Soundwalk with the Bard of the Birds

A year ago, Ruta Vitkauskaite launched her Modern Chants programme online as part of Book Week Scotland. Ruta, Gemma McGregor and Emily Doolittle wrote music for myself and clarinettist Joanna Nicholson inspired by the natural world and Gaelic and Norse culture. The music was spun together with poetry by Dawn Wood. As many of you know, Gemma and Emily are composers I’ve worked with often before with Nordic Viola, so it was exciting to work with them again in a project led by someone else and Ruta, as well as being fronm another northern country, Lithuania, was a composer I’d heard a lot about and was eager to work with.

Following our online performance, Ruta, Dawn and engineer Chris Adams worked together to weave all the components in Modern Chants together to form a stunning Soundwalk, which was premiered in March this year in conjunction with Sound Scotland. In my opinion, the Soundwalk is even more beautiful than the original Modern Chants performance and I’m so excited that, once again, we’ll be part of Book Week Scotland on Sunday 20th November at 11am with a repeat of the Soundwalk with the Bard of the Birds.

The event starts on Zoom with an introduction from The Bard of the Birds. You will then be invited to take a walk (approx. 45 min) around your area. You don’t need to travel to any particular location. On your walk, you will listen to a soundtrack which will give you various instructions to follow and invites you to pay attention to particular details. Guided by the Bard of the Birds you will be asked to collect impressions, thoughts, ideas, colours, shapes, or even objects you find along your walk. When you return from your walk, we will meet you back on Zoom and invite you to share your experiences with us.

The event duration is approx. 90 minutes.

FREE registration and accessibility information: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/soundwalk-with-the-bard-of-the-birds-tickets-438652289807

If you can’t join us for the event itself, it’s still worth signing up for free, as you can download the soundwalk to listen at your leisure. Speaking from my own experience, it’s at least as beautiful taking some time out at home on a dark night and chilling out to the lovely sounds and letting your imagination run wild.

The Soundwalk will be a special experience for me this time as, rather than walking from my own home, I’ll be presenting and walking from Birsay in Orkney, where I’ve already been out and about enjoying the wind, sunshine and very special light you get in the north at this time of year!

Workshops in February and March

I will be taking part in two workshops over the next month or so.

Soundwalk with The Bard of the Birds – 27th February 2pm – Online

The Soundwalk with the Bard of the Birds is part 2 of the Modern Chants project run by composer Ruta Vitkauskaite. Part 1 was an online concert in November where, following the many voices of the ancient goddess Cailleach, we ventured on a journey into the Gaelic and Old Norse imagery with poems by Dawn Wood. Music was by Ruta Vitkauskaite, Gemma McGregor, and Emily Doolittle and was inspired by winds, lochs, birds and bagpiping. You can hear some of the music in this playlist.

The Soundwalk with the Bard of the Birds will be hosted by Sound Scotland via Zoom and a downloadable podcast.

As spring emerges, The Bard of the Birds invites you to join her for a new music and storytelling experience where you will experience your surroundings in a new way. 

Whether you live in the city or countryside, your days are beginning to grow longer as spring emerges and nature finds her way through cracks in the walls and pavements, and through sunlight and birdsong. It can be easy to miss these details. 

The event starts on Zoom with an introduction from The Bard of the Birds. You will then be invited to take a walk (approx. 45 min) around your area. You don’t need to travel to any particular location. Indeed, if you feel more comfortable, you can even enjoy the soundwalk from inside your own home, looking through the window at the world outside.

On your walk, you will listen to a soundtrack featuring poems and stories by Dawn Wood, nature-inspired music by Ruta Vitkauskaite, Gemma McGregor, and Emily Doolittle, performed by clarinettist Joanna Nicholson and violist Katherine Wren with electronic sounds by Ellie Cherry and sound design by Chris Adams.

When you return from your walk, we will meet you back on Zoom and invite you to share your experiences with us.

The Soundwalk can be booked via Sound here.

