This week is a landmark week for Nordic Viola in several respects. First and foremost, it’s the first time we’ve headed north since UHI’s Shoormal Conference in September 2019. (Little did we know then what was coming.) It seems an age ago and yet, in the scheme of things, 2 years isn’t so long.
So what are we up to? We have a team of composers (Linda Buckley, Lillie Harris and Orkney-based Gemma McGregor) and a video producer (Craig Sinclair) going to Orkney to film content for our online concert for Orkney International Science Festival, which will be premiered on 3rd September. It’s quite an operation in the covid age, but a process that musicians and producers alike are having to get used to in this strange new world. Pre-travel testing, health questionnaires, rigorous planning to allow for safe travel, accommodation and distancing whilst working.
Hopefully all will go to plan, we can enjoy the amazing history and scenery that Orkney has to offer and produce some exciting and engaging content.
Another landmark moment is working with a visual artist, Orla Stevens. Orla will interpret the landscapes and seascapes around us as well as interpreting the emotional responses of the composers as they explore the places that inspired their music.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the 2nd July marks Nordic Viola’s return to live performance and I am so happy that this should happen in the Northern Isles. Gemma McGregor and I will perform a programme of music for flute and viola entitled “Birds and Landscapes of the North.” We will play some of our own music as well as music by Ailie Robertson and Electra Perivolaris, two of the most exciting young composers on the Scottish scene. The Faroes and Denmark will be represented with pieces by Kári Bæk and Kristain Rasmussen, who is currently studying in Aberdeen. There’ll also be traditional music from Shetland and Orkney and a brand new tune composed for the occasion by Orkney fiddler, Fiona Driver.
it feels like the places I love most don’t want to let me go. The time I
almost missed my plane after a month in Nuuk, Greenland, and then had
to wait 13 hours in driving snow in Kangerlussuaq prior to flying to
Copenhagen. As I write this, I’m gazing longingly at Fitful Head in
Shetland bathed in sunshine whilst I sit at Sumburgh Airport waiting for
fog to clear in Glasgow.
“Shoormal” is the old Norn word for the space between the
sea and the shoreline and the conference explored themes looking to the
future and the spaces between with regard to the creative economy in
Nordic Viola was there to demonstrate our work in schools taking our Orkney workshops as a case study. Working alongside Gemma McGregor, we presented 4 soundscapes from the Far North: the sea crashing on the cliffs at Mykines in the Faroes, an icy walk and an Inuit drum dance from Greenland, and geese from Iceland. As we did in Orkney, we asked our audience to reflect on aspects of the sounds that were familiar to them or resonated with their own experience. The vote from the floor was to improvise a piece based on the geese.
We were then joined by fellow musicians Renzo Spiteri, Morag Currie and Natalie Cairns-Ratter to put together some sounds. We demonstrated how the process encourages students to reflect on sound and the environment, sound production and timbre and structure in music. It is also a process that requires co-operation and empathy between participants as they learn to respond to each other’s sounds and to signal stages of the performance to each other. (Naturally these are skills that our conference volunteers already possess to a high degree, but it is important to recognise the role this plays in an educational setting and the value of music in the curriculum).
We ended the session by playing the results from previous workshops in Orkney and Shetland. We included a recording from the Sumartónar Festival in the Faroes where students from Torshavn Music School joined us in performing a piece composed by students from Anderson High in Lerwick, showing how products of workshops can be used to make connections between areas across the North Atlantic.
