Our documentary/concert film “Sagas and Seascapes”, featuring interviews with the composers, stunning film footage and artwork produced specifically for the film, as well as two world premieres was streamed by Orkney International Science Festival last Friday.
It’s now available to view at your leisure on YouTube.
This week is a landmark week for Nordic Viola in several respects. First and foremost, it’s the first time we’ve headed north since UHI’s Shoormal Conference in September 2019. (Little did we know then what was coming.) It seems an age ago and yet, in the scheme of things, 2 years isn’t so long.
So what are we up to? We have a team of composers (Linda Buckley, Lillie Harris and Orkney-based Gemma McGregor) and a video producer (Craig Sinclair) going to Orkney to film content for our online concert for Orkney International Science Festival, which will be premiered on 3rd September. It’s quite an operation in the covid age, but a process that musicians and producers alike are having to get used to in this strange new world. Pre-travel testing, health questionnaires, rigorous planning to allow for safe travel, accommodation and distancing whilst working.
Hopefully all will go to plan, we can enjoy the amazing history and scenery that Orkney has to offer and produce some exciting and engaging content.
Another landmark moment is working with a visual artist, Orla Stevens. Orla will interpret the landscapes and seascapes around us as well as interpreting the emotional responses of the composers as they explore the places that inspired their music.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the 2nd July marks Nordic Viola’s return to live performance and I am so happy that this should happen in the Northern Isles. Gemma McGregor and I will perform a programme of music for flute and viola entitled “Birds and Landscapes of the North.” We will play some of our own music as well as music by Ailie Robertson and Electra Perivolaris, two of the most exciting young composers on the Scottish scene. The Faroes and Denmark will be represented with pieces by Kári Bæk and Kristain Rasmussen, who is currently studying in Aberdeen. There’ll also be traditional music from Shetland and Orkney and a brand new tune composed for the occasion by Orkney fiddler, Fiona Driver.
Following our first online international workshop earlier this month, I am delighted to announce the winners of our recent “Seastories” Competition.
Our overall winner is Anni Helena Lamhauge from the Faroe Islands. Anni’s Korona-Trot for accordion reflects on her boredom with Corona as she looked out over the sea, watching the changing light. Her music reflects this, shifting from a dark C minor to the warmer, brighter key of A flat major.
In runner up spot is Ronja Gaard Hansen, also of the Faroes, with her tune for violin and piano, Fjøra, which means seashore.
Anni Helena’s piece will feature in our online “Sagas and Seascapes” concert for Orkney International Science Festival from 3rd September, but we will also be introducing Ronja’s tune to you in a short video in the lead-up to the festival.
Our Shetland winner was Victoria Byrne McCombie with Cumliewick Shore. Victoria thought of the tide and the way it comes in and out. She chose to have a note through the tune that the melody keeps coming back to, like the melodic movement of the tide. Victoria’s piece will be performed in Shetland on 25th September at the Boat Hall in Shetland Museum, when we take “Sagas and Seascapes out live!
We also received a recording of a Greenlandic Hymn from our friends in Maniitsoq which, with permission, we will hope to share with you later too.
Many thanks to Gemma McGregor for leading the workshop and to Dávur Juul Magnussen for interpreting and for helping with the music!
On International Women’s Day we are pleased to announce that our concert of music by women composers from the islands of the North Atlantic, “Histories and Herstories” will be featured in this year’s 5th International St. Magnus Conference hosted by the Institute of Northern Studies at the University of the Highlands and Islands. The concert will be streamed on Friday 16th April at 16:15 BST at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZosZA_ZG_fM
The concert links into themes explored in the conference looking at the role women have played in society from the Hebrides, Northern Isles and on to the Faroes, Iceland and Greenland from Medieval times to the present day. The conference link is here.
