Back in 2016, Seyđisfjörđur in East Iceland was the first stop on my sabbatical. Chosen on the suggestion of friend and Iceland expert, Cathy Harlow because of it’s rich and varied cultural life, (and also for its direct services to the Faroe Islands, which I visited on the same trip) the people in the village welcomed me into their community. I gave short performances in the schools, masterclasses in nearby Egilsstađir and also performed in the magnificent Bláakirkjan (blue church) with local violist, Charles Ross. Bláakirkjan is the most iconic building in Seyđisfjörđur, its colourful blue and white facade standing at the end of the rainbow road. Inside, it is a bright and intimate space, built of wood and gently resonant.
I therefore can’t wait to return to Seyđisfjörđur to perform in the Bláakirkjan summer concert series on 6th July. The series has become one of the major cultural events in East Iceland. It offers a varied programme of music where you can see many of the country’s most interesting musicians as well as international artists. I’ll be performing with Arnhildur Valgarđsdóttir, who I also met in 2016 in Reykjavik. Adda trained in Scotland and currently works as a highly respected pianist, organist and choirmaster in Reykjavik. In fact, if you live in Central Scotland, you’ll be able to catch her on tour with her choir this August.
We’ll be taking our audience on a journey round the North Atlantic, starting in Orkney with Gemma McGregor’s Hardanger-fiddle-inspired “Joy” and Peter Maxwell Davies’ much-loved “Farewell to Stromness.”
After a reflective pause on our journey with Arvo Pärt’s “Spiegel im Spiegel”, we visit our host country with Jón Thorarinsson’s short viola sonata. Thorarinsson studied music at the Reykjavík Music School and with Paul Hindemith at Yale University. He was head teacher from 1947 to 1968 at the Reykjavík Music School, head of Sjónvarpi’s art and entertainment department from 1968 to 1979, as well as numerous other projects in the field of music. Full of character, this sonata shows off the singing tone of the viola with long, cantabile lines, a passionate, at times bleak second movement and a final Rondo with lively jazz rhythms.
Adrian Vernon Fish’s Qaanaaq Sonata is a much more substantial piece. It’s inspired by the main town of that name in the northern part of the Avannaata municipality in northwestern Greenland. Adrian and I share a love of Greenland and Adrian’s music depicts so much about life there: the beauty, but also the barrenness and harshness of the landscape, the warmth and humour of the people and the rollicking energy of a dogsled ride that Adrian was lucky enough to experience there.
That’ll be the end of our official programme, but we might just have a little treat from Shetland to throw in at the end, too.
Once the concert is over, I’m looking forward to exploring the hills around Seyđisfjörđur: the high mountain lakes and the streams of waterfalls tumbling down the valleys. The eerie green murk of the Lagarfljót up at Egilsstađir and the unique woodland along the lochside at Hallormsstaðaskógur Doubtless there’ll be more inspiration to be gathered there for future projects!
2019 has been the busiest year yet for Nordic Viola as the project continues to grow and make new connections around the North Atlantic. This year has seen an increasing number of collaborations with other artists working in the region and Nordic Viola is increasingly becoming a point of information and liaison for other musicians and composers.
The first event of the year was a week in Iceland in March/April working with two musicians I met back in 2016 and who I’ve been desperate to work with again.
Firstly, Charles Ross, fellow viola player, composer and improviser. Charles has an incredible way of looking at the viola not as a traditional string instrument but as a source of sound to be exploited in any number of different ways. He has a very acute sense of timbre in music and is a very skilled improviser. There is a naivety and joyousness in much of his music, perhaps born of his interest in improvisation in world music.
We performed together in Mengi, Reykjavik and at Slátarhusið, Egilsstaðir in East Iceland. Somewhat nerve-wrackingly, the weather conspired against us in Reykjavik, meaning that we were on stage live with no rehearsal. It made for a very exciting and intense performance, though. We had much more time in Egilsstaðir, allowing us to perform with pre-recorded electronic tracks, introduce more sound effects and instruments and to better structure our work.
Whilst in Egilsstaðir I visited the music school again to give a masterclass to senior pupils, meeting old and new friends alike. It was also a great pleasure to hear Kristófer Gauti Thórhallsson, who I coached back in 2016, playing a movement from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons with the Austerlands Symphony Orchestra. Music is really thriving in East Iceland, thanks in part to the leadership of Soley Thrastardóttir, head of the music school.
