Soundwalk with the Bard of the Birds

A year ago, Ruta Vitkauskaite launched her Modern Chants programme online as part of Book Week Scotland. Ruta, Gemma McGregor and Emily Doolittle wrote music for myself and clarinettist Joanna Nicholson inspired by the natural world and Gaelic and Norse culture. The music was spun together with poetry by Dawn Wood. As many of you know, Gemma and Emily are composers I’ve worked with often before with Nordic Viola, so it was exciting to work with them again in a project led by someone else and Ruta, as well as being fronm another northern country, Lithuania, was a composer I’d heard a lot about and was eager to work with.

Following our online performance, Ruta, Dawn and engineer Chris Adams worked together to weave all the components in Modern Chants together to form a stunning Soundwalk, which was premiered in March this year in conjunction with Sound Scotland. In my opinion, the Soundwalk is even more beautiful than the original Modern Chants performance and I’m so excited that, once again, we’ll be part of Book Week Scotland on Sunday 20th November at 11am with a repeat of the Soundwalk with the Bard of the Birds.

The event starts on Zoom with an introduction from The Bard of the Birds. You will then be invited to take a walk (approx. 45 min) around your area. You don’t need to travel to any particular location. On your walk, you will listen to a soundtrack which will give you various instructions to follow and invites you to pay attention to particular details. Guided by the Bard of the Birds you will be asked to collect impressions, thoughts, ideas, colours, shapes, or even objects you find along your walk. When you return from your walk, we will meet you back on Zoom and invite you to share your experiences with us.

The event duration is approx. 90 minutes.

FREE registration and accessibility information: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/soundwalk-with-the-bard-of-the-birds-tickets-438652289807

If you can’t join us for the event itself, it’s still worth signing up for free, as you can download the soundwalk to listen at your leisure. Speaking from my own experience, it’s at least as beautiful taking some time out at home on a dark night and chilling out to the lovely sounds and letting your imagination run wild.

The Soundwalk will be a special experience for me this time as, rather than walking from my own home, I’ll be presenting and walking from Birsay in Orkney, where I’ve already been out and about enjoying the wind, sunshine and very special light you get in the north at this time of year!

Workshops in February and March

I will be taking part in two workshops over the next month or so.

Soundwalk with The Bard of the Birds – 27th February 2pm – Online

The Soundwalk with the Bard of the Birds is part 2 of the Modern Chants project run by composer Ruta Vitkauskaite. Part 1 was an online concert in November where, following the many voices of the ancient goddess Cailleach, we ventured on a journey into the Gaelic and Old Norse imagery with poems by Dawn Wood. Music was by Ruta Vitkauskaite, Gemma McGregor, and Emily Doolittle and was inspired by winds, lochs, birds and bagpiping. You can hear some of the music in this playlist.

The Soundwalk with the Bard of the Birds will be hosted by Sound Scotland via Zoom and a downloadable podcast.

As spring emerges, The Bard of the Birds invites you to join her for a new music and storytelling experience where you will experience your surroundings in a new way. 

Whether you live in the city or countryside, your days are beginning to grow longer as spring emerges and nature finds her way through cracks in the walls and pavements, and through sunlight and birdsong. It can be easy to miss these details. 

The event starts on Zoom with an introduction from The Bard of the Birds. You will then be invited to take a walk (approx. 45 min) around your area. You don’t need to travel to any particular location. Indeed, if you feel more comfortable, you can even enjoy the soundwalk from inside your own home, looking through the window at the world outside.

On your walk, you will listen to a soundtrack featuring poems and stories by Dawn Wood, nature-inspired music by Ruta Vitkauskaite, Gemma McGregor, and Emily Doolittle, performed by clarinettist Joanna Nicholson and violist Katherine Wren with electronic sounds by Ellie Cherry and sound design by Chris Adams.

When you return from your walk, we will meet you back on Zoom and invite you to share your experiences with us.

