On Friday evening at Stirling’s Tollbooth Theatre, there was a rare opportunity to enjoy a live performance showcasing some of the best talent in Scottish traditional music. Distil is an initiative managed by Hands up For Trad, the organisation behind events such as the MG Alba Scots Trad Music awards, to encourage collaboration between traditional musicians and professionals from other genres. With a remit to embrace the worlds of chamber music and electronics, this year’s showcase concert was the result of a residential workshop in February, attended by twelve of Scotland’s best composers of traditional music, and led by innovative string ensemble Mr McFall’s Chamber.
Doors, written by fiddler Mike Vass for Border Pipes and String Quintet, was inspired by Aldous Huxley’s Doors Of Perception. Piper James MacKenzie delivered a complex and enjoyable main melody. A gentle opening built steadily towards a strident and powerful conclusion.
In Blackbirds Make Me Smile, Jo Freya took a melody inspired by birdsong and developed the theme by deft use of soprano sax, low whistle and tin whistle. Mary McMaster provided transcendental accompaniment on the harp and while looped samples of birdsong interplayed with the melody, both musicians sampled and looped their own music live. The sound created was as complex and full of joy as the dawn chorus itself and invoked a tangible emotional response from the audience.
Legacy, by Rachel Hair consisted of three short pieces for harp and string ensemble. The music took its inspiration from the poetry in which Glaswegian Martin Stepek, which documents the hardship and exile his Polish father and his family suffered during the Second World War. with a visual backdrop of excerpts from Stepek’s poetry, the music was every bit as heart-rending as the words. The pace changed from gently pastoral to industrious to industrial, and closed with harp and violin sharing a melody of intense beauty.
Steven Blake’s Impressions took the pibroch a step further by adapting the theme in MacCrimmon’s Lament for piano. The piece opened with a faithful rendition of the melody before building chords and introducing complex variations and timings, leading to a forceful yet sombre conclusion.
In Vata, Kate Young’s vocal expression took precedence over melody in a piece that was perfectly suited to live performance.
Hold On Tight celebrates the Scottish people’s continued commitment to their traditions and culture. Suzanne Houston treated us to a cool jazz opening, introducing light jigs, through sombre passages to a busy groove that involved the string ensemble along with flute, piano and percussion. The effect was even slightly reminiscent of Weather Report – but Weather Report never had Su-a Lee on Cello!
Lorne MacDougall’s proxy appearance (by video) was fitting. He fully embraced the electronic remit with his 8-bit Bagpipes; an experiment involving highland bagpipe techniques presented through Nintendo technology… you really had to be there.
Fiddler Iain Fraser presented a very 21st Century twist on chamber music with a trio of pieces inspired by a combination of Dvorak and Gaelic song; the building of air/jig/reel sets and the use of loop pedals in live performance by electric violin and electric cello. The result was an enthralling conversation between rhythm and melody.
The Chadar is an epic and dangerous 40 mile journey undertaken along a frozen river during the Himalayan winter. Inspired by the journey and the music of the Himalayas, James Lindsay presented a piece drawing equally on western folk and classical influences. Along with the strings, Signy Jakobsdottir’s atmospheric percussion provided the perfect atmosphere for a composition that built a tense, urgent atmosphere invoking the relentlessness of the journey.
Fraya Thomsen’s Highland Reminiscence revives the string ensemble / percussion combination in a piece that explores 100 years of change in the working lives of Highland people, from a pastoral to an industrial existence, and from there to a scarcity of work.
Amble Skuse collaborated with poet Angus Peter Campbell to explore contemporary perceptions of tradition and communication in an adaptation of Campbell’s The Great Maiden of Corrodale. Clarsach and piano joined the string ensemble in a piece that opens with dark tones and continues with snatches of poetry in a telephonic haze. In time the darkness lifts towards a paradoxical mix of the joyous and the sombre with cello echoing the Clarsach’s melody.
Mairearad Green’s Rural Design Concept used piano and strings to explore the spaces between the melody, emulating an architect’s sensitivity to environments. The result was a beautiful, rich and textured piece of music.
Aside from being an evening of breathtaking music, the Distil showcase affirms that not only is traditional music thriving in Scotland; it is moving forward at a previously unforeseen pace, under the guardianship of a generation who, with the invaluable help of the preceding generation, have mastered their art. The future of Scottish music is in very, very safe hands.
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Photos from the Day
All photos and music courtesy of Hands up For Trad (Photos: All Rights Reserved)