The following day Gemma and I gave a performance on flute,
viola, piano, small percussion and electronics. Taking our audience on a
journey connecting the islands of the North Atlantic through
environment, seafaring and legend, we demonstrated the wide palate of
sounds to be made from 2 musicians and equipment that can be carried on a
standard baggage allowance – assuming access to a piano, that is. The
performance included the premiere of Nordic Viola’s latest commission:
“Carry His Relics” for flute and viola, a reflection by Gemma McGregor
on the St. Magnus Way in Orkney. I also performed Lagarfljót, a piece
for viola and electronics inspired by my visit to East Iceland earlier
On Thursday night we could finally relax and enjoy
performances by the musicians who’d so generously joined us for our
workshop. Morag Currie’s “Idea of North” is a multimedia composition for
fiddle, viola and Ableton Live digital workstation with visual imagery
and selected prose. Many of the inspirations are similar to those in my
project, but whereas my principle musical influence comes from
contemporary music infused with traditional music, Morag’s is the other
way round. I loved the beautiful imagery in Morag’s screenwork, too.
Ableton Live is new software to me and is something I would like to
My first encounter with Renzo Spiteri and Gaby was actually being tossed around on the Northlink ferry on Monday night. Renzo very courageously relocated to Shetland on Monday at the same time as diving straight in with a performance of “Stillness”, a solo performance of sounds, field recordings from Shetland and electronics. I loved how Renzo found rhythm in natural sound and how he amplified the timbres inherent in these sounds through his improvisation. For me, his real love for these islands was very apparent in his work.
Natalie Cairns-Ratter is also a performer but she was at
Shoormal to talk about Music and Communication Skills, particularly
relating to children with ASD-Autism Spectrum Disorder. Preparation for
our workshop meant I didn’t get to Natalie’s session but I had several
conversations with her where her passion for her work and for music
provision in Shetland were evident. I really hope I can return to
Shetland and work alongside her sometime soon.
This is the first time I’ve attended an interdisciplinary conference and I found it a very stimulating experience. Nordic Viola is inspired by landscape, culture and heritage from the region and it was inspiring to learn how artists from other disciplines have responded to this stimulus. I also learned so much from academics specialising in this area and I’m sure I’ll be tapping into their research for future projects. Real standouts for me were Dr. Andrew Jennings on an exploration of Shetland’s place names and identity and Dr. Antonia Thomas‘ talk on Art and Archaeology. As a trained linguist and translator I share Andrew’s fascination with links to Old Norse. I’d never really reflected on the links between art and archaeology before, so Antonia’s talk left me with much to reflect on.
Finally I must offer a big thank you to UHI for putting
such a stimulating programme together. Thanks also to all at Mareel for
their professionalism. We were so well looked after and the tech staff
had everything covered before we even had chance to ask! I’ve a feeling
I’ll be back in Shetland soon – once I’ve managed to leave, that is!
Last November I travelled to Orkney with Nordic Viola to give a concert with Anne Bünemann, Peter Hunt and local composer Gemma McGregor. I spent the week working with Gemma, giving workshops in local schools and learning about Orkney and its music.
One of my stated aims was to ultimately commission a piece from Gemma and this came to fruition last weekend when I returned to Orkney to rehearse the new piece for viola and flute called “Carry His Relics” which we will be performing for the first time in Shetland on Thursday 19th October at Mareel in Lerwick as part of the University of the Highlands and Islands’ Shoormal Conference which they are running in conjunction with Shetland Arts.
Gemma describes her piece as follows:
‘Carry His Relics’ describes the
journey mentioned at the end of the Orkneyinga Saga when the followers of St
Magnus carried his remains from Christkirk, Birsay, along the coast to the
capital town of Kirkjuvagr. St Magnus is the patron saint of Orkney. He was
murdered on 16th April, 1117. Twenty years after Magnus’ death, a farmer called
Gunni, from the Orkney island of Westray, reported that Magnus had appeared to
him in a dream and instructed him to tell Bishop William that he wanted his
relics moved. Gunni reported his dream and permission was granted. After the
procession along the coast of Orkney, Magnus’ remains were interred at St
Olaf’s Kirk, although they were later moved to St Magnus Cathedral. Many
miracles had been reported by those who had prayed to St Magnus for help. The
joyful processional melodies make reference to both Magnus’ Viking culture and
his Christian beliefs by using traditional Orcadian
and Norwegian style
music and by quoting from 12th century plainchants that may have been sung by
the followers of Magnus. The fifty-five mile long route taken by the pilgrims
subsequently became a devotional walk but fell out of use centuries ago. The St
Magnus Way was cleared and reopened in 2017 to mark the 900th anniversary of
the martyrdom of St Magnus.
going to be a busy summer for Nordic Viola. Well, when I say summer, I
really mean up until the autumn equinox. After all, that’s the period
when the further north you are, the more daylight you have.
