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.

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

Orla Stevens’ Prints and Greetings Cards now available

It’s been a real pleasure and privilege to work alongside artist Orla Stevens on the Sagas and Seascapes project. Orla’s work interpreting music by Gemma McGregor, Linda Buckley and Lillie Harris added so much to our concert video for Orkney International Science Festival and proved to be very inspiring for myself and the composers.

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.

We hope to bring along the original paintings to our Dunblane concert on 28th November at 3pm. It’ll be very exciting to show them in front of the public with the music for the first time.

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!

Sagas and Seascapes Live in Concert

Boat Hall, Shetland Museum, Lerwick, 25th Sept

When lockdown started in March 2020, Nordic Viola was just 2 weeks away from travelling to Shetland to perform their “Histories and Herstories” programme. With the support of UHI Institute for Northern Studies and Orkney International Science Festival and Creative Scotland, we managed to successfully take the performance online.

Nonetheless, we’ve been itching to bring our music to Shetland and  so, hot on the heels of our film documentary/concert for Orkney International Science Festival online last week, we are excited to be finally heading to the islands with our popular “Sagas and Seascapes” programme. We’ll perform two pieces from our online programme: “Aud” by Linda Buckley and “Wogen” by Kári Bæk of the Faroe Islands.

“Aud”, supported by the  PRS Foundation Women Make Music programme, will be receiving its live premiere. Written by Linda Buckley during lockdown, “Aud”, in telling the tale of the 9th Century heroine of the Sagas,  also reflects on the emotions evoked by travel; the uncertainties, the sense of adventure the feeling, perhaps, of leaving something behind.

New pieces for us in this programme are Orcadian Gemma McGregor’s “Our Lady of Sorrows and Danger”, based on a poem by Ron Ferguson and Finnish composer Aulis Sallinen’s “Sea of Peace.”

Traditional voices from established and new musicians from Shetland depict Shetland’s seascapes and its people. Margaret Robertson’s tender air to mothers everywhere opens the programme. Young people are central to our work and we’re delighted to welcome accordionist Victoria Byrne-McCombie, who was one of the competition winners in our international Seastories Competition with her winning tunes. Victoria will be introduced by10-year-old Isla Jamieson’s poem “You are beautiful, Shetland” which I came across online last year.

Much older, traditional stories told in Icelandic folk melodies end our programme.

If you would like to have a wee taster of our programme, I’ve put together a short playlist on Soundcloud for you.

Workshops

During the week I’m also looking forward to an online workshop with pupils from Anderson High School on a Seastories theme. Last time I worked with the school, we developed one of Nordic Viola’s most popular pieces, “Mjørkaflókar”, so I’m excited to see what we can produce this time!

Sagas and Seascapes (Orkney) available to view online

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.

Additionally, if you enjoyed Orla Stevens’ amazing artwork for “Carry is Relics” (Gemma McGregor), “Elsewhen” (Lillie Harris) and “Aud” (Linda Buckley), you can now buy cards (prints coming soon!) of the images from https://www.orlastevens.com/shop-prints?Printed+Art=Cards

A Faroese World Premiere

The premiere of our Sagas and Seascapes online programme is nearly upon us. It will take place from 3rd September at 21:00. The live link will appear here.

Nordic Viola has enjoyed a strong connection with the Faroe Islands since I was first so warmly welcomed to the islands back in September 2016 and so it gives me great pleasure that our Sagas and Seascapes programme has a strong Faroese element to it. Kári Bæk’s Vár Trio was in our very first programme and his music has featured frequently since. A new composer for us, though one I was introduced to by Kristian Blak and Sunleif Rasmussen a couple of years ago, is rising star on the Faroese and Nordic scene, Eli Tausen á Lava. Finally, the winner of our recent Seastories Competition is also Faroese. Anni Helena Lamhauge will be playing her tune Korona Trot on accordion as part of our online concert for Orkney International Science Festival on 3rd September at 21:00 BST.

It is a great and unexpected honour for us to be able to give the world and UK premiere of Eli Tausen á Lava’s Søgnin um Kópakonuna (The Tale of the Sealwoman) for flute and clarinet, composed in 2019. The piece was commissioned by the Spanish/Danish Aura Duo and should have been performed at Sumartónar 2021 but was sadly postponed due to Covid restrictions. The duo very generously granted us permission to perform the premiere in the UK and we look forward to being able to share their performance dates with you when they are finally able to take the piece to the Faroes and Denmark.

