‘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.

Histories and Herstories Composers part 5

Anna Appleby

As with Lillie Harris, I first met Anna Appleby through the RSNO Composers’ Hub. It’s probably fair to say that “Hrakningar” grew out of someone else’s joke: Anna was in Reykjavik, where one of her choral pieces was being performed and she posted a short video of the geese on Tjörnin, the lake in the park near the centre of Reykjavik. One of her friends suggested she should write a piece incorporating their sound.

The geese have always been a potent symbol for me as their noisy conversation woke me early every morning as I  camped next to the Lagarfljót in East Iceland. After a month on the road, my mind was on travelling back to Scotland, just like the geese. I was intrigued to see who got there first: it was me by a short head but I remember the strong emotions I felt one day out on the bike when a large  skein of geese settled onto the field next to me. Every year now I await their migration in both directions between Iceland and Scotland. There was a special poignancy this year when they left as Scotland entered lockdown- almost like they were jumping ship.

With so much symbolism attached to the geese for me, you can imagine it was important to find the right composer for this commission and I knew that Anna understood how Iceland felt in winter.

©Graeme McDonald

Nordic Viola had been invited to play in Sound Festival in November 2018, which would feature the viola as part of their endangered instrument  series as well as the  music of women composers, and so I approached Fiona Robertson about jointly commissioning Anna to write us a piece.

In Anna’s words:

“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. 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.”

Working with Anna was a collaborative process. Whilst I very much wanted her to write the piece she wanted to write, I  did enjoy watching the piece develop as she sent sketches of the work in progress. I remember hearing the electronic soundtrack early in the process and being captivated by the eery, echoey sound of the geese. Somehow I can’t hear that track without thinking of the northern lights flickering overhead – you can practically feel the electricity in the air in this soundtrack. It sounds like a cliché, but then the northern lights were every bit as much of a feature of my time in East Iceland as the geese were.

Anna is currently studying for a PhD at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester but she hails originally from Newcastle upon Tyne. Her work engages with socio-political and spiritual themes and she writes for community as well as professional ensembles. She has a particular interest in writing for the stage and has enjoyed residencies with the Rambert Dance Company (2016-17) and Glyndebourne Opera (2019-21). In Glasgow she worked with Merchant Sinfonia as part of the PRS Foundation’s “Adopt a Composer” scheme and wss part of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra’s Composers’ Hub in 2017-18.

Community work is important to her and she has been  composer in residence with Streetwise Opera in Manchester  and artist in residence with Quay Voices. She also works teaching and mentoring young composers.

Key awards include the GDST Trailblazer Award in 2018 and 2nd prize in the Royal Northern Sinfonia‘s “Mozarts of Tomorrow” competition in January 2016.

Unusually in this era of specialisation, Anna is also an accomplished visual artist and writer.

You can find out much more about Anna and her music at: https://www.annaappleby.com/

Shoormal Conference Shetland

Sometimes it feels like the places I love most don’t want to let me go. The time I almost missed my plane after a month in Nuuk, Greenland, and then had to wait 13 hours in driving snow in Kangerlussuaq prior to flying to Copenhagen. As I write this, I’m gazing longingly at Fitful Head in Shetland bathed in sunshine whilst I sit at Sumburgh Airport waiting for fog to clear in Glasgow.

It’s been a wonderful and energising week here at the University of the Highlands and Islands’ Shoormal Conference. Somewhat paradoxically as I’m dead tired from a 9 till 9 schedule and my mind is buzzing.

“Shoormal” is the old Norn word for the space between the sea and the shoreline and the conference explored themes looking to the future and the spaces between with regard to the creative economy in rural areas.

Nordic Viola was there to demonstrate our work in schools taking our Orkney workshops as a case study. Working alongside Gemma McGregor, we presented 4 soundscapes from the Far North: the sea crashing on the cliffs at Mykines in the Faroes, an icy walk and an Inuit drum dance from Greenland, and geese from Iceland. As we did in Orkney, we asked our audience to reflect on aspects of the sounds that were familiar to them or resonated with their own experience. The vote from the floor was to improvise a piece based on the geese.

We were then joined by fellow musicians Renzo Spiteri, Morag Currie and Natalie Cairns-Ratter to put together some sounds. We demonstrated how the process encourages students to reflect on sound and the environment, sound production and timbre and structure in music. It is also a process that requires co-operation and empathy between participants as they learn to respond to each other’s sounds and to signal stages of the performance to each other. (Naturally these are skills that our conference volunteers already possess to a high degree, but it is important to recognise the role this plays in an educational setting and the value of music in the curriculum).

We ended the session by playing the results from previous workshops in Orkney and Shetland. We included a recording from the Sumartónar Festival in the Faroes where students from Torshavn Music School joined us in performing a piece composed by students from Anderson High in Lerwick, showing how products of workshops can be used to make connections between areas across the North Atlantic.

The following day Gemma and I gave a performance on flute, viola, piano, small percussion and electronics. Taking our audience on a journey connecting the islands of the North Atlantic through environment, seafaring and legend, we demonstrated the wide palate of sounds to be made from 2 musicians and equipment that can be carried on a standard baggage allowance – assuming access to a piano, that is. The performance included the premiere of Nordic Viola’s latest commission: “Carry His Relics” for flute and viola, a reflection by Gemma McGregor on the St. Magnus Way in Orkney. I also performed Lagarfljót, a piece for viola and electronics inspired by my visit to East Iceland earlier this year.

On Thursday night we could finally relax and enjoy performances by the musicians who’d so generously joined us for our workshop. Morag Currie’s “Idea of North” is a multimedia composition for fiddle, viola and Ableton Live digital workstation with visual imagery and selected prose. Many of the inspirations are similar to those in my project, but whereas my principle musical influence comes from contemporary music infused with traditional music, Morag’s is the other way round. I loved the beautiful imagery in Morag’s screenwork, too. Ableton Live is new software to me and is something I would like to investigate.

My first encounter with Renzo Spiteri and Gaby was actually being tossed around on the Northlink ferry on Monday night. Renzo very courageously relocated to Shetland on Monday at the same time as diving straight in with a performance of “Stillness”, a solo performance of sounds, field recordings from Shetland and electronics. I loved how Renzo found rhythm in natural sound and how he amplified the timbres inherent in these sounds through his improvisation. For me, his real love for these islands was very apparent in his work.

Natalie Cairns-Ratter is also a performer but she was at Shoormal to talk about Music and Communication Skills, particularly relating to children with ASD-Autism Spectrum Disorder. Preparation for our workshop meant I didn’t get to Natalie’s session but I had several conversations with her where her passion for her work and for music provision in Shetland were evident. I really hope I can return to Shetland and work alongside her sometime soon.

This is the first time I’ve attended an interdisciplinary conference and I found it a very stimulating experience. Nordic Viola is inspired by landscape, culture and heritage from the region and it was inspiring to learn how artists from other disciplines have responded to this stimulus. I also learned so much from academics specialising in this area and I’m sure I’ll be tapping into their research for future projects. Real standouts for me were Dr. Andrew Jennings on an exploration of Shetland’s place names and identity and Dr. Antonia Thomas‘ talk on Art and Archaeology. As a trained linguist and translator I share Andrew’s fascination with links to Old Norse. I’d never really reflected on the links between art and archaeology before, so Antonia’s talk left me with much to reflect on.

Finally I must offer a big thank you to UHI for putting such a stimulating programme together. Thanks also to all at Mareel for their professionalism. We were so well looked after and the tech staff had everything covered before we even had chance to ask! I’ve a feeling I’ll be back in Shetland soon – once I’ve managed to leave, that is!





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?