Glasgow-based artist and composer Hanna Tuulikki’s latest body of work explores the mimesis of birds in Gaelic song called Air falbh leis na h-eòin (Away with the Birds), it is her most ambitious undertaking to date. At the centre of the project is a composition she has written for nine female singers – it will be performed outdoors on a floating harbour on the beautiful Isle of Canna known as ‘the garden of the Hebrides’ on the 29th and 30th of August as part of Culture 2014. I recently spoke to Hanna about the project and how it had evolved into its current form.
Hanna’s own interest in Gaelic song came about from an interest that has influenced her own previous work, especially in the avant-folk trio Nalle which featured Aby Vulliamy and Chris Hladowski. “I listen to folk music from all over the world and I became really interested in cultures where the music seems to grow from the peoples relationship to the land” she explains. It was whilst researching Gaelic song and rhymes that she discovered many of them imitate or emulate the sounds of birds.
Amongst the archive collections she has studied are those at Canna House which contain an extensive and unrivalled Gaelic library, curated by previous owners, Dr John Lorne Campbell and his wife Margaret Fay Shaw. After talking to Hanna at length I came way with a very strong sense that what has happened so far is somehow fated, some of the connections with the people involved in the project have only served to strengthen that feeling as she revealed. “John Lorne Campbell and Margaret Fay Shaw were the last lairds of Canna. They were also folklorists who went around the Western Isles collecting songs, stories and photographs. I guess the place that houses the archive feels like a forgotten heart of the Western Isles to me and also coincidentally one of the vocalists on the project, Nerea Bello, her grandfather was best friends with John Lorne Campbell and her aunt is the archivist at Canna House. There’s this synchronicity, I had no idea Nerea had this strong personal connection to the island.”
One of the easiest ways of describing this project is to liken it to a tapestry, Hanna described it to me as “lifting little fragments as threads and weaving them into this tapestry in which there are tiny fragments sitting alongside each other.” There are many people and many elements surrounding this project with the composition at the centre. There is also bundles of creativity taking place inspired by the natural world.
Clearly the audible element (songs, bird sounds) of the project is the seed in many ways. Hanna explained more about how the actual sounds she uses and how they had evolved. “This project has been four years worth of work that started as research into these songs. I discovered what I call a well of tradition in which there are a number of songs and poems that imitate the sound of birds or describe the sound or suggest the flight of some. I started to compose with these songs by de-constructing them and re-weaving them either in strict rhythmic form or sometimes as a springboard for more improvisation. In a sense I’m trying to relate the songs back to the sounds and the environment that first inspired them.
“I started working with this material with two other vocalists and it became a piece for three singers and then it grew into a piece for nine singers. We performed it for the first time last year at the Tectonics Festival (BBC Symphonic Orchestra Festival in Glasgow at the Old Fruit Market). Now it’s part of the Glasgow Commonwealth Culture 2014.
“At the centre of the project is a composition that I’ve written for nine female singers and its an acapella vocal piece in five movements, each movement represents a different habitat and bird community (wader, sea-bird, wildfowl, corvid, and cuckoo). The composition itself is made from the re-weaving of a series of Gaelic songs and rhymes that imitate or emulate the sounds of birds. In between each movement, there is also a field recording collage made by field recordist and sound artist Geoff Sample and that’s kind of grown into a large-scale performance in Canna on a floating harbour.”
The creativity at play deepens when you begin to see the whole. There is a 3-metre long pen and ink visual score that Hanna has drawn (her artwork is amazing). It’s not dissimilar to old Tibetan musical scores which also had a beautiful visual element, unlike the regimented format of modern musical notation.
There is also a choreographed element. Hanna has spent considerable time working with choreographer Rosalind Masson…”to think about movement, almost dance but not quiet dance. It’s very exciting to be working with a choreographer for the first time. It’s an amazing exchange of skills, the project has involved so many people, like a wee family.”
During a week-long residency in March 2013, as part of Glasgow Tramway’s Rip It Up season, her work with Rosalind was captured by film-maker Daniel Warren:
As Hanna reminded me, the performance on Canna is very different to theatre…the start of a theatre production begins with that opening curtain. But what’s the threshold on Canna? Where does non-performance become performance? This may be down to the individual, but for many, it will start with the long journey from Mallaig to Canna which will become part of this long continuous experience.
The audience will be continually exposed to the environment throughout. During their stay on Canna, the audience will camp on an Away with the Birds campsite, there is no accommodation, there are no cars.
“There was this strong sense from early on that we wanted to take people on a journey to the place that had inspired these songs, lifting people out of their everyday and arriving on an island and having this active experience of listening rather than just sitting in a theatre.”
Of one thing I am certain, it will be an unforgettable experience for everyone involved.
Cast & crew:
Vocal Ensemble – Anna Sheard, Hanna Tuulikki, Judith Williams, Kim Carnie, Kirsty Law, Lucy Duncombe, Megan Henderson, Mischa Macpherson, Nerea Bello, Nichola Scrutton
Composer & Artist – Hanna Tuulikki
Producer – Suzy Glass
Assistant Producer – Emmie McKay
Production Manager – Nick Millar
Dramaturg – Nic Green
Field Recordist & Sound Artist – Geoff Sample
Costume Designer – Deirdre Nelson
Choreographer – Rosalind Masson
Film-maker – Daniel Warren
Gaelic Mentor – Mary Smith
Song and Score Translators – David Wheatley & Alec Finlay
Sound Engineer – Iain Thomson
Site & FOH Manager – Lucy Conway
Full details, along with ticket and details on getting to Canna can be found here: http://www.awaywiththebirds.co.uk/
If you would like to explore more of Hanna’s other work please visit http://www.hannatuulikki.org