Celtic Connections has a knack for commissioning imaginative and accomplished work for its New Voices series. Since 1998 artists such as Croft No.5, Mairearad Green, Aiden O’Rourke, Martin Green, Mike Vass and Ross Ainslie have benefited from the opportunity to present new interpretations of music; broadening their musical horizons, and our own. In 2014 Sarah Hayes embraced the same opportunity to present Woven – a contemporary ensemble suite of music and song with traditional roots and classical influences. The music takes as its main inspiration human experiences and relationships and examines them through reinterpretation of traditional song, expertly wreathed in Sarah’s fascinating compositions and arrangements.
Originally from Northumberland, Sarah grew up as part of a music loving family. After coming to Glasgow to study classical flute at Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, in 2007 she was a founder-member of Glasgow Indie/Folk band Admiral Fallow, with her skills as a multi-intrumentalist an essential aspect of the band’s success. Since graduating in 2011 Sarah has followed up her classical training as a member of chamber ensemble Flutes en Route and wind quintet Northern Lights. There’s no secret, though, in the fact that Sarah’s main interest lies in the field of traditional music; as evidenced by her work with Admiral Fallow, her three appearances as a finalist in the BBC Young Folk Awards and this year’s nomination for Composer of the Year in the MG ALBA Scots Trad Music Awards.
Conceived as a single, complete musical entity, in Woven, Sarah’s approach takes themes such as love, loss, contentment, hardship, ageing and presents them as individual strands of the human condition woven into a cohesive, single unit; a tapestry of life and humanity.
The album was designed as a single listening experience from start to finish; and from the outset the steady, metronomic rhythm of the piano in The Fell Line stays true amid a kaleidoscopic array of instruments. Accordion and violin tease a gentle bass towards Sarah’s calming flute in a two-track overture that progresses to William & Jumble, a contemporary melody in trad clothing. This opening sequence delights in embracing Lau’s multi-tonal approach alongside a hint of the quasi-chaotic rhythms of Three Cane Whale. It leads directly to our first encounter with Sarah’s gently plaintive vocal in The Trees They Grow Tall. Sarah’s updated melody for this traditional song places the story in amongst the instrumentation rather than above it, and clears the stage for a dramatic and complex instrumental bridge.
Sair Fyel’d Hinny is one of two tracks on the album where Sarah’s opted to retain the traditional melody, for the vocal at least. There’s an extended instrumental opening that pairs an ominous bass and piano until electric keyboard heralds Sarah’s ethereal, chanted vocal. Pizzicato violin echoed by guitar and then bass set the scene for the short vocal outing, Deep In Love, with an elegant crescendo leading to the delightful, joyful accordion jig, The Daffodil. Accordion and violin stay with the theme and continue the dance through Greenwood Laddie.
By this stage of the album it’s clear that Sarah’s approach and central concept have inspired a unique work. No aspect of the album stands on its own; songs and melodies intertwine as themes weave in and out of the mix. The whole experience is uplifting.
It’s fitting, then, that we’re brought back down to earth with a jolt, as the jazz beats of Mary Brookshank’s Jute Mill Song herald a new chapter in a burst of big production with a sense of urgency. Vocal, melody and accompaniment all echo the mill machinery, and to an extent the frantic monotony of the mill. We can see, hear and feel the bustle, the dust, the weariness. Sarah’s vocal succeeds in putting the listener right at the loom beside the mill worker. The theme of hard work for scant return continues in Four Loom Weaver. Sarah’s adopted to keep the traditional melody and the dark, oppressive accompaniment from accordion leads onto the more directly threatening Mill Pond. This instrumental is serene on the surface, but its dark waters host something perilous, and the heart-wrenching violin has a sorrowful tale to tell. Instrumentally, as violin / piano duet it’s one of the least complex tracks on the album; but following on from the grim realities of life in the mills, it’s as dramatic as the most intricate arrangements on offer.
It’s time for a breath of fresh air and the Graham Miles song, Where Ravens Feed, takes us from the dark menace of the Mill Pond to a blustery spring morning. An uplifting melody on the whistle and Sarah’s light, exulting vocal paint a landscape bursting with life. These places in the song may be lonely in terms of human occupation, but the singer is never alone. The locations are vibrant. This is no morose isolation, it’s a feeling of joy and completeness brought about by the splendour of the singer’s surroundings. And that feeling is transferred to the listener through Sarah’s music and vocals. The high spirits are maintained through to Mill Race; a frothy, tumbling flute melody, peppered with fascinating little eddies, all headed in the same direction. It’s a clever divergence from the pervasive darkness of the other mill references. When Fortune Turns the Wheel is song of farewell that exists in a huge number of variations and forms, but I’ve yet to hear one that takes such an upbeat approach as this. A hint of country in the fiddle adds extra pace, there’s a contrast with the light electronic keyboard and enchanting harmonies.
A single chorus from Fall of the Leaf emphasises our mortality with a simple piano and vocal before we return to the opening theme in The Fell Line (Reprise). After a familiar first phase, a flurry of flute introduces a more extravagant section with choral chants referring back to Fall of the Leaf, a rich sound, full of expansive percussion and keyboards. It closes with a final gorgeous, simple, fiddle melody that leads directly to Irene’s, a beautiful lilting fiddle in a lively duet with Sarah’s flute bringing the album to a vigorous conclusion.
Sarah’s recommendation that this album be enjoyed as a whole makes perfect sense. After the initial experience of how the recurring themes, both musical and metaphysical, intertwine, it’s a small step to accept them as part of a whole experience rather than individual units of song. The stories, characters and settings of traditional song have been given a new home in the 21st century and it’s achieved in such a colourful, imaginative way. Sarah’s electric keyboards fraternise with multi-layered traditional accordion from Mairearad Green. Phil Hague’s percussion is expansive when required but also forms a solid foundation with James Lindsay’s double bass and Ali Hutton’s guitar. And Fiona MacAskill’s skilled and resourceful fiddle seems to weave through every setting.
What impresses most about Woven, though, is Sarah’s skill as an arranger; an interpreter of song, story and music. In taking these snatches and fragments of traditional song, adding her own intricate and fascinating musical themes and merging them into a narrative on the fleeting but complex nature of human existence, she has created an utterly compelling tapestry.
Review by: Neil McFadyen
Woven is released on 20 November 2015. Order it here.
There is a full band performance of Woven at Celtic Connections on 22nd January at the Mitchell Theatre, Glasgow (Ticket link here). All other dates including performances with Admiral Fallow are below:
11th – Louisiana, Bristol (with Admiral Fallow)
12th – Prince Albert, Brighton (AF)
13th – The Stables, Milton Keynes (AF)
14th – Oslo, London (AF)
15th – The Deaf Institute, Manchester (AF)
16th – Cafe Continental, Gourock (AF)
17th – Hootananny, Inverness (AF)
18th – The Lemon Tree, Aberdeen (AF)
19th – La Belle Angele, Edinburgh (AF)
20th – Tolbooth, Stirling (AF)
CELTIC CONNECTIONS: JANUARY 2016
15th – Mackintosh Church, Glasgow (with Admiral Fallow & Auricle Ensemble)
17th – Strathclyde Suite, Glasgow Royal Concert Hall (with Hamish Napier’s New Voices)
22nd – Mitchell Theatre, Glasgow (full band performance of Woven)
25th – Old Fruitmarket, Glasgow (with Sara Kazmi)
30th – Old Fruitmarket, Glasgow (with Admiral Fallow)