It’s Fiona who reminds me that I first saw her as part of Amy Duncan’s band in East London for the launch of Cycles Of Life. It’s pertinent as the pair have an ongoing musical partnership which will probably see them in Canada by the time this post goes up. Also recalling the night, I can distinctly remember being struck by what a beautiful instrument the harp can be. Its piano like fluidity and guitar matching attack are a winning combination and in the hands of an expert, the harmonic and rhythmic possibilities come alive, leading a merry dance around the other instruments. You may wonder, “Why the revelation?” But the instrument had never really figured in my thinking. Sure, I’d never taken against it, but neither for it and it probably features on a scant handful of the various records and CDs that I own. With the arrival of Sleep Sound, however, it’s time to nail my colours to the mast of the ‘for camp’ as once again I find myself utterly entranced as Fiona casts her musical spells.
I’m Grateful to Fiona for grabbing a few minutes in which to answer some questions about her new CD as it helps put the release in context. She explains, “Sleep Sound was originally a New Voices commission at Celtic Connections. The concert series is an invaluable opportunity where you are given a 50 minute blank canvas to compose new music for the ensemble of your choice (up to 10 players I think). They are usually music in the folk idiom, but there is a great open minded attitude which audiences bring to these concerts and I find that really inspiring.” She continues giving credit to the artistic director of Celtic Connections, “I have always loved going to these concerts so was really happy when Donald Shaw asked me to do one.”
Talking about New Voices Fiona adds, “Most people choose a clear theme to base their music on, and I chose sleep and dreams because it’s definitely something universal.” She continues revealing, “I knew that I really wanted to write for harps, strings, piano and voices and thought the instrumentation would work well with that.” She also admits, “I was also very lucky that all the musicians I chose were free and up for taking part. I had a really great team who all have brilliant credentials in both the traditional music and contemporary classical worlds.”
Fiona’s own musical background is interesting and she confides, “I didn’t really start taking music seriously until I was 14. As a child, I had always really enjoyed writing stories and to me writing music was the same feeling. When I started the harp I immediately found it a very creative instrument. I was also lucky to have some fantastic harp teachers, so I developed my technique and began writing my own music all at once.”
Fiona continues, “When I was 16, I got a place at The City of Edinburgh Music School which was a fantastic opportunity. It is a specialist music school within a normal comprehensive and I enjoyed loads of weekly music lessons from brilliant teachers” It expanded the range of her interests and she recalls, “They really encouraged us all to participate in a wide variety of styles and within a week I would study both traditional and classical harp, classical piano and take part in the school folk group and classical chamber groups. It was definitely an eclectic musical education and I got a lot of encouragement there for my composition.”
The next major stepping stone was Dartington College of Arts. She reveals, “It sadly no longer exists, but was a small arts college in an absolutely beautiful setting which encouraged collaborations with choreographers, theatre-makers and writers. I had a lot of freedom there and was given a lot of space to develop my own style. It was the most open-minded/experimental place I have ever known.” The final jigsaw piece was her Masters, in Composition at Edinburgh University with Nigel Osborne. She remembers him fondly telling me, “Nigel was a brilliant composition tutor who managed to push me in the directions I wanted to go in but hadn’t realised yet! It was much more traditional in approach, and I learned a lot about orchestration and got to try a lot of stuff out. I then realised I was definitely interested in writing for other musical instruments, not just the harp.”
The team she’s referring to above, naturally includes regular collaborator Amy Duncan adding her double bass and voice, but the rest are friends and familiars too. On piano is Lauren Mackie and Fiona recalls, “She studied alongside me at both The City of Edinburgh Music School and Dartington College of Arts. She’s a fantastic, extremely soulful pianist and has also performed with Amy and on my film score for The Space Between, as well as being in demand as a piano teacher with a huge musical range.” Fiona reveals that they share a mutual friend as she explains, “Rachel Newton was also with us at The City of Edinburgh Music School. Known for her fantastic work in The Shee, the Emily Portman Trio and the Furrow Collective, she has also released a fantastic solo album The Shadow Side and her second album is out later this year.” In this case Rachel also doubles the harp quotient on the album and is also, incidentally, someone whose other works I can lay my hands on.
The string section includes one of Rachel’s band mates from, The Shee and three other highly regarded players. Fiona hints at their talents revealing, “Shona Mooney plays in The Shee and also a former BBC Young Traditional Musician of the Year. Another of Scotland’s leading fiddlers is Anna-Wendy Stevenson, who is the course leader in Traditional Music in Benbecula. She’s also recorded and performed frequently with her grandfather, the modern composer Ronald Stevenson. They’re joined by two classically trained musicians, the first Violist Mairi Campbell, also well know for playing with The Cast, she’s a previous winner of Scots Singer Of The Year and her version of Auld Lang Syne was used in the Sex and the City movie. The second, cellist, Su-a Lee, has the principal role with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and plays in the brilliant Mr McFall’s Chamber amongst a massive array of bands and projects across a wide range of musical styles”
As for the compositions themselves, Fiona tells me, “I had to write pretty quickly – I think I got the commission in October and the performance was early Feb.” She continues by admitting, “This was probably quite a good thing though as I didn’t question too much, just got on with it! I did a bit of thinking around Sleep and dreams and worked out what parts I wanted to represent and what would help make it a balanced musical experience. There was always a danger of overemphasising the slow and relaxing aspects of sleep, especially using harps. I had to balance that with pieces about Insomnia and even Nightmare.”
As Fiona has already noted, “I was very clear about what instrumentation I wanted to use for the piece from the start, so mostly composed sitting down at the harp and piano.” But she also reveals technology and the computer played their parts as well, telling me, “With the time restraints and since we had limited rehearsal opportunities, I also used Sibelius which was great in helping to hear how your piece might work as a whole.”
Fiona also reveals, “I originally included a narrator in the first performance, a fantastic actor called Colin Scott-Moncrieff. I met him whilst I was writing music for a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in which he played Oberon and I thought he had a really special stage presence. The narration allowed the piece to flow easily from one piece to another (like a night’s sleep), and also gave the audience a clear idea about what each piece was about.” She continues, “As much as I liked the narration live, I decided we didn’t need it on the recording. I’m counting on the listener having more space and time to keep playing the CD and thought it would become wearing hearing the narration each time. In the end I just included some of the text I wrote as part of the sleeve notes.”
Whilst unquestionably all of them are individual talents it’s what they do together that really counts. The New Voices performance was a triumph and Fiona quickly found herself dealing with requests for a CD. Although it immediately seemed beyond her means to put everyone in a studio, she boldly and as it transpires wisely, considered trying to get some funding. She takes up the story, “I had never done a funding application before and battled with the Creative Scotland paperwork for a while, but was delighted when I was successful. I then got some additional help from the Musicians Benevolent Emerging Excellence Fund and The Hope Scott Trust and this meant that I was able to record in a really high quality studio.”
The chosen venue was Castlesound in Edinburgh, with Stuart Hamilton. Fiona continues, “we had an excellent producer in Calum Malcolm. Calum and Stuart both knew each other really well and watching them work together really was an amazing experience for me. They have the sharpest ears I have ever known and, as a result, we were able to record the music very quickly and efficiently. It was an amazingly smooth process.”
The proof of course is in the listening and the results are fabulous. The recording sounds absolutely wonderful with every bow stroke and pluck, capturing the very essence of the instrument used. It’s almost as if you can hear the wood, especially with Amy Duncan’s bass. There’s a richness of tonal colour right from the opening Piano piece The Evening Settle, which carries through as the twin Harps pick up the sleep sound theme. Then the voices of Mairi, Amy and Rachel on Lullaby are skilfully arranged and placed in the mix.
I’ll confess to lacking the musical language to be able to describe this accurately and I’m not even sure what you’d call it, although Fiona’s soundtrack work probably offers the best definition. This CD achieves the aim of being a soundtrack to a night’s sleep and even without the commentary, you can get the sense of the different ideas Fiona is trying to represent. A telling remark sums it up as she tells me, “I suppose people have often commented on my music being narrative, and I like that idea. I like giving the listener space to think but also enjoy high energy stuff too.”
It certainly doesn’t lack energy and there’s nothing somnambulant about it. The middle section in particular, which develops through Peace And Worry into The Decision, Insomnia and The Transition Jig are highly evocative and restless. We have all spent nights wrestling with things, battling demons of our own creation or struggling to know which course to take in the morning. As its title suggests the last of those is the most folkish and is almost jolly compared to the turmoil before it, signalling another change in mood.
I guess the real measure of the record is that it seems to match the ambition and the two longest pieces Deep Sleep and The Flying Dream are blissful and utterly beautiful, the addition of the voices, wordlessly used as instruments to the latter is breathtaking. But as Fiona has said, the idea is to give a balanced listening experience and there is still the drama of the second song, Nightmare, with its all of its intricacy and long instrumental tail, before the reprise of the Sleep Sound Theme and the promise of New Day guide us safely to the conclusion.
Inevitably the one downside to assembling such talent is as Fiona explains, “Due to the number of musicians in the project and the expense, I am not able to tour the piece, although I would absolutely love to. The musicians are also really in demand so getting everyone together is pretty difficult!” Highlighting the chance they have had to stage the show she says, “We had a great time and I felt it was really important to give the piece one more performance and I have recently been successful with my application to Made In Scotland, which means that Sleep Sound will now be showcased at the Edinburgh Fringe 2014 with a further 3 performances 12th-14th August.”
Well at least we have this wonderful recording and if I lack the musical language to explain this CD to you better, then I can only tell you that this another sit down and listen CD, a single sitting of roughly 40 minutes to luxuriate in and repeat at will. Along with Aidan O’Rourke and Gavin Marwick (and others, including those playing here), it’s a sign of a wonderful genre busting melting pot in current Scottish music, supported by the will to commission and fund creative excellence. Hell! If they vote ‘Yes’ I might have to emigrate.
Review by: Simon Holland
The musicians featured are:
Anna-Wendy Stevenson (Fiddle)
Shona Mooney (Fiddle)
Mairi Campbell (Viola & Vocals)
Su-a Lee (Cello)
Amy Duncan (Double Bass, Vocals)
Rachel Newton (Harp, Vocals)
Lauren Mackie (Piano)
Fiona Rutherford (Harp)
Sleep Sound is released 31st March 2014