The legend of the sealwoman is one that is common throughout the North Atlantic region with variants of it coming from the Hebrides, Northern Isles, the Faroes and Iceland. It is exactly these shared stories stemming from a shared environment and culture that were the inspiration and source of fascination for me when planning Sagas and Seascapes. The core of the story hinges around men who capture the selkie’s skin and take the selkie woman as a wife. The selkie, no longer in posession of her skin is trapped in human form with her captor.

In Shetland the stories take a more sinister turn, the selkies luring men into the sea at midsummer, their lovelorn admirers never returning to dry land. Anyone who has heard the mournful, eery sound of the selkies may not find this so far-fetched.

In Iceland, tales of elves are common and in some variants of the selkie legend, such as that told by Jón Guðmunsson the Learned in the 17th Century the seal-folk are in fact sea-dwelling elves or marmennlar (mermen and mermaids).

Eli Tausen á Lava

©Danjal Arge

Since he first stepped onto the classical music landscape in 2015, Faroese composer and pianist Eli Tausen á Lava has quickly developed a unique and recognizable artistic voice. He has a deep appreciation for stillness and simplicity in both music and life — something he expressed most recently with his 2020 debut album Impressions, a 40-minute refuge from a hectic world.

Eli won Best New Artist at the Faroese Music Awards of 2019, marking the first time a classical composer received the award. One year earlier, he had attracted his fellow Faroe Islanders’ attention when he was selected, despite his young age, to represent the Faroe Islands at the international World New Music Days festival in Beijing.

Eli has worked with a variety of musicians and ensembles from around Europe. He has an intuitive and open-minded approach to making music and believes there is no right or wrong way to create art. “I try to get out of my own way when composing,” he says. “My feeling is that writing music is more like discovering an already-existing structure or organism, rather than creating one out of thin air.”

Eli introduces his music

I’ll leave it to Eli to tell you more about his piece and you can also hear a few short extracts played by Janet Larsson (flute) and Robert Digney (clarinet).

Kári Bæk

Kári is an old friend of ours and it gave us great pleasure to work alongside him in Tórshavn in 2018 when we performed his Vár Trio and Fragment with flute, viola and bassoon at Sumartónar 2018. Gemma McGregor also played his solo flute piece, Snjólysi, in Orkney last month.

Kári has played an important role in Faroese musical life as musician, choral conductor as well as composer.
He began composing relatively late and has composed both choral and instrumental ensemble works, some of which have been recorded by the Faroese ensemble Aldubáran and by a wind quintet located in Reykjavik (Iceland).
Bæk’s choir works range from sacred to secular music written for both amateurs and professionals.
In 2006 a CD containing some of Bæk’s works for choir was released.

In this programme I’ll be playing my own transcription of “Wogen”, originally for cello, that I produced in consultation with Kári. I love how this piece captures the shifting moods of the sea. For me, the piece has a real sense of voyaging, a sense that the piece gains momentum as it progresses. It ends with a hymn-like passage which I discovered, on listening to Kristian Blak’s CD Shaldergeo (a collection of music based on Shetland and Faroese traditional music) comes from a stanza of Sinklar’s Visa set to a tune from the island of Nólsoy, in which the Scottish mercenary is warned by a mermaid not to engage in battle with the Norwegians. And so we find ourselves full circle with the selkie folk.

Filming in Orkney

Composers Lillie Harris, Linda Buckley and Gemma McGregor with artist Orla Stevens

Early July was a landmark for Nordic Viola: our first trip north since September 2019 and our first live performance since Covid-19 started. We headed out to Orkney with 3 composers, a landscape artist, a video producer and me – the largest team we’ve ever taken on tour and our most ambitious project yet.

Film footage is for our “Sagas and Seascapes” film that will air at Orkney International Science Festival on 3rd September and the goal was to place three of the composers, Gemma McGregor, Lillie Harris and Linda Buckley, in the landscapes that inspired their music. Artist Orla Stevens and video producer Craig Sinclair would document their reactions as well as incorporating their own creative responses to place.

The theme uniting all three pieces is Orkney’s history and genetic heritage. Central to our narrative is “Aud”, the remarkable woman who, in the 9th century set sail from Caithness to Iceland. On her way to settling in North West Iceland, she landed in Orkney, where one of her granddaughters, Gróa, was married. Remarkably, in Erik the Red’s Saga we can trace Aud’s line via Gróa and her daughter Grélaður, who married Thorfinn Torf-Einarsson, Earl of Orkney (also known as Thorfinn Skull-splitter) into the Orkneyinga Saga and down to Saint Magnus, subject of Gemma McGregor’s “Carry His Relics.” Gemma’s piece reflects on the journey of Magnus’ relics along what is now the St. Magnus Way and we explored the historic links through the ages as we traced the first part of this journey from the Broch of Gurness to the Brough of Birsay where Magnus was schooled in the monastery.

