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.

Sagas and Seascapes at Northern Stories Festival 11th October

Sagas and Seascapes will be part of the Northern Stories Festival at Lyth Arts in Caithness on Tuesday 18th October at 8pm. Northern Stories Festival 2022 is a spectacular celebration of the stories of the Far North of Scotland, taking place across Caithness this October. 

Nordic Viola will screen Craig Sinclair’s Sagas and Seascapes film alongside live performance by Katherine Wren on viola of Variations on a Faroese Hymn Tune by William Heinesen, Wogen by Kári Bæk and The Drummer, a traditional Scottish Tune that inspired the Danish tune arr. by the Danish String Quartet The Dromer, which features at the end of the film.

Norse stories form the inspiration for this programme. Award-winning Irish composer Linda Buckley’s Aud draws on the Icelandic Sagas. Lillie Harris’ Elsewhen seeks to capture the strangeness, wonder, and melancholy of Orkney’s ancient sites, whilst in Carry His Relics, Orkney composer Gemma McGregor describes a journey along the St Magnus Way.

Orla Stevens‘ art from the project, inspired by music from Gemma McGregor, Lillie Harris and Linda Buckley, will also be on display at Lyth Arts.

Northern Stories Festival 2022 is a spectacular celebration of the stories of the Far North of Scotland, taking place across Caithness this October. 

‘Sharing the stories of the Far North of Scotland.’

Celebrating our ancient Nordic connections and our close ties to North America, the festival will connect the lochs and coastline of the North Highlands, the fjords of Norway and the Great Lakes of Canada. 

An exciting programme of online and in-person events will include an international line-up of performers and story-tellers from the Highlands, Scandinavia and Canada. With talks, workshops, films and exhibitions, there will be something for all the family to get involved in. 

You can view the full festival programme at https://lytharts.org.uk/events/category/northern-stories-festival/list/

Don’t forget, too, that Katherine and Arnhildur Valgarðsdóttir (piano) will be performing for the Orkney-Norway Friendship Association in Stromness Town Hall on 30th September at 7:30pm. More information on that here.

We look forward to seeing you at one or both of these events.

Performances of Sagas and Seascapes in Edinburgh

And so our run of Sagas and Seascapes at the Scottish Storytelling Centre as part of the Made In Scotland Showcase has come to an end and what a great run of performances we had! Three nights of practically full houses, each with their own energy. All were made to feel very welcome and we had Audio Description and captions available at our relaxed performance, which for me was the show with the most intimate vibe and connection with the audience.

It was amazing to see Craig Sinclair’s beautiful film in high definition on the big screen and people loved watching Orla Stevens creating the beautiful paintings which we had on show in the courtyard.

Click here to find out what others said about our performances.

Northern Edgelands by Orla Stevens

Orla’s trip to Orkney to film with Nordic Viola was just the start of her relationship with Orkney and sparked a whole series of works, now on show at the Macrobert Arts Centre at Stirling University until 25th September. It’s a beautiful show in a beautiful space and comes highly recommended. You can also view our Sagas and Seascapes film there.

Sagas and Seascapes goes to Caithness

Full details are yet to be released, but the film version of Sagas and Seascapes will be going to Caithness very soon, accompanied by Orla’s beautiful paintings. I will play a couple of pieces live and tell the stories behind our work.

I’m particularly excited to take this work to Caithness as it is, of course, part of our central character Aud’s story. It was in Caithness that her son, Thorstein was killed by the Scots and from where she set sail to Orkney en route to West Iceland. I’ll update you with performance details when they’re announced. In the meantime, enjoy “Aud” by Linda Buckley with art by Orla Stevens and film by Craig Sinclair.

June update – Sagas and Seascapes Recording, Competition and a Live Concert!

The end of May saw Nordic Viola playing together under the same roof for the first time since March 2020! And what a way to start, bringing our new commission, “Aud” by Linda Buckley, to life for the first time as we recorded “Sagas and Seascapes” for Orkney International Science Festival 2021. It’s always an amazing feeling to realise a new work and I love that collaborative process of working with a composer as we work together to unite the concepts of what they imagined as they created the music and how we interpret those dots as performers.

Covid made that experience slightly unusual as we went straight into the recording studio with “Aud” and still haven’t heard the complete score. I’m on absolute tenterhooks whilst Linda and our amazing recording team, Hedd Morfett-Jones and Simon Lowden work their magic and unite musicians with the electronic soundtrack.

