Changing perspectives, new ways of working and some valuable help from the RPS Enterprise Fund in Association with Harriet’s Trust

A reflective post today looking back on the initial shock of the music world closing down in March 2020 and how, with a little bit of help from the RPS Enterprise Fund in association with Harriet’s Trust, Nordic Viola found new and exciting ways of working and of reaching our audiences around Scotland, the North Atlantic and beyond.

Entering the pandemic and a crash course in digital production

As covid began its grip on the world, Nordic Viola were just on the verge of travelling to Shetland for the University of the Highlands and Islands‘ “Histories and Herstories” Conference. I remember sitting on stage with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra as we entered lockdown wondering how my project, formed in travel, could ever survive such a thing. But musicians are resourceful people and our project was very quickly repurposed to become a digital concert for the Orkney International Science Festival instead.

But where to begin? I could make rudimentary recordings but I was clueless about video. Step in Creative Scotland who provided me with top notch support and encouraged me to aim high and work with a top quality video professional. And so began what would become a fruitful partnership with Craig Sinclair Video.

Me and my team of wonderful and resourceful musicians (violinists Emily Nenniger, Anne Bünemann and cellist Ruth Rowlands) swiftly learned to record in our own homes and Craig and I set about interviewing composers online before Craig offered us remote support to film our own performances which he then pieced together with stock footage of the North Atlantic region (filming his own footage being forbidden in lockdown!).

And so our first digital concert was born.

A world opens up

Very quickly I learned that, far from being the end of Nordic Viola, this was actually a new beginning. Touring abroad is an expensive business, environmentally as well as financially, but now we had a way of reaching audiences far and wide from the safety and comfort of our own homes. Not only that, but I had a way for the composers to speak directly to audiences, putting a face and a personality behind the music.

So far, so good, but using professionals for every short piece of video is an expensive business. I needed to learn how to make my own content, saving my financial resources for larger-scale performances, and I needed better equipment to do it. Step in the Royal Philharmonic Society Enterprise Fund. This amazing organisation exists to create opportunities for musicians to excel and champions the vital role that music plays in everybody’s lives. They are a relatively small organisation with a very big heart indeed. The RPS Enterprise Fund offered individual performers and chamber music groups the means to strengthen and transform the extent of their creativity, connectivity, profile and revenue, encouraging us to think entrepreneurially.

Sagas and Seascapes

Following on from our first collaboration with Orkney International Science Festival, in 2021 we embarked on a much more ambitious project, Sagas and Seascapes. This project brought in many professionals from other fields and involved the creation of artwork for the project from Orla Stevens. Hedd Morfett-Jones and Simon Lowden from the RSNO recorded our performances in Glasgow and Craig was able to do his own filming on location in Orkney with me and the composers. It seemed the perfect project for me to take as a basis for developing my own technical skills.

Informal learning

The first part of my learning was to watch the professionals at work. I learned how Hedd ran a recording a session, how audio and video worked together and and picked Hedd and Craig’s brains about equipment and software.

On-location in Orkney, I happily handed over the reins of project management to Craig and watched how he pre-interviewed the composers, planned a shoot and managed the team on location.

Sagas and Seascapes was an ambitious programme and I learned a fair bit about people-management, too, as everything came together and deadlines needed to be met! After a week of working through the night, adrenaline was running high as Sags and Seascapes premiered at the science festival!

New microphones!

Meanwhile, my new microphones and audio interface were proving their worth. I was literally 24 hours away from performing live at the Scottish Awards for New Music when I got pinged! And so, as I awaited my PCR result, I got down to recording Eddie McGuire‘s Legend and Electra Perivolaris‘ Geese Flying Over My Head and into the Distance in audio and video. Without this equipment, I’d have lost a fee and left New Music Scotland with a gap to fill on very short notice. Thank you RPS!

Video Training Course

With the year’s big project in the bag, it was time to learn more formally from Craig how to produce my own small-scale video. Craig devised a 4-part course covering pre-production, filming, editing and distribution. Following an intense 4-hour online session where I learned how to identify the needs of my audience, plan my filming and interviewing and set up my camera properly, we moved onto the fun part – filming!

I wanted the session to produce something engaging and useful to myself and others, so we decided to invite our project artist, Orla Stevens, along, so that we could learn together and also produce a film that we could both use to publicise our work.

