GOODNESS knows what Niel Gow would have thought. The spirit of the great 18th-century fiddle master still prevails, though perhaps not in a manner which Gow, very much a man of his time, might have expected, or of which he would have approved.
“I don’t know what he’d say about four lassies playing fiddle together, but he’s definitely in there somewhere,” muses Lauren MacColl a much acclaimed fiddler from the Black Isle, talking about the new all-female fiddle quartet Rant, with whom she appears at the forthcoming Fiddle 2012 festival in Edinburgh.
Featuring MacColl, Highland player Sarah-Jane Summers, now based in Norway, and the Shetland sisters Jenna and Bethany Reid, Rant emerged from another fiddle event, the annual Niel Gow festival, which celebrates the memory of the Perthshire maestro in his native turf, and where all four women were guests two years ago.
“We all had a tune together,” recalls MacColl. “It was very informal and with nothing in mind except to share a few tunes, but we enjoyed it so much that we thought we’d proceed a bit.”
Proceed they have, calling themselves Rant and playing their debut gig earlier this year in the venerable East Church at Cromarty, in MacColl’s Black Isle homeland. Essentially a folk string quartet, they combine traditional and contemporary compositions and, says MacColl, lean towards a chamber-folk sound. They decided early on to eschew any accompaniment, so it’s all down to what they do with four fiddles.
“It does make it more of a challenge,” says MacColl, “because you don’t have that comforting chordal backdrop. We have to think much more in terms of dynamics, the resonance of the instruments and interesting harmonies.”
Having played their debut gig in a church, the quartet will sound out in a former church – Edinburgh’s Queen’s Hall – on 17 November, in a Fiddle 2012 concert also featuring the renowned Irish-American fiddler Liz Carroll and the youthful Campbeltown player Frank Rochford – who can count both MacColl and Summers among his teachers.
Other highlights of Fiddle 2012, which runs from 16-18 November, include the American-based Celtic Fiddle Festival, featuring former Bothy Band star Kevin Burke, Breton player Christian Lemaître and French-Canadian André Brunet on fiddles with guitarist Nicholas Quemener; while from Shetland comes Kevin Henderson – also based these days in Norway, well known from his work with the Boys of the Lough, Session A9 and Fiddler’s Bid and a formidable solo player, here accompanied by Swedish guitarist Mattias Perez.
Fiddle 2012 – based for the second year at the Queen’s Hall and the King’s Hall across the street, having achieved a happy transition from its long-time base in the Assembly Rooms – will host a wealth of recitals, lectures and workshops, with other guests including the Manx group Barrule, the Amy Geddes Trio and Up in the Air, comprising fiddlers Johnny Hardie and Gavin Marwick with percussionist Davy Cattenach. Its “Fiddle Walk” around musical locations in the city will be conducted once again by the Perthshire-based Gow specialist Pete Clark, who taught both MacColl and Jenna Reid at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, and who organises that Gow festival at which Rant first convened – “So we owe Pete a lot,” says MacColl.
She keeps busy in her own right, having started her own Black Isle Fiddle Weekend two years ago and recently recorded a beautiful album with the Breton-based Scots flautist Calum Stewart, entitled simply Wooden Flute & Fiddle. In the new year she launches a new band, Salt House, with young traditional singer Siobhan Miller, guitarist-singer Ewan MacPherson and bassist Alex Hunter.
As for Rant, “we’ve started talking about a recording and would love to do a live album at the old East Church in Cromarty, where we had our first gig, but that’s a long-term plan.”