Residency #4 – Ross

I arrived in a very autumnal Braemar on the 20th October for a final residency week with Alasdair Roberts.  In our previous residency we had decided upon a final running order but still had some refining to do to our arrangement of Queen Victoria’s Welcome to Deeside.

Our host, Andrew Braidwood, did a wonderful job at setting up the equipment in St Margaret’s Church that we would need for our performance (held on the 26th October).  The church was often bitterly cold and I was glad to have invested in a pair of fingerless gloves before leaving Aberdeen.

On our first full day in Braemar, Alasdair and I decided to revisit Queen Victoria’s Welcome to Deeside.  We felt that the arrangement was missing something and Alasdair struck upon the idea of having the sound of a cat purring – this, of course, being a reference to David Cameron’s nauseating description of Queen Elizabeth’s reaction to the Scottish Referendum outcome.  I was able to find a recording online of a cat contentedly purring which I subsequently ran on a rhythmic loop while Alasdair and I performed a horribly jovial accompaniment.

We both felt that the set was complete and all that was left to do was rehearse before the final performance.

Our residency week happened to coincide with the Braemar Creative Arts Festival.  The festival included craft sales, a knitted bird treasure hunt, workshops focusing on poetry, music and step dancing and an impressive concert and ceilidh which was held in the village hall on Saturday 25th.  I particularly enjoyed learning a new dance: “The East Kilbride All-Together”.  It was great to have a night to really unwind before the day of our concert.

On Sunday afternoon, Alasdair and I arrived at St Margaret’s to find the church buzzing with activity.  A local gentleman, John McAllister, very kindly did our lighting – which was wonderfully atmospheric – and prepared a makeshift projection screen for a short video I had started creating during our previous residency.  The video consisted of time-lapse and slow-motion shots of the surrounding area and was accompanied by a highly abstracted recording of Alasdair jamming on guitar.  We decided to have this playing as people arrived as a means of creating an ambience.  The video can be viewed below:

By 6pm the church had filled to a capacity that I certainly hadn’t anticipated given the somewhat remote location of Braemar and also the very wild and wet weather conditions that evening.  It was rather lovely to see a lot of the faces we’d come to recognise throughout our time in the village as well as friends and family who had travelled larger distances to hear us perform.

After a short introduction by Fiona Robertson from Sound Festival, Alasdair and I opened our set with The Seasons.  This was a somewhat apt choice as it had been the very first song that we worked on.  Our setting of this song opens with a repeating chord progression (E/F#m/A) on the harmonium with a solo guitar melody.  As Alasdair sang the verses, I gradually began to digitally process his voice – sometimes distorting it or adding a delay effect.  The song culminated in a looped recording of Alasdair singing the words “I’m dreaming of the summer…” which eventually faded to silence.

Our second song was an arrangement of The Cruel Mother – a well-known ballad with a grisly narrative.  Technically, for me, this was the most difficult performance to execute successfully.  It opens with a multi-layered choral sound (this was, in fact, a recording of Alasdair singing a single note that I stretched out to several minutes in length and transposed multiple times).  As this slowly decays, a repeating piano refrain in a high register emerges and Alasdair begins singing with interspersed guitar solos.  As the song progresses, I begin adding to the existing arpeggiated piano pattern until it eventually encompasses the entire range of the instrument.  During this I add a distorted effect to Alasdair’s vocals – specifically when he sings the line “doon by the greenwood-side-y-o”.  All the while the opening choral effect gradually reemerges and the sense of unease increases.

This was followed by our rendition of Billy Taylor.  For this ballad, I had made use of recordings taken around Braemar during our first residency – including the sound of St Margaret’s Church’s door knocker striking.  These sounds were combined and edited in order to create a driving percussive rhythm over which Alasdair could perform.  I thoroughly enjoy performing this song.  There is a great deal of drama in the song’s narrative which Alasdair expresses brilliantly – both vocally and in his guitar accompaniment.

False, False is a deeply sombre song – or at least our approach to it is as such.  For this song, we again employed the harmonium – this time playing a repeating descending minor chord progression, pre-recorded and layered upon.  I think the way that Alasdair and I chose to structure the development of this song proved to be a somewhat cathartic performative experience for the both of us.  For the most part, I am able to set the chord progression in motion, sit back and enjoy Alasdair’s performance.  By the time he has finished singing, I have sampled random sections of his performance and can then begin to loop and distort what has been recorded, allowing Alasdair to stand back and listen to the outcome.  It’s a very unusual duet…

The penultimate song in the set, Queen Victoria’s Welcome to Deeside is perhaps the most “traditional”-sounding song that we performed – at least, in places.  My piano accompaniment is reminiscent of how certain elderly music teachers might play (a lot of pretty cadences).  The prettiness is interrupted by an unnaturally-stretched sample of Alasdair singing the word “queen”, a cacophony of church bells and the aforementioned cat-purring, before we conclude with a ridiculously jolly waltz.  I’m still unclear as to how this arrangement was received by the audience.

We finished our set with The Baron of Brackley – a ballad which is particularly relevant to the surrounding area of Braemar.  Despite the unfortunate outcome of the eponymous Baron and the seemingly corrupt intentions of his wife, our arrangement of the song has a rather upbeat mood to it.

Our performance seemed to be warmly received and the post-show discussion raised some very interesting issues – including the influence of location and landscape on creative practice, the challenges of bringing together practitioners from two very different genres, and the general process of creative collaboration over a four-week period (spread across three seasons).

