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!

Back in Torshavn

dscn2961Well, Mykines was an experience! Those of you who went to my concert in Kinbuck will remember that the sound track to “Drrrunnn” by Kristian Blak was recorded here, so I was excited about visiting. The island is at the far NW corner of the Faroes archipelago, so you can imagine that it gets everything the Atlantic can throw at it. 6 of us arrived by helicopter, just before the weather really got interesting. Everyone but me was on a one night trip and got out in a brief weather window. So now I was the only visitor on an island with just 10 year-round residents.

dscn2958I managed a walk to the top of the hill, which is also the top of the cliffs, but unfortunately the wind was far too strong to walk to the end of Mykinesholmur.

Having the house to myself was the perfect opportunity to get some solid practice done – much-needed with some concerts coming up. I also finished a piece I have been writing inspired by the Tvisongur sound sculpture in Seydisfjordur, Iceland.

The wind was wild that night, but I enjoyed being cosy in the house. Tuesday morning dawned pretty much the same, so it was another intense practice session! By coffee time, though, things had calmed down enough for a wander to the sea, and what a sight it was! dscn3030Waves were crashing up to 30m up the cliffs. In the afternoon I wandered up into the hills/mist. It was beautiful in the village by now but still pretty rough on top!

dscn3076This morning dawned bright and sunny, which was a relief as I was due to fly out! I decided to say goodbye to the place by taking the viola to the top of the cliffs and playing “Drrrunnn.” I’m glad I got to see the full force of the weather and I enjoyed the solitude, but if I’m 100% honest, I’m not sure I like being confined to such a small patch of land – and I was hungry ekeing out my rations!

Back in Torshavn things are busy. I spent a lovely couple of hours at Kristian’s practising, talking and stroking the cat! I now have a concert fixed up in the Havnar Kirkja, Torshavn on Saturday at 11.30. I’m really looking forward to playing here and sharing my music.

On the way home I dropped by the music school and spent a lovely half hour playing with the senior orchestra. What a happy, welcoming group of students. I look forward to working further with them at the weekend.

Finally, I made it back to the tent and a well-earned pizza!

Music and Sunshine!

I’m here primarily to make music, so let’s talk about that first! Yesterday I met Kristian Blak, a legend on the Faroese music scene. He welcomed me into his house which is in the beautiful old part of Torshavn, near the harbour. dscn3129I was greeted by the cat and I seemed to pass the test, as she was soon purring next to me. Always good to make friends with the head of the house!

It was good to be able to ask Kristian about some of the music I’ve been playing: not just his, but some of the traditional tunes I have as well. “Tistram” is a piece for solo viola by Kristian based on the “Tristan and Isolde” legend, and I had a few questions about how he wanted it played and what various passages were depicting. We also talked about “Tað heila gongur av lagi” which means, “It’s all gone wrong” and is a humorous take on some traditional songs. It’s a beautiful and fun piece and will definitely be coming out in concert sometime.

Tonight I popped into the music school. What a fabulous and thriving place with lovely, friendly, energetic staff. I was made to feel at home right away. I was treated to a short concert by some of the pupils and was well-impressed! I was also kindly allowed to stay in the building to practise for a while. I’ll be back there to teach and play next week.

dscn2929Of course this trip isn’t just about the music. I’m here to explore, too! Today I was lucky enough to have a hot (yes, really!) sunny day to cross the island of Streymoy to Kirkjubøur, the country’s most important historical site with the ruins of the Magnus Cathedral from around 1300, the Saint Olav’s Church from 12th century and the old farmhouse Kirkjubøargarður from 11th century.



dscn2938On the way across the pass, I was treated to the stunning panorama of the islands of Hestur, Sandoy and Koltur. I also learned why they say if the fog rolls in, stay still and wait. Even on a nice day the weather is volatile here and there was quite a lot of cloud inversion going on.

Tomorrow I go to the NW outpost of Mykines by helicopter. There’s some wild weather forecast, so I’m glad I booked the hostel. Hold onto your hats!

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.




Preparations for Iceland and the Faroe Islands

The Royal Scottish National Orchestra is now on holiday, and so my focus switches to Nordic Viola and my upcoming sabbatical. There’s still a lot to organise, but things are coming together now.

First stop will be the Faroe Islands in early September. I have heard so much about these islands from my colleague in the RSNO, Davur. I will arrive in Torshavn on 1st September and I’m really lookingTorshavn forward to meeting, and hopefully playing with, some of the musicians I’ve been in touch with, especially Kristian Blak.



Mykines-Faroe-Islands-003I’m learning Kristian’s piece “Drrrunnn” at the moment. It’s for solo instrument and seabirds, recorded on the island of Mykines in the far northwest corner of the islands. You can find it on Spotify here. I therefore can’t wait to visit the island for myself and to jot down a few musical impressions.

On 12th September I get the boat back to Seyðisfjörður in Iceland. I will take the viola up to the Tvisongur sound sculpture to play around a bit. The chambers up there are made to resonate with the notes of the Icelandic traditional music scale, so we’ll see what I can do with that!

Music education is something that is very close to my heart and so I’m really glad to have been asked to come and play to the young people in Seyðisfjörður’s music school. Hopefully we can play a few tunes together, too. In the neighbouring town of Egilsstaðir I am talking to the music school about working with some of their more advanced pupils.

Blaa KirkjanI’ve recently heard that it should be possible to give a concert in Seyðisfjörður’s Blue Church. We’re just talking dates right now. It looks a beautiful venue and I feel very lucky to get the chance to play there.


So that’s the picture so far. Meanwhile, lots of practice to do before my first concert in Kinbuck, Perthshire on 20th August.