Already the music has such a strong sense of journeying, depicting as it does Aud the Deep-Minded‘s journey from Ireland via Caithness, Orkney, and the Faroes before settling in Iceland. There is so much energy in the shifting textures and a sense of the music “flickering” through the distinct timbres of the three string instruments and the clarinet. It’s easy to think of string instruments as one body, but Linda’s writing really highlights how the colour of each pitch can vary across the three instruments.

There’s also a strong sense of yearning in the music – perhaps for that very human desire to be on the move and to explore that so many of us have missed during lockdown.

UK premiere of new Faroese work

We are also extremely grateful to the Aura Duo for allowing us to give the UK premiere of upcoming Faroese composer Eli Tausen á Lava’s Søgnin um Kópakonuna í 10 Myndum

Søgnin um Kópakonuna í 10 Myndum (Faroese: 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 Ecapable 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.

Søgnin um Kópakonuna í 10 Myndum was commissioned by Aura Duo and was composed with the support of Koda Kultur. The piece was due to be premiered in the Faroes in 2020/1 but has had to be postponed due to Covid. We’ll be introducing Eli and the Aura Duo to you in August.

Elsewhen by Lillie Harris

In our biggest ensemble to date, we recorded Lillie Harris‘ “Elsewhen” an incredibly eery, almost primitive at times (think stomping, Rite-of-Spring-style chords) depiction of Orkney’s prehistoric monuments and how they have come to us through time. “Elsewhen” is written for flute, clarinet and string quartet and, as well as its eery textures and footstamping rhythms, it features yearning melodies in the wind instruments and violins.

Lillie is an old friend of Nordic Viola, writing my first commission, “AND” for solo viola. She has an uncanny way of capturing the essence of a place, sometimes prior to even visiting it. “Elsewhen” was originally composed for the St. Magnus Composers’ Course in 2017.

As well as our audio team, we had Craig Sinclair working on video and Matthew Smith on lighting and, as you can see above, they created a stunning stage for us to work on. We consider ourselves very lucky to have been able to record in the RSNO’s purpose-built New Auditorium.

Filming in Orkney

Craig is now in the driving seat as the composers, Linda Buckley, Lillie Harris and Gemma McGregor head to Orkney to capture footage of the landscapes, monuments and tales that inspired their music. Craig and I first worked together on “Histories and Herstories” during lockdown last year. Despite being reliant on stock footage, I loved how he matched the rhythm of the music with film and I’m eager to see how much more can be done when he is set free to film on location.

In another first for us, the emotions of the composers as they explore these historic sites and experience the nature and seascapes of Orkney will be captured and interpreted by landscape artist Orla Stevens. Orla, too is fascinated by seastories and landscapes and often captures the energy of the sea in paintings with a considerable textural element to them. She is also a keen musician and is interested in exploring the parallels between rhythm in music and art. I’m very excited and intrigued to see how she interprets these musical worlds.

Seastories Competition

We’re at the halfway point in our Seastories Competition. We’ve received some very imaginative entries from Shetland, the Faroes and Greenland. Last Saturday Gemma McGregor led our first international zoom workshop alongside myself and Faroese trombonist and, on this occasion, interpreter, Dávur Juul Magnussen.

We explored ways of creating music about the sea and the techniques we could use to expand our musical ideas. We also took time to share our experiences of the sea in our home countries and explored common stories, such as legends across the North Atlantic about seals, and also explored Norse words that have survived in dialect in the Northern Isles. At a time when travel is nigh on impossible, I hope we were able to help the young people imagine a world beyond their own shores and to connect with others whose cultures overlap with ours.

We’ll announce our competition winners next week.

Live in Orkney

I’ll leave you with a wee teaser – whilst I’m in Orkney, I’ll be performing in a programme entitled “Birds and Landscapes of the North” with composer Gemma McGregor on flute. We’re in Stromness Town Hall on Friday 2nd July at 7:30pm and you can buy tickets here. Tickets are strictly limited due to Covid, so you need to book in advance.

More on the programme next time.

As you can see, there’s a lot happening with Nordic Viola at the moment. If you want to stay up-to-date, you can subscribe here:

Finally, I’d like to thank our funders: Creative Scotland, PRSF Women Make Music for supporting Linda Buckley, The Royal Philharmonic Society Enterprise Fund for allowing me to learn more about video alongside Craig Sinclair and the William Syson Foundation for supporting our education work.