Tuning In to the Trossachs

Many of you will have seen the beautiful work that Orla Stevens created for Nordic Viola’s Sagas and Seascapes project. Working together has opened up many new avenues for both our work and we’re really excited to share with you some of the new ways of working that we’ve discovered.

We will be leading an art and music workshop in Aberfoyle in the beautiful Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park, close to our homes.

We will spend the morning outdoors watching and listening to the nature around us. We will collect sounds and make sketches as well as looking for objects that we can use to draw and to create sound.

In the afternoon we will split into 2 groups working in turn with Katherine and Orla at the Memorial Hall, Aberfoyle. Katherine will explore ways of sounding the landscape using instruments, our voices, found objects and recorded sound. We will learn about the elements that make up music and about how these help us to structure sound.

Orla will lead the drawing element of the workshop, exploring intuitive and expressive approaches to sounds and landscapes using both found objects and traditional art materials to create artworks and graphic scores.

At the end of the afternoon we will come together to explore how we can use graphic scores (a visual alternative to reading musical notation) to explore how shape, colour and composition can inspire sounds, and vice versa, finishing with an informal group performance.

Age Range: age 14-adult

Experience: No prior experience required, but if you play an instrument, please bring it along. Art materials will be provided.

Tickets are selling fast, so log on to Eventbrite here to book your place.

‘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.

Music for the Anthropocene

In partnership with the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland’s Art-Making in the Anthropocene series.

Concert Streaming from 27th April 17:00 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wVYuC4BRRIE

The Anthropocene – the era in which mankind’s effect on the earth became the dominant influence on the environment. Irreversible climate change, a lack of respect and care for the environment and for other species. The pursuit of wealth, the focus on the individual.

The arts have not been immune in the march of human “progress.” International touring, viewed as a mark of prestige coupled with easy and cheap travel has led to a world where artists are continually on the move, sometimes moving between countries on a daily basis.

How do we respond to this as artists? This is a question posed by the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland’s series, “Art-Making in the Anthropocene”, supported by the Royal Society of Edinburgh and SHARE. The talks have focused on a wide range of issues that artists are increasingly engaging with: social justice, awareness-raising, activism and, perhaps most important of all, the question of how we lessen our own impact on the planet.

When I was asked by series organiser, Dr. Emily Doolittle, to put together a concert for the series with Nordic Viola, it felt like a natural fit in many ways. I can’t pretend to be an angel when it comes to good practice – I’m not sure any of us can. Travel is, in many ways, intrinsic to my project. Air travel is inescapable if you are going to visit Greenland after all. Other than paying your way on an expedition boat or finding a way to travel on a cargo ship, there is no other way of getting there. However, when I do travel, I try to stay in one location and do as much as I can. I also find that this helps to build relationships. I’ve never owned a car, so I rarely have to face that demon. Slow travel is my life – if I possibly can cycle, walk or ski for transport then I will, and I love it.

You’ll have gleaned from this that being outdoors in the landscape is something intrinsic to my life. Rightly or wrongly, I don’t want to agonise too much about the state of the earth in my art. Overall I feel at peace in the world and I’d prefer to move people to make changes in their lifestyles in two ways. Firstly by showing that travelling slowly and living in a more sustainable way generally is possible and secondly by inspiring people to look at and love the beautiful world around them and consequently to seek to protect it by making better choices.

I hope that the programme I’ve chosen reflects this. That’s not to say we shy away from “gritty” issues. On the surface, Anna Appleby’s Hrakningar portrays migrating geese, but it also poses the question of why we accept the migration of non-human species and yet dispute the rights of people to migrate. You can hear Anna talking about the piece by clicking on the link for the piece above.

Similarly, Lisa Robertson’s Machair depicts this unique Scottish landscape with the sound of seabirds and a feeling of spaciousness. Yet the introduction of a Gaelic song underpinned by a sinister cello pedal point and the use of human voices highlights the effect of human interference on this precious landscape.

