‘Whale Songs’ and the possibility of escaping the human

The video above was produced for the University of the Highlands and Islands “The Edge Conference” and includes performances of “Social Sounds From Whales at Night” by Emily Doolittle, “Geese Flying Over My Head and Into the Distance” by Electra Perivolaris and CETACEA by Katherine Wren and Alex South.

Nordic Viola and the Environment

A big focus for Nordic Viola in 2021 was the environment. The first of these projects was a collaboration with Emily Doolittle, Stuart McCrae and Sarah Hopfinger for the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland’s “Artmaking in the Anthropocene” series, funded by the Royal Society of Edinburgh. A call for scores yielded a rich and varied programme of music by primarily Scottish-based composers. (Lisa Robertson, Aileen Sweeney, Emily Doolittle, Antonia Kattou, Martin Suckling and Manchester-based Anna Appleby.)

Arbroath 2020+1

During the summer, Alex South (clarinet and electronics), Lesley Harrison (poet) and I performed “Whale Song” a programme of music and poetry by Lesley connected to the North Sea and North Atlantic at Arbroath 2020+1. I also performed “Birds and Landscapes of the North” alongside Gemma McGregor for Orkney Arts Society.

Sound Festival

In October, Alex and I performed at Sound Festival in Aberdeen in works relating to North Atlantic coastlines by Irish composer Karen Power, Scottish composer Oliver Searle as well as our own works.

Taking place shortly before COP26, one of Sound’s focuses for this festival was that it should be a “no-fly” festival, so I took the opportunity to travel in the way I enjoy most, taking 3 days to cycle up to Aberdeen.

Modern Chants

Finally, in November I worked together with Emily Doolittle on her graphic score, “Machair” in association with Ruta Vitkauskaite‘s “Modern Chants” project, which I will write about in more depth in a later blog.

The Edge – UHI

Following this block of work, it was an absolute pleasure to talk to some of these collaborators, Dr. Emily Doolittle, Dr. Lesley Harrison and Alex South about our work incorporating environmental sounds into our music, exploring music on the liminal edge between human and animal sound as well as the ethics behind using recorded natural sound and the respect that we should accord other species. The talk was presented as part of the University of the Highlands and Islands’ “The Edge” conference in December 2021 and you can watch it at the top of this page.

Meet the artist – Orla Stevens

Over the last year or so, I’m sure many of you have enjoyed the spectacular paintings that Orla Stevens produced for Nordic Viola’s “Sagas and Seascapes” project in response to Gemma McGregor’s “Carry His Relics”, Lillie Harris‘ “Elsewhen” and Linda Buckley‘s “Aud.” The paintings were first shown as part of the Orkney International Science Festival online documentary and performance, which you can still view here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=udr7f1vwuXU

Audiences in Shetland were able to buy prints and cards of the originals, also still available from the website shop and audiences in Dunblane could view the original paintings at our concert in November.

I felt it was high time I introduced you to Orla on her home patch in this short video where she tells us what she finds so inspirational about her home area and also explains how she went about responding to the music. Subtitles available if you click on captions. You can also read more about Orla’s work in Orkney Science Festival’s “Frontiers” magazine as well as visiting her own website.

Working together has freed up both mine and Orla’s creative practice and we’re both buzzing with ideas to take our work forward. We look forward to bringing some of these ideas to you at future events.

Sibelius’ En Saga – Dunblane Cathedral 28th November 3pm

The piece that inspired Nordic Viola’s “Sagas and Seascapes” is the piece that rounds off our series of three concerts that have taken us to Orkney, Shetland and now finally home to Dunblane.

This concert (tickets here) will be an event not to be missed, because whilst the material in the first version of Sibelius  En Saga dates back to his studies in Vienna during 1890-1891, this Septet version only received its first official performance in the Brahms Saal of the Musikverein, Vienna in June 2003.

So what’s the story behind the Saga? We know that melodies jotted down by Sibelius in Vienna ended up in the orchestral version of En Saga. We also know that in Spring 1891 he was working on an Octet and in September 1892 he mentioned a “Septet.” One month later he completed the first orchestral version of En Saga, which he stated was based on the Octet. The original Septet has not survived, but Gregory M. Barrett made a performing version based on the first orchestral version. I can’t say for sure, but I have a sneaking feeling that Sunday may just be its Scottish premiere.

What I love about this score is that it really brings out the folky element of this very Finnish-sounding melody, driven on by Sibelius’ wonderful ostinato rhythms. There’s so much colour and excitement in this score and it’s so much fun to play. Have a listen here in this revcording y the Turku Ensemble from Finland:

Speaking of premieres, our wonderful commission “Aud” by Linda Buckley, supported by the PRS Foundation’s Women Make Music programme, will receive its first mainland Scottish performance and Linda will be along to hear it. “Aud” traces the journey across the North Atlantic of the eponymous heroine, a 9th century settler of Iceland whilst simultaneously reflecting on how it felt to yearn to travel during lockdown.

