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 RSNO Chamber Series, Glasgow


When it comes to music, the North speaks its own language. Led by Katherine Wren, 4 players from the Royal Scottish National Orchestra take an extraordinary journey: contemporary tales of the Faroes, Shetland, Iceland and the Arctic sit side by side with music from the father of Faroese classical music (Heinesen) and new reflections by Katherine Wren and Composers’ Hub alumni Lillie Harris. Folk roots, personal testimonies, melodies shaped by the elements and new sounds from vast landscapes: it all adds up to something that’s simultaneously timeless, modern and utterly compelling.
Sun 21 Jan 2018, 2.30PM
New Auditorium, Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow

Box Office:
Book Online Now!

£14 in advance / £16 on the day

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Free improvisation and new music from the north.

Wow, what a fun way to end my time in Seydisfjordur! Last night was my concert in the Blue Church. I’d been looking forward to playing here as it’s such a beautiful building and an iconic symbol of this town. I’ve been lucky to have been allowed to practise in this wonderful acoustic all week. In fact, I’m not sure how I’ll deal with practising in my pokey room at home now.

I was, however, a little nervous about this concert, too. I was working with Charles Ross and we wouldn’t even meet until 5pm that afternoon. There’s a Scottish connection, too. Charles is from Ayrshire, studied the viola with the RSNO’s Ian Budd and has had his music performed in the BBCSSO’s Tectonics series. Find out more about him here.

Charles turned up with violin/viola/10string guitar and Siberian Fiddle – not to mention some mighty fine throat singing. Here he is with Siberian fiddle:


Thanks to the restrictions of air travel I just had a viola! That gave us a wealth of colours to play with. Those of you who know me will know I have a fetish about timbre, so we were off to a good start.

There’s only one way to approach free impro and that’s to get on with it, so we spent the afternoon playing around with various concepts and sounds, before letting it settle over tea!

The concert was a blend of music by the two of us, Kristian Blak, Poul Ruders and free impros with an Icelandic/Inuit /Siberian/Faroese influence. We finished with a long impro where we moved around our audience and somehow ended up playing in stereo in the balcony. And the audience? Well, they included 2 children under 10 who’d never been to a concert. We had a little chat after as they’d been so good and quiet and they were fascinated by the sounds and said they wanted to play music every day. We were also asked for an encore? Contemporary music inaccessible? Really?

Charles, I have to say thanks for a wonderful and inspiring concert and I’m sure we’ll meet again in Glasgow.

Kinbuck Concert, Scotland


Helen Brew, Katherine Wren, David Martin, David Hubbard

Saturday 20th August was Nordic Viola’s first concert. I wanted to play first here at home so that I could share my journey with my friends who have offered me so much support in preparation for my journey. We may have been playing in a small village, but we packed the hall!

As you can see from the picture, this wasn’t your usual quartet combination and lots of people asked me how I arrived at this particular grouping. One of the pieces on the programme was Kari Bæk’s Vár Trio for flute, viola and bassoon. As often happens in smaller communities, I decided to build the concert round this instrument combination with my RSNO colleagues Helen Brew on flute and David Hubbard on bassoon. My husband, David Martin, shares my love of Greenland and I wasn’t about to leave him out, so that added in another viola. I have to say, I think we all enjoyed working with this palette. There were some interesting colours to exploit and we all felt that each voice came across clearly in the texture.

My aim for the evening was to share my forthcoming journey with the audience and to do my best to transport them northwards! I wanted to include a range of styles from across the region. The first half focused on Shetland, Orkney and the Faroes, and also included a piece by me, “Winter Melancholy”, written on a dark stormy day in Dunblane. The set of tunes by Tom Anderson (“Maas” etc.) and Kristian Blak’s “Drrrunnn” offered two contrasting views of birdlife and the sea: “Maas” (about the fulmar petrel) is written in the Shetland fiddle tradition and “Drrrunnn” is a semi-improvisational piece where the viola plays alongside recorded bird sound from the Faroese island of “Mykines”.


In the second half, we travelled ever northwards. We all loved playing the Fiðlufræankur. These Icelandic folk tunes are a wonderful mix of the proud, the melancholy and childlike tunes where we could play with the tunes and try to catch each other out!