Arnhildur Valgarðsdóttir has been a great friend to me whenever I’ve visited Reykjavik and a performance together was long overdue. We performed a viola/piano tour of the North Atlantic with music by Gemma McGregor, Peter Maxwell Davies (both Orkney), Adrian Vernon Fish (Qaanaaq, a sonata inspired by Greenland) and Oliver Kentish (Iceland).
In June I repeated this programme with Kevin Duggan in Dunblane Cathedral and I hope to be able to tour this popular programme with both Adda and Kevin in the next couple of years.
The Dunblane concert was a particularly joyous occasion for me as I finally got to welcome Adrian Vernon Fish to one of our concerts. Adrian and I have been in touch since Nordic Viola began as we share a deep love for Greenland and he has been a source of inspiration and advice to me from the start. Apart from Qaanaaq, a viola sonata that really deserves to be out there in the wider world, his “Uyeasound” Nocturne has become one of our favourite pieces.
I also welcomed Gemma McGregor to Dunblane to hear her piece, “Joy” for solo viola. We had worked together in Orkney in 2018 and this was a chance to catch up and discuss a new commission (more on that later) as well as trawling through my now extensive collection of Far North CDs.
Scotland New Music Awards
In May I was honoured to be shortlisted for the New Music Scotland “Making it Happen Award” alongside eventual winners the Nevis Ensemble and Glasgow Experimental Music Series. It was incredibly inspiring to share an evening with a full house of inspirational musicians – the contemporary music scene in Scotland is thriving at the moment. Stories were shared with old friends and new alliances were formed.
Out of the Box
July saw my first concert of the year guesting on another project. Fiona Driver’s “Out of the Box” concert in Inverness Cathedral featured a group of musicians inspired in various ways by traditional music of the north. Fiona and husband Trevor Hunter are two of the driving forces in fiddle music from Orkney and Shetland and are now practising their art in Inverness. We were joined by Lea MacLeod on pipes and flute, Anya Johnston on fiddle and Dave Chadwick on the incredible Swedish Nyckelharpa. David Martin and I played some folk tunes from Iceland and then joined in a trio with Fiona to play her “Hoy’s Dark and Lonely Isle” and my “Mjørkaflókar”, inspired by Orkney and the Faroes respectively.
I hope to invite Fiona down to Dunblane sometime on a new and similar collaboration.
Flitting around the islands
September proved to be an incredibly busy month for Nordic Viola. First up was the “Shoormal Conference” on rural creativity at the University of the Highlands and Islands in the beautiful Mareel Centre in Lerwick, Shetland. I teamed up with Orkney composer and flautist Gemma McGregor for this project to talk about our work in Orkney last year. We gave a presentation entitled From the Northern Isles to Greenland: Exploring environment and culture through improvisation and sonic art, reflecting on our work with school children in Kirkwall and Stromness last year.
One of the aims of my Orkney residency last year was to commission Gemma and our concert at the conference, Nordic Viola: A Journey Around the North Atlantic in Words and Music, saw the premiere of her new piece for viola and flute based on the St. Magnus Way, “Carry His Relics”. The focus of the concert was on showcasing how a rich palette of sound can be generated from limited resources when travelling in remote rural areas.
Putting theory into practice, Nordic Viola’s next outing was to the Isle of Coll Music Group with flautist Helen Brew, fellow violist David Martin and bassoonist David Hubbard. Coll is an island in the Inner Hebrides off the west coast of Scotland and we were blessed with some surprisingly mediterranean weather! Music included a new arrangement of the Unst Boat Song by the Danish String Quartet and Emily Doolittle’s “Social Sounds From Whales at Night” which has proved a big hit in my concerts this year.
AlongsideAutumn – A Composer’s Walk
October saw another new collaboration with composer Matilda Brown in Durness on the north coast of Scotland. Matilda had journeyed right through Scotland from Annan in Dumfriesshire to Durness entirely on foot, performing and composing as she went. We share a lot of the same inspirations in our music and I found sharing in the end of Matilda’s journey an incredibly moving and inspiring experience. We’re both looking forward to working together in the future.
2020 and beyond!
The rest of the autumn has been about planning ahead for 2020 and beyond and we have some very exciting plans, many growing out of new connections made this year.
Histories and Herstories
The Shoormal Conference proved to be especially profitable in building new partnerships, not least with the University of the Highlands and Islands themselves and my first project will be a programme of female composers writing about island life as part of the Histories and Herstories Conference in April. I am delighted that pupils from Anderson High School will be joining us in performance.