The Soundwalk can be booked via Sound here.

Tuning In to the Trossachs

Many of you will have seen the beautiful work that Orla Stevens created for Nordic Viola’s Sagas and Seascapes project. Working together has opened up many new avenues for both our work and we’re really excited to share with you some of the new ways of working that we’ve discovered.

We will be leading an art and music workshop in Aberfoyle in the beautiful Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park, close to our homes.

We will spend the morning outdoors watching and listening to the nature around us. We will collect sounds and make sketches as well as looking for objects that we can use to draw and to create sound.

In the afternoon we will split into 2 groups working in turn with Katherine and Orla at the Memorial Hall, Aberfoyle. Katherine will explore ways of sounding the landscape using instruments, our voices, found objects and recorded sound. We will learn about the elements that make up music and about how these help us to structure sound.

Orla will lead the drawing element of the workshop, exploring intuitive and expressive approaches to sounds and landscapes using both found objects and traditional art materials to create artworks and graphic scores.

At the end of the afternoon we will come together to explore how we can use graphic scores (a visual alternative to reading musical notation) to explore how shape, colour and composition can inspire sounds, and vice versa, finishing with an informal group performance.

Age Range: age 14-adult

Experience: No prior experience required, but if you play an instrument, please bring it along. Art materials will be provided.

Tickets are selling fast, so log on to Eventbrite here to book your place.

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

Nordic Viola at Sound Festival

Following Nordic Viola’s last appearance at Sound Festival in October 2018, I will be returning to Sound Festival next week with some new collaborations.

Alex South and I gave our first live performance together in July with “Whale Song” at Arbroath 2020+1. On 21st October we’ll be bringing more music inspired by Lesley Harrison‘s poetry to Aberdeen. Our improvisation, CETACEA, was produced during Lockdown. Alex subsequently set it to video for GIOFest with film of pilot whales by Alexander and Nicole Gratovsky. This will be CETACEA’s first live performance. We will also perform “In the Black Holes of the Ocean” which we premiered in Arbroath.

Alex also premieres a new piece by Oliver Searle, “From the Coast”, supported by the Hope Scott Trust, and I will be performing Karen Power’s “Sonic Cradle” inspired by the composer’s residency in Svalbard.

You can buy tickets for this concert here: https://sound-scotland.co.uk/event/sonic-cradle

The following evening I will join with Gareth Brady and Clara-Jane Maunder to perform new works written in lockdown during a series of workshops for composer-performers hosted by Sound Scotland. Under the guidance of Pete Stollery and various “visiting” composers, this supportive group of musicians got together to explore new ways of developing their creative skills and learning new composing techniques. My own composition, “Vast Superficies”, is once again inspired by the poetry of Lesley Harrison. It is drawn from lines in “The Voyage of the Fox” and depicts the cruel arctic environment with recorded sound from Greenland and an open, improvised score for bass clarinet and viola. https://sound-scotland.co.uk/event/late-night-sound-session-fri

To round out the week, I will be working with composing students at Aberdeen University in a workshop hosted by John de Simone on writing for viola.

CETACEA and New Collaborations

GIOFEST Online 26th-28th Nov 2020

It goes without saying that COVID-19 has had a massive impact on Nordic Viola, as it has on everybody in the arts: cancelled and rescheduled gigs, lost income, inability to travel… the list goes on. However, amidst the chaos, new opportunities are slowly emerging.

As a full-time orchestral musician, my schedules are normally so intense that I have little time available to develop new projects, ways of working and to build new skills. The last few months have offered me the rare and valued opportunity to explore new avenues and to build on new and existing partnerships.

The first of these projects is just starting to bear fruit. At the very start of 2020 I started working with clarinettist, composer and improviser Alex South and poet Lesley Harrison. The way this group came together is really testament to what Nordic Viola is about: making connections and telling stories across the north.

