From Stromness to Somerset

It’s been an exceptionally busy month for Nordic Viola which has seen me travel the length of the UK, with Nordic Viola’s most southerly concerts to date!

At the very end of September I renewed my partnership with Icelandic pianist, Arnhildur Valgarđsdóttir, with a programme of music entitled “A Journey Around the North Atlantic” for the Orkney Norway Friendship Association. At the heart of the programme were the two sonatas we performed in Seyđisfjörđur in the summer; Jón Thorarinsson’s Sonata and Adrian Vernon Fish’s Greenland-inspired Qaanaaq. We also included music closely connected to the heritage of Iceland and Orkney; Gemma McGregor’s Raven Banner and Heyr Himna Smiđur (“Hear, smith of the heavens”) a famous hymn tune by þorkell Sigurbjörnsson to words by Kolbeinn Tumason The programme opened with a March by Orkney resident Tom Deyell, which he wrote for the Shetland Folk Society Tune Competition.

We had a fabulous audience, which included travellers from Norway and Canada and we very much enjoyed swapping stories whilst being entertained by the fabulous young musicians from the Stromness Strathspey and Reel Society.

Arnhildur introduced us to some tales from the Sagas. What we forgot to talk about was her ancestral links to Orkney. She can trace her family line back to Rognvald Eysteinsson, also an ancestor of St. Magnus. Arnhildur’s family line traces back to Icelandic chieftain Hrollaug before branching off at Thordis (see below). Arnhildur was excited to visit Orkney and we enjoyed an afternoon exploring history in St. Magnus’ Cathedral, Kirkwall.

We had some true Orcadian weather (read 70mph gusts and lashing rain!) so I spent the morning of the concert in Stromness Museum, learning more about Orkney’s exploration and trading in the Arctic – sure that will find its way into a project someday.

Northern Stories Festival- Lyth Arts

I’ve been following the great work done by Charlotte Mountford at Lyth Arts in Caithness for sometime now, so when the opportunity came to take Sagas and Seascapes to the Northern Stories Festival, which was exploring Caithness’ Norse heritage, I absolutely jumped at the chance.

On this occasion I was presenting a screening of the Sagas and Seascapes film as per the original version for Orkney International Science Festival in 2021, but also including live performances of William Heinesen’s Variations on a Faroese Hymn Tune, Kári Bæk’s Wogen and The Drummer, the Scottish traditional tune that inspired the Danish Dromer. I also took Orla’s paintings with me.

Lyth Arts is a totally rejuvenating place for an artist to stay – at least for one who needs space around them! It is set in the flatlands of Caithness between Wick and Thurso, backing onto the peatlands of the Flow Country. Set up originally by local artist William Wilson, it has space for exhibitions and workshops as well as a small theatre. Artists are accommodated in the adjacent house and it’s a great place to meet and share ideas.

I was sharing with accordionist Neil Sutcliffe (coincidentally a friend of Orla’s) and Danish Storyteller Svend-Erik Engh as well as Svend’s partner, Alice, also a storyteller. I attended their workshop in the morning where I learned lots about how to tell a story engagingly before I joined the musicians in improvising along to the words.

Back in Thurso I had a couple of days to absorb myself in the landscapes that constantly inspire my music. I’m more used to seeing the Caithness coast from the Orkney boat but I think a new love affair has begun. The perilous coastline is riddled with hidden geos (rocky inlets), caves and blowholes. I also got to see an upwards waterfall (blown upwards by the wind)! You need your wits about you exploring those cliffs but the yield is a wealth of exciting colours, shapes and sounds. This was all topped off by the sight of a full moon reflecting on the water across Thurso Bay after an earlier golden sunset.

