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!

From Stromness to Somerset

It’s been an exceptionally busy month for Nordic Viola which has seen me travel the length of the UK, with Nordic Viola’s most southerly concerts to date!

At the very end of September I renewed my partnership with Icelandic pianist, Arnhildur Valgarđsdóttir, with a programme of music entitled “A Journey Around the North Atlantic” for the Orkney Norway Friendship Association. At the heart of the programme were the two sonatas we performed in Seyđisfjörđur in the summer; Jón Thorarinsson’s Sonata and Adrian Vernon Fish’s Greenland-inspired Qaanaaq. We also included music closely connected to the heritage of Iceland and Orkney; Gemma McGregor’s Raven Banner and Heyr Himna Smiđur (“Hear, smith of the heavens”) a famous hymn tune by þorkell Sigurbjörnsson to words by Kolbeinn Tumason The programme opened with a March by Orkney resident Tom Deyell, which he wrote for the Shetland Folk Society Tune Competition.

We had a fabulous audience, which included travellers from Norway and Canada and we very much enjoyed swapping stories whilst being entertained by the fabulous young musicians from the Stromness Strathspey and Reel Society.

Arnhildur introduced us to some tales from the Sagas. What we forgot to talk about was her ancestral links to Orkney. She can trace her family line back to Rognvald Eysteinsson, also an ancestor of St. Magnus. Arnhildur’s family line traces back to Icelandic chieftain Hrollaug before branching off at Thordis (see below). Arnhildur was excited to visit Orkney and we enjoyed an afternoon exploring history in St. Magnus’ Cathedral, Kirkwall.

We had some true Orcadian weather (read 70mph gusts and lashing rain!) so I spent the morning of the concert in Stromness Museum, learning more about Orkney’s exploration and trading in the Arctic – sure that will find its way into a project someday.

Northern Stories Festival- Lyth Arts

I’ve been following the great work done by Charlotte Mountford at Lyth Arts in Caithness for sometime now, so when the opportunity came to take Sagas and Seascapes to the Northern Stories Festival, which was exploring Caithness’ Norse heritage, I absolutely jumped at the chance.

On this occasion I was presenting a screening of the Sagas and Seascapes film as per the original version for Orkney International Science Festival in 2021, but also including live performances of William Heinesen’s Variations on a Faroese Hymn Tune, Kári Bæk’s Wogen and The Drummer, the Scottish traditional tune that inspired the Danish Dromer. I also took Orla’s paintings with me.

Lyth Arts is a totally rejuvenating place for an artist to stay – at least for one who needs space around them! It is set in the flatlands of Caithness between Wick and Thurso, backing onto the peatlands of the Flow Country. Set up originally by local artist William Wilson, it has space for exhibitions and workshops as well as a small theatre. Artists are accommodated in the adjacent house and it’s a great place to meet and share ideas.

I was sharing with accordionist Neil Sutcliffe (coincidentally a friend of Orla’s) and Danish Storyteller Svend-Erik Engh as well as Svend’s partner, Alice, also a storyteller. I attended their workshop in the morning where I learned lots about how to tell a story engagingly before I joined the musicians in improvising along to the words.

Back in Thurso I had a couple of days to absorb myself in the landscapes that constantly inspire my music. I’m more used to seeing the Caithness coast from the Orkney boat but I think a new love affair has begun. The perilous coastline is riddled with hidden geos (rocky inlets), caves and blowholes. I also got to see an upwards waterfall (blown upwards by the wind)! You need your wits about you exploring those cliffs but the yield is a wealth of exciting colours, shapes and sounds. This was all topped off by the sight of a full moon reflecting on the water across Thurso Bay after an earlier golden sunset.

More museum time was had at the North Coast Visitor Centre. The expected displays on Norse and Pictish culture were there, but also absorbing panels on the ecology of the Flow Country. Every time I travel through that area it draws me in with its isolated peaks, saturated ground that now and again breaks out into a small lochan. On the surface of it, it looks barren, but it’s teeming with birdlife and, at ground level, the delicate sphagnum mosses are full of colour with their intricate little leaves. Autumn is one of the most beautiful times to see it with the russet-red dying bracken set against gunmetal skies, laden with heavy downpours.

Somerset

Into late October and a change of pianist on the stool as I joined Kevin Duggan for three concerts down in the south-west of England. We started with two concerts in Glastonbury and Midsomer Norton performing much of the programme I’d played with Arnhildur, but adding in Rebecca Clarke’s characterful and varied Shorter Pieces and a new piece by Kevin based on Icelandic hymn tune, Almáttigur Guð.

