Changing perspectives, new ways of working and some valuable help from the RPS Enterprise Fund in Association with Harriet’s Trust

A reflective post today looking back on the initial shock of the music world closing down in March 2020 and how, with a little bit of help from the RPS Enterprise Fund in association with Harriet’s Trust, Nordic Viola found new and exciting ways of working and of reaching our audiences around Scotland, the North Atlantic and beyond.

Entering the pandemic and a crash course in digital production

As covid began its grip on the world, Nordic Viola were just on the verge of travelling to Shetland for the University of the Highlands and Islands‘ “Histories and Herstories” Conference. I remember sitting on stage with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra as we entered lockdown wondering how my project, formed in travel, could ever survive such a thing. But musicians are resourceful people and our project was very quickly repurposed to become a digital concert for the Orkney International Science Festival instead.

But where to begin? I could make rudimentary recordings but I was clueless about video. Step in Creative Scotland who provided me with top notch support and encouraged me to aim high and work with a top quality video professional. And so began what would become a fruitful partnership with Craig Sinclair Video.

Me and my team of wonderful and resourceful musicians (violinists Emily Nenniger, Anne Bünemann and cellist Ruth Rowlands) swiftly learned to record in our own homes and Craig and I set about interviewing composers online before Craig offered us remote support to film our own performances which he then pieced together with stock footage of the North Atlantic region (filming his own footage being forbidden in lockdown!).

And so our first digital concert was born.

A world opens up

Very quickly I learned that, far from being the end of Nordic Viola, this was actually a new beginning. Touring abroad is an expensive business, environmentally as well as financially, but now we had a way of reaching audiences far and wide from the safety and comfort of our own homes. Not only that, but I had a way for the composers to speak directly to audiences, putting a face and a personality behind the music.

So far, so good, but using professionals for every short piece of video is an expensive business. I needed to learn how to make my own content, saving my financial resources for larger-scale performances, and I needed better equipment to do it. Step in the Royal Philharmonic Society Enterprise Fund. This amazing organisation exists to create opportunities for musicians to excel and champions the vital role that music plays in everybody’s lives. They are a relatively small organisation with a very big heart indeed. The RPS Enterprise Fund offered individual performers and chamber music groups the means to strengthen and transform the extent of their creativity, connectivity, profile and revenue, encouraging us to think entrepreneurially.

Sagas and Seascapes

Following on from our first collaboration with Orkney International Science Festival, in 2021 we embarked on a much more ambitious project, Sagas and Seascapes. This project brought in many professionals from other fields and involved the creation of artwork for the project from Orla Stevens. Hedd Morfett-Jones and Simon Lowden from the RSNO recorded our performances in Glasgow and Craig was able to do his own filming on location in Orkney with me and the composers. It seemed the perfect project for me to take as a basis for developing my own technical skills.

Informal learning

The first part of my learning was to watch the professionals at work. I learned how Hedd ran a recording a session, how audio and video worked together and and picked Hedd and Craig’s brains about equipment and software.

On-location in Orkney, I happily handed over the reins of project management to Craig and watched how he pre-interviewed the composers, planned a shoot and managed the team on location.

Sagas and Seascapes was an ambitious programme and I learned a fair bit about people-management, too, as everything came together and deadlines needed to be met! After a week of working through the night, adrenaline was running high as Sags and Seascapes premiered at the science festival!

New microphones!

Meanwhile, my new microphones and audio interface were proving their worth. I was literally 24 hours away from performing live at the Scottish Awards for New Music when I got pinged! And so, as I awaited my PCR result, I got down to recording Eddie McGuire‘s Legend and Electra Perivolaris‘ Geese Flying Over My Head and into the Distance in audio and video. Without this equipment, I’d have lost a fee and left New Music Scotland with a gap to fill on very short notice. Thank you RPS!

Video Training Course

With the year’s big project in the bag, it was time to learn more formally from Craig how to produce my own small-scale video. Craig devised a 4-part course covering pre-production, filming, editing and distribution. Following an intense 4-hour online session where I learned how to identify the needs of my audience, plan my filming and interviewing and set up my camera properly, we moved onto the fun part – filming!

