Although a multi-instrumentalist, Susan Grace Bates excels as a player of the Irish traditional harp and it’s that instrument which dominates her first album, Skorsa: The Riddle of the Earth. Fitting in studio time around her studies at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland can’t have been an easy task but the outcome is a well-considered and coherent collection of traditional and contemporary tunes from Ireland and Scotland, alongside newly composed songs and melodies collected by Susan on her travels around Scandinavia.
The album opens with its longest track, ‘Cavers’, which is a composite of three tunes: ‘Cavers of Kirkcudbrigh’, ‘Jellyfish of Rossnowlagh’ and ‘Gan Ainm’. The first part, ‘Cavers of Kirkcudbrigh’, was written by the Scottish multi-instrumentalist Mike Vass for his 2011 album String Theory; the second, ‘Jellyfish of Rossnowlagh’, is one of Susan’s own compositions and the third, ‘Gan Aimn’ (sometimes known as ‘Ril Gan Ainm’) is a traditional jig, covered by many musicians, including Dave Swarbrick on his album Smiddyburn (1981). Her playing is fluid and clear, she finds a warmth of tone and timbre that is very easy on the ear. As the piece progresses her harp is joined by percussion, whistle, fiddle and guitar; the whole thing is a real highlight of the record.
‘Maigh Rua’ is one of Susan’s own compositions, dedicated to her grandparents and is clearly written and played with love. It is possessed of a melody which lodges itself in your head only to reappear hours later as you find yourself unconsiously humming it at the bus stop, or while waiting for the kettle to boil. Some well-placed whistle appears at intervals throughout and the sense of happiness and security at being part of a caring and loving family permeates the piece.
Susan clearly has eclectic musical tastes and the listener is given a small insight into this with her cover of a traditional Swedish tune, ‘Siljan at Dawn’. Named for St. Siljan Lake in central Sweden – “one of the most beautiful places that I have ever been to”, according to Susan in her liner notes – it’s an uptempo performance supported by guitar, whistle, percussion and Susan’s own voice, sweet and clear, singing the lyric she wrote to fit the song.
‘Erie’s’ is another composite instrumental piece, mixing up a couple of traditional tunes with one of Susan’s own songs, ‘The Trout in the Tub’. Her intricate harp is given an imposing sense of space thanks to some impressively big (yet never obtrusive) reverb and her mastery of the Irish traditional harp is a joy to hear.
It’s followed by ‘Dunamoy’, a slow air written by Susan. Inspired by the landscape around her home in Co. Antrim, it’s a lushly ambient piece, enhanced by some atmospheric treated electric guitar, meditative and wistful, it’s another of the record’s highlights.
Susan’s openness to the music of other cultures is displayed again in ‘Norr Wee Gin’. Although bearing possibly the best (worst?!) punning song title I’ve heard this year, Susan’s ever-present sense of fun nevetheless takes a backseat for this cover of a traditional Norwegian tune which she learned, in Sweden, from a Hardanger fiddle player, Guro Kvifte Nesheim. Truly, music knows no national boundaries and we should be thankful when the result is as accomplished and as confident as this. Driven by a steady rhythmic pulse and augmented by whistle and guitar, Susan respects the tune’s roots as a piece written for fiddle while incorporating her own unique harp sound.
We stay in Scandinavia for ‘Dressed in Blue’, a traditional Swedish song which Susan learned from the Dluzewska family during a visit to the country last year, adding her own words based on the rough Swedish translation. Her multitracked harmonies soar over a rippling harp and a quiet string drone, punctuated by a mellow whistle.
‘Lowthian’s’ was written by Ian Lowthian, a well-respected piano accordion player, composer and teacher from the Scottish Borders, which Susan came across in The Nineties Collection (now out-of-print), a collation of 200 “new Scottish tunes in traditional styles”. Susan’s sleeve note that “Lots of fun was had adding the chords to this one” may, I suspect, be something of an understatement: it’s a gently introspective rendition which she has clearly taken a great deal of care over, the result is both a quiet display of her virtuoso harp playing and a lovely piece to listen to.
‘Starfly’ is a composite of ‘Starjump’ (by the concertina player Simon Thoumire) and ‘I Superfly’. ‘Starjump’ is another tune Susan learned from The Nineties Collection, while ‘I Superfly’ is a popular reel written by Kevin O’Neill, a flute player from Rutherglen, Glasgow. The result is an arrangement which draws as much on rock and pop as it does on folk, with some foot-tapping unison riffing between Susan’s harp and the strings and I imagine it’s a real crowd-pleaser when played out live.
The penultimate tune, ‘Lullaby’, is an almost unaccompanied vocal arrangement of a traditional Estonian song with only Susan’s sparse harp as backing for a beautiful multitracked choir, whose close harmonies are as soothing as they are beautiful to hear.
The record closes with the appropriately titled ‘Farewell’ – ‘Farewell to Whalley Range’, to give it its full title – a jig written by the Manchester-born flautist, whistle player and composer, Mike McGoldrick (Flook, Capercaillie, Afro-Celt Sound System, Kate Rusby and many others) and it’s easy to see why this tune by one of the superstars of modern traditional music is one of Susan’s favourites to play. Building from a slow and moody start, Susan’s assured playing is joined by whistle and fiddle playing the main melody in unison with some nice blues-inflected notes dropped in here and there. An impatient but well-placed, swirling middle eight intensifies the mood before the coda brings it all back to a slow and moody finale.
Skorsa: The Riddle of the Earth is a great showcase for Susan Grace Bates’ undoubted talents as a musician and an arranger with a keen ear for bringing together different strands of traditional music in this impressive debut.
Review by: Helen Gregory
Skorsa: The Riddle of the Earth is Out Now
Order it here: http://www.susangracebates.com/