one of the most musical families on the Island of Yell, Shetland. Her maternal family tree is directly descended from Brucie Danielson, the forefather of the Cullivoe traditional style. Brucie taught local players, among them Margaret’s Grandfather Simpson Henderson, his brother Willie Barclay Henderson and their brother in law Bobby Jamieson. Simpson later married Brucie’s niece. On her father’s side she is at least the third generation of fiddlers, in turn both her sons (Ross (of Peatbog Faeries) and Ryan Couper) are fiddlers and her daughter plays saxophone and piano.
Margaret began lessons at school with the late Dr Tom Anderson and then studied with Trevor Hunter. Under Trevor’s guidance she won the first Shetland Young Fiddler of the Year competition in 1982. He also encouraged her to join the Shetland Fiddlers Society to learn more of the older traditional tunes also giving her the title of depute leader.
Upon leaving school, Margaret was approached by Shetland Island Council’s Education Department to teach fiddle in more of the outlying schools. This involved many out of school tutoring groups the most successful of which was the group ‘High Strings’ formed from the timetable at Anderson High. This group toured regularly, released three albums and has seen many of Shetland’s most celebrated fiddlers pass through its ranks.
In April 2013 an email was sent round Shetland fiddle instructors to gauge interest in performing at The Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo with a group of fiddlers from the islands. Local instructors, Margaret Robertson and Pauleen Wiseman, met with Clara Wheelan and Steve Walsh of the tattoo production team to find out more about the event. Margaret visited Edinburgh in August that year to experience a day’s rehearsals and the show live. The detail was to have 40 Shetland fiddlers perform each show for a run of 25 shows during the 2014 tattoo.
Postal invitations were sent to almost 200 Shetland fiddlers in the January of 2014 with a response of 97 fiddle players on a rota in order to meet the expectations. The group performed a set of local well-known tunes to meet the theme of ‘Our Home, Friends and Family’. The music and costumes, designed by Shetland Knitwear company Nielanell, conveyed the Mirrie Dancers (Aurora Borealis) in the sky across the world linking Scots scattered worldwide to their homeland. By the end of August that year the new Shetland County group named Hjaltibonhoga (Old Norse for ‘Shetland, my spiritual home’) had performed to almost 250,000 of a live audience with a BBC worldwide viewing public in excess of 1 billion.
7 years on, “Hjaltibonhoga” is now the Edinburgh Tattoo’s resident fiddle band and have performed at Tattoos all over the world.
Margaret is now living in Central Scotland and continues to teach traditional fiddle and piano accompaniment as well as running “Hjaltibonhoga.”
Margaret was inducted into the Scottish Traditional Music Hall of Fame in 2018, which she described as a “huge honour”. Organisers Hands Up For Trad said she is an “inspirational figure on the Shetland music scene as a fiddler, pianist, teacher and composer”.
In Shetland we’ll be playing three of Margaret’s new tunes, “Mother’s Love”, “St. Kilda Beach” and “Windy Wellington.” In the meantime, here are two tunes from “The Wilderness Collection” arranged for flute, two violas and bassoon, played by Helen Brew (flute) Katherine Wren and David Martin (violas) and David Hubbard (bassoon). “The Wilderness” is named after Margaret’s Grandad’s house and “Shaela” is named after the group her daughter played in and is a dialect word describing light summer mist.
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.