Shetland fiddler Margaret Robertson reflects on what it means to “always be a mother” in her piece Mother’s Love, written for a close friend who had recently lost a son. Figuratively speaking, Margaret is also a mother to “her gals”, the fiddlers of Edinburgh Tattoo band Hjaltibonhoga and we celebrate this in Windy Wellington” and St. Kilda Beach, written for Hjaltibonhoga’s trips to Australia and New Zealand. There are men in the band too, of course, but it is interesting to reflect on how Shetland fiddling, traditionally a pursuit of the menfolk, has become so popular with women and girls in our times, thanks in no small part to Margaret’s role as a teacher.
Margaret has been an invaluable source of information and inspiration in my work, too, and Mjørkaflókar, one of Nordic Viola’s most iconic pieces, was workshopped with Margaret’s pupils at Anderson High School, Lerwick, Shetland in 2016. In this concert it is performed with two students from Tórshavn Music School in the Faroes.
The hardship of motherhood in medieval times is represented in Jocelyn Hagen’s stunning arrangement of Sofðu Unga Ástin Min. In this traditional Icelandic lullaby, a mother sings to her child before leaving them out in the cold to die. Mothers struggling with too many mouths to feed in the harsh winters of Iceland would sometimes have to make this heart-rending choice.
The harsh winter weather of the Northern Isles of Scotland is represented in Lillie Harris’ AND for solo viola, a response to Jen Hadfield’s poem, “Blashey Wadder” from Nigh-No-Place (Bloodaxe Books, 2008) Fiona Driver’s Wild November depicts the swirl of a windy late autumn day in Orkney. Winter can also be a time of great beauty and is celebrated in the Arctic regions. Arnannguaq Gerstrøm’s Ukioq is inspired by the spirit, nature and forces of winter in Greenland.
Like Margaret, Arnannguaq is a prominent leader in her home in Nuuk, Greenland. She led the Nuuk Music School for a time and is now influential as a business leader where she places great emphasis on developing her staff. Alongside this, she continues to compose and make music as an ambassador for the culture of her country.
Mankind’s interaction with the landscape and nature are important elements in Anna Appleby’s Hrakningar and Lisa Robertson’s Machair. Anna uses the metaphor of geese migrating from Iceland to Scotland to reflect on attitudes to human migration and uses an other-worldly blend of goose calls and electronics alongside a trio of flute, viola and bassoon. “Machair” depicts this beautiful and fragile landform of the West Coast of Scotland. Lisa includes the human voice humming fragments of a Gaelic song as she reflects on how climate change is impacting on coastal landscapes.
Gemma McGregor is another longstanding partner of Nordic Viola and her piece Joy draws in elements of Hardanger Fiddle style from Norway which has always had a strong influence in traditional music in Orkney and Shetland. Gemma, too, plays a strong role in the musical life of her island home. She has been commissioned by the St. Magnus Festival in Orkney and plays with and leads several ensembles in the islands. She also lectures on women composers and teaches composition at the University of Aberdeen.
You can find out much more about the individual composers elsewhere in the blog and find links to their music.
“Histories and Herstories” is performed by violinists Emily Nenniger and Anne Bünemann, myself, Katherine Wren on viola and Ruth Rowlands on cello. Helen Brew (flute) and David Hubbard (bassoon) join me in “Ukioq” and “Hrakningar” and Janet Larsson (flute) and David Martin (viola) perform in “Mjørkaflókar.” We very much hope you can join us on 16th April as we close out the conference.
Nordic Viola is grateful for the support provided for this production by Creative Scotland, The Ambache Trust, raising the profile of women composers, and the RVW Trust. Thanks also to Craig Sinclair Video. Our concert is part of Scotland’s Year of Coasts and Waters 2020/21.
This concert is free to access but if you would like to support us in paying our musicians and composers fairly and to extend the reach of our education work, you can donate via Buy me a coffee or Paypal.me You can also keep up to date with our work by scrolling down to the bottom of our home page and entering your email address. Thank you for your support.
The next in my series of featured women composers from our Histories and Herstories concert is actually a group of composers and, I’ll own up, does also include a young man! They are pupils from Anderson High School in Lerwick, Shetland and they also have a link to my last featured composer, Margaret Robertson, as they were her fiddle students.
