Kathryn Tickell is widely recognised as our foremost exponent of the Northumbrian pipes. Since her first release at the age of sixteen, her solo and collaborative work has been deeply rooted in the traditions of her Northumbrian homeland; but transcends genres, geography and time. Her achievements are far too numerous to list here, but in recent years Kathryn has excelled in her work for orchestra and string ensembles. It’s no surprise, then, that her latest project should bring together a four-piece ensemble that blends the worlds of classical and folk music. Comprising of Louisa Tuck (cello), Ruth Wall (harp) and Amy Thatcher (accordion, clog dancing), The Side first toured the UK in autumn 2013 and their début album is released this week.
On the face of it, The Side are a band split between two very different disciplines. Like Kathryn, Amy Thatcher is based in the North East of England. With her varied work as part of The Shee and Monster Ceilidh Band she’s earned a strong reputation as a first class musician, composer and innovator. In contrast Louisa Tuck’s background as leader of the cello section with The Northern Sinfonia and her work with a wide range of orchestras and ensembles place her firmly in the classical frame. Ruth Wall’s career seems to effortlessly span classical, folk, jazz and electronica; with influences and ideas so disparate it’s impossible to place her in any camp. However, it’s those contrasts that make this album so special.
A couple of weeks ago a melody from my childhood, Early One Morning, somewhat unexpectedly popped into my head. I found myself wondering why none of the English artists I enjoy so much have brought this tune back to life? By a wonderful coincidence, within a few days I found myself in possession of Kathryn Tickell And The Side, and another song from the past was brought into the sunlight. Early Air/Tullochgorum opens the album with an underused theme and takes it on a gentle stroll around a Northumbrian landscape, before breaking into a giggling gallop with the manic and marvellous Tullochgorum.
This joyful introduction is immediately contrasted when Purcell’s slightly sinister New Minuet brings the classical influences to the fore. Harp, cello and violin tempt, in time, Amy’s accordion along with them and move towards the livelier step of Confluence – where Kathryn delights in her musical observations of water movement, and seems to do so with an Appalachian swagger. That transatlantic flavour continues into the Dark Skies Waltz. Written in celebration of the incredible starry views afforded in the night skies of the north of England and south of Scotland. This is quartet music at it’s most appealing; an effortless pace that really makes you long to glide around a dance floor.
There’s also something of a rarity for a Kathryn Tickell album – a song. Based on a poem by Charles Swinbourne, Queen of Pleasure provides another fascinating contrast. The poetry is ornate enough for Wordsworth or Hardy, but the music is a model of understatement. A very restricted melody in terms of range carries dark undertones; a minimalist, metronomic arrangement that’s lifted by a violin in the final chorus. The effect is hypnotic.
Slideslip was contributed by Amy Thatcher does more than provide a lively outing for her fellow musicians, it brings something of the personality of each contributor. Kathryn’s lively, complex and habit-forming piping carries the main melody initially, while Louisa’s cello sets a merry pace and Ruth’s harp dances alongside. All the while the accordion quietly and subtly challenges the sensibilities.
As a harp player, Ruth is no stranger to innovation. In Bonny Breezes she eschews her concert harp and takes Kathryn’s variations on Blow The Wind Southerly to the clarsach for an all too brief, lilting solo.
Tullochgorum at the opening of the album was arranged in tribute to Percy Grainger’s collections of traditional music from Scotland, but his influences reached yet further afield. The Nightingale / Molly on the Shore Reel opens with mournful strings from Grainger’s Danish Folksongs Suite, replete with the influences of his adopted American home and the tragedy of his Mother’s suicide. This contrasts with the irregular rhythms of his Molly on the Shore Reel. A wonderfully joyous piece with harp and fiddle to lift the heart from the darkness.
As the title, and indeed every nuance of the tune, suggest, Penguin Notes is dedicated to the memory of Simon Jeffes, founder of the Penguin Café Orchestra. The melody effortlessly combines layers of traditional piping cadences with rich, exalting strings. It’s a perfect tribute to the man whose vision has had such a major influence on the wide range of modern music that seeks to embrace both classical and traditional forms, and this album is the perfect place to find it a home. A hint of the same approach breathes a lighter step into Kathryn’s Stonehaugh, a gentle farewell that’s also a happy beginning.
Modern music can also embrace the past – the distant past. In Ad Gefrin / The Monday Men, Ruth takes to the medieval bray harp to invoke ancient voices in celebration of the 1300 year old seat of Northumbrian kings. The dark mystery of the harp is gently lifted by soaring violin and cello, before the fiddle leads the string ensemble in a dance to blow away the mists of time.
The Hornshole Skirmish brings us forward 800 years to a time when the Scottish/English border was less clearly defined, and more vehemently contested, than it is today. A sombre cello & bass take the lead before being chased away by a stirring combination of pipes and Marney O’Sullivan’s dramatic percussion. The strings are irresistibly drawn to the dance, change their dark ways and are led over the horizon by pipes, harp and hand claps.
No track evokes the maritime traditions of Kathryn’s homeland more than effectively than Ship Tyne Main. Northumbrian pipes make their way through murky waters thick with fog. This could almost be an Amazonian scene. There are strange, exotic sounds to bring the album to a conclusion.
The influences brought to bear on this album are so many and varied, it’s fascinating picking through them. Grainger’s work is so perfectly suited to the all-encompassing approach The Side have taken. His elastic scoring, his love of traditional music and his generally unconventional yet intensely academic approach could all be taken as hallmarks of this album. Then there’s the historical references, the images that the music places in the mind of the listener. And, above all, the sheer joy of making music.
In this sense, and in many others, the opening track, Early Air / Tullochgorum, provides a snapshot of what the entire album is about. It’s about a merging of sounds, structures, landscapes and flavours; it’s about contrasting the classical and the rustic.
Is it folk in an evening dress, or is it classical in clogs? It’s neither, of course. It’s Kathryn Tickell and The Side doing what they do best; bringing together the influences that have shaped their music to create something elevating and wonderful. From start to finish this album takes the listener on a fascinating journey.
Review by: Neil McFadyen
01 – ST GEORGE’S BRISTOL
02 – THE DAVID HALL, SOUTH PETHERTON
03 – FARNHAM MALTINGS
04 – LIGHTHOUSE POOLE
05 – TAVISTOCK WHARF, THE WHARF
28 – SHEFFIELD UNIVERSITY
29 – THE ATKINSON SOUTHPORT
30 – CECIL SHARP HOUSE LONDON
31 – CITY HALL SALISBURY
01 – THE BREWERY, KENDAL – SOLD OUT
02 – HEBDEN BRIDGE TRADES CLUB
04 – ARC STOCKTON
05 – THE SAGE GATESHEAD
Out Now via Resilient Records
For more details and ticket links please visit:http://www.kathryntickell.com/