Alasdair and I will be performing together in Edinburgh on the 1st January 2015 as part of….  Beyond that, we have discussed the possibility of attaining funding to allow us to make a professional recording of the songs we’ve worked on this year.  Regardless of the outcome, I am happy to have made a new friend and to have produced some beautiful music with him.

I arrived in a very autumnal Braemar on the 20th October for a final residency week with Alasdair Roberts.  In our previous residency we had decided upon a final running order but still had some refining to do to our arrangement of Queen Victoria’s Welcome to Deeside.

Our host, Andrew Braidwood, did a wonderful job at setting up the equipment in St Margaret’s Church that we would need for our performance (held on the 26th October).  The church was often bitterly cold and I was glad to have invested in a pair of fingerless gloves before leaving Aberdeen.

On our first full day in Braemar, Alasdair and I decided to revisit Queen Victoria’s Welcome to Deeside.  We felt that the arrangement was missing something and Alasdair struck upon the idea of having the sound of a cat purring – this, of course, being a reference to David Cameron’s nauseating description of Queen Elizabeth’s reaction to the Scottish Referendum outcome.  I was able to find a recording online of a cat contentedly purring which I subsequently ran on a rhythmic loop while Alasdair and I performed a horribly jovial accompaniment.

We both felt that the set was complete and all that was left to do was rehearse before the final performance.

Our residency week happened to coincide with the Braemar Creative Arts Festival.  The festival included craft sales, a knitted bird treasure hunt, workshops focusing on poetry, music and step dancing and an impressive concert and ceilidh which was held in the village hall on Saturday 25th.  I particularly enjoyed learning a new dance: “The East Kilbride All-Together”.  It was great to have a night to really unwind before the day of our concert.

On Sunday afternoon, Alasdair and I arrived at St Margaret’s to find the church buzzing with activity.  A local gentleman, John MacPherson, very kindly did our lighting – which was wonderfully atmospheric – and prepared a makeshift projection screen for a short video I had started creating during our previous residency.  The video consisted of time-lapse and slow-motion shots of the surrounding area and was accompanied by a highly abstracted recording of Alasdair jamming on guitar.  We decided to have this playing as people arrived as a means of creating an ambience.  The video can be viewed below:

By 6pm the church had filled to a capacity that I certainly hadn’t anticipated given the somewhat remote location of Braemar and also the very wild and wet weather conditions that evening.  It was rather lovely to see a lot of the faces we’d come to recognise throughout our time in the village as well as friends and family who had travelled larger distances to hear us perform.

After a short introduction by Fiona Robertson from Sound Festival, Alasdair and I opened our set with The Seasons.  This was a somewhat apt choice as it had been the very first song that we worked on.  Our setting of this song opens with a repeating chord progression (E/F#m/A) on the harmonium with a solo guitar melody.  As Alasdair sang the verses, I gradually began to digitally process his voice – sometimes distorting it or adding a delay effect.  The song culminated in a looped recording of Alasdair singing the words “I’m dreaming of the summer…” which eventually faded to silence.

Our second song was an arrangement of The Cruel Mother – a well-known ballad with a grisly narrative.  Technically, for me, this was the most difficult performance to execute successfully.  It opens with a multi-layered choral sound (this was, in fact, a recording of Alasdair singing a single note that I stretched out to several minutes in length and transposed multiple times).  As this slowly decays, a repeating piano refrain in a high register emerges and Alasdair begins singing with interspersed guitar solos.  As the song progresses, I begin adding to the existing arpeggiated piano pattern until it eventually encompasses the entire range of the instrument.  During this I add a distorted effect to Alasdair’s vocals – specifically when he sings the line “doon by the greenwood-side-y-o”.  All the while the opening choral effect gradually reemerges and the sense of unease increases.

This was followed by our rendition of Billy Taylor.  For this ballad, I had made use of recordings taken around Braemar during our first residency – including the sound of St Margaret’s Church’s door knocker striking.  These sounds were combined and edited in order to create a driving percussive rhythm over which Alasdair could perform.  I thoroughly enjoy performing this song.  There is a great deal of drama in the song’s narrative which Alasdair expresses brilliantly – both vocally and in his guitar accompaniment.

False, False is a deeply sombre song – or at least our approach to it is as such.  For this song, we again employed the harmonium – this time playing a repeating descending minor chord progression, pre-recorded and layered upon.  I think the way that Alasdair and I chose to structure the development of this song proved to be a somewhat cathartic performative experience for the both of us.  For the most part, I am able to set the chord progression in motion, sit back and enjoy Alasdair’s performance.  By the time he has finished singing, I have sampled random sections of his performance and can then begin to loop and distort what has been recorded, allowing Alasdair to stand back and listen to the outcome.  It’s a very unusual duet…

The penultimate song in the set, Queen Victoria’s Welcome to Deeside is perhaps the most “traditional”-sounding song that we performed – at least, in places.  My piano accompaniment is reminiscent of how certain elderly music teachers might play (a lot of pretty cadences).  The prettiness is interrupted by an unnaturally-stretched sample of Alasdair singing the word “queen”, a cacophony of church bells and the aforementioned cat-purring, before we conclude with a ridiculously jolly waltz.  I’m still unclear as to how this arrangement was received by the audience.

We finished our set with The Baron of Brackley – a ballad which is particularly relevant to the surrounding area of Braemar.  Despite the unfortunate outcome of the eponymous Baron and the seemingly corrupt intentions of his wife, our arrangement of the song has a rather upbeat mood to it.

Our performance seemed to be warmly received and the post-show discussion raised some very interesting issues – including the influence of location and landscape on creative practice, the challenges of bringing together practitioners from two very different genres, and the general process of creative collaboration over a four-week period (spread across three seasons).