More museum time was had at the North Coast Visitor Centre. The expected displays on Norse and Pictish culture were there, but also absorbing panels on the ecology of the Flow Country. Every time I travel through that area it draws me in with its isolated peaks, saturated ground that now and again breaks out into a small lochan. On the surface of it, it looks barren, but it’s teeming with birdlife and, at ground level, the delicate sphagnum mosses are full of colour with their intricate little leaves. Autumn is one of the most beautiful times to see it with the russet-red dying bracken set against gunmetal skies, laden with heavy downpours.

Somerset

Into late October and a change of pianist on the stool as I joined Kevin Duggan for three concerts down in the south-west of England. We started with two concerts in Glastonbury and Midsomer Norton performing much of the programme I’d played with Arnhildur, but adding in Rebecca Clarke’s characterful and varied Shorter Pieces and a new piece by Kevin based on Icelandic hymn tune, Almáttigur Guð.

Kevin is a native of Somerset and proved a wonderful guide, taking us out into the Mendips and introducing us to some of the prehistoric archaeological sites of Wiltshire. There is a connection to Orkney here, as it has been mooted that the ancient Orcadians may have travelled south and passed on their architectural skills gleaned from building edifices such as the Ring of Brodgar and Skara Brae to those constructing the likes of Stonehenge and West Kennet Longbarrow. In the dark warmth out of a hefty downpour, it felt right to get the viola out for a quick improvisation to these ancient peoples.

Dunsden, Reading

Our final performance was at Dunsden Church  near Reading at the behest of composer Adrian Vernon Fish, who wrote Qaanaaq.

Being with people who know, love and have connections in Greenland is always a special experience for me as there are not so many people in this country that I can talk to and who I know have experienced what it is to spend time there living and working with Greenlanders. I felt a real responsibility to communicate the emotions and tell the stories that Adrian crafted so well in his Qaanaaq Sonata: the intense outpouring of the Aria and the helter-skelter chaos of the dogsled ride, Qimmusseq before the final Piseq or drum dance, which for me exemplifies the slower pace of life and patience of Greenlanders.

Before Qaanaaq and as a tribute both to Greenland and to Adrian who shares a love of that country with me, I played a short improvisation on an East Greenland Entertaining Song.

It was a wonderful, moving occasion and a concert that’ll stay in my mind for a long time.

Sagas and Seascapes at Northern Stories Festival 11th October

Sagas and Seascapes will be part of the Northern Stories Festival at Lyth Arts in Caithness on Tuesday 18th October at 8pm. Northern Stories Festival 2022 is a spectacular celebration of the stories of the Far North of Scotland, taking place across Caithness this October. 

Nordic Viola will screen Craig Sinclair’s Sagas and Seascapes film alongside live performance by Katherine Wren on viola of Variations on a Faroese Hymn Tune by William Heinesen, Wogen by Kári Bæk and The Drummer, a traditional Scottish Tune that inspired the Danish tune arr. by the Danish String Quartet The Dromer, which features at the end of the film.

Norse stories form the inspiration for this programme. Award-winning Irish composer Linda Buckley’s Aud draws on the Icelandic Sagas. Lillie Harris’ Elsewhen seeks to capture the strangeness, wonder, and melancholy of Orkney’s ancient sites, whilst in Carry His Relics, Orkney composer Gemma McGregor describes a journey along the St Magnus Way.

Orla Stevens‘ art from the project, inspired by music from Gemma McGregor, Lillie Harris and Linda Buckley, will also be on display at Lyth Arts.

Northern Stories Festival 2022 is a spectacular celebration of the stories of the Far North of Scotland, taking place across Caithness this October. 

‘Sharing the stories of the Far North of Scotland.’

Celebrating our ancient Nordic connections and our close ties to North America, the festival will connect the lochs and coastline of the North Highlands, the fjords of Norway and the Great Lakes of Canada. 

An exciting programme of online and in-person events will include an international line-up of performers and story-tellers from the Highlands, Scandinavia and Canada. With talks, workshops, films and exhibitions, there will be something for all the family to get involved in. 

