The piece that inspired Nordic Viola’s “Sagas and Seascapes” is the piece that rounds off our series of three concerts that have taken us to Orkney, Shetland and now finally home to Dunblane.
This concert (tickets here) will be an event not to be missed, because whilst the material in the first version of Sibelius En Saga dates back to his studies in Vienna during 1890-1891, this Septet version only received its first official performance in the Brahms Saal of the Musikverein, Vienna in June 2003.
So what’s the story behind the Saga? We know that melodies jotted down by Sibelius in Vienna ended up in the orchestral version of En Saga. We also know that in Spring 1891 he was working on an Octet and in September 1892 he mentioned a “Septet.” One month later he completed the first orchestral version of En Saga, which he stated was based on the Octet. The original Septet has not survived, but Gregory M. Barrett made a performing version based on the first orchestral version. I can’t say for sure, but I have a sneaking feeling that Sunday may just be its Scottish premiere.
What I love about this score is that it really brings out the folky element of this very Finnish-sounding melody, driven on by Sibelius’ wonderful ostinato rhythms. There’s so much colour and excitement in this score and it’s so much fun to play. Have a listen here in this revcording y the Turku Ensemble from Finland:
Speaking of premieres, our wonderful commission “Aud” by Linda Buckley, supported by the PRS Foundation’s Women Make Music programme, will receive its first mainland Scottish performance and Linda will be along to hear it. “Aud” traces the journey across the North Atlantic of the eponymous heroine, a 9th century settler of Iceland whilst simultaneously reflecting on how it felt to yearn to travel during lockdown.
Lillie Harris’ Elsewhen tells a more ancient tale yet, of the ancient monuments of Orkney and the stories they pass on to us across the ages. The music has a unsettling sense of eeriness reminiscent of standing near these stones and their all-knowing presence in the winter half-light.
Rounding out our programme are two arrangements of traditional tunes by the Danish String Quartet. Firstly the Unst Boat Song from Shetland, which was set in the old Norn language and finally the Dromer, a Danish reel drawn from a Scottish melody.
And what of the story told by En Saga? Well, in the spirit of Nordic Noir, the underlying feeling is that all does not end well. Our violinist, Jacquie, has her own Saga, but she says it’s too horrid to share. Perhaps you can corner her in the cathedral and persuade her to tell all!
Our time together in Orkney in July was very special. It’s not so often that a group of composers get together to work on a project on location in a beautiful place like this and especially so during a pandemic. As a performer I felt privileged to listen to their conversations and to watch Orla at work learning about the music and the stories that inspired the pieces. I then enjoyed following the progress of the paintings as Orla worked in her own experience of the landscapes as well as the music.
The whole project was brought together by video producer, Craig Sinclair, and included shots of Orla making the art set to the music that inspired it.
Orla has very kindly produced a special edition of greetings cards and fine art prints of the paintings and you can now purchase these directly via Nordic Viola at our new shop. Alternatively, you can visit Orla’s own website for these and much more. They’ll make perfect Christmas presents, so please do have a browse!
Our documentary/concert film “Sagas and Seascapes”, featuring interviews with the composers, stunning film footage and artwork produced specifically for the film, as well as two world premieres was streamed by Orkney International Science Festival last Friday.
It’s now available to view at your leisure on YouTube.
The end of May saw Nordic Viola playing together under the same roof for the first time since March 2020! And what a way to start, bringing our new commission, “Aud” by Linda Buckley, to life for the first time as we recorded “Sagas and Seascapes” for Orkney International Science Festival 2021. It’s always an amazing feeling to realise a new work and I love that collaborative process of working with a composer as we work together to unite the concepts of what they imagined as they created the music and how we interpret those dots as performers.
Covid made that experience slightly unusual as we went straight into the recording studio with “Aud” and still haven’t heard the complete score. I’m on absolute tenterhooks whilst Linda and our amazing recording team, Hedd Morfett-Jones and Simon Lowden work their magic and unite musicians with the electronic soundtrack.