Lillie Harris’ Elsewhen tells a more ancient tale yet, of the ancient monuments of Orkney and the stories they pass on to us across the ages. The music has a unsettling sense of eeriness reminiscent of standing near these stones and their all-knowing presence in the winter half-light.

Rounding out our programme are two arrangements of traditional tunes by the Danish String Quartet. Firstly the Unst Boat Song from Shetland,  which was set in the old Norn language and finally the Dromer, a Danish reel drawn from a Scottish melody.

And what of the story told by En Saga? Well, in the spirit of Nordic Noir, the underlying feeling is that all does not end well. Our violinist, Jacquie, has her own Saga, but she says it’s too horrid to share. Perhaps you can corner her in the cathedral and persuade her to tell all!

Orla Stevens’ Prints and Greetings Cards now available

It’s been a real pleasure and privilege to work alongside artist Orla Stevens on the Sagas and Seascapes project. Orla’s work interpreting music by Gemma McGregor, Linda Buckley and Lillie Harris added so much to our concert video for Orkney International Science Festival and proved to be very inspiring for myself and the composers.

Our time together in Orkney in July was very special. It’s not so often that a group of composers get together to work on a project on location in a beautiful place like this and especially so during a pandemic. As a performer I felt privileged to listen to their conversations and to watch Orla at work learning about the music and the stories that inspired the pieces. I then enjoyed following the progress of the paintings as Orla worked in her own experience of the landscapes as well as the music.

The whole project was brought together by video producer, Craig Sinclair, and included shots of Orla making the art set to the music that inspired it.

We hope to bring along the original paintings to our Dunblane concert on 28th November at 3pm. It’ll be very exciting to show them in front of the public with the music for the first time.

Orla has very kindly produced a special edition of greetings cards and fine art prints of the paintings and you can now purchase these directly via Nordic Viola at our new shop. Alternatively, you can visit Orla’s own website for these and much more. They’ll make perfect Christmas presents, so please do have a browse!

Sagas and Seascapes in Shetland – Online Concert

Our Sagas and Seascapes concert recorded live at the Shetland Boat Hall in September will be streaming online from 12th November 19:00 GMT until 15th November 19:00 GMT and tickets are now onsale via Eventbrite. The link is here https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/200755233307 and also on our Forthcoming Performances page. Tickets are priced at £6 and you can also purchase cards and prints from Orla Stevens via this page.

The programme includes the first live performance of Linda Buckley’s Aud, which was commissioned with support from PRS Foundation’s Women Make Music. Aud tells the story of 9th Century Icelandic settler Aud and her remarkable journey from Caithness to Iceland via the Northern Isles. It was a very special experience to perform Aud live for the first time, bringing together the live musicians and the recorded track. Add in the shared experience of being with an audience in an intimate space and the atmosphere in the room was palpable.

Gemma McGregor’s Our Lady of Sorrows and Danger is inspired by Ron Ferguson’s poem, “Our Lady of Yesnaby.” Written for clarinet quartet, the piece captures the mystery and melancholy of the figure on the cliffs as well as a sense of the dramatic seascape on Orkney’s west coast.

Aulis Sallinen’s The Sea of Peace is a wonderfully written score, by turns calm and reflective, energetic and quixotic. It was written in 2017 for the Naantali Music Festival in Finland.

We are particularly proud to introduce the work of two young Shetlanders in our concert. Accordionist Victoria Byrne-McCombie won the Shetland prize in our recent Seastories Competition, supported by the William Syson Foundation. Young poet, Isla Jamieson, sets the scene with her poem “You are Unique Shetland”, beautifully read here by Mary Blance.

The performance was supported by Creative Scotland and the Hope Scott Trust.

Dunblane Cathedral Arts Guild – Sagas & Seascapes

Sunday, 28 November 2021, 3.00pm – Sagas & Seascapes

Nordic Viola’s Sagas and Seascapes series culminates in Dunblane with our biggest ensemble yet as we perform Sibelius’ great tone poem, En Saga, in its original septet version.

Aud by Orla Stevens

Linda Buckley’s Aud, which was commissioned by Nordic Viola for Orkney International Science Festival, has been attracting a lot of attention since we first performed it online. It is currently a featured work in Creative Scotland’s #ClassicAll campaign and you can view a video performance of it here

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.

Elsewhen by Orla Stevens

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.

The concert starts at 3pm. To avoid queues, please pre-register contact details for NHS Test and Protect on this link: https://www.dunblanecathedral.org.uk/event/10525272

Orla Stevens

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.

Orla talks about her work on the project here:

Nordic Viola at Sound Festival

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.