The Broch of Gurness is a remarkable place. Craig had us up bright and early and so we had the privilege of having the site to ourselves, a very special experience. Dating back to the Iron Age, this site, like our programme, also links into later Viking settlements, as the grave of a Viking woman was found at Gurness, along with some grave-goods – a sickle blade and a pair of ‘tortoise’ brooches.

As we visited this and other older, prehistoric sites such as the Stones of Stenness, Ring of Brodgar and Maeshowe, which all inspired Lillie Harris’ “Elsewhen” we talked about how “Aud”, too, may well have shared in our wonder at these ancient sites, too. This promoted many discussions about how humans perceive time and whether these sites would have seemed just as ancient to Aud as they do to us – how exactly do humans measure timescales over thousands of years? For me, these musings are strongly represented in the eery, slightly disturbing quality of Lillie’s music.

Our filming culminated with interviews in St. Magnus Church, Birsay, generously hosted by Robin Barr and preceded by some much-needed downtime over a packed lunch (and the famous Birsay  tea shop pies!) in Robin and Anne’s beautiful garden. During filming, Orla had taken time to sketch down some preliminary ideas and, in her wonderfully natural and enabling way, she encouraged us to express ourselves by drawing down by the beach between interviews – even those like me who haven’t produced any art since secondary school! Orla stayed on in Orkney to consolidate her ideas and you can read some of her initial thoughts here.

A Live Concert

Trips north with Nordic Viola are always packed affairs as we pack in as much activity as we can. One of the reasons for this is to lessen environmental impact by traveling less frequently but also simply from a desire to make the most of our time in the islands.

And so Gemma and I collaborated with Orkney Arts Society to give one of the first live events in Scotland since lockdown ended. I cannot even begin to explain to you how sweet it felt to play to a live audience again. Even with a masked audience, that feeling of connecting with people again was so special. One of the most important things for me in Nordic Viola is meeting after concerts to share experiences with audiences. Even at level 0, distance still needed to be respected but it felt so nice to talk informally with people after the event.

Our programme was entitled “Birds and Landscapes of the North” and included music for viola and flute by talented young Scottish composers Electra Perivolaris, Ailie Robertson and Kristain Rasmussen as well as Faroese composer Kári Bæk. I also performed live on my new viola d’amore for the first time in my arrangement of traditional Shetland tune “Da Day Dawn” and “Tirrick” (Orcadian for Arctic Tern) a reel I commissioned from Fiona Driver. Thanks to generous funding from Chamber Music Scotland’s Transition Fund, Gemma wrote a companion piece to “Carry His Relics” called “The Trysted Shore”. Inspired by George Mackay Brown’s poem “Magnus” (this year mark’s GMB’s centenary) it depicts Magnus’ betrayal on the island of Egilsay.

A note on travel and sustainability

Before I wrap up this blog, I’d just like to reflect briefly on our travel choices for this trip. As the world deals with the climate emergency, travel is becoming a point of focus for many musicians. Travel is obviously intrinsic to the Nordic Viola project so it is vital to consider how this is done with minimal impact.

A lifelong cyclist, this has been an intrinsic part of my thinking since my twenties. However, I do recognise that not everyone wants to be subjected to travelling the length and breadth of Orkney in a howling gale with instrument  (and tent) strapped to back. I actually also believe that being too dogmatic is not always the best way to persuade people to change transport habits. For me, the most important premise is to carefully think through travel options and to understand the impact they have, making balanced, informed choices.

I asked the team where possible to choose surface transport and this was, in the main, achieved. A couple of people did need to fly due to scheduling constraints, but again, the important point is that other alternatives were explored first. Our hand was also forced by the fact that Scotrail is not currently offering a Sunday service.

Some car use was necessary to carry filming equipment. I was also concerned at rising Covid cases in Orkney at that time. After a fair bit of soul searching, I decided that the safety of my team, the island population and the need to maintain bubbles within the two accommodation groups was paramount. We did carshare but ended up using one more car than I’d wanted to. I feel quite uncomfortable about that but I believe it was a pragmatic decision in light of the circumstances. I still managed to travel back from the final session by bike (into a howling gale, of course!) as well as touring on my free days on two wheels. I am also proud that my team only own 2 vehicles between 6 people plus partners. Hiring and borrowing vehicles leads to lower car use in the longterm and I’d love to see more people considering this.

Nordic Viola is supported by:

Linda Buckley is supported by:

The concert for Orkney Arts Society, including a new commission by Gemma McGregor was supported by: