On Friday evening at Stirling’s Tollbooth Theatre, the annual Distil showcase concert brought by 11 composers of traditional music to the stage, with new work inspired by a residential workshop managed by Hands up For Trad (the organisation behind events such as the MG Alba Scots Trad Music awards) hosted by the eclectic, innovative and downright wonderful string ensemble, Mr McFall’s Chamber. The aim of Distil is to encourage collaboration between traditional musicians and professionals from other genres.
‘Distil was established in 2002 to give adventurous musicians, whose main musical dialect is traditional music, the opportunity to explore a wide range of other musical styles and collaborate with musicians they might not otherwise get the chance to work with. The project opens up possibilities for a new kind of composer, working out of the folk tradition but moving freely and with understanding among the forms and sounds of other cultural traditions.’
The 2014 event enjoyed a strong Borders contingent, opening with Pete Stewart’s The Road To Ae. An enthusiastic member of The Border Pipers’ Society, Pete Stewart has been composing for the Scottish Lowland pipes for over two decades.
Following on from his successful contribution to Distil 2013, in The Road To Ae Pete takes an imaginary journey to the (very real) Village of Ae. With a sombre opening before the theme breaks into series of short canters through tantalizing pastoral idylls; despite its complex timing, The Road To Ae was expertly negotiated by Mr McFall’s Chamber and soloist Callum Armstrong. Callum’s growing reputation as an innovative piper, composer and instrument maker has been further highlighted by appearances as a soloist with The London Philharmonic Orchestra and even in Steven Spielberg’s War Horse film.
Tina Jordan Rees plays piano, flute and whistles and was nominated in the Up and Coming Artist of the Year category at the 2013 MG ALBA Scots Trad Music Awards. In Albert, Tina takes a step back from her eclectic approach to composition with a light, melodic piece dedicated to her Grandad. The piece opens with a gentle conversation between piano (Victoria Robinson) and violin, before the piano picks up the theme and introduces it to the remaining strings… where its full delight is realized.
Gillian Fleetwood followed up on her contribution to Distil 2013, Craft, with Craft 2. With an opening reminiscent of bird song, and an equally mellow conclusion, the multi-faceted Craft 2 also takes us through periods of complex clapping and urgent violin but still with more than a hint of trad melody at its heart. It’s also clear that Mr McFall’s Chamber rejoice in playing technically demanding pieces as much as the composers enjoy developing them. Gillian describes her inspiration for Craft 2… “I have looked into more circular forms of creativity such spinning and turning pottery and taken cues from the repetitive, cyclic feel that this invokes. This piece explores my enthusiasm for the complementary nature of harmony and discord, overlapping rhythmic patterns, mechanical and human movements, and perhaps most importantly, chaos and resolve”.
Providing a suitable contrast was Tom Richardson, with his quietly anthemic solo piano piece The Spaces Between. “… a meditation on the need for space in music and life”. Tom’s piece was a spell-binding treat, unadorned, and all the better for its sparseness. Delivered with what is clearly a deep love of music and the same clarity of vision that is the hallmark of American pianist/composer Philip Aaberg. As weightless as an adventure through dawn sunlight.
A former pupil of the late Dr Tom Anderson MBE and BBC Radio Two Young Tradition Award winner, Catriona Macdonald presented two pieces from Norroenn (Norn), a four-movement composition, originally commissioned by the Telemark International Folk Music Festival, Norway. With Blazin Fiddles and String Sisters being just two of the many projects with which she’s involved, Catriona brings a wide range of influences to her composition. A profusion of plucked strings almost manages to subdue an unmistakable Shetland swagger towards Copeland and Williams that, none the less, embodies community and crisp, Nordic air.
Distil is always a rare opportunity to explore exotic combinations; and James Mackintosh provided the chance to enjoy Gaelic song and a string quintet. It’s an enchanting mix, with an atmospheric opening before Kaela Rowan’s sleepy vocal seeps from the stage. The fact that this was a far from standard approach to Gaelic song made Eilean Fhionnan (The Green Isle) all the more soothing. Mackintosh thrives on multi-cultural influences, and this is a Rajasthani-inspired arrangement of a song by Charlie Macfarlane & Alasdair Grant. Kaela Rowan’s delivery was refreshing in its approach and executed with passion.
Another member of The Borders contingent, Matt Seattle, has been making fine use of Border Pipes for almost twenty years. His fascination with pipe music is as academic as it is creative and as far back as 2001 he was collaborating with Robert McFall. Matt brought to Distil 2014 his Theme for the Early Days of a Better Nation. A puzzling opening that either honoured or satirised Parcel O’ Rougues (I suspect, both) was explained by a bout of entertaining theatrics that brought Lori Watson to the stage; transforming the piece into a beautifully crafted and optimistic song perfectly suited to her impeccable Lowland Scots. Matt says the song is still a work in progress…
Will we be blawn by a bitter wind,
Twistit an torn in a mirksome spin?
Are we feart o the higher caa
As the promise o a better nation beckons yin an aa?
We’ll na be cairit dounstream again,
Huntit an herrit, tae dream in vain.
Keep the coorse o oor destiny
In the airly days o a better nation: Scotland fair an free.
(David Finnie/Matt Seattle)
From the south of Scotland to the North, as Orkney’s Jen Austen contributed the second part of a suite she introduced at Distil 2013. The Taintless Tide is named after Charles Kingsley’s Poem “The Tide River” and follows a river’s journey from mountain to sea. Featuring the intricate and atmospheric percussion of Signy Jakobsdottir, gently cascading strings and piano chart this enthralling journey. At times harking back to a 1950’s movie set – all sparkling, summery seas – then the mood transforms like a tide turning and heavier waves head for the shore. A hypnotic concluding phase finds the listener washed up on the shore – the wind, a haunting saw from cellist Su-a Lee, and Jakobsdottir providing the gentle wash of the sea on a pebble beach. Hiding herself away at the piano, Jen seemed reluctant to step into the limelight; but with music of this quality she may well have to get used to it.
Lori Watson is a tireless champion of the work of the poet 18th Century poet James Hogg and is well known and highly respected for her musical projects (Lori Watson and Rule of Three, Boreas, Borders Young Fiddles). Her piece LoWood 1 is based on the latest in a series of graphic scores Lori has been developing, which she’s kindly allowed us to include in this review (see image below). Highland fiddler Adam Sutherland (The Treacherous Orchestra, Session A9 and lots more) took to the stage for a work that glories in its openness – leaving the performer to interpret the score. The softest possible opening builds to a more and more intense cascade of melodies. With Adam making full, fluent use of effects pedals and live loops, the piece alternates between these bursts of melody and more fanciful meanderings with sound. The full effect is vaguely reminiscent of a dawn raga, before the piece recedes to an ever reducing echo.
The audience couldn’t quite work out when to clap – I didn’t want to stop clapping.
Andrew Dunlop, from Connel in Argyll, wowed the audience as a finalist in last year’s BBC Radio Scotland Young Traditional Musician of the Year. Having started traditional piano at Fèis Latharna Andrew went on to study at the RNCM in Manchester and the Eastman School in New York. Andrew’s Hoolie in Blue pays homage to Gershwin with a new approach, inspired by his time at the Distil residential. His blend of three individual melodies, mixing trad and jazz flavours made full and impressive use of the chamber strings before a lively close, that saw Tchaikovsky and Gershwin leave the dance floor hand in hand.
Inspired by Orcadian artist Laura Drever, fiddler Catriona Price, presenting Ness, is more often to be found in duet with harpist Esther Swift, as Twelfth Day. Adopting Laura’s technique of absorbing her subject to memory then painting from her impressions.. “a piece of non-programmatic instrumental music is not obviously about anything in particular until the composer says it is, and at first glance, it is not obvious what Laura’s painting is a memory of. I got thinking about how and why we respond to a particular theme and what this says about us as musicians or artists, or what our music or our art says about us as people. Perhaps this abstract artistic approach is the purest, most revealing and personal form of artistic expression…” Ness presented a sombre solitude in a ponderous storm of strings. A powerful piece that invites the listener to return again and again, making new discoveries each time.
Distil 2014 has been every bit as successful and creative as it has been for the last eight years. An annual gathering of musical minds that takes the exuberant creativity of our most talented musicians and pushes it that little bit further.
Review by: Neil McFadyen
Photo’s courtesy of Simon Thoumire