Alasdair and I will be performing together in Edinburgh on the 1st January 2015 as part of….  Beyond that, we have discussed the possibility of attaining funding to allow us to make a professional recording of the songs we’ve worked on this year.  Regardless of the outcome, I am happy to have made a new friend and to have produced some beautiful music with him.

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Dreaming of the Summer

The following is a short film I created alongside Alasdair Roberts for the opening of our performance at St Margaret’s Church in Braemar on the 26th October 2014.  The film uses a combination of time-lapse and slow-motion shots of Braemar’s surrounding landscape with an abstracted recording of Alasdair playing guitar.

Ross

Braemar Residency #4 – Alasdair

On 20th October I arrived by bus in Braemar for the last of the four weeks of the ‘New Approaches to Traditional Music’ residency.  Ross and I had been in Braemar in spring, summer and now in autumn, and the contrasts between the three seasons were striking.  It occurs to me now, back home in Glasgow, that perhaps these contrasts were made all the more striking by the fact that we hadn’t observed the gradual transitions between the different seasons – rather, we had arrived first of all to find spring in blossom, then departed; then we had returned in the warm summer season, the town busy with tourists, before leaving once more; and finally we had returned to find that, in our absence, autumn had arrived in Deeside in full splendour.

It seemed that one of the songs which Ross and I had started working on back in April, The Seasons, had proven prophetic – the hills were indeed clad in purple, the trees likewise clad in gold.  Had I scaled the heathery slopes of Coire na Sgreuchaig once more, I’m sure I would have encountered the grey grouse of which that romantic old song speaks; casting my eyes from the summit downwards I’m certain that I would have caught a glimpse of the wild deer in the glen.  And had I paused to listen, there on that high summit, I would doubtless have heard the autumn wind sighing of a beauty growing old.

But there was little time to pause, as Ross and I were engaged with the task of putting on a concert.  Even in the last few days of our residency, certain details of what would constitute our performance in St Margaret’s Church on 26th October were far from finalised.  Some aspects of the music we had created were subject to last-minute changes.  For example, where previously Ross had played live keyboard/piano on The Cruel Mother, he experimented instead with pre-recording the piano motif on which the song is based.  This in turn freed his hands up to allow him to manipulate in a more nuanced way the sounds that I was generating with my voice, and to overlay different piano parts.  The result of this was the piece seemed to feel somehow more confident and bolder, and the greater freedom afforded to Ross’s hands led to much more dynamic range throughout.  To me, it seemed that the song now felt fully-formed.

Ross describes elsewhere the process of the creation of our interpretation of ‘Queen Victoria’s Welcome to Deeside.’  This piece posed some aesthetic and ideological challenges, as we strove to create an engaging and interesting listen out of pre-existing material which both of us, it must be said, found somewhat objectionable, and which ironised and undercut the overtly expressed sentiments of the lyric.

The remaining four pieces which constituted our performance were already fairly fully-realised, and subject only to a few minor tweaks during the days in the lead-up to the concert.  As well as final rehearsals, Ross and I worked on the final draft of the programme notes for our performance (which will be made available on this blog page in due course).  The programme notes discuss the songs and ballads almost as abstracted, Platonic ideals and also reference their history and provenance and so on, rather than describing or detailing the processes involved in our own interpretations of them.  However, after our concert there was, as Ross describes elsewhere on this site, a Sound Conversation with Fiona Robertson during which those aspects, subtleties and complexities of the work were able to be addressed more comprehensively.

The concert itself was, speaking as a performer, very enjoyable.  It felt good finally to share this new material with an audience – and a wonderfully attentive audience at that.  It is interesting to me the way in which performing work in front of an audience in the room, as opposed to performing the same material in the same room when empty, can subtly alter one’s own thoughts and feelings about the music even as it unfolds, often in quite undefinable, ineffable ways.  One aspect of this in the present case is that the work, being so familiar to Ross and me due to our having worked on it over four weeks, gained a new potency for me due to the knowledge that everybody else in the room was hearing it for the first time.  I feel that this in turn fed into the performance – part of that complex feedback loop between performer and audience – to lend greater strength to our musicianship in the moment.

The ‘New Approaches to Traditional Music’ residency in Braemar has been a major part of my creative life throughout this year, in many ways.  I am very happy to have got to know Ross during the residency, and I look forward to performing this work, and perhaps other works, with him in the future.   Although I will doubtless visit Braemar again under different auspices, I know that for the time being I will notice its absence in my existence and I will remember my times and experiences there with great fondness.

Alasdair Roberts, Glasgow, October 28th 2014

Braemar Residency #3 – Ross

The third of our residencies in the village of Braemar happened to coincide with one of the most important weeks in Scottish history.  The referendum for Scottish Independence was, and just over one week later still is, an issue that’s impossible to ignore – and it would be disingenuous of me not to mention it with regards to our residency.  On Monday 15th September, I set off from Aberdeen on the bus to Braemar and watched (with some dismay) the apparent predominance of “No” banners we passed that adorned the fields and streets between those two locations.  What struck me as being somewhat strange was the almost complete absence of any “Yes” or “No” paraphernalia in Braemar.  Although, looking back at the end of the week, it occurred to me that displaying your political beliefs on what had become such an incredibly divisive issue may have led to a stickier aftermath to contend with in such a small community than it might have in a larger village, city or town.