I first met Lesley at UHI’s “Shoormal” Conference in Shetland, September 2019. We share a deep love for the Far North, its landscapes, culture and wildlife and both of us have spent long periods of time visiting the islands of the North Atlantic. Alex was introduced to me by composer Emily Doolittle, a Canadian composer based in Scotland interested in Zoömusicology: the study of the music-like aspects of sound communication among non-human animals. Like Lesley, Alex is interested in whales and their music and is currently carrying out doctoral research into the relationship between humpback whale song and human music at the University of St Andrews and the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. Both Alex and I have an interest in developing new music through improvisation.

In January, when Alex and I first met to improvise together, we had no idea that our aim of creating new music around Lesley’s wonderfully evocative poems was about to be made a whole load harder. By March we were, of course, completely unable to meet and work together. The three of us live in different regions and Alex and I normally travel everywhere by public transport or bike. The one thing we did have in our favour was time, and so we took to Zoom to gradually figure out the direction our work was to take.

The creation of a large body of improvised work is never an easy task. What form would our performance take? What role would the words take? Would they be more or less present? Would Lesley read them? Would they be in printed form? How much music would we write down and how much would be left to free improvisation? Should there be a visual element to our performance? What themes should we draw out of Lesley’s poems?

Ideas were bandied back and forth, and germs of musical ideas started to be generated and shared via the cloud. At this point I have to say a big thank you to Pete Stollery and Fiona Robertson at “Sound” in Aberdeen for running their Performer/Composer workshops. These offered me a framework and deadlines in which to get some ideas down on paper as well as a forum in which to listen, learn and develop in what’s become a close-knit and supportive group of music creators and performers.

Eventually, during what now feels like a remarkably free summer, a moment of lightness in the darkness of the past 6 months, Alex and I were able to work together in person. I cannot describe to you how amazing and utterly immersive it was to be able to make music freely through improvising with another person in the same room. Very moving, actually. Maybe that’s why some pure magic happened in that studio in September.

Getting used to working with Zoom has also opened our eyes to new ideas of how to work over long distances. A year ago, would we have thought to invite Lesley into our session when she was 100 miles or so away? If we had, would it have felt as normal as it does now? It was such a worthwhile thing to do. Most immediately, the performer in me really misses playing to people live. Playing live to someone with Lesley’s perception and ability to turn those perceptions into words that further inspire is special. I also really value the trust she invests in us to interpret her words musically and I feel immensely honoured and humbled to know that our playing has inspired her to write new words.

And so, after many months of working in what you could describe as adverse circumstances (or were they ultimately constraints that imposed a new discipline on us?), we’re nearly ready to launch “CETACEA” onto the public stage at GIOFest in Glasgow which runs online from 26th-28th November.

Many of the questions I raised earlier about our working process remain unanswered as we continue to build to a full-length event, but we did decide to only use the text overtly where it really added to the music. To that end, I want to leave you with Lesley’s poem so that you, like us, can take it as your starting point before listening to our performance in a couple of weeks’ time.

C-E-T-A-C-E-A
an exhibition by Marina Rees, using the bones of a long-finned pilot whale carcass recovered from Skjálfadi Bay. Húsavík Whale Museum, Iceland.


depot :
a bleached whale

.
an old sea mammal
lying on a beach
wind blowing through its rotted sinews


unpitched
long, low tones
degraded by the air.


how sound becomes colour :
the wind over water
dark /light


the blue black silver of the fjord
in the meat of its spine,
its winglike arms almost blue.