Kevin is a native of Somerset and proved a wonderful guide, taking us out into the Mendips and introducing us to some of the prehistoric archaeological sites of Wiltshire. There is a connection to Orkney here, as it has been mooted that the ancient Orcadians may have travelled south and passed on their architectural skills gleaned from building edifices such as the Ring of Brodgar and Skara Brae to those constructing the likes of Stonehenge and West Kennet Longbarrow. In the dark warmth out of a hefty downpour, it felt right to get the viola out for a quick improvisation to these ancient peoples.

Dunsden, Reading

Our final performance was at Dunsden Church  near Reading at the behest of composer Adrian Vernon Fish, who wrote Qaanaaq.

Being with people who know, love and have connections in Greenland is always a special experience for me as there are not so many people in this country that I can talk to and who I know have experienced what it is to spend time there living and working with Greenlanders. I felt a real responsibility to communicate the emotions and tell the stories that Adrian crafted so well in his Qaanaaq Sonata: the intense outpouring of the Aria and the helter-skelter chaos of the dogsled ride, Qimmusseq before the final Piseq or drum dance, which for me exemplifies the slower pace of life and patience of Greenlanders.

Before Qaanaaq and as a tribute both to Greenland and to Adrian who shares a love of that country with me, I played a short improvisation on an East Greenland Entertaining Song.

It was a wonderful, moving occasion and a concert that’ll stay in my mind for a long time.

Sagas and Seascapes at Northern Stories Festival 11th October

Sagas and Seascapes will be part of the Northern Stories Festival at Lyth Arts in Caithness on Tuesday 18th October at 8pm. Northern Stories Festival 2022 is a spectacular celebration of the stories of the Far North of Scotland, taking place across Caithness this October. 

Nordic Viola will screen Craig Sinclair’s Sagas and Seascapes film alongside live performance by Katherine Wren on viola of Variations on a Faroese Hymn Tune by William Heinesen, Wogen by Kári Bæk and The Drummer, a traditional Scottish Tune that inspired the Danish tune arr. by the Danish String Quartet The Dromer, which features at the end of the film.

Norse stories form the inspiration for this programme. Award-winning Irish composer Linda Buckley’s Aud draws on the Icelandic Sagas. Lillie Harris’ Elsewhen seeks to capture the strangeness, wonder, and melancholy of Orkney’s ancient sites, whilst in Carry His Relics, Orkney composer Gemma McGregor describes a journey along the St Magnus Way.

Orla Stevens‘ art from the project, inspired by music from Gemma McGregor, Lillie Harris and Linda Buckley, will also be on display at Lyth Arts.

Northern Stories Festival 2022 is a spectacular celebration of the stories of the Far North of Scotland, taking place across Caithness this October. 

‘Sharing the stories of the Far North of Scotland.’

Celebrating our ancient Nordic connections and our close ties to North America, the festival will connect the lochs and coastline of the North Highlands, the fjords of Norway and the Great Lakes of Canada. 

An exciting programme of online and in-person events will include an international line-up of performers and story-tellers from the Highlands, Scandinavia and Canada. With talks, workshops, films and exhibitions, there will be something for all the family to get involved in. 

You can view the full festival programme at https://lytharts.org.uk/events/category/northern-stories-festival/list/

Don’t forget, too, that Katherine and Arnhildur Valgarðsdóttir (piano) will be performing for the Orkney-Norway Friendship Association in Stromness Town Hall on 30th September at 7:30pm. More information on that here.

We look forward to seeing you at one or both of these events.

Carry His Relics by Gemma McGregor

In the countdown to Sagas and Seascapes at the Fringe, each day this week I’m going to give you a short video introduction to each of the pieces in the programme.

First up is “Carry His Relics” by Gemma McGregor.

‘Carry His Relics’ describes the journey mentioned at the end of the Orkneyinga Saga when the followers of St Magnus carried his remains from Christkirk, Birsay along the coast to the capital town of Kirkjuvagr. 

​St Magnus is the patron saint of Orkney. He was murdered on 16th April, 1117. Twenty years after Magnus’ death, a farmer called Gunni, from the Orkney island of Westray, reported that Magnus had appeared to him in a dream and instructed him to tell Bishop William that he wanted his relics moved. Gunni reported his dream and permission was granted. 

​After the procession along the coast of Orkney, Magnus’ remains were interred at St Olaf’s Kirk, although they were later moved to St Magnus Cathedral. Many miracles had been reported by those who had prayed to St Magnus for help. 

