It has been a momentous year for Duncan Chisholm, long revered as one of Scotland’s all-time great fiddle players – not least as anchorman with seminal Highland folk-rockers Wolfstone – and now increasingly making his mark internationally as a solo artist. After winning two nominations in January’s Radio 2 Folk Awards (Musician of the Year and Best Traditional Track), his latest studio release, Affric, was also shortlisted for Scottish Album of the Year, alongside the likes of Django Django, Emeli Sandé and Calvin Harris.
It was right at the start of the year, though, that Chisholm achieved perhaps his greatest triumph to date, with the sellout world première of The Strathglass Suite, at Glasgow’s magnificent Kelvingrove Art Gallery, during the Celtic Connections festival. Interweaving material from the trilogy of albums that Affric completed – after Farrar (2008) and Canaich (2010) – embodying Chisholm’s personal artistic odyssey through the Highland landscapes where his family roots run seven centuries deep, the performance saw him leading a six-piece traditional band, backed by a 20-strong strings and brass ensemble. With orchestration by Stephen Adam of Scottish Opera, and top Scottish conductor Garry Walker at the podium, the music’s impact was such that the crowd couldn’t wait till the end to deliver its first standing ovation, but leapt to their feet halfway through, impelled by an especially thrilling set of reels.
“It was one of those very rare times I’ve experienced where everything – the players, the music, the place, the audience – just totally came together,” Chisholm recalls. “While we were playing, I could really feel the music and the emotion weaving between us and the audience – everyone was part of the same whole.”
Thankfully, for those not privileged to be present (and likely for many who were), that magical night – which won a raft of glowing reviews, including five stars in the Scotsman and comparison with Sibelius, Smetana and Vaughan Williams – was recorded for posterity. The resulting live album marks a fitting culmination of the Strathglass project, with its selected material reflecting the original trilogy’s beautifully dovetailed array of traditional, contemporary and, increasingly, original tunes, whose brilliantly diverse arrangements – from all-guns-blazing splendour to spinetingling solo passages – collectively form the soundtrack for Chisholm’s cinematic creative imaginings.
“It is a very visual thing for me – thinking about all the places and people, the history and stories that are tied in with these albums; trying to piece together the right music to capture them,” Chisholm says. “I’ve always loved concept albums, too, things like Shaun Davey’s The Brendan Voyage, or Moving Hearts’ The Storm, which have some kind of overall cohesion, or sense of narrative movement, so that was another influence behind the trilogy.”
Chisholm’s traditional accompanists – Jarlath Henderson (uilleann pipes/whistles), Matheu Watson (guitar), Allan Henderson (piano/fiddle), Martin O’Neill (bodhran) and Ross Hamilton (bass) – represent the cream of today’s Scottish folk scene, while the massed strings and brass are led by renowned genre-busting violinist Greg Lawson (BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/Moishe’s Bagel).
For Chisholm, the new album’s release finally closes the Strathglass chapter of his career, after more than six years devoted to the project, with the next as yet largely unwritten – although writing, as in composing, is sure to play a central role.
“I wrote more than half the tunes on Affric,” he points out, “and that’s something I definitely want to keep developing, especially having also learned so much about arranging and recording. Ultimately, I’d love to do an album that was all my own compositions.”
In the meantime, Chisholm takes to the road around Scotland this autumn with his acclaimed multimedia production Kin, a potently moving meditation on our closest connections with people and places, incorporating film, music, photography and the spoken word, which won a prestigious Herald Angel Award for excellence at the 2012 Edinburgh Festival.
Spring 2014 sees him heading south for his first major solo tour of England – after many previous visits both with Wolfstone and as a linchpin of Gaelic singing star Julie Fowlis’s band – taking in such high-profile venues as the Sage Gateshead and Kings Place in London. Joining him for these dates are the aforementioned dream-team talents of Jarlath Henderson, on uilleann pipes and whistles, and guitarist Matheu Watson, locking into the trio format that Chisholm relishes just as much as The Strathglass Suite’s lavish line-up.
“They’re both unbelievable musicians: I just love the connection we have together,” he says. “Obviously it’s a big contrast to the suite, but the heart of the music is exactly the same. It’s a different kind of intensity, with all the extra space and freedom between just three of us, but that magic of all being totally in the moment together is still what I’m aiming for.”
Duncan Chisholm Live:
27-Feb-2014 The Sage, Gateshead
28-Feb-2014 Kings Place, London
01-Mar-2014 Chapel Arts Centre, Bath
02-Mar-2014 Theatre Severn, Shrewsbury
“This man is living each note, putting his soul into every moment. The hands, the fiddle, the bow and Duncan’s body become one dance, one expression.”
(Mike Scott, The Waterboys)
Live at Celtic Connections is released via Copperhead Records 11th November 2013
Order is here: http://www.duncanchisholm-store.com/