.
in praises
repeated, repeating


one note
falling like a flare


again, and now again
for hours


the vast dark hung with
ropes of song

.
hvalreki :
(‘whale drift’) a windfall

.
sound substance :


minute adjustments of
pitch and ornament


the clicking patterns
rigid, discordant


the sternum
the cervical block


a plain of lunar
knocks and hollows

.
o cathedral :


like an aurora,
downsweeping


kindling the dark
with antiphons


the slow turn
of bulks in darkness

Histories and Herstories Composers part 5

Anna Appleby

As with Lillie Harris, I first met Anna Appleby through the RSNO Composers’ Hub. It’s probably fair to say that “Hrakningar” grew out of someone else’s joke: Anna was in Reykjavik, where one of her choral pieces was being performed and she posted a short video of the geese on Tjörnin, the lake in the park near the centre of Reykjavik. One of her friends suggested she should write a piece incorporating their sound.

The geese have always been a potent symbol for me as their noisy conversation woke me early every morning as I  camped next to the Lagarfljót in East Iceland. After a month on the road, my mind was on travelling back to Scotland, just like the geese. I was intrigued to see who got there first: it was me by a short head but I remember the strong emotions I felt one day out on the bike when a large  skein of geese settled onto the field next to me. Every year now I await their migration in both directions between Iceland and Scotland. There was a special poignancy this year when they left as Scotland entered lockdown- almost like they were jumping ship.

With so much symbolism attached to the geese for me, you can imagine it was important to find the right composer for this commission and I knew that Anna understood how Iceland felt in winter.

©Graeme McDonald

Nordic Viola had been invited to play in Sound Festival in November 2018, which would feature the viola as part of their endangered instrument  series as well as the  music of women composers, and so I approached Fiona Robertson about jointly commissioning Anna to write us a piece.

In Anna’s words:

“Hrakningar is an Icelandic word used to describe being buffeted by a storm or wind,  blown somewhere against your will  and is also used to refer to dangerous events that happen to a person. Hrakningar juxtaposes the freedom of migrating birds with the prejudice that refugees face when seeking a better life. Geese face harsh conditions when travelling but their journeys are accepted and often celebrated while humans are expected to conform to imposed  boundaries and borders.”

Working with Anna was a collaborative process. Whilst I very much wanted her to write the piece she wanted to write, I  did enjoy watching the piece develop as she sent sketches of the work in progress. I remember hearing the electronic soundtrack early in the process and being captivated by the eery, echoey sound of the geese. Somehow I can’t hear that track without thinking of the northern lights flickering overhead – you can practically feel the electricity in the air in this soundtrack. It sounds like a cliché, but then the northern lights were every bit as much of a feature of my time in East Iceland as the geese were.

Anna is currently studying for a PhD at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester but she hails originally from Newcastle upon Tyne. Her work engages with socio-political and spiritual themes and she writes for community as well as professional ensembles. She has a particular interest in writing for the stage and has enjoyed residencies with the Rambert Dance Company (2016-17) and Glyndebourne Opera (2019-21). In Glasgow she worked with Merchant Sinfonia as part of the PRS Foundation’s “Adopt a Composer” scheme and wss part of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra’s Composers’ Hub in 2017-18.

Community work is important to her and she has been  composer in residence with Streetwise Opera in Manchester  and artist in residence with Quay Voices. She also works teaching and mentoring young composers.

Key awards include the GDST Trailblazer Award in 2018 and 2nd prize in the Royal Northern Sinfonia‘s “Mozarts of Tomorrow” competition in January 2016.

Unusually in this era of specialisation, Anna is also an accomplished visual artist and writer.

You can find out much more about Anna and her music at: https://www.annaappleby.com/

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/

Thoughts of Shetland and learning the Viola d’amore.

Next Saturday I should have been travelling out to Shetland prior to playing in the 5th International St. Magnus Conference hosted by the University of the Highland Islands but…. Well, you know the rest!

Actually, I’m one of the luckier ones – the conference has been postponed lock, stock and barrel until April 2021 and I’ve been able to pay my musicians for rehearsals and rebook them for next year. I’ve also been really heartened from some of the lovely messages I’ve had from friends and connections in Shetland. It is truly a special place.

I’m also planning on visiting the islands in September for a couple of concerts – fingers are tightly crossed for that.