You can buy tickets for this concert here: https://sound-scotland.co.uk/event/sonic-cradle

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.

Sagas and Seascapes Live in Concert

Boat Hall, Shetland Museum, Lerwick, 25th Sept

When lockdown started in March 2020, Nordic Viola was just 2 weeks away from travelling to Shetland to perform their “Histories and Herstories” programme. With the support of UHI Institute for Northern Studies and Orkney International Science Festival and Creative Scotland, we managed to successfully take the performance online.

Nonetheless, we’ve been itching to bring our music to Shetland and  so, hot on the heels of our film documentary/concert for Orkney International Science Festival online last week, we are excited to be finally heading to the islands with our popular “Sagas and Seascapes” programme. We’ll perform two pieces from our online programme: “Aud” by Linda Buckley and “Wogen” by Kári Bæk of the Faroe Islands.

“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.

Workshops

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!

Sagas and Seascapes (Orkney) available to view online

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.

Additionally, if you enjoyed Orla Stevens’ amazing artwork for “Carry is Relics” (Gemma McGregor), “Elsewhen” (Lillie Harris) and “Aud” (Linda Buckley), you can now buy cards (prints coming soon!) of the images from https://www.orlastevens.com/shop-prints?Printed+Art=Cards

Programme Notes Sagas and Seascapes

Carry His Relics – 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.

Part of Carry His Relics by ©Orla Stevens

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. Gemma McGregor

Elsewhen – Lillie Harris

©Kevin Leighton

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 this piece 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.

Written for the St Magnus Composers Course 2017 Lillie Harris

Søgnin um Kópakonuna í 10 Myndum – Eli Tausen á Lava

©Daniel Arge

Søgnin um Kópakonuna í 10 Myndum (The Legend of the Seal Woman in 10 Pictures) is inspired by a set of 10 drawings by Faroese artist Edward Fuglø, which were originally drawn for the 2007 stamp issue titled Kópakonan (the Seal Woman).

Edward Fuglø’s drawings illustrate the Faroese legend of a female selkie, a mythological creature capable of transforming from seal to human by shedding its skin, who is forced to live as a human when a young man from the village of Mikladalur steals her sealskin. – Eli Tausen á Lava

Søgnin um Kópakonuna í 10 Myndum is receiving its UK premiere by kind permission of the composer and the Aura Duo, who commissioned the piece to perform at Sumartónar in the Faroe Islands.

Wogen – Kári Bæk

Transcribed for viola by Katherine Wren

Wogen captures the shifting moods of the sea. The piece has a sense of voyaging, a sense that gains momentum as the piece progresses. It ends with a hymn-like passage from a stanza of Sinklar’s Visa set to a tune from the island of Nólsoy, in which the Scottish mercenary is warned by a mermaid not to engage in battle with the Norwegians. – Katherine Wren

Aud by Linda Buckley

©Olesya Zdorovetska

It has been a strange yet uplifting experience to create a work so immersed in adventure and travel, while those parts of our lives for now, remain on hold – almost suspended in time…

This marks another chapter in a long and deeply felt connection to those expansive landscapes of Iceland and the Scottish Isles, perhaps rooted in my own first breaths of home, born in the Old Head of Kinsale in the south of Ireland, a headland jutting out into the Atlantic Ocean.

Section of Aud by ©Orla Stevens

The story of Aud the Deep-Minded has been immensely inspiring to me, this strong Viking woman who showed great courage throughout her life, through her travels from Norway to Scotland and north to Iceland. My own musical interests seep into this work, from the droning of the hardanger fiddle in Norwegian folk music, to the restless energy of Scottish and Irish dance tunes, to field recordings of wind and ice made in rural Iceland.

I wish to thank Katherine Wren for bringing this project to life, and for shining a light on these important historical figures from the Icelandic sagas – giving new voice to their stories.

Commissioned with support from the PRS Foundation Women Make Music Fund.

Korona Trot – Anni Helena Lamhauga

Anni Helena Lamhauge lives in the Faroe Islands and was the winner of our recent “Seastories” Competition. 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.

The Dromer – Traditional arr. Danish String Quartet

The Dromer appears in a collection of tunes in Denmark made by the Bast Brothers from 1763-1782. It is a so-called “English Dance”, In the last half of the 18th Century, dances from the British Isles were very much in fashion in Denmark. The peculiar titrle of this tune is probably a misspelling of “The Drummer”, which is a fairly well knwn Scottish reel that is identical to the melody notated by the Bast Brothers. “The drummer” started to appear in British tune collections around 1700 and it later morphed into the quite famous Scottish song, “The Piper o’Dundee” that was used to “stir up the chiefs and their clans” during the Jacobite Rising. – Danish String Quartet

The Dromer is performed by kind permission of the Danish String Quartet.

Part of Elsewhen by ©Orla Stevens