In fact, we’ll start with 24 hours’ daylight in Ilulissat
(and also Nuuk) in Greenland. We’ll be on holiday rather than
performing, but visiting World Heritage Site Disko Bay with its famous
icebergs is sure to be inspirational. I’ll also be on the lookout for
new music and hope to catch up with some friends whilst we’re in Nuuk.
Out of the Box, Inverness Cathedral, 26th July
At the end of July, David Martin and I will be performing as part of Fiona Driver’s “Out of the Box” concert in Inverness Cathedral. I first met Fiona and husband Trevor in Orkney last year. Fiona and Trevor are top class fiddle players from the Northern Isles but are also good classical players and enjoy good music of any type. Reflecting their open-minded approach to music of all genres Fiona has assembled a group of interesting musicians currently working in the north. “Out of the Box” will feature traditional music from Fiona and Trevor. Representing the younger generation of Shetland fiddlers will be rising star Anya Johnston. Finally there is David Chadwick playing the Nyckelharpa, a Swedish folk instrument. I’m really looking forward to seeing this unusual instrument at close quarters and you can get a sneak preview here.
David Martin and I will be playing a set of Icelandic folk tunes, Judith Weir’s “Sleep Sound ida Morning” from “Atlantic Drift” and “Lullaby”, which is an early piece by Sibelius. We’ve also invited Fiona to join us in my piece “Mjørkaflókar“, inspired by the Faroes and her trio “Hoy’s Dark and Lofty Isle”.
You can find out much more about the concert and perfomers and also hear some of their music here.
Shoormal Conference “New Coasts and Shorelines: Shifting sands in the creative economy” Shetland 18th-20th September
In September I’ll be returning to Shetland and working again with composer Gemma McGregor from Orkney. We’ll be presenting and performing at the Shoormal Conference, hosted by University of the Highlands and Islands and Shetland Arts at the Mareel Centre in Lerwick.
“Shoormal” is a Shetlandic word for the shoreline or high
water mark, reflecting the conference’s focus on islands, culture and
heritage and young people. Gemma and I will be talking about our
creative workshops in Orkney last year and will demonstrate how to
create a piece inspired by the landscape and natural sound.
Our concert will feature written and improvised works for
viola and flute by ourselves and other composers from the North
Atlantic.The conference also looks at innovation, challenges and
opportunities of working in the islands and so we will be illustrating
ways of creating a broad palate of sound from limited resources and
within the restrictions of flying on small planes in remote regions. We
will follow the performance with a short discussion of the issues that
musicians encounter when performing in remote areas.
Isle of Coll Music Group, 21st September
Putting into practice some of the issues we explored in Shetland, I’ll immediately head west to the Isle of Coll with old friends David Martin (viola) David Hubbard ( bassoon) and Helen Brew (flute). We’ll be playing music from all around the North Atlantic and I’ll post more on the programme nearer the time. To whet your appetite, here’s our absolute favourite, “Uyeasound Nocturne” by Adrian Vernon Fish and Emily Doolittle’s evocative “Social Sounds from Whales at Night.” In fact, I hope we might get to spot some whales off the coast of Coll whilst we’re there.
If you’ve never been to Coll, why not come and join us on
the 7:15 boat from Oban on 21st September, spend the day exploring this
small island and then come to our concert. You’ll then have Sunday
morning to see more of the island or hop over to neighbouring island,
Tiree, before heading back to the mainland.