Back in November 2016 I spent three evenings working in Anderson High School on a series of improvisations based on Nordic tunes. This was a new way of working for the students and they were initially sceptical. However, after playing back a recording of their initial efforts on day 1, they embraced the projet wholeheartedly.
Our piece “Mjørkaflókar” was the outcome of this work and it has become one of Nordic Viola’s most emblematic pieces, combining traditional music, new ways of making music, involving young people and making connections between regions of the North Atlantic.
The title, “Mjørkaflókar” is a Faroese word meaning “foggy banks of cloud”, the type you get swirling around the islands on a high pressure weather day.
We took a fragment of a “Skjaldur” (Faroese children’s rhymes) called “Eg sat mær uppi í Hási”. First of all we built up a texture using the main notes of the melody. A solo violin then introduces the melody before 3 groups of fiddles play it as a round. The music then subsides to the opening texture. We talked about the piece we had created and how it represented the fact that, whilst Shetland and the Faroes are geographically and culturally close, it is virtually impossible to travel directly between the islands, something felt quite stongly by both island communities.
The piece now exists in two forms – the original semi-improvised version and a fully written out version. We have performed in several occasions, the most notable being in the Faroes’ “Sumartónar” festival in July 2018 when we were joined by two students of Jóna Jacobsen from Tórshavn music school, Nancy Nónskarð Dam and Bergur Davidsen. They were really touched to receive this gift from their counterparts in Shetland.
The recording is from this performance:
Next Thursday we should have been performing “Mjørkaflókar” with younger students from Anderson High School. Hopefully next April we will, finally, be able to bring “Mjørkaflókar” home for it’s first public performance in Shetland.
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.
For anyone working in the sphere of Nordic music, Sibelius
is an unavoidable influence. Always one of my favourite composers, my Nordic
music journey really began in 2015 with an RSNO performance of the mighty “Kullervo”
Symphony with Ed Gardner at the Edinburgh Festival in 2015. I’d just returned
from my first visit to Greenland and this piece, which I’d never encountered
before, struck a real chord with me. Its power, energy and sense of melancholic
longing was an outlet for my emotions and made me realise that I had to travel
to the Far North again, and soon! One year later and I was travelling to
Iceland at the start of a project that has become very dear to my heart: Nordic
The afternoon’s workshop will focus first on the Violin Concerto, with special guests RSNO leaders Maya Iwabuchi in Glasgow and Sharon Roffman in Edinburgh, who will offer us an insight into how Sibelius writes for the violin. (Sibelius actually aspired to become a virtuoso violinist himself!)
We will look at how Sibelius became a defining figure for emerging Finnish Nationalism with “Finlandia” and his dynamic orchestral works based on the “Kalevala”. Music filled with a longing for freedom, a pride in Finnish nature and literature with a gift for displaying the duality of light and dark in Finnish art and culture.
After the break, we’ll be joined by Thomas Søndergård as we look at Sibelius the symphonist. We will follow the composer’s journey towards the incredible Seventh Symphony, which the RSNO will perform the same night in the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall with Thomas. We’ll explore how Sibelius explored the possibilities of expressing symphonic material in the most concise way imaginable by minimising gesture, optimising musical motifs and focusing on minute details in his music. Sibelius never completed his Eighth Symphony and what he had written was consigned to flames in his home, “Ainola”. Was there any more left for him to say after condensing symphonic form in the way he did in the Seventh Symphony?
And yet this sense of melancholy and longing, the starkness of the northern landscape in music and the obsession with tiny detail lives on in modern Nordic music with composers such as rising star from Iceland, Anna Thorvaldsdóttir, Danes Per Nørgård and Bent Sørensen as well as Faroese composer Sunleif Rasmussen. Closer to home, Anna Appleby, alumnus of the RSNO Composer’s Hub, wrote “Hrakningar” for my own Nordic Viola ensemble, a piece that reflects on the migration of geese between Iceland and Scotland and our attitudes to human migration – not so far removed from Sibelius’ famous swans and cranes!