Antonia Kattou’s It’s a Sad Child That Destroys Its Own Weather for solo flute similarly incorporates the human voice. I find this piece incredibly disturbing, actually, and flautist Janet Larsson’s performance in our concert is quite startling in its focus and intensity.

Aileen Sweeney’s Siku, performed in our concert by cellist Ruth Rowlands, was composed in conjunction with William Harcourt, a PhD student of glaciology at The University of St. Andrew’s and depicts Greenlandic sea ice. I’ve experienced climate change first-hand in Greenland. People laugh at me when I tell them that I suffered heat exhaustion there, but temperatures in the mid-twenties that far north are no laughing matter. The first time I travelled to East Greenland we almost got stuck in the sea ice in a small dinghy. Nowadays that bit of sea is frequently completely clear of ice in the summer. You can argue that it’s not necessary to travel to see and know this but the impact of seeing it is much greater than reading reports of it. In return, I hope I have given back something good in the form of my music-making and work with musicians there.

The centrepiece of our programme offers a real moment of peace and musical stillness. The low energy and feeling of calm in Martin Suckling’s “Her Lullaby” comes from the pure consonances of just intonation, using the naturally occurring harmonic series, meaning that the frequencies of the intervals are in phase with each other. I learned this piece in the long second lockdown and found the intense listening required to pick up on the harmonics “within” the viola utterly absorbing and calming – almost a form of mindfulness.

The other two pieces in the programme were written during lockdown, with the composers contemplating the nature in their immediate vicinity and beyond. Ailie Robertson, in focusing on the natural sounds outside her Glasgow flat, casts her mind back to the beautiful sight of a hen harrier in Orkney performing a Skydance, its elaborate courtship ritual. The delicate harmonics on the viola depict the bird soaring and diving. There’s a feeling of space and freedom, something we all craved in lockdown.

Emily Doolittle’s Gardenscape focuses on the world outside her composing window. It’s great fun to play as Emily leaves it up to the performer to choose what birds to feature in their garden and how to structure the piece. The performer can decide whether or not it’s raining, whether to feature some birds more than others (though the blackbird really has to feature with its rich and varied song) and even whereabouts in the garden the birds are with some use of spatial techniques either electronically or (post-pandemic!) physically. What I most loved about putting this piece together was how it made me hyperaware of my own surroundings. I heard Emily’s garden birds everywhere in my village – blue tits, wood pigeons, chiff chaffs, blackbirds. Emily is spot on with her bird observations and transcriptions!

And so we come full circle, back to contemplating our planet and the need to protect the diverse and beautiful forms of life here. I hope indeed that our concert makes you listen intently to the world around you and inspires you to appreciate its beauty. Most of all, I hope it encourages you to consider our impact on it and to understand the damage that humans are causing. Hopefully you’ll leave our concert wanting to care just a little more about the legacy we’re leaving behind us and to do what you can to preserve our amazing landscapes.

Please join us as the concert streams for the first time this Tuesday, 27th April at 17:00 BST on https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wVYuC4BRRIE If you can’t make it live, you can catch up afterwards.

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

Histories and Herstories Composers Part 7

Lisa Robertson

Lisa Robertson is a composer from the West Highlands of Scotland. Although her community on the Morvern Peninsula is technically on the mainland, many aspects of life there are similar to life in the Northern Isles. The easiest way to get there is by ferry, (Corran ferry near Fort William or via the Isle of Mull). It is a coastal landscape with a similar ecology. The landscape is frequenty battered by storms and extreme weather, building a resilience into the close-knit communities. The sea is central to life here, providing jobs in fishing, tourism and transport and this fosters a strong sense of the importance of environmental protection for the communities.

The sea features strongly culturally, too, as does traditional music-making. These, along with seabirds, are the elements that figure most prominently in Lisa’s piece “Machair” for string quartet.