I’ve known about Danish composer Poul Ruders’ work for many years after hearing his viola concerto and “Autumn Collection” demonstrates yet again how well he writes for the instrument.


One of the highlights of the concert for me was improvising on an Inuit song with David Martin. You never really quite know how a free impro will pan out on the night, but this one gelled and I think it was a special moment for both of us.



It wasn’t all about the music. I wanted people to have a clear image of where I’m going and what lies behind the music, so I included some readings from the books that inspired me. Gretel Ehrlich’s book “This Cold Heaven” (Greenland) is quite simply one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read. Gavin Francis’ book “True North” gave me the framework for my journey. Also pictured are “Arctic Cycle” about Iceland by Andy Shackleton and “The Missing Son: A Faroe Island Saga” by Jennifer Henke.

Before I close this post, I have to say thank you to all my fabulous friends who helped make the evening a success, especially Lisa Rourke, ticket seller and stage manager, Hugh Hogben for taking most of these photos and putting my slide show together, as well as picking up any jobs that needed doing alongside his wife, Chris. All I had to do was enjoy playing with my inspiring colleagues, Helen, David and Dave who just made the night such a joy for me. Thanks all of you for sharing the music with me.






DSCN2642.JPGSaturday night was my last Winter Season concert with the RSNO. A major landmark for me as, though I still have 3 months until my sabbatical starts, I won’t appear on the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall stage for another 10 months or so!

It’s also focused my mind on my upcoming concert in Kinbuck on 20th August and I thought it would be good just to take a quick look at what repertoire I’ve managed to gather.

First of all, a few months ago, I was worried that I wouldn’t have enough repertoire to sustain a whole concert and now I’m having to narrow it down! There really is a lot of viola music originating from the North Atlantic countries.

Last week I got together with two of my colleagues, Helen Brew (flute) and David Hubbard (bassoon) to try Kari Bæk’s “Vár Trio”. We liked it and they’ve kindly agreed to join me in my concert. My husband, David, will also join us on the viola. I love the possibilities and challenges that this particular grouping presents and I think it is a nice combination for the darker shades of Nordic music.

The Kinbuck concert will be a journey in music, words and images through the countries I am visiting and my repertoire choices reflect that, with a variety of traditional and contemporary tunes.

The repertoire list, subject to change, is looking like this:

From Scotland: a selection of tunes from Shetland, my own “Winter Melancholy” for solo viola and Peter Maxwell Davies’  beautiful “Farewell to Stromness”.

From the Faroes: Kari Bæk’s “Vár Trio”, Kristian Blak’s “Drrrunnn” and the traditional tune, “God nat og farvel”

From Iceland: Þorkell Sigurbjörnsson’s “Fiðlufrænkur”  – a collection of Icelandic traditional tunes.

From Denmark/Greenland: Poul Ruders’ “Autumn Collection” and an original Inuit song with an improvisation.

There is lots and lots more music that I am still to learn and in the future I’m looking to a concert using a string quartet, trio and various duo combinations and also viola and piano/harpsichord/organ. I’ll talk about that another day!



Pre-tour concert!

I’m excited to announce my pre-tour concert to be held on Saturday 20th August at 7:30 in the beautiful Kinbuck Centre, 2 miles from Dunblane, next to the Allan Water.


The programme will be a musical tour with readings and pictures of all the countries I will be visiting during the 6 months that I am away.

There will be a mix of musical styles from folk to contemporary, including arrangements of traditional music from Shetland and Iceland and music by me inspired by both my own home (Dunblane) and the Inuit music of Greenland. I hope to bring some of my musician friends along with me, too!

Other composers are likely to include Kristian Blak, the leading Faroese composer and Oliver Kentish, a British-born composer now living in Iceland,  the Danish composer Poul Ruders and Adrian Vernon Fish, a composer who has worked extensively in Greenland.

You’re probably thinking that you haven’t heard of these composers – well, that’s one of the reasons for my travels. Being off the beaten track means that the music of these fabulous composers still remains to be discovered by many of us “down here”. I am just loving discovering all this new repertoire that is so evocative of the North Atlantic and I can’t wait to share it with you, so get the date in your diaries!