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.

Sagas and Seascapes Live in Concert

Boat Hall, Shetland Museum, Lerwick, 25th Sept

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Workshops

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

Winning Tunes from our Seastories Competition

Back in June we announced the winners of our Seastories Competition, which was open to young people in the Northern Isles, Faroe Islands, Iceland and Greenland.

As we approach our online concert for Orkney International Science Festival this Friday, it’s time to introduce you to the fabulous tunes that our winners and runners up wrote on the theme of the sea.

Cumliewick Shore by Victoria Byrne-McCombie

First up is accordionist Victoria Byrne-McCombie. As we will be performing “Sagas and Seascapes” live in Shetland Museum Boat Hall on the 25th September, we decided to award a special prize to the best tune from Shetland, with the winner playing with us live in concert. You can buy tickets for the concert on Eventbrite here.

Victoria’s piece, Cumliewick Shore, depicts a beach near Sandwick on Shetland Mainland. Victoria said, “When I was thinking about the theme of the sea I was trying to think of a way that I could interpret the theme into a tune and I thought of the melodic tide and how it moves in, the way it comes in and out, so I knew here that I wanted to have a note through the tune that keeps coming back to and that was like the melodic movement of the tide. For the second part I took the same note of E as the structure but went higher and started changing the rhythm as the sea is much stronger than people think and the tide can change and weather (especially in Shetland!) at any time.”

Victoria also sent us “Just another double-peg day”, a double-peg day being the term the Northern Isles use for a windy day, which she will also play at our concert.

Korona Trot by Anni Helena Lamhauge

Coincidentally, our overall winner is also an accordionist. Anni Helena Lamhauge lives in the Faroe Islands and her winning piece, “Korona Trot” was written as she looked out over the sea from her home as she quarantined. The title is a play on words as “trot” in Faroese means to be tired of something. You’ll be able to watch Anni Helena playing her tune in our online concert, “Sagas and Seascapes”, on Friday 3rd September from 21:00BST.

Anni Helena also sent us a second tune, Tra Le Linee, which is a characterful minor key waltz.

Fjøra by Ronja Gaard Hansen

Finally, our runner up and youngest finalist is Ronja Gaard Hansen, also from the Faroe Islands. Ronja’s waltz for fiddle and piano, “Fjøra” (seashore), reminds her of happy days spent down by the sea on the long summer days.

I would like to thank the William Syson Foundation for supporting our competition and workshops as well as Gemma McGregor and Dávur Juul Magnusson for their valuable input into our online workshop back in June.

Seastories Workshop Arbroath

Arbroath

If you live in the East of Scotland and are aged 12-16, I will be running another “Seastories” workshop with artist Orla Stevens in conjunction with Hospitalfield and Aproxima Arts in Arbroath next Sunday, 5th September. More information and details of how to sign up here.

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:

Heading north and a live concert!

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.

The concert is promoted by Orkney Arts Society and takes place on 2nd July in Stromness Town Hall from 7:30pm. Tickets available from Eventbrite. https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/birds-and-landscapes-of-the-north-tickets-158727304641?aff=erelpanelorg

The concert is supported by Chamber Music Scotland’s Transmission Fund, which has enabled a new commission from Gemma McGregor for viola and flute.

Filming is supported by Creative Scotland and, for Linda Buckley, PRSF Women Make Music.

Histories and Herstories – Meet the Composers

I should should have been in Shetland for the next two weeks with my colleagues Emily Nenniger, Anne Bünemann and Ruth Rowlands joining me to perform at UHI’s 5th International St. Magnus Conference. Reflecting the conference’s theme, our concert is entitled “Histories and Herstories” and comprises music by female composers.

All being well, we will perform this concert in April next year, but in the meantime, over the next few weeks I thought I’d introduce you to the composers. Some of these come from the islands of the North Atlantic, others are inspired by the music and landscapes of the region. They all have a story to tell and are emblematic of the way women have contributed to island life. All these composers are freelancers, so please do look them up and consider supporting their work during this difficult period.