Machair is low-lying pastureland in the north-west of Scotland and Ireland. There is a balance between the wildness of nature and the managed traditional grazing that happens on the land. In many ways it is symbolic of mankind working with, rather than against nature. As it is low-lying, it is vulnerable to climate change and rising sea levels

In her piece, Lisa reflects this interaction between mankind and nature by combining human and natural sound. She transcribed the calls of twite, dunlin, lapwing, redshank and sanderling and took material from the Gaelic song, “Oh who will take this yearning from me.” In this song, the female singer tells of how the people who wronged her would like to see her taken “down the Machair”, or to the graveyard. The players are asked to hum, linking human with natural sounds. The final element in the music is a dark and foreboding gesture in the cello that appears periodically in the music. This represents the threat of climate change.

Lisa is currently undertaking a PhD at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland with Emily Doolittle and Bill Sweeney. Her music has been included in the programmes of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra with Thomas Dausgaard and the Slovak Sinfonietta as well as the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, Red Note EnsembleHebrides Ensemble. Her music has also been played in festivals including Cheltenham Festival, West Cork Chamber Music Festival, Sound Festival, Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and on BBC Radio 3 as well as performing her own solo violin piece at Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival 2019. She is featured in the August 2020 edition of BBC Music Magazine’s ‘Rising Stars’ column. You can learn much more about this exciting young composer and listen to more of her music here: https://www.lisarobertsonmusic.com/

Isle of Coll Music Group September 2019

Invigorated after sharing ideas of cultural practice in the rural economy at Shoormal Conference in Shetland, I travelled straight to Coll, one of Scotland’s smaller island communities, to perform with Helen Brew (flute), David Hubbard (bassoon) and David Martin (viola).

It was never going to be a straightforward journey, but after two days of precious little sleep and several hours of, at times, frustrating travel, we were richly rewarded by Coll at it’s Mediterranean best! I love the ruggedness of the Far North, but who’s going to complain about azure seas and autumn temperatures nudging the 20c mark in the west of Scotland? Great, too, to finally take this particular group of musicians, who’ve been there with me since Nordic Viola was formed, off the mainland to enjoy some time together in the sort of place that inspires our music-making.

What a beautiful hall to make music in, too! An Cridhe is a modern facility with a beautiful acoustic. It’s also the hub of community life: you can buy local crafts and produce, meet friends, have a cup of tea and shelter from the weather – necessary on day 2!!

Our programme was a mixture of music we know well and some new pieces, such as the Danish String Quartet’s beautiful arrangement of the “Unst Boat Song” (click on link for short video) from Shetland, given a slightly different flavour in this colourful combination of flute, 2 violas and bassoon. Also Emily Doolittle’s “Social Sounds from Whales at Night.” I’m playing this piece a lot this year – it’s very moving to duet with a whale and audiences love listening to it, too.

We also played a new set of Icelandic folk songs, originally arranged for piano by Snorri Sigfús Birgisson which I have scored for our group of four. These tunes encompass a wonderfully wide range of emotions from a playful, pizzicato duo for two violas through two melancholy tunes, so typically Icelandic in their harmonic language, through to the rumbustuous Skuli Fogeti.

From the Faroes we had William Heinesen’s “Variations on a Faroese Hymn Tune” and Kári Bæk’s lively “Fragment.”

It was a particular pleasure to welcome a group of anthropology students on a field trip from Durham University to our concert and I think they enjoyed hearing about Greenlandic life and listening to Arnannguaq Gerstrøm’s piece commissioned by us, “Ukioq.” (Lovely, too, to see the Durham students giving something back to the community that hosted them for 10 days with a free ceilidh.)

David and I were camping and woke up to a flame red sunrise. Beautiful, but you know what they say about red sky in the morning…. Buoyed up by a communal fry-up, we split up to explore the island, by bike, running and even wild swimming! Out on the massive sand dunes we gazed over at neighbouring Tiree and over the sea to Staffa. Meanwhile, Helen was swimming with seals. The Shepherd’s Warning caught up with us on the way back to Arinagour as we got a good soaking, but it had dried up by the time we got the ferry back to Oban. Not the beautiful sunny crossing we got on the way over, but with atmospheric cloudscapes and shafts of weak sun spotlighting the grey water.

