EIF music review: A Great Disordered Heart

As an instrumental duo, Scottish small pipes and fiddle were made for each other. In A Great Disordered Heart at the Old College Quad, they were balanced perfectly by Brìghde Chaimbeul and Aidan O’Rourke, the latter curating this trio of concerts highlighting contrasts and commonalities between Scottish and Irish music. The title comes from Robert Louis Stevenson’s evocation of the Cowgate, Edinburgh’s “Little Ireland”, where O’Rourke lives.

Brìghde Chaimbeul

Shared Melodies (*****) opened with the keening of Chaimbeul’s pipes filling the Old Quad canopy, before the two instruments stepped out together in a brisk pairing of jigs then pipe reels. Proceedings inclined further westward as they were joined by concertina player Cormac Begley and fiddler Aoife Ní Bhriain, both from notable Irish musical families, who opened with a deliberately paced number that had marched its way from Famine times, piccolo concertina piping like a whistle over Ní Bhriain’s fiddle. Begley’s solo deployment of bass concertina brought a deliciously stentorian rhythmic wheezing to the great O’Neill’s March.

Ní Bhriain maintained the sense of instruments being given their voice, her solo opening with the lament Anach Chuain then a swooping, darting reel. Further migrations saw snappy Scots strathspeys morphing into Irish reels and that old chestnut, Highland Laddie, transfigured as a bounding Kerry polka, utterly delighted with itself.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Shared Songs (****) continued the theme with songs in Scots and Irish Gaelic flitting to and fro across the Irish Sea with grace and gusto, performed by Liam Ó Maonlaí, formerly of the Irish rock band Hothouse Flowers, now re-engaging with his native heritage, and another Irish singer and fiddler, Róisín Chambers, also drawing from sean nós – “old style” – song traditions. On the Scottish side was piper, singer and Gaelic scholar Allan Macdonald and the vocal trio Sian – Ceitlin Lilidh, Eilidh Cormack and Ellen MacDonald, while Vermont’s Sam Amidon, was a surprisingly low key presence on fiddle and support vocals.

The result was often spine-tinglingly full-bodied call-and-response singing, with the powerfully voiced Ó Maonlaí, who also played keyboard and made a brief foray on harp, intoning the hypnotic Bean Pháidín or hollering startling octave leaps in an up-tempo, puirt-like number. Chambers delivered the plangent Keening of the Three Marys as well as an aisling or “vision” song, which became a Highland Jacobite anthem with Sian, who mustered considerable vocal power of their own, not least in the ever-enigmatic Uamh an Oir – “The Cave of Gold”.

The earthy-voiced MacDonald, meanwhile, brought small pipes and the twang of a jawharp to songs, including his “re-Gaelicising” of the popular I Will Go, investing the original with new power.

Shared Futures (***) proved an at times bemusing business. Experimental musician and storyteller Áine O’Dwyer recounted three brief snapshots of an Irish childhood, accompanying herself with tinny electronic shimmers reminiscent of an Outer Limits score. Concluding her final tale, she left the keyboard droning, to wander about the Quad outside, uttering forlorn cries.

There was an enthusiastic reception for the more familiar Lau, O’Rourke’s acclaimed trio with accordionist Martin Green and singer-guitarist Kris Drever. Clustered round a single mic, accordion chords brought in Drever’s song about reflections and doors to another place, fiddle dancing between the lines. At times tentative and improvisational sounding sequences followed, building up then subsiding, sometimes with electronic pulses or metronomic beats that seemed a tad superfluous, given the three’s instrumental abilities.

There was a nod to the tradition in Banks of Red Roses. Their closer, however, reflected the all-too-present, rather than any past or future, with Ghosts, Drever’s song about migrants which never ceases to nudge the heart and the conscience.

A message from the Editor:

Thank you for reading this article. We're more reliant on your support than ever as the shift in consumer habits brought about by coronavirus impacts our advertisers.

If you haven't already, please consider supporting our trusted, fact-checked journalism by taking out a digital subscription at https://www.scotsman.com/subscriptions