Hamish Napier collaborates with stags and owls on latest album
It’s not every album that, when listing the musicians involved, under “vocals” credits red deer stags, owls, a woodpecker … and the River Spey. Last month saw multi-instrumentalist and composer Hamish Napier release The Woods, the third in his ongoing, five-album project, the “Strathspey Pentalogy.” Since returning to his native turf outside Grantown-on-Spey after 16 years in Glasgow, Napier has clearly been viewing the countryside in which he grew up with fresh eyes. The River, a paean to the Spey, emerged from a Celtic Connections New Voices commission in 2016, followed two years later by The Railway, a celebration of the old Speyside line.
The Woods is perhaps his most immersive package yet, a vivid tune sequence inspired by the woodland in which he played as a youngster and the local fauna, some of whom can be heard throughout the album, which opens with a flute sounding eloquently over birdsong. The sleeve and booklet, richly illustrated by artist Somhairle MacDonald and photographer David Russell, are a veritable compendium of natural history and Highland tree lore: virtually every track is named after a tree and its corresponding initial in the old Gaelic Ogham or “tree alphabet.”
Quite apart from composing and recording, Napier had his work cut out choosing which trees to represent and compiling the sleeve booklet: “It became like this six-month long crossword puzzle,” he says, “or rather a Rubik’s cube, working out which of Scotland’s trees were really native to the Highlands.”
Like every other musician, his planned launch gigs evaporated into thin air with the arrival of COVID-19, so he staged an online launch from his home on last month’s spring solstice, and plans to put it out on streaming platforms on the summer solstice, 20 June. The pentalogy, he explains, follows the classic elements, with the river and railway albums representing water and fire, respectively; The Woods signifies earth, while still to come are air, based on the Cairngorms and the wild weather associated with them, and finally aether, which will be informed by the firmament, drawing usefully on his university studies in astronomy before he turned to folk music.
With Napier on flutes, whistles and keyboards joined by such familiar talents as guitarist /drummer Steve Byrnes, pipers Ross Ainslie and Jarlath Henderson, Innes Watson on fiddle and viola and cellist Su-a Lee, The Woods is far from being a pastoral idyll, however, and boasts some exuberantly beaty sections. The Tree of Life sequence, for instance, evolves from rippling piano and urgent strings into drum-driven uilleann pipes, evoking the astonishingly intricate symbiotic network linking mycorrhizal fungi with forest giants such as the oak.
The album was commissioned by Cairngorms Connect, a partnership of neighbouring land managers with a two-century vision to restore habitats and their species in the Cairngorms National Park, aided by funding from the Endangered Landscapes Programme charity. “I just asked Cairngorms Connect if they might like to sponsor one track,” says Napier, “then they phoned back and said they wanted to sponsor the whole thing. It was wonderful.” Since his return to Strathspey and through meeting knowledgeable forest folk, he finds himself developing an eye for the area’s woodland riches.
“I love the idea that people might get back into nature and there might be more teaching of it in schools.
“You don’t have to know the name of every tree; just be aware of what’s around you.”
His album may well contribute towards such wider appreciation, its music evoking such distinctive environments as the montane woodland of The Highest Willows, Napier’s flute paired with cantaireachd from Calum MacCrimmon in a contemporary piobaireachd, or the wonderfully spooky sound of Su-a lee’s musical saw voicing The Tree of the Underworld – the wych elm. It is the forest denizens themselves who have the last word, however, as the album closes with the distinctive clicking and popping of displaying male capercaillies in a dawn “lek.”
For details see www.hamishnapier.com and www.cairngormsconnect.org.uk
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