​The joyful processional melodies make reference to both Magnus’ Viking culture and his Christian beliefs by using traditional Orcadian and Norwegian style music and by quoting from 12th century plainchants that may have been sung by the followers of Magnus.

The fifty-five mile long route taken by the pilgrims subsequently became a devotional walk but fell out of use centuries ago. The St Magnus Way was cleared and reopened in 2017 to mark the 900th anniversary of the martyrdom of St Magnus. 

www.gemmamcgregor.com

Tickets: https://www.sagasandseascapes.com/events

Countdown to Sagas and Seascapes in Edinburgh!

So here we are, just over 2 weeks to our performance of Sagas and Seascapes as part of Made in Scotland at The Scottish Storytelling Centre at Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Performances are 15th-17th August at 20:30 and tickets are available now here. If you live too far away to travel to Edinburgh, then you can join in, too, with an online screening on 18th August at 19:00 followed by a live Q and A with me, Orla and three of the composers, Gemma McGregor, Lillie Harris and Eli Tausen á Lava. It’s free but ticketed, with tickets available here.

This will be our biggest performance of this programme to date. The music will be performed live with Craig Sinclair‘s beautiful film for the first time. The film includes Orla Steven’s specially commissioned artwork, spectacular film of Orkney and beyond and interviews with Orla and composers Gemma McGregor, Lillie Harris, Eli Tausen á Lava and Linda Buckley. This year there is new film footage with Eli’s Søgnin um Kópakonuna í 10 Myndum (The Tale of the Sealwoman in 10 pictures).

To find out more about what makes our performance so special, watch this video from Ed McKeon of Third Ear Music:

I know some of you particularly enjoy news of Nordic Viola’s travels in the Far North. I have plenty of news and reflections from my recent trip to Iceland and, in between all the Edinburgh planning, I’ll try to give you a longer read and some scenery, too!

We’re really looking forward to seeing you in Edinburgh. Bring along your stories of the Far North – we love hearing other people’s tales of the Far North, and some of them might even find their way into a future performance!

If you’re making a holiday out of your trip to Edinburgh this summer and can make it over to Stirling, or indeed you live in our area, then Orla Stevens also has a solo exhibition of her Orkney-inspired work at the MacRobert Arts Centre at Stirling University. It runs from 20th August for around a month.

Finally, don’t forget to have a quick look at our Sagas and Seascapes website which has loads of interesting features from our composers and artists. I’ve really enjoyed reading their perspectives on our work together.

Return to Orkney and a Recital in Iceland

Last week I travelled up to Orkney – not with Nordic Viola this time, but with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra for the St. Magnus Festival. Nevertheless, with our performance of Sagas and Seascapes at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe as part of the Made In Scotland Showcase just 2 months away, returning to Orkney a year after we filmed there was an emotional experience.

Passing the Old Man of Hoy which features in our film of Linda Buckley’s Aud and then rounding the corner of Hoy and seeing the mountains exactly as captured in Orla Steven’s painting to Elsewhen by Lillie Harris.

On Sunday I had time to travel to Rousay, a new island for me. The weather was wild, with gale force winds. I found myself wondering how Aud would have experienced this coastline back in the 9th century, what her emotions were as she passed the imposing cliffs on her way to a new life in Iceland.

Cycling on the south side of Rousay, we looked across Eynhallow sound towards the Broch of Gurness where Gemma McGregor reflected on the journey of St. Magnus to his death in Egilsay. The tidal races through the sound are famously fast, and we were treated to a view of them in full flow. Travelling back to Tingwall on the mainland, I saw St. Magnus’ Chruch on Egilsay for the first time. You can read more about the influence of Magnus’ story on Gemma McGregor over on our sister site, sagasandseascapes.com

I felt the ghosts of these ancient peoples all around me after working so intensively with Craig Sinclair over the last few weeks on new film for our first multimedia live performance of Sagas and Seascapes at the Scottish Storytelling Centre 15th-17th August. Book your tickets here. If you can’t make it to Edinburgh, we will also be screening it online on 18th August. Tickets are free here. The screening will be followed by a zoom Q and A with the composrs, artist Orla Stevens and myself.

Recital in Iceland

After briefly touching base, I’ll be travelling to Iceland for the first time since 2019 to perform in the Summer Concert Series at the beautiful Bláakirkjan in Seyđisfjörđur in the East Fjords on 6th July. I’m really looking forward to performing again with pianist Arnhildur Valgarđsdóttir in what I’m sure will be a special event. The last time I played in this gorgeous church with a wonderful acoustic was right at the start of my travels with Nordic Viola in 2016. Back then, I had no idea that Nordic Viola would grow into the project that it is now.

