From Stromness to Somerset

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.

Somerset

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.

Dunsden, Reading

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.

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.

April News Update

Histories and Herstories

Raising the profile of music by women

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!

Art-Making in the Anthropocene

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.

Art-Making in the Anthropocene is funded by a Royal Society of Edinburgh Research Workshop grant, and co-organized by Dr Emily Doolittle, Dr Sarah Hopfinger, and Dr Stuart MacRae at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.

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!