Many thanks to Janet and Alison from Isle of Coll Music Group for looking after us so well, even taking the Hubbard family on a sightseeing tour of the island. Also to Enterprise Music Scotland and Creative Scotland for supporting the concert. Without them it would be impossible for small rural communities to experience professional music-making.

Nordic Viola in Coll

Nordic Viola’s first visit to the Hebrides! Come and join us for a September weekend on this beautiful island in the West of Scotland.

Coll is renowned for its nature and we will be celebrating this in music. Migrating geese were one of the enduring memories of my time in Egilsstaðir, East Iceland and it is around this time of year that Barnacle and White-fronted Geese are starting to arrive in Coll from Iceland and Greenland. Anna Appleby’s piece “Hrakningar” (listen here), commissioned by Nordic Viola and Sound Festival in Aberdeen describes the geese migrating whilst also looking at the wider issue of migration. Here’s Anna’s programme note:

“Hrakningar is an Icelandic word used to describe being buffeted by a storm or wind, blown somewhere against your will, and is also used to refer to dangerous events that happen to a person.

Hrakningar juxtaposes the freedom of migrating birds with the prejudice that refugees face when seeking a better life. The piece incorporates calls from the species of geese that travel between Iceland and Scotland as part of their yearly cycle, including Pink-Footed Geese, Brant (or Brent) Geese and Greylag Geese. They arrive in Scotland in Autumn and leave for Iceland in Spring each year. Geese face harsh conditions when travelling but their journeys are accepted and often celebrated while humans are expected to conform to imposed boundaries and borders. “

Coll is also known for its marine mammals and, after David and I were lucky enough to watch whales swimming off the coast of Greenland this summer, I will be particularly looking forward to playing Emily Doolittle’s “Social Sounds from Whales at Night” (listen here) where, essentially, I get to duet with humpback whales. It’s a very beautiful and moving piece.

We’ll also be including music from the Faroe Islands, Greenland and the Northern Isles of Scotland.

Ferry times mean that we’ll also have a bit of time to explore the island and to meet and socialise with our audience. Why not come over and spend a long weekend with us?

Greenland in Summer

From the moment I departed Greenland on 2nd March 2017 I’ve been yearning to go back, so it was with great excitement that I landed again in Nuuk airport, this time with husband and fellow viola player, David.

Nuuk was, of course, looking very different from when I left it – then it was covered in deep snow and we had temperatures down to -24C, this time it was the height of summer with temperatures into the +20s! The plus point of that was the prospect of exploring some of the backcountry on foot and by boat.

We weren’t performing on this occasion, but it would, of course, be impossible to visit Greenland and not be influenced by its vibrant culture and stunning landscapes.

Music

One of my aims of the trip was to get my hands on some more Greenlandic musical material and also learn a little bit more about the stories behind the music. A real find was a CD of Traditional Greenlandic Music recorded between 1905 and 1984 and collected by Danish ethnomusicologist Michael Hauser. The CD has music from all around the country and also from the Inuit of Canada. Songs from the drum dance tradition, innerutit, include songs expressing moods and feelings (anersaatit), songs for children (aqaatit), competitive songs from the Thule region in the far north (mumerutit) and the duel songs from East Greenland (pisit). It is one of these last group that forms the basis of an improvisation that I have performed on previous occasions. You can also watch an East Greenlander from Kulusuk performing here.

Most of the songs are strophic and conform to a local style, though there are often suffixes that allow for personal expression.

Turning to music of a more modern style, David and I were lucky enough to attend the dress rehearsal at the National Theatre of a performance of songs by Laarseeraq Svendsen, courtesy of my violinist friend, Hanne Saandvig Immanuelsen. The music was a light jazzy style, and, whilst the songs were performed in Greenlandic, it wasn’t hard to see characters you’d recognise almost anywhere. The light-hearted humour came across from the wonderfully engaging singers and I also enjoyed songs about the Northern Lights and other aspects of Greenlandic nature. The production toured Southern Greenland and culminated with the annual festival “Grønland i Tivoli” in Copenhagen on 30th/31st July.

