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!

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!

Kinbuck Concert 25th March

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Once again it seems the weather gods are setting the scene for the next Nordic Viola concert, which will take place in the Kinbuck Centre on Sunday 25th March at 4pm. As I write, it is still snowing in Dunblane and I’m all set to take a little more Nordic inspiration cross-country skiing in the woods.

Kinbuck holds a special place in my heart as it’s where Helen, David, Dave and I performed the first ever Nordic Viola concert, just before I set off for Iceland in 2016. I have experienced so much since then and met so many wonderful people as well as seeing many wonderful sights, and so I thought that I’d make this concert a very personal journey through North Atlantic music.

We will be performing 3 pieces that I wrote myself whilst travelling:

“Tvisöngur” for solo viola, which was inspired by a set of acoustic caves above Seyðisfjörður in East Iceland.

“Sikusimanerani” for flute, 2 violas, bassoon and recorded sound from Greenland. This piece represents the time of ice. It incorporates real sound and conveys the brittleness and space of the icy landscapes around Nuuk.

“Mjørkaflókar” for flute, 2 violins and 2 violas. The title means “Foggy Banks” and is a reflection from Shetland (it was written in conjunction with pupils at Anderson High School in Shetland) of the Faroe Islands (the theme comes from a Faroese folk song).

We’ll also perform pieces by some of the wonderful composers I met whilst travelling:

There is a commission from Greenlandic composer Arnannguaq Gerstrøm, “Ukioq”, which is a playful description of Greenland in winter and music from Margaret Robertson, one of Shetland’s best fiddlers.

No concert with Faroese music would be complete without something from Kristian Blak and I’ll be playing  “…tað heila gongur av lagi”. This uses the same tune as “Mjørkaflókar” and means “everything has gone awry”. Some strange things happen in this humorous piece!

There’s inspiration from the music of old from the Northern Isles and Iceland and we’ll finish with a good old knees up from the Shetland whalers of the nineteenth century and their Greenlandic hosts.

Tickets

It’s been a real joy to us that children have enjoyed our concerts so much, so, as it’s an afternoon concert, we’ve decided to offer U16s free entry. Tickets will be available on the door, or you can reserve them through messaging me on Facebook or via the contact form on the blog.

We look forward to playing for you.

 

Free improvisation and new music from the north.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Life in Seydisfjordur

I can’t believe it’s only Wednesday, I feel like I’ve done and seen so much since I arrived here. I had noisy neighbours the first night, but the upside to that was that when I woke at 1am the northern lights were on show. As if that weren’t sensory stimulus enough, I woke up to a crystal clear cold morning. Nothing for it but to head for the hills, all in the cause of musical stimulation, honestly!!!

Walking here is like a mixture of Scottish walking at lower altitudes and Greenlandic above 600m. In other words, wet and rough, so after 22km I was banjaxed – and then I had to do some practice. I’m still tired today!

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I played in the school today. It was nice to have the children join in clapping and stamping to the Scottish and Icelandic traditional tunes and to give a few interested young people a go on the viola. It’s always special to me when you see a child fascinated by music and is an important part of my work.

I spoke to Charles Ross today who will join me for Saturday’s concert. We’re planning on improvising together. Charles has been involved with Ilan Volkov’s tectonics  festivals in Glasgow and Reykjavik, so I think he’s going to be an interesting musician for me to work with. We share some Glasgow connections too.

As well as my concert on Saturday, there are plenty of other arts events over the weekend, and this in a town the size of Braemar, so I should have plenty to tell you over the weekend!

Settled in Seydisfjordur

I was pretty sad to leave the Faroes last night and a little nervous about how I’d feel arriving back in Iceland. However, once I hit terra ferma and pitched the tent, I felt quite settled. There’s always something nice about going to a place where you know the lie of the land.

After an afternoon picking up on some German translation work (I love the flexibility of freelancing!) I finally got to meet Alla Borgthorsdottir, my key contact in Seydisfjordur. We spent a lovely hour drinking coffee, chatting about mutual friends and life here in Seydisfjordur.

 

dscn3207This evening I spent practising in the beautiful Blaa Kirkja where I will perform on Saturday. It almost feels like the symbol of the whole trip as it actually is “Nordic Viola” blue. I’m really enjoying how my repertoire is constantly evolving as I gather more material. Also, the pieces take on new significance as I see the places they’re connected to and meet musicians who wrote them or who can tell me more about them. I’m not even sure what I’ll choose to play on Saturday yet!

Flying across Iceland

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Reykjavik was stunning in the morning sunshine – possibly more stunning than it is in July. The sun is lower and picks out the contours on the mountains. The light is richer.

I’m now waiting for a bus at Egilsstadir airport after a stunning flight over the VatnajokullGlacier. I’ve never seen anything quite like that. It’s different to the glaciers I’ve seen in the Alps, probably due to the volcanic activity around and under it.

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There are huge braids of water coming off it, culminating in the big, muddy looking lakes here at Egilsstadir.

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Hopefully I’ll be in Seydisfjordur by teatime, then tomorrow I need to get some concert publicity out!

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.