So how to fill the time self-isolating? Well there are many, many exciting projects for Nordic Viola in the pipeline with some very new and different ideas. I’ll share some of these with you over time, although obviously it’s very difficult to put a timescale on anything right now. At least I should have plenty of work lined up and ready to go.

In the meantime, I’ve been learning to play the Viola d’amore. I got one of these beautiful and unusual instruments for my birthday back in November and I’ve barely had time to explore it.

The first time I heard this instrument live was in Sound Festival in Aberdeen in 2018 played by Garth Knox, one of the instrument’s greatest modern advocates. I was immediately attracted by its resonance and unusual tone colour. The d’amore has 6 or 7 sounding strings (mine has 6) and a corresponding number of sympathetic strings which, as Garth puts it, “sing along” when they hear a note they like. The most common tuning is D, A, D, F (sharp), D, A so, as you can imagine, it likes D major/minor! The instrument is first mentioned in 1679 and its heyday was during the Baroque period. Related to the viol family, it was superseded by the more powerful-sounding violin family, but it is seeing a renaissance in contemporary music.

Another reason that I was attracted to the viola d’amore is the things it has in common with the Hardanger Fiddle or “hardingfele” in Norwegian. Earliest mention of the Hardanger is roughly contemporary with that of the d’amore – 1651. It has 4 (sometimes 5) sounding strings. The most common tuning is ADAE, but there is a whole tradition of different tunings, each signifying something different in the culture. See here if you are interested. The instrument is traditionally used for dancing. Hardingfeler can be played for gammaldans (waltz, reinlender/schottis, pols, etc.), but are most associated with Norwegian bygdedans (regional dances) such as springar and gangar. These dances are found in areas such as Hallingdal, Telemark, Setesdal, Valdres, and on the west coast of Norway in Voss, Jølster, and Sogn.

Both instruments, due to their flatter bridges and, in the case of the d’amore with its 6 strings, the closeness of the strings, tend to favour music with drones and chords. Which brings me to the other great attraction of the d’amore for me – a means of interpreting Shetland fiddle music through the medium of an instrument and sound that I relate to strongly: the d’amore definitely feels and sounds closer to the viola than to the violin/fiddle.

Shetland fiddle music shows several influences related to its seafaring history. There are tunes brought from Ireland, North America, Germany and Greenland but also a very strong Scandinavian influence. The influence of the Hardanger fiddle is not hard to discern. Shetland fiddle music includes the use of ringing strings, octaves and other double stops, syncopated rhythms and strong accents, cross bowings, scordatura tunings (tunings different from standard tuning) and changes of key within the tunes.

So, how am I getting on? You can hear my first efforts below. Firstly a meditation and improvisation on “Da Day Dawn”, a tune I first heard played by young Shetland fiddler Anya Johnston. “Da Day Dawn” an old Shetland fiddle tune which (as John Purser notes in his book Scotland’s Music) was traditionally played at the Winter solstice to mark the dawn of the lengthening days. And secondly “The Merry Boys of Greenland”, a reference to the many whaling crews that travelled from Shetland to Greenland.

Nordic Viola in Coll

Nordic Viola’s first visit to the Hebrides! Come and join us for a September weekend on this beautiful island in the West of Scotland.

Coll is renowned for its nature and we will be celebrating this in music. Migrating geese were one of the enduring memories of my time in Egilsstaðir, East Iceland and it is around this time of year that Barnacle and White-fronted Geese are starting to arrive in Coll from Iceland and Greenland. Anna Appleby’s piece “Hrakningar” (listen here), commissioned by Nordic Viola and Sound Festival in Aberdeen describes the geese migrating whilst also looking at the wider issue of migration. Here’s Anna’s programme note:

“Hrakningar is an Icelandic word used to describe being buffeted by a storm or wind, blown somewhere against your will, and is also used to refer to dangerous events that happen to a person.

