‘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.

April News Update

Histories and Herstories

Raising the profile of music by women

There’s lots going on with Nordic Viola this month. First of all, one year after it was meant to happen, our “Histories and Herstories” concert will be streaming online for the University of the Highlands and Islands’ Institute of Northern Studies on 16th April from 4:15pm. The concert is part of the 5th International St. Magnus Conference, which this year focuses on the role of women in island life and features speakers from all around the North Atlantic as well as further afield.

Our programme of music by women composers ranges from traditional tunes from Orkney (Fiona Driver), Shetland (Margaret Robertson) and Iceland (arranged by Jocelyn Hagen) to new music from Greenland in our commission from Arnannguaq Gerstrøm that depicts winter in the Arctic. There’s also music reflecting on climate change and the landscape by Lisa Robertson, and migration, human and avian, by Anna Appleby. Other composers include Gemma McGregor and Lillie Harris.

This concert proved to be one of the most popular events in Orkney International Science Festival’s 2020 festival. As well as the music, people commented on the beautiful images of the Far North in the video. Here’s a little taster featuring the Faroe Islands in Mjørkaflókar, composed by me and students from Anderson High School in Shetland. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2sakvHqCVPM

If you didn’t hear the concert last time, make sure you set a reminder by clicking on this link for the 16th at 4:15 BST. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZosZA_ZG_fM If you heard it and enjoyed it, please share far and wide with your friends and acquaintances!

Art-Making in the Anthropocene

Our second concert this month is for the Art-Making in the Anthropocene Series hosted by the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.

Art-Making in the Anthropocene is a series of 8 free online talks/discussions and an online concert, which bring together Scottish and international artists, activists, and academics from across disciplines to explore what art-making can be in this time of ecological emergency.

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

Our concert features music with a connection to the environment and humankind’s relationship with it. All the composers have a strong connection to Scotland. Some of them are old friends of ours, but we also issued a call for scores and we’re excited to bring you some new voices from the thriving contemporary music scene here in Scotland.

We’re also partnering with the Ear to the Ground Podcast who interviewed our composers for the concert and who will be presenting an issue of the podcast focusing on the ideas behind the concert. I’ll share the links with you, as well as more information on the composers and music, nearer the time.

Art-Making in the Anthropocene is supported by:

Aud by Linda Buckley

Finally, a taster of news about an exciting project that we’ll be working on between May and September this year.

This week I received our new commission from Linda Buckley, supported by PRSF Women Make Music. Aud is a new piece for clarinet, violin, viola, cello and electronics and it will form the centrepiece of our new programme, “Sagas and Seascapes.” It depicts Aud’s journey from Ireland, via Orkney to Iceland, where she was one of the early women settlers. Featuring an atmospheric electronic track and with music brimming with energy, we can’t wait to start work on it.

Much more news to follow on “Sagas and Seascapes” in May. Add your email address below to subscribe and you’ll be amongst the first to hear about our exciting plans!

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/