Already the music has such a strong sense of journeying, depicting as it does Aud the Deep-Minded‘s journey from Ireland via Caithness, Orkney, and the Faroes before settling in Iceland. There is so much energy in the shifting textures and a sense of the music “flickering” through the distinct timbres of the three string instruments and the clarinet. It’s easy to think of string instruments as one body, but Linda’s writing really highlights how the colour of each pitch can vary across the three instruments.
There’s also a strong sense of yearning in the music – perhaps for that very human desire to be on the move and to explore that so many of us have missed during lockdown.
Søgnin um Kópakonuna í 10 Myndum (Faroese: the Legend of the Seal Woman in 10 Pictures) is inspired by a set of 10 drawings by Faroese artist Edward Fuglø, which were originally drawn for the 2007 stamp issue titled Kópakonan (the Seal Woman).
Edward Fuglø’s drawings illustrate the Faroese legend of a female selkie, a mythological Ecapable of transforming from seal to human by shedding its skin, who is forced to live as a human when a young man from the village of Mikladalur steals her sealskin.
Søgnin um Kópakonuna í 10 Myndum was commissioned by Aura Duo and was composed with the support of Koda Kultur. The piece was due to be premiered in the Faroes in 2020/1 but has had to be postponed due to Covid. We’ll be introducing Eli and the Aura Duo to you in August.
Elsewhen by Lillie Harris
In our biggest ensemble to date, we recorded Lillie Harris‘ “Elsewhen” an incredibly eery, almost primitive at times (think stomping, Rite-of-Spring-style chords) depiction of Orkney’s prehistoric monuments and how they have come to us through time. “Elsewhen” is written for flute, clarinet and string quartet and, as well as its eery textures and footstamping rhythms, it features yearning melodies in the wind instruments and violins.
Lillie is an old friend of Nordic Viola, writing my first commission, “AND” for solo viola. She has an uncanny way of capturing the essence of a place, sometimes prior to even visiting it. “Elsewhen” was originally composed for the St. Magnus Composers’ Course in 2017.
As well as our audio team, we had Craig Sinclair working on video and Matthew Smith on lighting and, as you can see above, they created a stunning stage for us to work on. We consider ourselves very lucky to have been able to record in the RSNO’s purpose-built New Auditorium.
Filming in Orkney
Craig is now in the driving seat as the composers, Linda Buckley, Lillie Harris and Gemma McGregor head to Orkney to capture footage of the landscapes, monuments and tales that inspired their music. Craig and I first worked together on “Histories and Herstories” during lockdown last year. Despite being reliant on stock footage, I loved how he matched the rhythm of the music with film and I’m eager to see how much more can be done when he is set free to film on location.
In another first for us, the emotions of the composers as they explore these historic sites and experience the nature and seascapes of Orkney will be captured and interpreted by landscape artist Orla Stevens. Orla, too is fascinated by seastories and landscapes and often captures the energy of the sea in paintings with a considerable textural element to them. She is also a keen musician and is interested in exploring the parallels between rhythm in music and art. I’m very excited and intrigued to see how she interprets these musical worlds.
We’re at the halfway point in our Seastories Competition. We’ve received some very imaginative entries from Shetland, the Faroes and Greenland. Last Saturday Gemma McGregor led our first international zoom workshop alongside myself and Faroese trombonist and, on this occasion, interpreter, Dávur Juul Magnussen.
We explored ways of creating music about the sea and the techniques we could use to expand our musical ideas. We also took time to share our experiences of the sea in our home countries and explored common stories, such as legends across the North Atlantic about seals, and also explored Norse words that have survived in dialect in the Northern Isles. At a time when travel is nigh on impossible, I hope we were able to help the young people imagine a world beyond their own shores and to connect with others whose cultures overlap with ours.
We’ll announce our competition winners next week.
Live in Orkney
I’ll leave you with a wee teaser – whilst I’m in Orkney, I’ll be performing in a programme entitled “Birds and Landscapes of the North” with composer Gemma McGregor on flute. We’re in Stromness Town Hall on Friday 2nd July at 7:30pm and you can buy tickets here. Tickets are strictly limited due to Covid, so you need to book in advance.
More on the programme next time.