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After making some preliminary plans for the week ahead, Alasdair and I returned to St Margaret’s Church to continue the work that we will be performing on the 26th October (in the same space).  I’ve come to feel a great fondness for this semi-derelict building.  I’m not religious and I really don’t feel like it’s a church that we’re working in – but rather, some grand abandoned space where the atmosphere and acoustics very much feed into the music that we create.
By mid-week, Alasdair and I had, more or less, settled on a set list for our performance.  The decision came surprisingly quickly, but musically and lyrically, it feels like a very cohesive one.  We made one addition to the programme – a song that Alasdair had mentioned to me during our first residency but one that we hadn’t ever got around to exploring: “Queen Victoria’s Welcome to Deeside”.  I think that it’s safe to say that neither Alasdair nor I are royalists.  In fact, I would go so far as to say that I consider myself to be very much anti-monarchy.  Our approach to this traditional song, which describes the first royal visit to Braemar, was perhaps one of initial trepidation – this being “Royal Deeside” after all…  There were moments, though (spoken and unspoken) of “how far can we push this?”  I think that we both felt by the end of our third residency that there was still a lot of room for pushing things even further.  In the end, our remit was to respond creatively to the area and its history.  We have certainly done that, and I for one, make no apologies.   Of course, it may be that with the time we have remaining, we don’t achieve the level that we were aiming for, in which case it may not feature in the final programme.  Though, I am very much hopeful that it does.

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The day of the referendum finally arrived and while Alasdair and I were both extremely restless, the atmosphere in our accommodation took on an almost party atmosphere.  I cooked a large meal, we listened to a lot of different music, drank whisky and sang songs.  Around midnight we decided to sleep for a few hours and set our alarms in time to hear the referendum outcome.  As ‘Yes’ voters we were, unsurprisingly disappointed – to put it lightly.  The following days were certainly difficult.  I was genuinely surprised by the grief that I felt – a grief which still haunts me a week later.  Despite this, we proceeded and I feel that we have produced a very interesting body of work.

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In addition to the musical material, we began exploring the possibility of incorporating a visual aspect in our performance.  On the afternoon of the 18th September Alasdair and I ventured out of the village, waded across the River Dee and climbed Carn na Drochaide – I have to confess that Alasdair made it slightly further up the hill than I did…  I filmed some panoramic shots of the village and surrounding landscape which was as atmospheric as ever.  Two days later, we headed out in our own directions to capture some more footage.  It is likely that some of this footage (in some form or other) will be projected at certain points throughout the final performance.

Braemar Residency #3 – Alasdair

Ross Whyte and I arrived in Braemar for the third week of our residency on 15th September.  The long journey from Glasgow to Braemar has proven, each time I have made it, to be a very enjoyable experience – firstly a three-hour train ride from Glasgow, making sure to choose a seat on the right-hand side of the train in order to enjoy the view over the North Sea from Dundee onwards – passing through Carnoustie, Arbroath, Montrose, Laurencekirk, Stonehaven before reaching our destination – Aberdeen, ‘the sophisticated city of glittering granite’, so beautiful on a sunny day.  There follows a brief wait in Aberdeen before the two-and-a half hour bus ride through Banchory, Ballater and Aboyne before arriving in the village of Braemar, nestled there in its stunning location on the edge of the Cairngorms.

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The journey on this occasion was enhanced by the sense of expectation surrounding the referendum on Scottish independence, which took place on 18th September, three days after our arrival in Braemar.  Likewise, the pleasure of the journey homewards again on September 21st was tempered for me somewhat by the outcome of the vote.  I cannot speak for Ross (please read his blog entry to discern his feelings about the matter), but I myself voted ‘Yes’ in the referendum, in the hope (shared with many Scots – indeed, some 45% of the population if the figures are to be believed) that it would lead to a fairer, more democratic society for all the people of Scotland, and a brighter future for generations of inhabitants of this nation to come.

Perhaps understandably, the independence referendum came to dominate our third week in Braemar.  When we were not working, Ross and I avidly followed the television news reports and kept abreast of discussions on the matter via social media; we rose early in the morning of 19th September after the polls closed to witness the results pouring in from across Scotland.  And when the final result was confirmed and Scotland’s continued place in the United Kingdom assured, for the time being, both Ross and I shed our tears, shook our heads and continued apace with the task in hand: the making of music.

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During our first residency in April I had brought with me the first volume of the Greig-Duncan Folk Song Collection, a seminal work of musical scholarship by Gavin Greig and the Reverend James B Duncan about the rich and varied folk song tradition of the north-east of Scotland.  The music which Ross and I are making in Braemar has referenced this collection at various points – some of the songs and ballads that we’re working on feature in it, whether only lyrically or musically, or some combination of both of those.

Before commencing on that first residency, my attention had been drawn to a song in the Greig-Duncan collection which was very geographically relevant to the Braemar area in which we were working, but which nevertheless seemed something of an anomaly in terms of the material in the collection in general.  The name of the piece in question is ‘Queen Victoria’s Welcome to Deeside’ and it is essentially a panegyric to the titular monarch.  The source of the song is given by Greig and Duncan as one Jonathan Gauld.  Queen Victoria’s husband Prince Albert acquired the lease on Balmoral, plus its furniture and staff, in February 1848, without having seen the property – and the royal couple made their first visit on 8th September that year, arriving by sea in Aberdeen and then travelling on by coach to Balmoral.  The song deals with the events in Aboyne where the travelling party stopped at noon for lunch, greeted by locals who had run and jumped “o’er moorlands and mosses” to be there.