I wanted the session to produce something engaging and useful to myself and others, so we decided to invite our project artist, Orla Stevens, along, so that we could learn together and also produce a film that we could both use to publicise our work.

In the editing session, I learned so much about working quickly and efficiently with my material. I moved from randomly grabbing bits of material and putting it together in a haphazard way to learning to plan the shape of my video, gather together the material in advance and really tell a story. I also learned just how much B-Roll film you need to cover an interview – thanks to Craig for letting me use some of his Orkney footage and to Orla for filming the paintings! Baby steps, but I’m secretly very pleased with my first “proper” little film.

What I learned and where we go from here!

There were so many things I learned along the path from having absolutely no idea where to start with producing a video concert to taking on a project with the scope of Sagas and Seascapes and, finally, making my own tiny outdoor filming project and interview.

Here are my takeaways:

  • Record absolutely everything – you never know when you might need it!
  • Invest in quality equipment, especially microphones – it really does make a difference
  • For big, important digital projects, employ professionals – it’s worth the money
  • BUT don’t be afraid to try new things yourself – it’s fun, you learn a lot and make new connections
  • Share with your colleagues. Knowing I was part of a group of musicians handpicked by the RPS for their enterprising attitude was empowering and inspiring and gave me the confidence to go for it
  • Help others – I hope I can continue that sharing with my close colleagues, helping with equipment and sharing my experiences from working with such an amazing team of creative people.

And a few useful links for my Scottish colleagues in particular:

Craig Sinclair Video – first and foremost if you need someone to produce film for you, but also for some top-notch tuition and mentoring!

Chamber Music Scotland’s Resources for Musicians and in particular Tim Cooper‘s Audio Recording Resources

Sound Scotland – This innovative new music organisation does much to encourage creativity amongst musicians and also offers support and new opportunities through peer group meetings such as their fortnightly Cofveve sessions.

New Music Scotland – organisation supporting composers and performers working in New Music – training sessions, resources, a meeting point.

Book: Recording Classical Music by Robert Toft – Published by Routledge

Filming in Orkney

Composers Lillie Harris, Linda Buckley and Gemma McGregor with artist Orla Stevens

Early July was a landmark for Nordic Viola: our first trip north since September 2019 and our first live performance since Covid-19 started. We headed out to Orkney with 3 composers, a landscape artist, a video producer and me – the largest team we’ve ever taken on tour and our most ambitious project yet.

Film footage is for our “Sagas and Seascapes” film that will air at Orkney International Science Festival on 3rd September and the goal was to place three of the composers, Gemma McGregor, Lillie Harris and Linda Buckley, in the landscapes that inspired their music. Artist Orla Stevens and video producer Craig Sinclair would document their reactions as well as incorporating their own creative responses to place.

The theme uniting all three pieces is Orkney’s history and genetic heritage. Central to our narrative is “Aud”, the remarkable woman who, in the 9th century set sail from Caithness to Iceland. On her way to settling in North West Iceland, she landed in Orkney, where one of her granddaughters, Gróa, was married. Remarkably, in Erik the Red’s Saga we can trace Aud’s line via Gróa and her daughter Grélaður, who married Thorfinn Torf-Einarsson, Earl of Orkney (also known as Thorfinn Skull-splitter) into the Orkneyinga Saga and down to Saint Magnus, subject of Gemma McGregor’s “Carry His Relics.” Gemma’s piece reflects on the journey of Magnus’ relics along what is now the St. Magnus Way and we explored the historic links through the ages as we traced the first part of this journey from the Broch of Gurness to the Brough of Birsay where Magnus was schooled in the monastery.

The Broch of Gurness is a remarkable place. Craig had us up bright and early and so we had the privilege of having the site to ourselves, a very special experience. Dating back to the Iron Age, this site, like our programme, also links into later Viking settlements, as the grave of a Viking woman was found at Gurness, along with some grave-goods – a sickle blade and a pair of ‘tortoise’ brooches.