As you can see, there’s a lot happening with Nordic Viola at the moment. If you want to stay up-to-date, you can subscribe here:
Finally, I’d like to thank our funders: Creative Scotland, PRSF Women Make Music for supporting Linda Buckley, The Royal Philharmonic Society Enterprise Fund for allowing me to learn more about video alongside Craig Sinclair and the William Syson Foundation for supporting our education work.
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 Harris’ AND 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.
Today (16th April) is St. Magnus Day. Nordic Viola should have been performing in the 5th International St. Magnus Conference in Shetland and composer Gemma McGregor should have been directing a concert in St. Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall, Orkney with “The Orkney Schola” in a programme of 12th century plainchant on texts about the miracles that occurred at the site of Magnus’ grave in Birsay before his remains were moved to Kirkwall. This building was founded in 1137 by the Viking, Earl Rognvald, in honour of his uncle St Magnus who was martyred here in Orkney, as documented in the “Orkneyinga Saga.” The Cathedral contains the relics of the Saint.
Gemma McGregor is a composer, performer and curator from Orkney who is interested in depicting consciousness and exploring images of time and place in layers of sound. In addition to writing contemporary choral and instrumental music, she has been part of many interdisciplinary performances and collaborations, has created sound-art and written music for film.
Like many of our featured composers, Gemma is highly active in her island community. As well as directing The Orkney Schola she is director and curator of The Experimental Music Project, producing performances and installations at the Pier Arts Centre, Stromness, Orkney. She has also undertaken research into the traditional music of Orkney.
In 2011, Watercolour Studios released “From Nothing”, an album of Gemma’s chamber music. It can be purchased here. Her choral music has been performed by the St Magnus Cathedral Choir and the Quodlibet Chorale and workshopped by the BBC Singers and the Dunedin Consort.
I first met Gemma at the “Sounding the North” Conference hosted by Aberdeen University and Sound Festival in 2017, where we were both presenting. Since then, Gemma and I have worked together extensively, performing with Nordic Viola in Orkney and co-presenting at the “Shoormal” Conference for the University of the Highlands and Islands in Shetland in autumn 2019. At this conference, Gemma and I premiered “Carry His Relics” for flute and viola, a commission for Nordic Viola based on the St. Magnus Way.
Gemma’s second opera, The Story of Magnus Erlendsson, (for ten soloists, double chorus and ten piece ensemble), was commissioned by St Magnus Festival as part of the Magnus900 anniversary celebrations in 2017 and was nominated for a Scottish New Music Award. Our featured piece “Betrayal”, is taken from this opera. Magnus and his cousin Haakon ruled Orkney jointly. Eventually however, the followers of the two earls fell out, and the sides met at the Thing (assembly) on the Orkney mainland, ready to do battle. Peace was negotiated and the Earls arranged to meet each other on the island of Egilsay at Easter, each bringing only two ships.
In words from the opera libretto:
Magnus and his men reach Egilsay drenched and tired.
When Magnus sees Haakon sailing up with eight ships, instead of just two
he understands immediately the arithmetic of death.
I will cry out!
I find my voice,
in this day of my distress!
I have been betrayed.
Has my God forgotten me?
Let this cup of suffering
pass from me;
let not my will
but your will be done.
Magnus leads his men up to the church,
where he will pass a troubled, yet clarifying night.
His men offer to defend him,
but Magnus forbids them to do so.
“I’m not risking your lives to save my own,
And if there’s to be no peace between me and my kinsmen,
then things must go according to the will of God.”
Like his Lord, the Galilean,
Magnus will meet his fate undefended.
Earl Magnus stands at history’s door.
His sword is in its sheath, his psalter in his hand.
He is a Christ-lover, this strong Viking,
this gentle Viking who sings psalms while battle rages,
this Viking man of Orkney’s destiny.
The treacherous Haakon will face his cousin Magnus
as Egilsay’s Easter sun becomes more dark, and darker still…
I am delighted to announce that for the second year running, Nordic Viola has been shortlisted for the RCS Award for Making It Happen in the Scottish Awards for New Music 2020 alongside “The Night With… :” curated by Matthew Whiteside and Diversions, led by Ben Lunn
The 2020 Scottish Awards for New Music will take place at 7pm on 14th April in the V&A Dundee. More information on the awards can be found here.