A Great North British Railway station still stands in Braemar as testament to the Victorian era, although it has never been used as a station.  Construction of the railway line from Ballater by the Aboyne and Braemar Railway Company was halted at Aboyne, apparently because Queen Victoria objected to the idea of the line passing so close to Balmoral.  Of course, Deeside’s royal connections persist to this day, with members of the royal family in attendance at the Braemar Gathering every August.  Queen Elizabeth was in residence at Balmoral during the week of our September residency and on the day before our arrival in Braemar (just four days before the independence referendum) she had urged Scots to think “very carefully about the future” from the steps of Crathie Kirk.

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I am far from being a supporter of the royal family; on the contrary, I would describe myself as a republican who believes that monarchical institutions have no place in a modern democracy.  I believe that my colleague Ross Whyte feels the same about this issue, although for confirmation of this I would urge you to read his blog entry.  Nevertheless, ‘Queen Victoria’s Welcome to Deeside’ grabbed my attention; I felt that it might be a worthwhile experiment for Ross and me to create an interpretation of this song which draws out the tensions between the undeniably strong historical connections that the Braemar area has with royalty, and our own feelings about the issue of monarchy.

We spent a fair amount of time thinking about, discussing, and playing/singing ‘Queen Victoria’s Welcome to Deeside’, although I must confess that I’m not certain yet that we have managed to approach it in such a way that appropriately emphasises the aforesaid tensions.  It is very much a work in progress, and may or may not feature in our final performance at St Margaret’s Church on 26th October.  During our third residency week, Ross and I also began to consolidate the final running order of the pieces we have created and to think about the technical and logistical requirements of the performance.

Finally, Ross and I spent more time concentrating on the visual aspect of our work during this residency, taking several long walks in the hills surrounding Braemar equipped with cameras and video cameras.  On polling day we rolled up our trousers and removed our shoes to wade through the River Dee before climbing Carn na Drochaide (Gaelic: the [Rocky] Hill of the Bridge); Ross filmed some footage from its rugged slopes.  A couple of days later I climbed the heathery ridges of Coire na Sgreuchaig (Corry of the Jackdaw) alone to take some photographs, while Ross took his video camera up Morrone (Gaelic: My Nose).

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Alasdair Roberts, Glasgow, September 23rd 2014

Braemar Residency #2 – Ross

On arriving in Braemar on Monday lunchtime, I was immediately struck by the strong presence of tourists, which had been largely absent during our previous stay in April.  The village centre was a gridlock of coaches, four wheel drives and Zimmer frames.

On the first night at our accommodation (a beautiful cottage near the centre of the village (provided by our wonderful hosts, Andrew and Kirsty Braidwood) I spotted a collection of DVDs which included the BBC adaptations of MR James’ Ghost Stories.  Throughout the week, Alasdair and I watched several of these, including “The Stalls of Barchester”, “A Warning to the Curious” and “The Ash Tree”.  Despite the often primitive-looking visual effects, these short films still retain a great air of menace and horror.  The Ghost Stories also seemed somewhat like fitting viewing in regards to the ballads that Alasdair and I continued to experiment with.

There was something quite satisfying about returning to the semi-derelict St Margaret’s Church where we had spent much of our previous residency.  The church is seldom used for religious practices – although there had apparently been a wedding held there the week before.  It feels like something directly out of a Tarkovsky movie with its scaffolding, cracked windows and general state of disrepair; a special place nonetheless.

We spent our initial sessions revisiting the work we had produced in the last residency.  Alasdair and I realised that we had produced a considerable amount of material in April and, as a result, we spent more of the week revisiting and refining that material than producing new pieces.  The ballad of ‘The Cruel Mother’ was given particular focus.

‘The Cruel Mother’ is a ballad that Alasdair introduced me to during our previous residency.  The tale (which I understand has several variations) is reminiscent of several MR James stories: a young woman who killed her two babies immediately after their birth later encounters two children playing and tells them how she wishes they belonged to her.  They reveal themselves as the ghosts of the babies she murdered and tell her that while they are in heaven, she will be going to hell.

In our earlier experiments with ‘The Cruel Mother’, I had played an arpeggiated piano pattern while Alasdair sang (with intermittent delay effects on his voice).  Upon returning to St Margaret’s Church, ‘The Cruel Mother’ took on a quieter, more unsettling edge, with Alasdair’s vocals often being delivered in a whispering manner, which, in turn, made me want to play a more delicate accompaniment.

As a further experiment, I was interested in underpinning the gentle refrain with something that would be quite strongly contrasting.  With that in mind, I recorded Alasdair singing six different pitches which corresponded to six of the notes I was playing in the arpeggiated patterns.  I then stretched these notes and combined them to create a slightly unnatural-sounding choir.  This ‘choir’ now accompanies the voice and piano, but starting from complete silence and increasing in volume almost imperceptibly until it threatens to drown everything out in a wall-of-sound.

I think Alasdair made an important point in his first blog posting with regards to a ballad like ‘The Cruel Mother being “always in development”.  Perhaps there can be no definitive version, but I feel what we have created (or are at least are in the process of creating) is a very unique interpretation.

In addition to revisiting the work of the previous residency, we spent some time working on a new arrangement of another ballad that Alasdair introduced me to: ‘The Baron of Brackley’.  The song describes characters and events specific to the area surrounding Braemar – specifically Inverey.  The ballad tells of a baron who is slain by a group stealing his cattle.  There is a suggestion of indirect foul play on the part of his wife who later marries her husband’s murderer.  Again, this felt, to me, that it could have been the opening to an M. R. James ghost story with its potential for themes of guilt and vengeance.  Despite this, we approached it in a major tonality and with a driving percussive accompaniment created with sampled sounds of objects lying around the church (including a hard hat and screwdriver).

