On Friday night, at The Queen’s Hall in Edinburgh, The Dead Stations came to the end of its first Scottish tour. By combining spoken drama, music from Mike Vass, and animation from Nica Harrison & Atikah Zailani; writer Charlotte Hathaway has conceived a performance that compels on a number of different fronts, each one of them mesmerising.
In this imaginative audio drama with just two main characters, an unscheduled train stop at a deserted railway station leads to a fearful journey through a forest bereft of a human population. As their odyssey unfolds the seemingly incompatible strangers stumble through an increasingly alarming series of wrong turns, and revelations.
The piece emerged from a 2013 arts project which paired composers and writers to create work inspired by the School of Scottish Studies Sound Archives. Following the project, Charlotte and Mike realised there was more potential to combine their respective talents and work began on The Dead Stations.
Inspired by a train ride through Brazil’s Atlantic rain forest, and the deserted, unused railway stations along the route; The Dead Stations is primarily a drama to be listened to. However, specially composed music from Mike Vass, moves far beyond the usual incidental role. Performing the music live for the show, Mike was joined by singer, musician and teacher Mairi Campbell on viola and vocals, with Edinburgh-based pianist and composer Yoann Mylonakis. Together the trio provided a performance that was every bit as compelling as the drama. With Yoann’s piano building a deep, arresting tension from the very start as Mairi and Mike added atmospheric viola and violin. Mike’s compositions presented a masterful interpretation of the story; with, for example, piano leading our protagonists on their journey in a rich melody, full of promise, only for the same theme to dash their hopes in the viola’s sombre response. The show also featured Mike’s first appearance as a song writer, and with the added blessing of Mairi’s soft, reassuring vocal; Eyes Fixed proved it’s a discipline he’s well suited to.
Gavin Robinson’s video for the song was included as part of the performance. Although in a markedly different style to the animation developed for the rest of the story, its soft detail provided just the dream-like contrast the sequence needed. Nica Harrison & Atikah Zailani’s animation for the remainder of the story was a blend of ever-evolving amorphous pulses of colour, to sketches over still life photography. The combination provides the listener/viewer with a series of dream-like indicators; sign posts guiding them deeper into the fears, real and imagined, experienced by the characters.
And there’s much to be admired in the interaction of the characters themselves. Ishbel McFarlane and Tommy Herbert take on the contrasting and unpredictable roles with relish. Without giving too much away, the balance between the free-thinking adventurer and the worried, at times panic-stricken, commuter is perfectly portrayed. So much so, that when an unexpected role reversal ensues the effect is quite startling. When the story unravels toward the conclusion, the implications occupy your mind long after the dialog is over.
After this short run of appearances around Scotland, The Dead Stations has established itself as an admirable and fascinating live performance. Hopefully further live shows will ensue throughout the coming arts festival season. The Dead Stations CD, which features the audio drama along with Mike’s music, is now available direct from Unroofed Records here.
Following on from The Dead Stations, we were treated to a solo performance from Mairi Campbell, winner of Instrumentalist of the Year at the MG Alba Scots Trad Music Awards in December. As we reported in October last year, Mairi’s one-woman theatre show Pulse, tells of a searching, musical journey. On Friday night Mairi brought music from Pulse and her other remarkable albums to the Edinburgh audience.
Opening with rich, soulful rendition of Rolling Hills of the Borders Mairi went on to dazzle and delight the audience with a collection of songs written, for the most part, by husband Dave Francis; with some Robert Burns included for good measure. Many of those songs have close family connections. The exquisite poetry of Home charts her Grandmother’s journey back to Edinburgh from China as a young widow; Portobello Sands illustrates a Mother’s heart aching for the return of her enlisted son, and the life-affirming If I Should Meet My Maker was inspired by the life of her grandfather Duncan Campbell.
Throughout the set Mairi’s flawless vocal is accompanied by, as well as piano and viola, the improvisations that are such an integral aspect of her performances. Mairi encourages the audience to participate in these and during her plaintive rendition of Burns’ Slaves Lament little encouragement is needed, with flashes of improvised of harmony and rhythm peppering the hall; a reaction intensified during the deeply sensual Darlin’ Don’t Be Silent.
Mairi also performs songs with powerful messages. O Man, Jock Tamson, highlights a side of Edinburgh that belies the idea that “we’re a’ Jock Tamson’s bairns” (all born equal)…
“O Man, Jock Tamson, a wheen o’ weans escape yer een”.
Mairi was also joined by Mike Vass on tenor guitar for a community rendition of The Parting Glass, a Cape Breton fiddle set where Mairi’s improvisations on viola proved that even someone with such precise and exacting musical habits as Mike Vass can be induced to improvise; and an inspired response to A Man’s a Man for A’ That…
“We need the banks, they mon a’ fail
Aye, well, that’s a guid yin.
The bank that pays the bonus,
or the other bank, the food yin?”
Seeing Mairi Campbell perform live is an experience not to be missed, and there’s another opportunity to see Pulse as part of Edinburgh’s Trad Fest in May. Mairi is also hosting a series of Ceilidh nights at The Edinburgh Storytelling Centre and runs regular three day music retreats on the beautiful island of Lismore.
More here: http://www.mairicampbell.scot/gigs/
Review by: Neil McFadyen