If there was any incongruity in Duncan Chisholm’s music, inspired by timeless landscapes, sounding out under the Old College Quad’s UFO-hangar-like canopy, it was quickly dispersed by the Highland fiddler (*****), who opened his EIF show with the kind of slow air for which he has become renowned, with its glowing timbre and heart-welling sense of yearning.
Titled The White Bird, it came accompanied by a reading from Norman MacCaig’s eponymous poem, celebrating the same kind of Sutherland landscapes and light that inform many of Chisholm’s compositions. Another MacCaig poem was read during the encore, so perhaps these might almost be regarded as MacCaig soundscapes – the late poet, after all, was no mean fiddler himself.
As an opening concert for the returning festival’s In the Tradition strand, it was appropriately uplifting. Chisholm was in the sterling company of guitarist Innes Watson and percussionist James Macintosh, while pianist Michael Biggins proved a sensitive accompanist and Jarlath Henderson’s uilleann pipes and whistles added a piquant edge to melody lines as well as leading off some tightly propelled up-tempo sets. Some of their repertoire, including that opener, was drawn from Chisholm’s current album Sandwood, a paean to the remote and near-mythical Sutherland beach which he revisited in recent years, as was his fond interpretation of Donald Shaw’s A Precious Place, although there were other landscapes – Loch Coruisk on Skye, for instance inspiring Beneath the Fortress.
In his notes to the album, Chisholm writes that “at Sandwood time is irrelevant, the pendulum of the tide has no timepiece”. In truth, in his nursing of a slow air, he has the knack of stopping time altogether.
One of two concerts marking the 70th anniversary of Edinburgh University’s School of Scottish Studies with its invaluable archives of traditional music, song and story, The Living Archive (***) featured four very different artists, all of whom have drawn deeply on this precious resource and have gone on to take innovative approaches to their craft. Introduced by singer and broadcaster Mary Ann Kennedy, it opened with harpist and Gaelic singer Mary MacMaster, who struck up a stately air on her sonorous, Viking-prowed electroharp. She switched to the glittering tones of the wire-strung clarsach for Here’s a Health to the King, which she dedicated to the late Gaelic scholar John MacInnes, who had taught her the song.
For Kirsty Law, accompanying herself on electric guitar and Indian harmonium, the archive had been central in her evolution as a thoughtful singer-songwriter, particularly in the Scots tongue. Her first song was based on a fragment from Robert Burns’s poem, For the Sake o’ Somebody, but by this time, she and fellow performers were having to compete with the hiss of rain teaming around the canopy and her soft voice could have projected more clearly. Similarly, her composition dedicated to the LGBT community, inspired by a Hamish Henderson poem, in turn informed by the Latin poet Catullus, sounded haunting but not done full justice.
Multi-instrumentalist Mike Vass, the School’s resident traditional musician, deftly live-sampled his solo guitar and fiddle, layering them into his archive-inspired tunes, including one about an improbably giant ship – neatly complemented by the disconsolate shriek of a gull outside.
Overall, the programme might have done with a bit more spark to illuminate this national treasure. What did generate a real jolt of connectivity and continuity, however, was the solo piece stepdancer Sophie Stephenson had devised from an old field recording of the reel Flowers of Edinburgh, as snatches of the bygone fiddler’s Gaelic conversation were spliced and looped through the swish and rattle of her steps. Similarly, winding up the concert, she danced as the others sang and played a puirt a beul – a Gaelic dance song – which opened with another archive voice, that of her great-great-uncle.
The Highland-island quintet Dàimh (****) in full instrumental flight is a force to be reckoned with, with dramatic moments when guitarist Ross Martin and mandola player Murdo Cameron, expert accompanists both, suddenly break off, leaving piper Angus MacKenzie and fiddler Gabe McVarish to take off in tight duet like greyhounds from a trap.
This added to the excitement of their sets such as their trio of reels beginning with one simply known as The Traditional and followed smartly by two reels by the great Donald MacLeod, or in the beguiling Dhannsamaid le Ailean, in which their singer, Ellen MacDonald, spun out this dance song, which initially skipped lightly over guitar and low whistle before building up into full-blown jig-time.
MacDonald sings with assured poise, whether in the sprightly puirt à beul over a thrum of strings with which she opened, or in A Nìghneag a Ghràidh, a wistful song of unrequited love. Her band-mates were adept accompanists, Cameron switching at times to accordion, while the appreciative yells that responded to their closing set prompted a characteristically take-no-prisoners encore.
The Kinnaris Quintet (****), too, could fairly power along at times, their three fiddlers – Laura Wilkie, Fiona MacAskill and, on a five-stringed instrument, Aileen Reid – driven by Laura Beth Salter on mandolin and guitarist Jenn Butterworth. They opened with This Too Shall Pass – a stomper of a clarion call to happier times, with mandolin ringing through vigorous bowing, and continued with a largely self-composed repertoire that within one number could flit between pastoral string drift and full-blooded reel.
At times they resembled a string quartet with added guitar and mandolin, one winsome melody opening with gentle pizzicato and eventually climbing to airy heights. June’s Garden, for instance, featured a delicate mandolin melody against fiddle sighs and spooky harmonics, which evolved into a nimbly darting dance.
Elsewhere, a traditional retreat march, MacGregor of Rora, emerged in haunting, distant fragments on mandolin, eventually to form hypnotic counterpoint with a cascading reel. While, just occasionally, one might churlishly hanker after something like a sustained slow air, Kinnaris’s inventively contemporary approach to fiddle music bursts with energy and ideas.
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