I’ve been enjoying repertoire new and old as I practise for the concert. I’ve been getting to know Jón Thorarinsson’s sonata, which was written originally for clarinet. It’s a delightful three-movement work, full of melody and some jaunty rhythms. Thorarinsson was actually born in Eiðar near Egilsstaðir, just up the road from Seyðisfjörður and a place I know very well!

On a much larger scale is Adrian Vernon Fish’s “Qaanaaq Sonata” inspired by the eponymous settlement in North Greenland. It’s a monumental work which challenges both players and moves from the starkness of the Arctic landscape, through a warm, lyrical melody ( melody is a real feature of Adrian’s music) and onto a wild and exhilarating dog-sled ride in a rather funky 13/8 rhythm. As I play, my thoughts will be with one of the driving forces in music education in Greenland, Per Rosing, who is currently in hospital in Denmark.

Whilst l’m in the East Fjords, I hope to have a few days’ holiday in Borgafjörđur Eystri on the north east coast and to catch up with friends in Egilsstađir.

I know many of you really enjoy following Nordic Viola’s trips to the Far North. It’s been a long hiatus and I hope you’ll enjoy hooking up with me and learning more about the music, cultures and landscapes of this most stunning and intriguing part of our beautiful planet. I can’t wait to travel North once more!

Sagas and Seascapes to feature in Made In Scotland Showcase in Edinburgh

Made In Scotland Showcase Launch

I am delighted and proud to announce that Nordic Viola’s Sagas and Seascapes has been selected as part of the Made In Scotland Showcase at Edinburgh Festival Fringe and we will be performing at the Scottish Storytelling Centre from 15th-17th August at 8:30pm. There will be also be an online screening of the film via the SSC website on 18th August at 7pm, followed by a Zoom Q and A with the principal creators on the project.

This will be the first time that we have performed the concert live with the film, which incorporates Orla Stevens‘ stunning artwork and documentary footage from Craig Sinclair of composers Gemma McGregor, Lillie Harris and Linda Buckley and artist Orla Stevens discussing their work in Orkney last summer.

The programme also features music from the Faroes by Eli Tausen á Lava and Kári Bæk. Orla Stevens has produced new artwork to asccompany Eli’s Søgnin um Kópakonuna í 10 Myndum (The Tale of the Sealwoman in 10 Pictures) which will be seen for the first time at the Fringe.

Visit our sister site, https://www.sagasandseascapes.com/ to book tickets and for much more interesting content on the project. You can also sign up to the newsletter to keep abreast of all the news in the run-up to Edinburgh. Tickets can also be booked here

You can here excerpts from the music we’ll be performing here:

We look forward to seeing you in Edinburgh!

Summer Concert in the Blue Church, Seyðisfjörður, Iceland.

I have two exciting performances to tell you about this summer. Today’s news is that I’ll be performing in the Bláakirkjan, Seyðisfjörður, East Iceland with Arnhildur Valgarðsdóttir on 6th July. Next week I’ll tell you much more about our Edinburgh performances after the press launch on 31st May.

Back in 2016, Seyđisfjörđur in East Iceland was the first stop on my sabbatical. Chosen on the suggestion of friend and Iceland expert, Cathy Harlow because of it’s rich and varied cultural life, (and also for its direct services to the Faroe Islands, which I visited on the same trip) the people in the village welcomed me into their community. I gave short performances in the schools, masterclasses in nearby Egilsstađir and also performed in the magnificent Bláakirkjan (blue church) with local violist, Charles Ross. Bláakirkjan is the most iconic building in Seyđisfjörđur, its colourful blue and white facade standing at the end of the rainbow road. Inside, it is a bright and intimate space, built of wood and gently resonant.

Katherine Wren and Arnhildur Valgarðsdóttir

I therefore can’t wait to return to Seyđisfjörđur to perform in the Bláakirkjan summer concert series on 6th July. The series has become one of the major cultural events in East Iceland. It offers a varied programme of music where you can see many of the country’s most interesting musicians as well as international artists. I’ll be performing with Arnhildur Valgarđsdóttir, who I also met in 2016 in Reykjavik. Adda trained in Scotland and currently works as a highly respected pianist, organist and choirmaster in Reykjavik. In fact, if you live in Central Scotland, you’ll be able to catch her on tour with her choir this August.

