‘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.

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.

Whale Song

Sunday 8th August, Fishmarket Arbroath 2020+1 12pm

A new collaborative performance of music and poetry inspired by whale song, devised by poet Lesley Harrison with viola player Katherine Wren and clarinettist Alex South.Tickets available here: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/…/whale-song-live-poetry…

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:

Arbroath 2020+1 Artworks

Arbroath will be buzzing in this summer-long festival of the Declaration of Arbroath. Why not come to our concert, treat yourself to a fish and chip lunch by the sea and then explore the artworks around town. https://arbroathfestival.com/festival/2021-festival-programme/

Alternatively, if a brisk walk is more your scene, explore the magnificent clifftop walks close to town. I look forward to seeing you there!

CETACEA and New Collaborations

GIOFEST Online 26th-28th Nov 2020

It goes without saying that COVID-19 has had a massive impact on Nordic Viola, as it has on everybody in the arts: cancelled and rescheduled gigs, lost income, inability to travel… the list goes on. However, amidst the chaos, new opportunities are slowly emerging.

As a full-time orchestral musician, my schedules are normally so intense that I have little time available to develop new projects, ways of working and to build new skills. The last few months have offered me the rare and valued opportunity to explore new avenues and to build on new and existing partnerships.

The first of these projects is just starting to bear fruit. At the very start of 2020 I started working with clarinettist, composer and improviser Alex South and poet Lesley Harrison. The way this group came together is really testament to what Nordic Viola is about: making connections and telling stories across the north.

I first met Lesley at UHI’s “Shoormal” Conference in Shetland, September 2019. We share a deep love for the Far North, its landscapes, culture and wildlife and both of us have spent long periods of time visiting the islands of the North Atlantic. Alex was introduced to me by composer Emily Doolittle, a Canadian composer based in Scotland interested in Zoömusicology: the study of the music-like aspects of sound communication among non-human animals. Like Lesley, Alex is interested in whales and their music and is currently carrying out doctoral research into the relationship between humpback whale song and human music at the University of St Andrews and the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. Both Alex and I have an interest in developing new music through improvisation.

In January, when Alex and I first met to improvise together, we had no idea that our aim of creating new music around Lesley’s wonderfully evocative poems was about to be made a whole load harder. By March we were, of course, completely unable to meet and work together. The three of us live in different regions and Alex and I normally travel everywhere by public transport or bike. The one thing we did have in our favour was time, and so we took to Zoom to gradually figure out the direction our work was to take.

The creation of a large body of improvised work is never an easy task. What form would our performance take? What role would the words take? Would they be more or less present? Would Lesley read them? Would they be in printed form? How much music would we write down and how much would be left to free improvisation? Should there be a visual element to our performance? What themes should we draw out of Lesley’s poems?

Ideas were bandied back and forth, and germs of musical ideas started to be generated and shared via the cloud. At this point I have to say a big thank you to Pete Stollery and Fiona Robertson at “Sound” in Aberdeen for running their Performer/Composer workshops. These offered me a framework and deadlines in which to get some ideas down on paper as well as a forum in which to listen, learn and develop in what’s become a close-knit and supportive group of music creators and performers.

Eventually, during what now feels like a remarkably free summer, a moment of lightness in the darkness of the past 6 months, Alex and I were able to work together in person. I cannot describe to you how amazing and utterly immersive it was to be able to make music freely through improvising with another person in the same room. Very moving, actually. Maybe that’s why some pure magic happened in that studio in September.

Getting used to working with Zoom has also opened our eyes to new ideas of how to work over long distances. A year ago, would we have thought to invite Lesley into our session when she was 100 miles or so away? If we had, would it have felt as normal as it does now? It was such a worthwhile thing to do. Most immediately, the performer in me really misses playing to people live. Playing live to someone with Lesley’s perception and ability to turn those perceptions into words that further inspire is special. I also really value the trust she invests in us to interpret her words musically and I feel immensely honoured and humbled to know that our playing has inspired her to write new words.

And so, after many months of working in what you could describe as adverse circumstances (or were they ultimately constraints that imposed a new discipline on us?), we’re nearly ready to launch “CETACEA” onto the public stage at GIOFest in Glasgow which runs online from 26th-28th November.

Many of the questions I raised earlier about our working process remain unanswered as we continue to build to a full-length event, but we did decide to only use the text overtly where it really added to the music. To that end, I want to leave you with Lesley’s poem so that you, like us, can take it as your starting point before listening to our performance in a couple of weeks’ time.

C-E-T-A-C-E-A
an exhibition by Marina Rees, using the bones of a long-finned pilot whale carcass recovered from Skjálfadi Bay. Húsavík Whale Museum, Iceland.


depot :
a bleached whale

.
an old sea mammal
lying on a beach
wind blowing through its rotted sinews


unpitched
long, low tones
degraded by the air.


how sound becomes colour :
the wind over water
dark /light


the blue black silver of the fjord
in the meat of its spine,
its winglike arms almost blue.

.
in praises
repeated, repeating


one note
falling like a flare


again, and now again
for hours


the vast dark hung with
ropes of song

.
hvalreki :
(‘whale drift’) a windfall

.
sound substance :


minute adjustments of
pitch and ornament


the clicking patterns
rigid, discordant


the sternum
the cervical block


a plain of lunar
knocks and hollows

.
o cathedral :


like an aurora,
downsweeping


kindling the dark
with antiphons


the slow turn
of bulks in darkness