Year of Coasts and Waters
Event Scotland’s theme for 2020 is tailor-made for us and we will be touring a programme entitled “Sagas and Seascapes” to the Orkney Science Festival, Shetland and Dunblane. The programme looks at the many cultural links around the North Atlantic and especially shared stories such as the Icelandic “Njál’s Saga” and the “Orkneyinga Saga”. We’re also very excited about performing the rarely heard Septet version of Sibelius’ “En Saga” in Dunblane and about a new commission – more will be revealed as the year progresses! We will also be enjoying depictions of landscapes from the sea cliffs of the Faroes and the ancient monuments of Orkney to name but two.
Shoormal opened new opportunities for me to work with Nordic Viola in tandem with other art forms. At the moment these are in a developmental stage but I’m looking forward to preventing some new and innovative performance formats in the 2020/21 season. Together with composer Renzo Spiteri (now resident in Shetland) and visual artist Orla Stevens I am developing a project inspired by the Northern and Western Isles and beyond looking at the transitions from darkness to light at northern latitudes.
I have always been fascinated by words and am therefore excited to be working with Lesley Harrison. One of her publications, “Beyond the Map” charts an imaginary journey following the early whalers up the east coast of Scotland to the Northern Isles and up to Greenland. The parallels with my own project are obvious and I look forward to developing an event with Lesley and other musicians such as Alex South and Emily Doolittle who are interested in whale song.
Nordic Viola seems to be developing at a rapid rate at the moment and I look forward to sharing the journey with you as these new projects and partnerships develop.
After a week in the capital, I was really excited to head north-east to Egilsstaðir to meet old friends from 2016 and to “repeat” (can you repeat an improvised concert, I wonder?!) our Reykjavik concert with Charles Ross.
Whilst Egilsstaðir is just a small town of a couple of thousand inhabitants, there is plenty going on culturally. I spent my first afternoon listening to the Sinfóníuhljómsveit Austurlands (East Iceland Symphony Orchestra). The real stand-out performance for me was young violinist Kristófer Gauti Thórhallsson playing a movement from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. I’d coached Kristófer back in 2016 in Egilsstaðir Music School. Accompanied by a small group from the orchestra directed by Charles on “theorbo” (10-string guitar) continuo, this was wonderful energetic, idiomatic playing.
No orchestral concert would be complete without a couple of
drinks afterwards and it was a great chance for me to learn a bit more
Icelandic and speak a little with some very patient teachers.
(Orchestral conversations the world over tend to follow common themes,
so I could guess a lot!)
Monday was a free day and I made the most of the spring
weather. However the weather can be fickle in Iceland, especially as the
seasons turn and I woke up on Tuesday to driving snow. It was cosy
sitting in the cottage catching up on work, drinking coffee and keeping
the cats and dog company, though! And I got my first taste of driving on
ice tyres for real on my way to work, which was fun.
After the obligatory session in the hot tubs I was coaching in the music school with some old faces as well as some new ones. I really enjoy group masterclasses and it’s a pleasure to work with a group of mutually supportive students on technique.
That evening Charles and I performed in Slátarhusið. This time we had some time to rehearse and experiment with new sounds, allowing us a more structured approach than our very spontaneous gig in Reykjavik! A local gig for Charles allowed us to use more instruments. A particular favourite of mine from our 2016 concert in Seyðisfjörður is the Siberian fiddle. I love using the larger, more resonant viola to gently pick up on the sounds this small, delicate instrument makes. That particular set ended with some fine throat-singing from Charles – ironically enough aided by the aftermath of a bad cough, which made for some low frequencies! You can hear it here.
The nice thing about small, informal venues is that they’re
conducive to chatting with the audience afterwards. We enjoyed showing
people how we made sound and people were able to try out some of the
instruments and effects for themselves, with Briet Finsdóttir proving
particularly adept on a small African fiddle!
It was good to talk to Slátarhusið’s director, Kristin, a
graduate of the the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama (now RCS).
She has big plans for the venue, a space which has so much potential.
As well as making music, I had plenty of time to enjoy the
wonderful open landscape around Egilsstaðir. I drove down the Fljótsdal
to Hallormsstaðaskógur, one of Iceland’s biggest forests. (Yes, Iceland
does have trees, contrary to popular belief). I enjoyed walking down the
Lagarfljót (the big lake running through the valley) and didn’t see a
soul and heard no man-made sound. Just the lapping water, cloudless blue
skies and a snow-decked Snaefell (Iceland’s highest mountain outside
the glacier areas) in the distance.
When I last visited Egilsstaðir, it was ablaze with autumn
colour. As it emerges from winter, it looks very different. After months
of snow, the vegetation is all dead. In fact, the day after this walk
it was back under snow! That doesn’t make it any less beautiful, though.