As we visited this and other older, prehistoric sites such as the Stones of Stenness, Ring of Brodgar and Maeshowe, which all inspired Lillie Harris’ “Elsewhen” we talked about how “Aud”, too, may well have shared in our wonder at these ancient sites, too. This promoted many discussions about how humans perceive time and whether these sites would have seemed just as ancient to Aud as they do to us – how exactly do humans measure timescales over thousands of years? For me, these musings are strongly represented in the eery, slightly disturbing quality of Lillie’s music.

Our filming culminated with interviews in St. Magnus Church, Birsay, generously hosted by Robin Barr and preceded by some much-needed downtime over a packed lunch (and the famous Birsay  tea shop pies!) in Robin and Anne’s beautiful garden. During filming, Orla had taken time to sketch down some preliminary ideas and, in her wonderfully natural and enabling way, she encouraged us to express ourselves by drawing down by the beach between interviews – even those like me who haven’t produced any art since secondary school! Orla stayed on in Orkney to consolidate her ideas and you can read some of her initial thoughts here.

A Live Concert

Trips north with Nordic Viola are always packed affairs as we pack in as much activity as we can. One of the reasons for this is to lessen environmental impact by traveling less frequently but also simply from a desire to make the most of our time in the islands.

And so Gemma and I collaborated with Orkney Arts Society to give one of the first live events in Scotland since lockdown ended. I cannot even begin to explain to you how sweet it felt to play to a live audience again. Even with a masked audience, that feeling of connecting with people again was so special. One of the most important things for me in Nordic Viola is meeting after concerts to share experiences with audiences. Even at level 0, distance still needed to be respected but it felt so nice to talk informally with people after the event.

Our programme was entitled “Birds and Landscapes of the North” and included music for viola and flute by talented young Scottish composers Electra Perivolaris, Ailie Robertson and Kristain Rasmussen as well as Faroese composer Kári Bæk. I also performed live on my new viola d’amore for the first time in my arrangement of traditional Shetland tune “Da Day Dawn” and “Tirrick” (Orcadian for Arctic Tern) a reel I commissioned from Fiona Driver. Thanks to generous funding from Chamber Music Scotland’s Transition Fund, Gemma wrote a companion piece to “Carry His Relics” called “The Trysted Shore”. Inspired by George Mackay Brown’s poem “Magnus” (this year mark’s GMB’s centenary) it depicts Magnus’ betrayal on the island of Egilsay.

A note on travel and sustainability

Before I wrap up this blog, I’d just like to reflect briefly on our travel choices for this trip. As the world deals with the climate emergency, travel is becoming a point of focus for many musicians. Travel is obviously intrinsic to the Nordic Viola project so it is vital to consider how this is done with minimal impact.

A lifelong cyclist, this has been an intrinsic part of my thinking since my twenties. However, I do recognise that not everyone wants to be subjected to travelling the length and breadth of Orkney in a howling gale with instrument  (and tent) strapped to back. I actually also believe that being too dogmatic is not always the best way to persuade people to change transport habits. For me, the most important premise is to carefully think through travel options and to understand the impact they have, making balanced, informed choices.

I asked the team where possible to choose surface transport and this was, in the main, achieved. A couple of people did need to fly due to scheduling constraints, but again, the important point is that other alternatives were explored first. Our hand was also forced by the fact that Scotrail is not currently offering a Sunday service.

Some car use was necessary to carry filming equipment. I was also concerned at rising Covid cases in Orkney at that time. After a fair bit of soul searching, I decided that the safety of my team, the island population and the need to maintain bubbles within the two accommodation groups was paramount. We did carshare but ended up using one more car than I’d wanted to. I feel quite uncomfortable about that but I believe it was a pragmatic decision in light of the circumstances. I still managed to travel back from the final session by bike (into a howling gale, of course!) as well as touring on my free days on two wheels. I am also proud that my team only own 2 vehicles between 6 people plus partners. Hiring and borrowing vehicles leads to lower car use in the longterm and I’d love to see more people considering this.

Nordic Viola is supported by:

Linda Buckley is supported by:

The concert for Orkney Arts Society, including a new commission by Gemma McGregor was supported by: