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

‘Whale Songs’ and the possibility of escaping the human

The video above was produced for the University of the Highlands and Islands “The Edge Conference” and includes performances of “Social Sounds From Whales at Night” by Emily Doolittle, “Geese Flying Over My Head and Into the Distance” by Electra Perivolaris and CETACEA by Katherine Wren and Alex South.

Nordic Viola and the Environment

A big focus for Nordic Viola in 2021 was the environment. The first of these projects was a collaboration with Emily Doolittle, Stuart McCrae and Sarah Hopfinger for the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland’s “Artmaking in the Anthropocene” series, funded by the Royal Society of Edinburgh. A call for scores yielded a rich and varied programme of music by primarily Scottish-based composers. (Lisa Robertson, Aileen Sweeney, Emily Doolittle, Antonia Kattou, Martin Suckling and Manchester-based Anna Appleby.)

Arbroath 2020+1

During the summer, Alex South (clarinet and electronics), Lesley Harrison (poet) and I performed “Whale Song” a programme of music and poetry by Lesley connected to the North Sea and North Atlantic at Arbroath 2020+1. I also performed “Birds and Landscapes of the North” alongside Gemma McGregor for Orkney Arts Society.

Sound Festival

In October, Alex and I performed at Sound Festival in Aberdeen in works relating to North Atlantic coastlines by Irish composer Karen Power, Scottish composer Oliver Searle as well as our own works.

Taking place shortly before COP26, one of Sound’s focuses for this festival was that it should be a “no-fly” festival, so I took the opportunity to travel in the way I enjoy most, taking 3 days to cycle up to Aberdeen.

Modern Chants

Finally, in November I worked together with Emily Doolittle on her graphic score, “Machair” in association with Ruta Vitkauskaite‘s “Modern Chants” project, which I will write about in more depth in a later blog.

The Edge – UHI

Following this block of work, it was an absolute pleasure to talk to some of these collaborators, Dr. Emily Doolittle, Dr. Lesley Harrison and Alex South about our work incorporating environmental sounds into our music, exploring music on the liminal edge between human and animal sound as well as the ethics behind using recorded natural sound and the respect that we should accord other species. The talk was presented as part of the University of the Highlands and Islands’ “The Edge” conference in December 2021 and you can watch it at the top of this page.

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 at the 5th International St. Magnus Conference, University of the Highlands and Islands Institute of Northern Studies

On International Women’s Day we are pleased to announce that our concert of music by women composers from the islands of the North Atlantic, “Histories and Herstories” will be featured in this year’s 5th International St. Magnus Conference hosted by the Institute of Northern Studies at the University of the Highlands and Islands. The concert will be streamed on Friday 16th April at 16:15 BST at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZosZA_ZG_fM

The concert links into themes explored in the conference looking at the role women have played in society from the Hebrides, Northern Isles and on to the Faroes, Iceland and Greenland from Medieval times to the present day. The conference link is here.  

Shetland fiddler Margaret Robertson reflects on what it means to “always be a mother” in her piece Mother’s Love, written for a close friend who had recently lost a son. Figuratively speaking, Margaret is also a mother to “her gals”, the fiddlers of Edinburgh Tattoo band Hjaltibonhoga and we celebrate this in Windy Wellington” and St. Kilda Beach, written for Hjaltibonhoga’s trips to Australia and New Zealand. There are men in the band too, of course, but it is interesting to reflect on how Shetland fiddling, traditionally a pursuit of the menfolk, has become so popular with women and girls in our times, thanks in no small part to Margaret’s role as a teacher.

Margaret has been an invaluable source of information and inspiration in my work, too, and Mjørkaflókar, one of Nordic Viola’s most iconic pieces, was workshopped with Margaret’s pupils at Anderson High School, Lerwick, Shetland in 2016. In this concert it is performed with two students from Tórshavn Music School in the Faroes.

The hardship of motherhood in medieval times is represented in Jocelyn Hagen’s stunning arrangement of Sofðu Unga Ástin Min. In this traditional Icelandic lullaby, a mother sings to her child before leaving them out in the cold to die. Mothers struggling with too many mouths to feed in the harsh winters of Iceland would sometimes have to make this heart-rending choice.

The harsh winter weather of the Northern Isles of Scotland is represented in Lillie HarrisAND for solo viola, a response to Jen Hadfield’s poem, “Blashey Wadder” from Nigh-No-Place (Bloodaxe Books, 2008) Fiona Driver’s Wild November depicts the swirl of a windy late autumn day in Orkney. Winter can also be a time of great beauty and is celebrated in the Arctic regions. Arnannguaq Gerstrøm’s Ukioq is inspired by the spirit, nature and forces of winter in Greenland.

Like Margaret, Arnannguaq is a prominent leader in her home in Nuuk, Greenland. She led the Nuuk Music School for a time and is now influential as a business leader where she places great emphasis on developing her staff. Alongside this, she continues to compose and make music as an ambassador for the culture of her country.

Mankind’s interaction with the landscape and nature are important elements in Anna Appleby’s Hrakningar and Lisa Robertson’s Machair. Anna uses the metaphor of geese migrating from Iceland to Scotland to reflect on attitudes to human migration and uses an other-worldly blend of goose calls and electronics alongside a trio of flute, viola and bassoon. “Machair” depicts this beautiful and fragile landform of the West Coast of Scotland. Lisa includes the human voice humming fragments of a Gaelic song as she reflects on how climate change is impacting on coastal landscapes.

Gemma McGregor is another longstanding partner of Nordic Viola and her piece Joy draws in elements of Hardanger Fiddle style from Norway which has always had a strong influence in traditional music in Orkney and Shetland. Gemma, too, plays a strong role in the musical life of her island home. She has been commissioned by the St. Magnus Festival in Orkney and plays with and leads several ensembles in the islands. She also lectures on women composers and teaches composition at the University of Aberdeen.

You can find out much more about the individual composers elsewhere in the blog and find links to their music.

“Histories and Herstories” is performed by violinists Emily Nenniger and Anne Bünemann, myself, Katherine Wren on viola and Ruth Rowlands on cello. Helen Brew (flute) and David Hubbard (bassoon) join me in “Ukioq” and “Hrakningar” and Janet Larsson (flute) and David Martin (viola) perform in “Mjørkaflókar.” We very much hope you can join us on 16th April as we close out the conference.

Nordic Viola is grateful for the support provided for this production by Creative Scotland, The Ambache Trust, raising the profile of women composers, and the RVW Trust. Thanks also to Craig Sinclair Video. Our concert is part of Scotland’s Year of Coasts and Waters 2020/21.

This concert is free to access but if you would like to support us in paying our musicians and composers fairly and to extend the reach of our education work, you can donate via Buy me a coffee or Paypal.me You can also keep up to date with our work by scrolling down to the bottom of our home page and entering your email address. Thank you for your support.

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 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/

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/

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.

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.

Shoormal Conference Shetland

Sometimes 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.

It’s been a wonderful and energising week here at the University of the Highlands and Islands’ Shoormal Conference. Somewhat paradoxically as I’m dead tired from a 9 till 9 schedule and my mind is buzzing.

“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 rural areas.

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 this year.

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 investigate.

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!