The mountains are decked in pure white snow, beautiful against the pale
blue sky and even the dead vegetation is a burnished yellow that sets
off beautifully the white mountains and blue sky.
In autumn the geese had been gathering noisily for their long flight south. (The inspiration for my beautiful commission by Anna Appleby, “Hrakningar”). The first few days this time I was really missing them, but as I walked next to the groaning ice flowing out of the lake, small groups of them were returning, gossiping away. I also loved the eery sounds of the elegant whooper swans in flight.
I’m always asked if I saw the Northern Lights. I’ve always
been lucky and yes, once more they made an appearance on my concert
night. It doesn’t matter how many times you see them, they are still
fascinating to watch as they slowly shift and morph into different
Back in September 2016 I met Charles Ross at Seyðisfjörður in East Iceland. I confess to feeling a little nervous. We’d never met, let alone played together, and we were about to do a free improvisation gig! Luckily, we really clicked musically and that concert still ranks as one of the real highlights during my six-month sabbatical.
I’m therefore really excited about performing with Charles again, this time in the capital city on 27th March 8pm at Mengi. Mengi is an operation created and managed by artists in Reykjavik. It hosts diverse art events, releases music by some of the nation’s most ambitious musicians and operates an art and record store.
We’ll be playing violas, a few percussion instruments and using electronics. Inspired by landscapes and sounds of the Far North, we’ll be performing a mixture of improvised and semi-improvised pieces, featuring Canadian composer Emily Doolittle’s“Social Sounds of Whales at Night” (you can hear it on this link in the version for oboe d’amore), Faroese composer Kristian Blak’s“Drrrunnn” for viola and recorded seabirds as well as original compositions by Katherine and Charles.
The Doune concert on 10th May was the first Nordic Viola concert since my sabbatical officially finished in March. Since the first concert in Kinbuck in August last year, the programme has obviously become much more personal. The countries I visited (Shetland, Faroes, Iceland and Greenland) hold very vivid and immediate memories for me. I have my own stories to tell alongside the many beautiful pieces of music and writing already out there.
I remember when I first set out on the project, I worried about finding enough repertoire; now I have so much to choose from in so many styles (traditional, classical, contemporary) that selecting a concert programme means leaving out music that I’m dying to perform to people! Each piece tells it’s own story of the weather, the wildlife, solitude or a simply a good old knees up on a dark winter’s evening!
One of the features of music-making in the Far North is using the means at your disposal and much of the repertoire is very flexible. I’ve performed with a flute/2 viola/bassoon quartet, solo, with Charles Ross and his huge variety of string instruments (viola, 12 string guitar and Siberian fiddle) and in a viola/cello/piano trio. Doune saw yet another combination: a 2 viola string quartet with Anne Bünemann (violin), David Martin and myself (violas) and Peter Hunt (cello). Lots of people commented on how warm the sound was with 2 violas and how it highlighted the violin sound more than a standard quartet.
Working with composers has been an amazing part of the experience. Kristian Blak taught me so much about Faroese music and he was a big influence on my improvised trio, Mjørkaflókar, which is based on a Faroese melody. He also introduced me to the music of William Heinesen with which I opened the Doune concert. In Iceland, Charles Ross, taught me a lot about improvisation. We share a love of timbre and instrumental colour and he gave me plenty of new ideas to play around with. In Shetland I worked with Lillie Harris. Her solo piece, AND, which I performed in Doune continues to develop each time I play it. There is so much potent material in it and you’d be hard pressed to find a more vivid evocation of a Shetland storm! Adrian Vernon Fish shares my love of both Shetland and Greenland and we performed Uyeasound Nocturne (Shetland) and part of his Trio, Sermitsiaq, named after the mountain that guards Greenland’s capital, Nuuk.
The more I travelled, the more fascinated I became with the links between these sea-faring, Viking inhabited islands. The Doune programme reflected that, too: the Faroes seen through the mists of Shetland, my Icelandic piece Tvisöngur, which started out as an improvisation in Iceland and was composed on Mykines in the Faroes, traditional Shetland tunes about Greenland dating back to the old whaling trips last century and Polkas brought by the Danes to Greenland.
As in Kinbuck, we filled the hall and took the audience on a journey round the North Atlantic. Be warned, this concert will induce wanderlust: as I speak, two friends are on their way to Iceland…
There’s still much more to come. On 1st October I join up with my original group of Helen Brew (flute), David and I on violas and Dave Hubbard on bassoon for a concert in Dunblane Cathedral. All being well, we’ll have a Greenlandic premiere to perform from the last composer I met on my travels, Arnannguaq Gerstrøm.