Culture and History

With an eye on Scotland’s Year of Coasts and Waters in 2020, one of the topics I’m particularly interested in just now is the whaling industry stretching back to the 18th century and its links all the way across the North Sea and North Atlantic from Hull in my birth-county of Yorkshire, England, up the east coast of Scotland, through the Northern Isles and Faroes and on to Greenland. As the museum in Ilulissat stated, “Blubber=Money”! Blubber was used for lamp oil and cooking and fur from hunted animals was used in clothing.

But it’s not blubber I’m interested in, but rather the musical links. Sailors from Denmark and Scotland took their fiddles with them and danced and celebrated with the local people, exchanging dances including polkas. There are several Shetland tunes referring to Greenland (The Merry Boys of Greenland and Widefjord) and the Greenlandic polkas would certainly not seem so alien to Orcadians. When I was in Orkney I had met Len Wilson who had several relatives who sailed on the whalers to Greenland, so it’s interesting to visit the coastlines up the west coast of Greenland where these men journeyed and took their fiddles. There’s an excellent book on this subject by Shetland fiddle player, Maurice Henderson.

Nature and Landscape

Nowadays, of course, commercial whaling has vanished. Whale is still an essential food source for Greenlanders but it is hunted to strict quotas. Like any of us, the Greenlanders are also in awe of these beautiful creatures and just as likely to watch them swimming in Nuuk Fjord or Disko Bay. I’ve waited a long time to see a whale and so it was an incredible feeling to finally see these magnificent animals at the Ice Fjord in Ilulissat. I was also pleased to see them in the way I wanted to – quietly with just the two of us rather than in a large tourist group. I’m pretty sure we were watching humpbacks, though minkes and fin whales also visit these waters. They are big and yet graceful, slipping through the water in a soft arc, brandishing their large tails. I love the noise they make as they blow. A gentle yet powerful sound which I could hear from my tent 15mins walk away in the middle of the night!

Emily Doolittle’s piece “Social Sounds from Whales at Night” is already one of my favourite pieces to perform – I’m not quite sure how it’ll feel to duet with a humpback now I’ve actually seen one – even more moving, I’d imagine. I plan to play this piece again both in Coll on 21st September and at the Shoormal Conference in Shetland earlier that week.

Another inspiring sound was that of the ice fjord. The enormous icebergs in the UNESCO World Heritage site at Ilulissat become grounded as they reach the end of the 1000m deep fjord and get trapped on the lip of the trench, which is just a few hundred metres deep. Some of these icebergs are as big as an island, so you can imagine the forces acting on them, especially considering the glacier moves at a rate of 30-40m a day – exceptionally fast in glacial terms. The ice is constantly creaking and groaning and every now and again, something large fractures, letting off a “thundercrack.” When the balance shifts in an iceberg, it topples, displacing water, sometimes to the point of creating a mini-Tsunami.

Finally, the sound of dogs howling is synonymous with settlements north of the Arctic Circle in Greenland. It’s by no means constant, but come feeding time, all hell breaks loose! Throughout the day and night, small skirmishes break out in the packs, leading to more baying. Some people find it hard to sleep with this noise, but personally I love lying in my tent in the broad daylight of an arctic “night” listening to the sounds around as life never stops in the high-energy 24 hour daylight.

Postscript

Last night I went to a performance of “Kiinalik” at the Edinburgh Festival by Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory and Evalyn Parry. These remarkable artists come from two opposites sides of Canada: Toronto and Nunavut and Laakkuluk is half-British, half-Greenlandic. In just under 2 hours they explored issues relating to the colonisation of the Arctic, climate change and intertwined histories. It culminated in an immensely powerful Uaajeerneq (Mask Dance) by Laakkuluk. She describes uaajeerneq as playing with “four main themes: our humility as human beings in the vastness of the universe and our connection to our ancestors, sex, fear, and hilarity”. I was privileged to share the performance with a close friend and this performance said more about the issues confronting the Arctic (and, by extension, all of us) than I ever could attempt. It was one of the most sincere performances, full of integrity, I have ever witnessed. Despite having visited Greenland on several occasions now, it left me with a lot of food for thought.