We’ll be taking our audience on a journey round the North Atlantic, starting in Orkney with Gemma McGregor’s Hardanger-fiddle-inspired “Joy” and Peter Maxwell Davies’ much-loved “Farewell to Stromness.”

After a reflective pause on our journey with  Arvo Pärt’s “Spiegel im Spiegel”, we visit our host country with Jón Thorarinsson’s short viola sonata. Thorarinsson studied music at the Reykjavík Music School and with Paul Hindemith at Yale University. He was head teacher from 1947 to 1968 at the Reykjavík Music School, head of Sjónvarpi’s art and entertainment department from 1968 to 1979, as well as numerous other projects in the field of music. Full of character, this sonata shows off the singing tone of the viola with long, cantabile lines, a passionate, at times bleak second movement and a final Rondo with lively jazz rhythms.

Adrian Vernon Fish’s Qaanaaq Sonata is a much more substantial piece. It’s inspired by the main town of that name in the northern part of the Avannaata municipality in northwestern Greenland. Adrian and I  share a love of Greenland and Adrian’s music depicts so much about life there: the beauty, but also the barrenness and harshness of the landscape, the warmth and humour of the people and the rollicking energy of a dogsled ride that Adrian was lucky enough to experience there.

That’ll be the end of our official programme, but we might just have a little treat from Shetland to throw in at the end, too.

Once the concert is over, I’m looking forward to exploring the hills around Seyđisfjörđur: the high mountain lakes and the streams of waterfalls tumbling down the valleys. The eerie green murk of the Lagarfljót up at Egilsstađir and the unique woodland along the lochside at Hallormsstaðaskógur Doubtless there’ll be more inspiration to be gathered there for future projects!

Crowdfunders, workshops and more!

Crowdfunder

Lots of news to tell you this month! First of all, the great news that our Crowdfunder campaign that we have been running to raise money towards our performances of Sagas and Seascapes at Edinburgh Festival Fringe has been very successful. Thank you so much to all the generous people who have contributed to that. It means we can support our musicians properly with rehearsal and travel costs. I have also been able to commission Orla to paint us a new piece in response to Eli Tausen á Lava‘s Søgnin um Kópakonuna í 10 Myndum (The Tale of the Sealwoman in 10 pictures). More of that in a minute!

If you haven’t contributed yet and would like to, then you can still do so by clicking here. Additional money over £2000 will be put towards a CD recording which we are aiming to produce in 2023. Alternatively, if crowdfunding is not for you, remember you can help us by visiting our shop. (Payment via PayPal, or use the contact form with your requirements and I can arrange payment by card).

We’ve also received some generous pledges from three businesses local to me. Working within the community is very important to me, whether that’s close to home or when I’m resident in other communities when performing in the Far North, so I’m delighted to be able to offer a free workshop for children in Dunblane as a way of saying thank you to these donors. I’ll introduce you to our sponsors and tell you more about the workshops once I’ve finalised details with everybody.

Raising the profile of music by women

I’m also delighted to say that the Ambache Charitable Trust have once again agreed to support us for Edinburgh. Like Ambache, one of our goals is to raise the profile of women composers and in Sagas and Seascapes, we will once again be featuring the work of Gemma McGregor, Lillie Harris and Linda Buckley.

Workshop

On 5th March, Orla Stevens and I ran our first joint workshop, Tuning In To The Trossachs, in Aberfoyle in Central Scotland. We were blessed with a crisp, clear spring day and enjoyed the morning outside in the forests collecting sounds and making sketches. In the afternoon we gathered in the hall to draw our ideas together, making graphic scores from the sketches and making some sound sketches using found sounds, instruments and our voices. The emphasis was discovery, reflection and process rather than an end goal, but we are nonetheless pleased with the sounds we made, which capture the peace and beauty of where we were working. Have a listen here:

The Tale of the Sealwoman

Finally, a little more on that collaboration between Orla Stevens and Eli Tausen á Lava. Eli’s piece for flute and clarinet was a joint commission between the Spanish/Danish Aura Duo and Nordic Viola. Edinburgh will see its first live performance in the UK. The music is inspired by the legend of seals (selkies in Scotland) who change into human form on land. These legends are common throughout Norse and Celtic mythology, and you can find out more about them here.

Orla and Eli met for the first time via Zoom a couple of weeks ago. You can see some of their initial ideas in one of our crowdfunder updates below and also read more over on Orla’s website.

As you see, there is a lot going on with Nordic Viola just now. Our next key date will be the Made in Scotland Press Launch on 31st May so please do subscribe to keep up with all our news in the run-up to Edinburgh.