Margaret Robertson

I first met Margaret Robertson in November 2016 during my sabbatical in Shetland. I worked with her students at Anderson High School in Lerwick – more on that in the next blog – and learned much about the Shetland school of fiddle playing form her.

Margaret was born into one of the most musical families on the Island of Yell, Shetland. Her maternal family tree is directly descended from Brucie Danielson, the forefather of the Cullivoe traditional style. Brucie taught local players, among them Margaret’s Grandfather Simpson Henderson, his brother Willie Barclay Henderson and their brother in law Bobby Jamieson. Simpson later married Brucie’s niece. On her father’s side she is at least the third generation of fiddlers, in turn both her sons (Ross (of Peatbog Faeries) and Ryan Couper) are fiddlers and her daughter plays saxophone and piano. 

Margaret began lessons at school with the late Dr Tom Anderson and then studied with Trevor Hunter. Under Trevor’s guidance she won the first Shetland Young Fiddler of the Year competition in 1982. He also encouraged her to join the Shetland Fiddlers Society to learn more of the older traditional tunes also giving her the title of depute leader.

Upon leaving school, Margaret was approached by Shetland Island Council’s Education Department to teach fiddle in more of the outlying schools. This involved many out of school tutoring groups the most successful of which was the group ‘High Strings’ formed from the timetable at Anderson High. This group toured regularly, released three albums and has seen many of Shetland’s most celebrated fiddlers pass through its ranks.

In April 2013 an email was sent round Shetland fiddle instructors to gauge interest in performing at The Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo with a group of fiddlers from the islands. Local instructors, Margaret Robertson and Pauleen Wiseman, met with Clara Wheelan and Steve Walsh of the tattoo production team to find out more about the event. Margaret visited Edinburgh in August that year to experience a day’s rehearsals and the show live. The detail was to have 40 Shetland fiddlers perform each show for a run of 25 shows during the 2014 tattoo.

Postal invitations were sent to almost 200 Shetland fiddlers in the January of 2014 with a response of 97 fiddle players on a rota in order to meet the expectations. The group performed a set of local well-known tunes to meet the theme of ‘Our Home, Friends and Family’. The music and costumes, designed by Shetland Knitwear company Nielanell, conveyed the Mirrie Dancers (Aurora Borealis) in the sky across the world linking Scots scattered worldwide to their homeland. By the end of August that year the new Shetland County group named Hjaltibonhoga (Old Norse for ‘Shetland, my spiritual home’) had performed to almost 250,000 of a live audience with a BBC worldwide viewing public in excess of 1 billion.

7 years on, “Hjaltibonhoga” is now the Edinburgh Tattoo’s resident fiddle band and have performed at Tattoos all over the world.

Margaret is now living in Central Scotland and continues to teach traditional fiddle and piano accompaniment as well as running “Hjaltibonhoga.”

Margaret was inducted into the Scottish Traditional Music Hall of Fame in 2018, which she described as a “huge honour”. Organisers Hands Up For Trad said she is an “inspirational figure on the Shetland music scene as a fiddler, pianist, teacher and composer”.

In Shetland we’ll be playing three of Margaret’s new tunes, “Mother’s Love”, “St. Kilda Beach” and “Windy Wellington.” In the meantime, here are two tunes from “The Wilderness Collection” arranged for flute, two violas and bassoon, played by Helen Brew (flute) Katherine Wren and David Martin (violas) and David Hubbard (bassoon). “The Wilderness” is named after Margaret’s Grandad’s house and “Shaela” is named after the group her daughter played in and is a dialect word describing light summer mist.

If you’re interested in learning fiddle from one of Shetland’s finest players or in buying any of Margaret’s tune books, then click here: https://www.facebook.com/margaret.hjalti/

Histories and Her-stories – Institute of Northern Studies, University of the Highlands and Islands

Island life would have been impossible without the equal contribution of both women and men. Women have often taken leading roles in island communities, running them when their men have been off-island seeking employment, as fishermen, whalers, serving in the navy or as merchant seamen.

