Hotline is a new work commissioned as part of the cultural Olympiad coinciding with the games staged in the UK last year. Echoing the themes of nations coming together, it’s inspired by TAT1, the Transatlantic phone cable that became operational between Aidan’s native Oban and Newfoundland in 1956. It famously carried the hotline between the Kremlin and the White House, so hence the title.
Aidan is of course better known for his contributions to the groundbreaking Lau and more recently Kan, although was a founding member of Blazin’ Fiddles too. His Irish roots ensured that he grew up in a musical environment with his father delving back into that countries folk tradition. So no surprise then when Aidan took up the fiddle seriously at just eight years old, soon winning numerous competitions around Scotland and touring internationally by 14.
By his own admission he sees himself as just a Scottish fiddle player, with a deep love of both the country and the musical heritage that comes with that. But that is balanced with refusing to set boundaries as a musician. The learning process for Aidan is still ongoing and when you consider the level at which he’s playing, that really makes for a very special talent.
Whilst seeing Lau recently gave one facet of Aidan’s playing, with their infectious energy and drive, Hotline gives another. I was fortunate enough to see that too at London’s South Bank and left very impressed. I’m even more smitten with the CD and the chance for repeated listening offered. The concert performance left the feeling of having seen something musically complex and expansive. Although perhaps not quite as obviously charismatic as Lau, there was still an intensity in the way that the musicians seemed to tune into each other on stage, but the instrumentation created a different harmonic world, again confirmed by this CD.
With all music composed by Aidan, the band for these sessions is Phil Bancroft on tenor sax, Paul Harrison on keys, Catriona McKay on Scottish harp and Martin O’Neil on percussion. The saxophone is probably the most unusual feature of this line up, but the combination of piano and harp is also interesting. Adding to the mix are the vocal samples taken an archive of conversations that took place down the wires, mixed with other snatches of speech that echo the cold war.
The music is a suite of five long pieces and the right from the start of Tat-1, the adventurous scope is clear. The plucked fiddle setting up a confusion of discordant blips and bleeps. The rhythm takes shape pushed by the percussion and the saxophone slowly starts to add a melodic sense, the piano picks up a riff and the harp adds flourishes that dance around the periphery, with Aidan’s seesawing fiddle and a burst from the piano finally giving way to a staccato riff that concludes the piece. It seems to have every bit much to do with the Scandinavian jazz beloved by ECM fans, especially say the minimalism of Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin, as it does with Scottish folk music.
The second piece Clarenville and the closer Gallanach Bay reflect the opposite ends of this incredible engineering feat, while HMTS Monarch is the name of the ship that laid most of the cable. Newfoundland and Scotland are linked by much more than a telephone line of course, with many émigrés crossing the Atlantic, eventually settling there, or spreading into Canada and the USA. There is a yearning quality to the melody and a bleak and lonely feel in the opening fiddle and harp motifs of Clarenville, picked up by Phil Bancroft’s wistful breathy toned saxophone that perhaps reflects this.
But the most evocative piece is the title track as Hotline, which refers to the main form of communication established between Communist Russia and the USA during the cold war. The overarching threat of M.A.D. that came with the stand off between the two ideologies and the arms proliferation it caused were a constant threat. It cast a shadow over the lives of everyone, but probably especially over the children of the baby boom, born to those who had experienced first-hand the horrors of world war. The sinister echoes are felt through the two voices, one Russian and one American, separated appropriately left and right, talking simultaneously but not in unison.
Musically this is every bit as good as anything Aidan has done. As a commission it connects his beloved Scotland to the wider world, offering in the process a new, universal musical language, created by five diverse musical voices coming together. The spoken words that echo from the past, from the quaint and naive sounding questions about the weather and Scottish clans, to the more sinister political posturing serve to remind us of the basic need for communication. It is what we can share that is our strength.
Review by: Simon Holland