Early in the week, we decided to go on an evening ‘history walk’ led by a local volunteer.  While very interesting, what I found most insightful was the contradictions in the telling of certain historical events and landmarks – for example, the story of the discovery of a brooch in the ruins of Kindrochit Castle was rather different from the version I’d heard several months before.  It made me wonder how many different versions of these stories exist and which one is the most accurate.

Alasdair and I also took part in a tour of Braemar Castle.  The castle tours, as well as many other elements, are also organised by local volunteers, and it has to be said that they’ve done an impressive job.  It was a curious experience, though, to be surrounded by tourists excitedly identifying members of the royal family in various photographs on display throughout the castle…

During this residency, I feel that Alasdair and I had the opportunity to engage with the local history much more than we had in April.  It was also fascinating to see the change in dynamic during tourist season.  I feel that we got a much stronger sense of the kind of place that Braemar is and that this might feed into our future composing.

 

Braemar Residency #2 – Alasdair

BRAEMAR 2

On 14th July, Ross Whyte and I began the second week of our ‘New
Approaches to Traditional Music’ residency in Braemar.  Certain
aspects of our second week differed in several ways from the first
(which happened in early April).  Firstly, we were staying in
different, more spacious accommodation in Braemar this time, and in a
different part of the town (which is officially really two villages –
in April we were in Castletown and this time we were in Auchendryne).

Secondly, the interior of St Margaret’s Church, in which we had been
working before and in which we continued to work this time, had been
slightly spruced up, which I believe resulted in a slightly more
pleasant working environment!  The difference between being in Braemar
in spring and being there in summer was noticeable too – not only was
the weather generally warmer and the days longer, but the town was
more populous, owing to the passing tourist traffic.  The result of
this was that on a few occasions Ross and I were treated to unexpected
visits from bemused passers-by during our rehearsal sessions in the
church!

All of these subtle differences conspired to make our second week in
Braemar a rather different experience from the first week.  Our
working patterns were noticeably altered, for example – whereas during
our first week in early April we spent a lot of time in the church
working on music, we seemed to do considerably less actual
music-making during this second week.  Perhaps this was in large part
to do with the difference between spring and summer weather – the
latter encouraged us to spend more time exploring and absorbing our
surroundings than we had been able to do in April.  During the first
week Ross and I worked together on some five or six new pieces, but
during the course of the second week we only really added one more new
piece to our joint repertoire.  The rest of our playing time was spent
either refining and shaping those pieces which had emerged from the
first week, or simply playing and experimenting with no particular
‘aim’ in mind.

Our technical set-up within the church rehearsal space was slightly
different this time too.  Ross brought similar equipment to last time
(his laptop and MIDI keyboard) and I brought my acoustic guitar again.
Andrew Braidwood of the Braemar Gallery once again kindly provided us
with a PA system and guitar amplifier – but he also kindly allowed us
the use of a Danelectro electric guitar (I own a similar model but was
unable to bring it from Glasgow to Braemar).  He also provided us with
a guitar effects rack – basically a multi-stompbox simulator unit.  In
addition, Ross brought a looping pedal, and I brought along a piece of
equipment which I have used a lot over the years – a Yamaha VSS-30
keyboard.  This masterpiece of eighties technology does not belong to
me, but to an old school friend Dave Elcock, from whom I have it on
long-term loan – and to whom I am extremely grateful!  For me, its
most interesting and useful aspect is its rudimentary sampling and
looping feature; I’ve used this on many recordings from 1997 onwards
(it features on the first two albums of music I made under the band
name Appendix Out, as well as on some records I’ve made subsequently
under my own name, including a release which is due out on Drag City
Records in early 2015).  With the help of this keyboard, sampled
sounds such as held vocal notes (but I have also sampled flutes,
synthesisers, drum patterns, bagpipes and so on) can be played as
chords or single notes, and the low sampling rate lends those sounds a
distinctive warm and crackly feel, like a budget Mellotron.

The aforementioned new piece upon which Ross and I concentrated our
energies was a version of the traditional ballad of ‘The Baron of
Brackley’, the action of which is very local to the area in which we
were working – it concerns a feud between the titular baron and his
rival Inverey (the village of Inverey lies some four miles to the west
of Braemar).  This ballad, which is number 203 in Professor Francis
James Child’s voluminous collection ‘The English and Scottish Popular
ballads, has been known to me for several years, both from older
archive and commercial recordings (by singers such as Anne Neilson and
Ray Fisher) as well as from the singing of friends (such as, for
example, Donald Lindsay).  However, I had only begun to sing the song
earlier this year – it seemed apt to me in light of the fact that Ross
and I were going to be spending time working in the Braemar area.

I had mentioned the ballad of ‘The Baron of Brackley’ to Ross during
our first week, saying that I thought it might be an interesting idea
to work on it collaboratively as part of our residency, although we
didn’t actually get round to working on it in April.  The
aforementioned Yamaha sampling keyboard came into its own while we
worked on the ballad; we created a percussion loop by banging together
some broomsticks and knocking a nearby hard hat (one of many piled in
the nave of the church, remnants of recent construction work).  Ross
then re-sampled this loop into his laptop set-up and manipulated it
beyond recognition.  We also sampled a synthesiser bass note, allowing
Ross to play the main keyboard part with one hand on one keyboard, and
the bassline on the other.

