Folk, jazz etc: Strings and voices evoke Cold War communication

Lau fiddler and composer Aidan O'Rourke. Picture: Peter McNally
Lau fiddler and composer Aidan O'Rourke. Picture: Peter McNally
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THE judicious use of field recordings and samplings may be part and parcel of studio music-making on the contemporary folk scene, but enlisting the voices of Russian and American Cold War politicians is another matter – not to mention recording fiddle tracks in a half-submerged underground bunker.

You get it all in fiddler and composer Aidan O’Rourke’s latest album, Hotline, inspired by the first submarine transatlantic telephone cable, TA-1, inaugurated in 1956 and running between Gallanach Bay south of Oban, where O’Rourke passed much of his childhood, and Clarenville on the east coast of Newfoundland.

The line, which ceased operation in 1978, played a vital part in the chilling power-play of the Cold War, carrying the hotline between the US and Russian heads of state.

“It was something that had always existed in my mind,” says the 37-year-old O’Rourke, “My father used to tell me about it; that they had blasted deep into the rock to create a kind of nuclear bunker, so the cable would be safe and, no matter what happened, there would always be that hotline between Washington and Moscow.”

All that remains visible today at the Gallanach Bay end is an unprepossessing-looking 1950s blockhouse against the cliff face, but behind it a series of chambers are wrought deep into the rock. As O’Rourke writes in his sleeve notes, “I was always aware that potentially world-changing conversations were happening down the cable on the sleepy west coast of Argyll. I liked that.”

Those memories surfaced last year when he and Gordon MacLean, director of the creative crucible that is Tobermory’s An Tobar Arts Centre, put their heads together to come up with a contender for the PRS for Music Foundation’s 20x12 commissioning project for the 2012 Cultural Olympiad. “Gordon and I sat in a café and thought, ‘What links Argyll to the Olympics?’

“I got thinking how the eyes of the world would be on London throughout 2012 and how it was made so easy with modern communications. Then I remembered the building at Gallanach.” Through An Tobar, where the fiddler had recorded two previous albums, they submitted an application and secured one of the 20 commissions.

O’Rourke had got to know the owner of the land at Gallanach, Charles MacDougall, who showed them the dank, semi-flooded chambers of the cable terminal. O’Rourke and MacLean returned with head torches, microphones and fiddle, and recorded some sections of the album, including the haunting air of Clarenville. Listen hard and at times you can hear the drip of water.

The rest was recorded at the Mull studio, and both traditionalists and adherents of Lau, the fiery progressive folk trio of which O’Rourke is a member, might be surprised at the result.

This is unquestionably contemporary music, recorded with leading Scottish folk and jazz musicians Phil Bancroft on sax, Paul Harrison on piano, Catriona McKay on harp and Martin O’Neill on percussion. Yet the heartland is never too far away, as the industrial pulsing of the opening track – redolent, perhaps, of the signals transmitted through the cable – gives way to the gorgeously melancholy strains of Clarenville, named after the Newfoundland town where the cable came ashore.

Trawled from the archives of Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and Michigan State University, some of the dialogues the cable carried have been laced into the music – the transatlantic phone chat between a Canadian broadcaster and a rather plummy-toned clan chief, as well as the rather less convivial Cold War broadcasts of John F Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev. The period feel is heightened by the album sleeve’s Soviet social-realist style artwork.

My conversation with O’Rourke is by means of more contemporary communications – his mobile phone – as he tours Ireland with Lau. As this article appears, they’re on their way to a five-gig tour of Japan. Sometimes a hotline is just not enough.

• Hotline is on Reveal Records. See www.aidanorourke.net