In partnership with UHI’s “Institute of Northern Studies” 5th International St Magnus Conference, Nordic Viola present reflections on female experience of landscapes, motherhood and social gatherings around the North Atlantic region in music by women composers for string quartet. The programme includes “Machair” by young Highland composer Lisa Robertson (shortlisted in Scottish Awards for New Music 2019), previous commissions from Greenlandic composer Arnannguaq Gerstrøm, Lillie Harris and Anna Appleby traditional music from Iceland arranged by American Jocelyn Hagen, new music by traditional fiddlers Margaret Robertson (Shetland) and Fiona Driver (Orkney) and, following Nordic Viola’s collaboration in Orkney 2018, music influenced by Orcadian history and Hardanger fiddle style by Gemma McGregor.

Following rehearsals in school, Nordic Viola will be joined by fiddle students from Anderson High School in “Mjørkaflókar” a piece about Shetland and the Faroes they created in workshops with Katherine Wren in 2016, which was performed by music students in the Faroe Islands in 2018.

The concert is open to the public and takes place on 16th April 2020 at 7pm in Islesburgh Community Centre, Lerwick. The performance will last an hour and entry is by donation.

Supported by the National Lottery through Creative Scotland, the Ambache Trust, raising the profile of music by women and UHI’s Institute of Northern Studies. Part of Scotland’s Year of Coasts and Waters 2020.

Review of 2019 and onwards into 2020 – Scotland’s “Year of Coasts and Waters”

2019 has been the busiest year yet for Nordic Viola as the project continues to grow and make new connections around the North Atlantic. This year has seen an increasing number of collaborations with other artists working in the region and Nordic Viola is increasingly becoming a point of information and liaison for other musicians and composers.

Iceland

The first event of the year was a week in Iceland in March/April working with two musicians I met back in 2016 and who I’ve been desperate to work with again.

Firstly, Charles Ross, fellow viola player, composer and improviser. Charles has an incredible way of looking at the viola not as a traditional string instrument but as a source of sound to be exploited in any number of different ways. He has a very acute sense of timbre in music and is a very skilled improviser. There is a naivety and joyousness in much of his music, perhaps born of his interest in improvisation in world music.

We performed together in Mengi, Reykjavik and at Slátarhusið, Egilsstaðir in East Iceland. Somewhat nerve-wrackingly, the weather conspired against us in Reykjavik, meaning that we were on stage live with no rehearsal. It made for a very exciting and intense performance, though. We had much more time in Egilsstaðir, allowing us to perform with pre-recorded electronic tracks, introduce more sound effects and instruments and to better structure our work.

Whilst in Egilsstaðir I visited the music school again to give a masterclass to senior pupils, meeting old and new friends alike. It was also a great pleasure to hear Kristófer Gauti Thórhallsson, who I coached back in 2016, playing a movement from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons with the Austerlands Symphony Orchestra. Music is really thriving in East Iceland, thanks in part to the leadership of Soley Thrastardóttir, head of the music school.

Arnhildur Valgarðsdóttir has been a great friend to me whenever I’ve visited Reykjavik and a performance together was long overdue. We performed a viola/piano tour of the North Atlantic with music by Gemma McGregor, Peter Maxwell Davies (both Orkney), Adrian Vernon Fish (Qaanaaq, a sonata inspired by Greenland) and Oliver Kentish (Iceland).

Dunblane

In June I repeated this programme with Kevin Duggan in Dunblane Cathedral and I hope to be able to tour this popular programme with both Adda and Kevin in the next couple of years.

The Dunblane concert was a particularly joyous occasion for me as I finally got to welcome Adrian Vernon Fish to one of our concerts. Adrian and I have been in touch since Nordic Viola began as we share a deep love for Greenland and he has been a source of inspiration and advice to me from the start. Apart from Qaanaaq, a viola sonata that really deserves to be out there in the wider world, his “Uyeasound” Nocturne has become one of our favourite pieces.

I also welcomed Gemma McGregor to Dunblane to hear her piece, “Joy” for solo viola. We had worked together in Orkney in 2018 and this was a chance to catch up and discuss a new commission (more on that later) as well as trawling through my now extensive collection of Far North CDs.