You can view the full festival programme at https://lytharts.org.uk/events/category/northern-stories-festival/list/

Don’t forget, too, that Katherine and Arnhildur Valgarðsdóttir (piano) will be performing for the Orkney-Norway Friendship Association in Stromness Town Hall on 30th September at 7:30pm. More information on that here.

We look forward to seeing you at one or both of these events.

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

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:

Sagas and Seascapes Launches

2020 saw Nordic Viola’s first foray into online concerts with our popular Histories and Herstories video performance. As our lives open up and we can once more work in the same space, we are excited to announce our new and ambitious Sagas and Seascapes programme which, once again, we will be producing alongside the Orkney International Science Festival.

Norse stories and landscape around the northern sea-routes form the inspiration for this concert. Scottish-based Irish composer Linda Buckley’s Aud draws on the settlement of Iceland, while Lillie Harris’ sextet Elsewhen seeks to capture the atmosphere of Orkney’s ancient sites. In Carry His Relics for flute and viola, Orkney composer Gemma McGregor describes the journey of the remains of St Magnus from Birsay to Kirkwall, along the present-day St Magnus Way. Eli Tausen á Lava from Faroe reflects on legends of the Selkies in Søgnin um Kópakonuna í 10 Myndum for flute and clarinet and his compatriot, Kári Bæk, depicts the ever-changing sea in Wogen. The Danish String Quartet’s dynamic arrangement of The Dromer offers a rousing finale.

Audiences loved film footage of the Far North last year as well as the chance to hear the composers speak about their music, so once again we’ll be working with videographer Craig Sinclair. Composers Linda Buckley and Lillie Harris will travel to Orkney with me to join Orcadian composer Gemma McGregor on location. The composers will share their impressions of the landscapes and ancient sites that inspired their music, offering an insight into their creative processes.

A new and exciting innovation this year is inviting landscape artist Orla Stevens onto the project. In common with the music creators on the project, Orla’s work is influenced by expressive responses to sounds and images of the landscape, as well as the emotional experience that being in nature has on the psyche. In conversation with the composers and incorporating her own emotions on being onsite in Orkney, Orla will develop a series of paintings expressing the emotions of the sagas and seascapes explored through music as the programme mirrors Aud’s journey from Orkney, through the Faroes and finally settling in North-West Iceland.

Making music with young people is fundamental to Nordic Viola. Responding to the challenges of travelling during the pandemic, we’ve decided this year to unite young people from around the North Atlantic by running a competition to write a tune for us. We’ll select up to 20 young people to join in online workshops working with myself, Gemma McGregor and Faroese trombonist Dávur Juul Magnussen to develop their ideas. From these workshops, one piece will be chosen to feature in our main concert video and 5 others will feature in a short video of the project in the autumn. More information on that very soon!

I’ll be keeping you up-to-date as the project progresses. If you want to be amongst the first to hear about our recording sessions next month and our on-location filming in Orkney in June, then why not subscribe?

This exciting and ambitious programme has been made possible through the generous support of the following organisations:

Creative Scotland for general project support

for supporting our commission of linda Buckley’s “Aud”

for supporting the competition and workshops

our partners and hosts

Histories and Herstories Composers part 3

Gemma McGregor

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.

Gemma graduated with a doctorate in music composition from the University of Aberdeen in July 2017. A recipient of the Ogston Postgraduate Scholarship and the W.R. Aim Memorial Prize, Gemma has received commissions, awards and residencies from Creative Scotland, Heritage Scotland, Hinrichsen Foundation, St Magnus Festival, Aberdeen Sound Festival, Heriot-Watt University, and the Ralph Vaughan Williams Trust. Gemma began her third opera during Made at The Red House residency, Aldeburgh in August, 2019.

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.

MAGNUS:

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.

THE BARD:

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.

THE BARD: 

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…

You can find out more about Gemma and her music here: https://gemmamcgregor.com/ There is a list of works and her music can be purchased through the Scottish Music Centre. http://scottishmusiccentre.com/