Some of Scotland’s most historic locations will resonate over the coming month with the sounds of an 800-year-old plainchant and responses to it by eight Scottish contemporary composers, performed by the renowned Scottish choral group Cappella Nova. The original plainsong fragment is Nobilis humilis, written in honour of Orkney’s St Magnus; the project, Echoes and Traces, is the brainchild of someone perhaps best known as a folk harpist, Ailie Robertson, but who is also an award-winning composer.
Performed in such iconic venues as Iona and Dunfermline abbeys and the saint’s own cathedral in Kirkwall, Echoes and Traces will feature choral responses to the ancient Orcadian piece written by such established figures as Sally Beamish, Stuart MacRae and Rory Boyle, as well as by sound design and electronic specialist Matthew Whiteside, composer-performer Hanna Tuulikki, fiddler Aidan O’Rourke, of the folk power trio Lau (who has also worked with string quartets), and two composer-harpists, Savourna Stevenson and Robertson herself. For some it will be their first venture into purely choral music.
Robertson stumbled across Nobilis humilis while working on an archive project. “I was looking for early examples of Scottish music and came across it, but it sat on the back burner for a while.”
Currently in the throes of a PhD in composition at London’s Trinity Laban Conservatoire, Robertson formed her own company, Lorimer Productions, two years ago, specifically to create new music events.”I wanted to do something with Nobilis humilis then thought it would be great to make it into a much bigger project, an entire programme of new music, because so often it gets jammed in among the standard repertoire at concerts. Also we have this wealth of composer talent in Scotland that doesn’t always get a very public voice.”
She approached Cappella Nova who, under their director Alan Tavener, proved enthusiastic, then put together a funding application to Creative Scotland and also approached Historic Environment Scotland who came on board as a venue partner. The project is also supported by the Hope Scott Trust and Sound and Music.
Nobilis humilis, a hymn in praise of Orkney’s Viking saint, thought to have been martyred in Orkney in 1117, is the oldest known example of Scottish plain song to feature harmonies, says Robertson, who is excited by the composers’ reactions to it. “Some have directly referenced the melody and transformed it, others have taken the text and given it a different melody, some have simply used the idea of St Magnus as a starting point for other lyrics or musical ideas.”
The first thing audiences will hear, however, will be the serene cadences of the original fragment, which was found in a 13th-century manuscript at Uppsala University, making the song at least eight centuries old. The music will be introduced by musicologist and broadcaster John Purser.
Robertson’s own compositions have won awards, including the Scottish Chamber Orchestra Composition Prize and the Sofia International Composition Competition, although they haven’t stopped her touring with her Outside Track folk band – she spoke to me from Oban, where they were enjoying an enforced day off, the ferry which should have taken them to a gig on Colonsay having been cancelled.
Folk music informs her compositions almost subconsciously, she explains, although the relationship hasn’t always been easy. “When I started contemporary composition,” she says, “I tried to shy away from the folk side. Particularly in London, I found a lot of snobbery – people could be really dismissive towards folk music, but I’ve found that if you ignore something, it crops up in your music anyway.
Now 32, she’s been playing folk music all her life, “so it’s always there somehow and I’ve learned to embrace it as something that makes my music distinctive.” ■
Echoes and Traces is at Dunfermline Abbey, 31 August; Stirling Castle, 1 September; Glasgow Cathedral, 2 September; Duff House, 4 September; St Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall, 5 September; Iona Abbey, 7 September; Greyfriars Kirk, Edinburgh, 8 September. See www.historicenvironment.scot/echoes-and-traces