In addition to this new work, we revisited the pieces which we had
worked on in the first week, including ‘The Cruel Mother’, ‘False,
False’, ‘Billy Taylor’ and ‘The Seasons.’  During the course of our
rehearsal time, these developed in various different directions, often
ending up sounding quite different from how they had done in April,
for whatever reason or combination of reasons.  We also discussed the
manner in which the totality of the work that we create and present
together might eventually feature extra-musical elements and, if so,
what they might be – perhaps consisting of photography, film, printed
texts, still images, spoken word, movement and so on.  For the most
part, Ross and I have so far been concentrating primarily on the
musical aspect of the work, which is in keeping with the residency’s
title ‘New Approaches to Traditional Music’.  However, that certainly
does not rule out the possibility of other art forms or ways of
working becoming involved.

While we weren’t making music, Ross and availed ourselves of the
touristic opportunities that the high summer season in Braemar made
available to us.  One evening we took a 90-minute long guided history
walk of the village and, on a separate occasion, we paid a visit to
Braemar Castle; these were both very interesting and informative
experiences which will possibly sow the seeds of some future
residency-related work.  We also did a little more walking out of
town, for example on the road west along the banks of the Dee towards
the ruins of Inverey Castle, the startlingly loud roars of passing
fighter jets sounding from the mountainsides, cutting through the
tranquility of a fine Scottish summer’s morning.

Our July visit to Braemar was also a lot more social than our April
visit.  In addition to the wonderful hospitality of Andrew and Kirsty
of the Braemar Gallery (and the kind invitation to join them and their
friends to celebrate Andrew’s birthday), we were visited by some
musical friends who live nearby, including the singer Kirsty Potts and
also, on the following day, Clutch Daisy.  By an odd coincidence,
certain members of Ross’s family as well as my own happened to be in
Braemar on the second-last day of our residency, which was a good
opportunity for us to have a joint family meal!

 

First Braemar Residency with Alasdair Roberts

On the 6th April, I arrived in Braemar to begin the first of four week-long residencies with musician and songwriter Alasdair Roberts.  I was only vaguely familiar with Alasdair’s work – a friend had introduced me to his album The Amber Gatherers which I’d enjoyed a great deal.  I’d also had the opportunity to hear him perform live at 17 on Belmont Street in Aberdeen last November.  Other than that, though, I only had a rudimentary awareness of his work.

Our initial residency was very much about getting to know about each other’s practices and working styles.  For me, it has certainly been a learning process and I feel a greater appreciation for traditional music as a result.  The biggest challenge, perhaps for both of us, is to find a common ground between our musical approaches.  I was very conscious of  bringing something to the table that wasn’t just an electronic accompaniment to the songs that we rehearsed, but instead something that might offer a new angle; a response to a style that is, to a certain degree, foreign to me.

I grew up listening to the folk-tinged albums of Van Morrison (Veedon Fleece), Joni Mitchell (Blue) and Nanci Griffith (various), and later became obsessed with alt-country bands and solo artists who fell close to that genre (Uncle Tupelo, Wilco, Sun Kil Moon, Sparklehorse, Mazzy Star and many others), and I admired what I regarded as their abstraction of folk, traditional and country music – to me, it made those genres somehow more legitimate or palatable.  I’ve often been cynical of traditional open mic sessions.  In the past I’ve found them to be slightly exclusive and wary, if not a touch hostile, towards other genres.  On reflection, this has probably had as much to do with my own prejudices as it has with those performing in those sessions.

On the Wednesday evening, Alasdair and I attended an open mic folk session at the Aberdeen Arms in Tarland and we had the opportunity to meet and hear the fiddler Paul Anderson performing.  It was deeply inspiring to hear Paul’s stories about the local history as well as his work as a composer and I greatly admired his interaction with the other musicians.  The session reminded me of the very strong communal aspect of musical performance that is, I believe, an essential element of traditional music – an element I feel that is sometimes lacking in contemporary classical music and certain sub-genres of electronic music.

church

Our first rehearsal took place in the semi-derelict St Margaret’s Church.  I began playing a slightly melancholic chord progression on one of the church’s two harmoniums while Alasdair sang what I would later learn was a traditional song titled The Seasons.  Alasdair repeated the song’s two verses, often allowing the melody to fall independently of the chords.  I moved things even further out of sync by processing Alasdair’s voice through my laptop with delay and looping effects.  It felt like a very strong start to the project.

harmonium

Back in our accommodation – a church which had been converted into flats – we continued to experiment with other improvised material.  Using a piano sound, I put together a progression which fell somewhere between E flat major and C minor – I’ve always been interested in using one hand crossed over the other on the keyboard to produce ambiguous tonalities.  The result was a slightly pastoral effect.  Alasdair began singing the melody of the ballad, Cruel Mother.  The macabre lyrical content seemed to give the music a very uneasy edge to it – an edge which I tried to accentuate by drawing out the more minor harmonies of the arpeggiated patterns I was playing.