Hrakningar juxtaposes the freedom of migrating birds with the prejudice that refugees face when seeking a better life. The piece incorporates calls from the species of geese that travel between Iceland and Scotland as part of their yearly cycle, including Pink-Footed Geese, Brant (or Brent) Geese and Greylag Geese. They arrive in Scotland in Autumn and leave for Iceland in Spring each year. Geese face harsh conditions when travelling but their journeys are accepted and often celebrated while humans are expected to conform to imposed boundaries and borders. “

Coll is also known for its marine mammals and, after David and I were lucky enough to watch whales swimming off the coast of Greenland this summer, I will be particularly looking forward to playing Emily Doolittle’s “Social Sounds from Whales at Night” (listen here) where, essentially, I get to duet with humpback whales. It’s a very beautiful and moving piece.

We’ll also be including music from the Faroe Islands, Greenland and the Northern Isles of Scotland.

Ferry times mean that we’ll also have a bit of time to explore the island and to meet and socialise with our audience. Why not come over and spend a long weekend with us?

Anna Appleby – Hrakningar

Autumn has always a special time for me. The summer heat gives way to a softness with autumn mists and the first of the frosts. The nights lengthen and I enjoy that feeling of hygge, curled up with a book. The sound I associate more than any other with autumn here in Scotland is the geese arriving. In fact, I saw my first skein of geese of the year yesterday.

Fellabaer

All these sensory experiences are more poignant since my sabbatical and none more so than the sound of migrating geese. I was staying in Fellabaer located  across the Lagarfljót lake near Egilsstaðir in East Iceland, right where the geese were collecting to migrate south. Every morning I was woken in my tent by their noisy disputes. I found myself wondering who’d arrive back in Scotland first – them or me. Back home in early October, I remember stopping whilst I was on my bike to watch them land in a field near Flanders Moss, Stirlingshire. In my mind it was the Egilsstaðir geese following me home.

On the second anniversary of this wonderful experience we’ve just started rehearsing our latest commission, Anna Appleby‘s “Hrakningar”, which is a joint commission with Sound Festival  in Aberdeen, Scotland.

Like Lillie Harris, from whom I commissioned “AND” for solo viola, I first met Anna on the RSNO’s “Composers’ Hub.” The new piece grew out of a half joke: Anna was in Reykjavik and posted a clip of geese honking away on Lake Tjörnin. Somebody challenged her to write a piece including them – to which I responded with something along the lines of “go on then – I’ll pay you”.

“Hrakningar” is composed for flute/viola/bassoon with an electronic soundtrack and Anna describes it like this:

Hrakningar is an Icelandic word used to describe being buffeted by a storm or wind, blown somewhere against your will, and is also used to refer to dangerous events that happen to a person.

Hrakningar juxtaposes the freedom of migrating birds with the prejudice that refugees face when seeking a better life. The piece incorporates calls from the species of geese that travel between Iceland and Scotland as part of their yearly cycle, including Pink-Footed Geese, Brant (or Brent) Geese and Greylag Geese. They arrive in Scotland in Autumn and leave for Iceland in Spring each year. Geese face harsh conditions when travelling but their journeys are accepted and often celebrated while humans are expected to conform to imposed boundaries and borders.

I don’t want to give the game away too much before the premiere but I am absolutely blown away by the way Anna integrates the geese in the introductory soundtrack with some really delicate timbres from the instruments, picking up on the harmonics in the birdsong. I can’t really do it justice in words, so why don’t you come and hear it for yourself if you’re anywhere near Aberdeen on 26th October? We’re in St Machar’s Cathedral at 1:10 and you can get further info and buy your tickets here. 

In a concert exploring seasonality in the Far North, we’ll also be performing our other commissions, “AND” by Lillie Harris, which depicts a Shetland storm and “Ukioq” by Arnannguaq Gerstrøm, describing a Greenlandic Winter.