Scotland New Music Awards

In May I was honoured to be shortlisted for the New Music Scotland  “Making it Happen Award” alongside eventual winners the Nevis Ensemble and Glasgow Experimental Music Series. It was incredibly inspiring to share an evening with a full house of inspirational musicians – the contemporary music scene in Scotland is thriving at the moment. Stories were shared with old friends and new alliances were formed.

Out of the Box

July saw my first concert of the year guesting on another project. Fiona Driver’s “Out of the Box” concert in Inverness Cathedral featured a group of musicians inspired in various ways by traditional music of the north. Fiona and husband Trevor Hunter are two of the driving forces in fiddle music from Orkney and Shetland and are now practising their art in Inverness. We were joined by Lea MacLeod on pipes and flute, Anya Johnston on fiddle and Dave Chadwick on the incredible Swedish Nyckelharpa. David Martin and I played some folk tunes from Iceland and then joined in a trio with Fiona to play her “Hoy’s Dark and Lonely Isle” and my “Mjørkaflókar”, inspired by Orkney and the Faroes respectively.

I hope to invite Fiona down to Dunblane sometime on a new and similar collaboration.

Flitting around the islands

September proved to be an incredibly busy month for Nordic Viola. First up was the “Shoormal Conference” on rural creativity at the University of the Highlands and Islands in the beautiful Mareel Centre in Lerwick, Shetland. I teamed up with Orkney composer and flautist Gemma McGregor for this project to talk about our work in Orkney last year. We gave a presentation entitled From the Northern Isles to Greenland: Exploring environment and culture through improvisation and sonic art, reflecting on our work with school children in Kirkwall and Stromness last year.

One of the aims of my Orkney residency last year was to commission Gemma and our concert at the conference, Nordic Viola: A Journey Around the North Atlantic in Words and Music, saw the premiere of her new piece for viola and flute based on the St. Magnus Way, “Carry His Relics”. The focus of the concert was on showcasing how a rich palette of sound can be generated from limited resources when travelling in remote rural areas.

Putting theory into practice, Nordic Viola’s next outing was to the Isle of Coll Music Group with flautist Helen Brew, fellow violist David Martin and bassoonist David Hubbard. Coll is an island in the Inner Hebrides off the west coast of Scotland and we were blessed with some surprisingly mediterranean weather! Music included a new arrangement of the Unst Boat Song by the Danish String Quartet and Emily Doolittle’s “Social Sounds From Whales at Night” which has proved a big hit in my concerts this year.

Alongside Autumn – A Composer’s Walk

October saw another new collaboration with composer Matilda Brown in Durness on the north coast of Scotland. Matilda had journeyed right through Scotland from Annan in Dumfriesshire to Durness entirely on foot, performing and composing as she went. We share a lot of the same inspirations in our music and I found sharing in the end of Matilda’s journey an incredibly moving and inspiring experience. We’re both looking forward to working together in the future.

2020 and beyond!

The rest of the autumn has been about planning ahead for 2020 and beyond and we have some very exciting plans, many growing out of new connections made this year.

Histories and Herstories

The Shoormal Conference proved to be especially profitable in building new partnerships, not least with the University of the Highlands and Islands themselves and my first project will be a programme of female composers writing about island life as part of the Histories and Herstories Conference in April. I am delighted that pupils from Anderson High School will be joining us in performance.

Year of Coasts and Waters

Event Scotland’s theme for 2020 is tailor-made for us and we will be touring a programme entitled “Sagas and Seascapes” to the Orkney Science Festival, Shetland and Dunblane. The programme looks at the many cultural links around the North Atlantic and especially shared stories such as the Icelandic “Njál’s Saga” and the “Orkneyinga Saga”. We’re also very excited about performing the rarely heard Septet version of Sibelius’ “En Saga” in Dunblane and about a new commission – more will be revealed as the year progresses! We will also be enjoying depictions of landscapes from the sea cliffs of the Faroes and the ancient monuments of Orkney to name but two.