In the editing session, I learned so much about working quickly and efficiently with my material. I moved from randomly grabbing bits of material and putting it together in a haphazard way to learning to plan the shape of my video, gather together the material in advance and really tell a story. I also learned just how much B-Roll film you need to cover an interview – thanks to Craig for letting me use some of his Orkney footage and to Orla for filming the paintings! Baby steps, but I’m secretly very pleased with my first “proper” little film.

What I learned and where we go from here!

There were so many things I learned along the path from having absolutely no idea where to start with producing a video concert to taking on a project with the scope of Sagas and Seascapes and, finally, making my own tiny outdoor filming project and interview.

Here are my takeaways:

  • Record absolutely everything – you never know when you might need it!
  • Invest in quality equipment, especially microphones – it really does make a difference
  • For big, important digital projects, employ professionals – it’s worth the money
  • BUT don’t be afraid to try new things yourself – it’s fun, you learn a lot and make new connections
  • Share with your colleagues. Knowing I was part of a group of musicians handpicked by the RPS for their enterprising attitude was empowering and inspiring and gave me the confidence to go for it
  • Help others – I hope I can continue that sharing with my close colleagues, helping with equipment and sharing my experiences from working with such an amazing team of creative people.

And a few useful links for my Scottish colleagues in particular:

Craig Sinclair Video – first and foremost if you need someone to produce film for you, but also for some top-notch tuition and mentoring!

Chamber Music Scotland’s Resources for Musicians and in particular Tim Cooper‘s Audio Recording Resources

Sound Scotland – This innovative new music organisation does much to encourage creativity amongst musicians and also offers support and new opportunities through peer group meetings such as their fortnightly Cofveve sessions.

New Music Scotland – organisation supporting composers and performers working in New Music – training sessions, resources, a meeting point.

Book: Recording Classical Music by Robert Toft – Published by Routledge

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 at the 5th International St. Magnus Conference, University of the Highlands and Islands Institute of Northern Studies

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 HarrisAND 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.

Histories and Herstories at Orkney International Science Festival 4th Sept

©Martin Stewart

I hope you have enjoyed our series on women composers. I am delighted to announce that we will be presenting the full programme in an online video performance for Orkney International Science Festival on 4th September at 20:30 BST:

Nordic Viola reflects on female experience of landscapes and community from the Northern Isles to Greenland in music by women composers for string quartet. Highlights include ‘Machair’ by Highland composer Lisa Robertson and music influenced by Orcadian history and the Hardanger fiddle style by Gemma McGregor. Greenland’s only classical composer, Arnannguaq Gerstrøm, reflects on winter whilst English composer Lillie Harris depicts the full fury of a Shetland storm. Anna Appleby’s evocative ‘Hrakningar’ includes migrating geese from Iceland, and American Jocelyn Hagen offers a new take on the haunting Icelandic lullaby ‘Sofðu Unga’. There are new tunes reflecting on motherhood and the wild Orcadian weather by traditional fiddlers Margaret Robertson (Shetland) and Fiona Driver (Orkney)

As well as the music, you can meet many of our composers talking about the themes and landscapes that inspire their work and, indeed, see some of those landscapes for yourself in the beautiful video work put together by Craig Sinclair Video. We’re also joined in performance by two students from Tórshavn Music School in the Faroe Islands.

As Orkney International Science Festival celebrates Scotland’s Year of Coasts and Waters 2020 there are many more virtual events to enjoy, including more concerts and performances, virtual outings and foraging, food and drink, exhibitions and talks. Why not join Nordic Viola and immerse yourself in a week of Orcadian culture?

After you have enjoyed our performance on 4th September, if you would like to support us in paying our musicians and composers fairly and also help us extend our reach through education work, you can donate the price of a coffee (or more if you’d like to!) at https://www.buymeacoffee.com/NordicViola or paypal.me/katherinewren1

In partnership with UHI’s Institute of Northern Studies and funded by Creative Scotland, Ambache Charitable Trust, RVW Trust and the Year of Coasts and Waters.

Raising the profile of music by women

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/

Histories and Herstories Composers Part 2

Anderson High School with Katherine Wren

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.

Anderson HS, Leriwck, Shetland

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.

Faroe Islands

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.