Nordic Viola Summer 2019

Greenland

It’s going to be a busy summer for Nordic Viola. Well, when I say summer, I really mean up until the autumn equinox. After all, that’s the period when the further north you are, the more daylight you have.

In fact, we’ll start with 24 hours’ daylight in Ilulissat (and also Nuuk) in Greenland. We’ll be on holiday rather than performing, but visiting World Heritage Site Disko Bay with its famous icebergs is sure to be inspirational. I’ll also be on the lookout for new music and hope to catch up with some friends whilst we’re in Nuuk.

Out of the Box, Inverness Cathedral, 26th July

At the end of July, David Martin and I will be performing as part of Fiona Driver’s “Out of the Box” concert in Inverness Cathedral. I first met Fiona and husband Trevor in Orkney last year. Fiona and Trevor are top class fiddle players from the Northern Isles but are also good classical players and enjoy good music of any type. Reflecting their open-minded approach to music of all genres Fiona has assembled a group of interesting musicians currently working in the north. “Out of the Box” will feature traditional music from Fiona and Trevor. Representing the younger generation of Shetland fiddlers will be rising star Anya Johnston. Finally there is David Chadwick playing the Nyckelharpa, a Swedish folk instrument. I’m really looking forward to seeing this unusual instrument at close quarters and you can get a sneak preview here.

David Martin and I will be playing a set of Icelandic folk tunes, Judith Weir’s “Sleep Sound ida Morning” from “Atlantic Drift” and “Lullaby”, which is an early piece by Sibelius. We’ve also invited Fiona to join us in my piece “Mjørkaflókar“, inspired by the Faroes and her trio “Hoy’s Dark and Lofty Isle”.

You can find out much more about the concert and perfomers and also hear some of their music here.

Shoormal Conference “New Coasts and Shorelines: Shifting sands in the creative economy” Shetland 18th-20th September

In September I’ll be returning to Shetland and working again with composer Gemma McGregor from Orkney. We’ll be presenting and performing at the Shoormal Conference, hosted by University of the Highlands and Islands and Shetland Arts at the Mareel Centre in Lerwick.

“Shoormal” is a Shetlandic word for the shoreline or high water mark, reflecting the conference’s focus on islands, culture and heritage and young people. Gemma and I will be talking about our creative workshops in Orkney last year and will demonstrate how to create a piece inspired by the landscape and natural sound.

Our concert will feature written and improvised works for viola and flute by ourselves and other composers from the North Atlantic.The conference also looks at innovation, challenges and opportunities of working in the islands and so we will be illustrating ways of creating a broad palate of sound from limited resources and within the restrictions of flying on small planes in remote regions. We will follow the performance with a short discussion of the issues that musicians encounter when performing in remote areas.

Isle of Coll Music Group, 21st September

Putting into practice some of the issues we explored in Shetland, I’ll immediately head west to the Isle of Coll with old friends David Martin (viola) David Hubbard ( bassoon) and Helen Brew (flute). We’ll be playing music from all around the North Atlantic and I’ll post more on the programme nearer the time. To whet your appetite, here’s our absolute favourite, “Uyeasound Nocturne” by Adrian Vernon Fish and Emily Doolittle’s evocative “Social Sounds from Whales at Night.” In fact, I hope we might get to spot some whales off the coast of Coll whilst we’re there.

If you’ve never been to Coll, why not come and join us on the 7:15 boat from Oban on 21st September, spend the day exploring this small island and then come to our concert. You’ll then have Sunday morning to see more of the island or hop over to neighbouring island, Tiree, before heading back to the mainland.

Hope to meet some of you on the boat!