Cross-disciplinary collaborations

Shoormal opened new opportunities for me to work with Nordic Viola in tandem with other art forms. At the moment these are in a developmental stage but I’m looking forward to preventing some new and innovative performance formats in the 2020/21 season. Together with composer Renzo Spiteri (now resident in Shetland) and visual artist Orla Stevens I am developing a project inspired by the Northern and Western Isles and beyond looking at the transitions from darkness to light at northern latitudes.

I have always been fascinated by words and am therefore excited to be working with Lesley Harrison. One of her publications, “Beyond the Map” charts an imaginary journey following the early whalers up the east coast of Scotland to the Northern Isles and up to Greenland. The parallels with my own project are obvious and I look forward to developing an event with Lesley and other musicians such as Alex South and Emily Doolittle who are interested in whale song.

Nordic Viola seems to be developing at a rapid rate at the moment and I look forward to sharing the journey with you as these new projects and partnerships develop.

Isle of Coll Music Group September 2019

Invigorated after sharing ideas of cultural practice in the rural economy at Shoormal Conference in Shetland, I travelled straight to Coll, one of Scotland’s smaller island communities, to perform with Helen Brew (flute), David Hubbard (bassoon) and David Martin (viola).

It was never going to be a straightforward journey, but after two days of precious little sleep and several hours of, at times, frustrating travel, we were richly rewarded by Coll at it’s Mediterranean best! I love the ruggedness of the Far North, but who’s going to complain about azure seas and autumn temperatures nudging the 20c mark in the west of Scotland? Great, too, to finally take this particular group of musicians, who’ve been there with me since Nordic Viola was formed, off the mainland to enjoy some time together in the sort of place that inspires our music-making.

What a beautiful hall to make music in, too! An Cridhe is a modern facility with a beautiful acoustic. It’s also the hub of community life: you can buy local crafts and produce, meet friends, have a cup of tea and shelter from the weather – necessary on day 2!!

Our programme was a mixture of music we know well and some new pieces, such as the Danish String Quartet’s beautiful arrangement of the “Unst Boat Song” (click on link for short video) from Shetland, given a slightly different flavour in this colourful combination of flute, 2 violas and bassoon. Also Emily Doolittle’s “Social Sounds from Whales at Night.” I’m playing this piece a lot this year – it’s very moving to duet with a whale and audiences love listening to it, too.

We also played a new set of Icelandic folk songs, originally arranged for piano by Snorri Sigfús Birgisson which I have scored for our group of four. These tunes encompass a wonderfully wide range of emotions from a playful, pizzicato duo for two violas through two melancholy tunes, so typically Icelandic in their harmonic language, through to the rumbustuous Skuli Fogeti.

From the Faroes we had William Heinesen’s “Variations on a Faroese Hymn Tune” and Kári Bæk’s lively “Fragment.”

It was a particular pleasure to welcome a group of anthropology students on a field trip from Durham University to our concert and I think they enjoyed hearing about Greenlandic life and listening to Arnannguaq Gerstrøm’s piece commissioned by us, “Ukioq.” (Lovely, too, to see the Durham students giving something back to the community that hosted them for 10 days with a free ceilidh.)

David and I were camping and woke up to a flame red sunrise. Beautiful, but you know what they say about red sky in the morning…. Buoyed up by a communal fry-up, we split up to explore the island, by bike, running and even wild swimming! Out on the massive sand dunes we gazed over at neighbouring Tiree and over the sea to Staffa. Meanwhile, Helen was swimming with seals. The Shepherd’s Warning caught up with us on the way back to Arinagour as we got a good soaking, but it had dried up by the time we got the ferry back to Oban. Not the beautiful sunny crossing we got on the way over, but with atmospheric cloudscapes and shafts of weak sun spotlighting the grey water.

Many thanks to Janet and Alison from Isle of Coll Music Group for looking after us so well, even taking the Hubbard family on a sightseeing tour of the island. Also to Enterprise Music Scotland and Creative Scotland for supporting the concert. Without them it would be impossible for small rural communities to experience professional music-making.

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?