It had been a long time since I had improvised using acoustic instruments with another musician and it would have been very easy and comfortable for me to have solely used the harmonium and piano (albeit a virtual piano).  However, this, in a way, went against our remit of “new approaches to traditional music”, and I felt that Alasdair was keen to explore the digital possibilities, including ways of manipulating his voice.  So, on the third day of the residency I decided to make a selection of field recordings around Braemar.  Among the sounds I collected were the misleadingly titled “ringing stone” in front of St Margaret’s church, the rusty squeaking and banging of the church’s door handle, crows cawing in the nearby rookery and the rope of a flagpole slapping in the wind.  I felt that it would be interesting to use some of these sounds as a percussive and rhythmic basis for a song.  After some manipulations, I’d created a drum loop of sorts which became the backing for Alasdair’s arrangement of Billy Taylor – the origins of which Alasdair describes in a previous post.

door

A great deal of our time, outside of practicing, was spent discussing our own musical backgrounds and interests, the potential of using a venue’s space and dimensions to diffuse sounds, and initial thoughts of the overall shape our final performance (later this year) might take.  We also did a lot of walking.  Morrone Birkwood, a nature reserve just outside Braemar was a particularly inspiring area in which to observe the local landscape.

birkwood

I feel that we produced a considerable amount of material in our first residency.  Whether or not all that material will be revisited in the future remains to be seen.  However, it feels like a very strong start.  We both agreed that during our next residency, it would be beneficial to become more familiar with the local area, its people and history.  There may even be the opportunity to incorporate interviews with local people, as well as archival recordings of songs, in the work that we continue to produce and develop.

In some ways, the time between residencies will be as important as the residencies themselves.  It’s a period to reflect on the material we’ve produced, to further research the other’s practice and to consider how we might develop the material produced in the early stages.

Ross Whyte

April 2014

Aberdeen

Alasdair’s ruminations on a week in Braemar with Ross Whyte

I arrived in Braemar on the afternoon of 6th April 2014, after travelling by train from my home in Glasgow to Aberdeen and then on by bus.  I was greeted there by Ross Whyte and we made our way to the accommodation which was to be our home for the next week, a first-floor flat in a converted church not far from Braemar Castle.  I don’t think that either Ross or I really knew what to expect of the week ahead.  We had only met one another a couple of times before; for my part, I was only passingly familiar with his musical work.  I had enjoyed listening to some recordings online in the weeks leading up to the residency but had never, for instance, had the pleasure of experiencing his music in live performance.

 

On hearing those recordings of Ross’s music for the first time, I sensed a strong contrast with my own work in terms of the manner in which we respectively engage (or otherwise) with contemporary technologies.  I will confess that many of the processes and techniques which I understand that Ross uses in the creation of his music are something of a mystery to me.  My engagement with cutting-edge music production technology has been, to this point, fairly minimal; as a musician I am primarily concerned with the act of singing and with playing acoustic guitar (and sometimes other instruments).  I have a rudimentary working knowledge of the contemporary recording technology which I need to capture the sounds of my voice and guitar, and whatever other (primarily non-electronic) instruments might come to hand.  I have worked in this comparatively basic manner since my early experiments four-track tape recording in my teens – while I have now moved on to home recording on an eight-track digital machine, my grasp of the technology behind it is still fairly rudimentary.

 

By contrast, Ross engages wholeheartedly with contemporary technologies in his work, the majority of the sounds being created by or processed through his laptop and MIDI keyboard.  Indeed, these technologies and Ross’s extremely adept usage of them seem to be integral to the very fabric and being of the musical works he creates.

 

I’d assert that beyond those technical aspects, there are philosophical differences to our working methods.  Ross’s work seems thoroughly grounded in the now, with an eye to the future and to coming possibilities; by contrast, my own art might necessarily unfold in the present by virtue of my existing in the present, but it emerges in part from various forms of engagement with a certain musical past.  So it was interesting, then, to consider what might happen when these two musical approaches which differ in various ways were brought into dialogue.

 

A couple of days before travelling to Braemar, I visited the School of Scottish Studies in Edinburgh.  Having done a fair amount of research before in the SSS sound archive and library in relation to various different projects, both musical- and non-musical; I thought I ought to investigate whatever those resources might have to reveal about the Braemar area.

 

In the sound archive I found some 1953 recordings of Pipe Major Robert Urquhart Brown discussing his art and giving some examples of piobiareachd, the big music of the Highland bagpipe.  Then there were recordings of a ceilidh held in Braemar in 1959 – jigs, reels, strathspeys and waltzes beautifully played by accordion, piano and fiddle interspersed with the sound of general merriment – laughter, whoops of pleasure, stomping feet.  Then there were some recordings made the same year of traditional tunes played on solo piano by one John Lamont; some slight audio dropout due to the degradation of the tapes in the half-century since they were recorded added an interesting atmospheric quality to the pieces.  Finally there were oral history recordings, mostly made in 1959 also: accounts of old funeral and wedding customs and explanations of the origins of local place name such as ’The Colonel’s Bed’; talk of village dancing classes, illicit stills in the surrounding hills, memories of the last Gaelic speaker in Braemar; supernatural anecdotes; and descriptions of the habits of deer and other local wildlife.  I have been wondering whether it is conceivable that some of these archive recordings, musical or otherwise, might find their way into the music which Ross and I create together, ethical and legal issues notwithstanding.

 

Personally speaking, I had some notions of the sorts of things I might like to attempt musically with Ross during our residency in Braemar.  Working with the notion of ‘New Approaches to Traditional Music’, I felt that it would be appropriate to work with ‘traditional’ material, older songs, ballads and tunes – at least using those as a starting point for further musical exploration.  In any case, the interpretation of traditional material (as a singer, primarily ballads and songs) is already one of the major strands of my own work, both solo and as a collaborator.  In geographical terms, I felt that the traditional elements of the music we made should somehow reflect that part of the country, as that is where we were working.

 

Although I was raised in Perthshire and have been based for some 19 years in Glasgow, I have a long-standing fondness for the traditional singers and songs of the north-east of Scotland.  For chronological reasons (that is, my being slightly too young) I was never in a position to hear, say, legendary north-eastern singers such as Jeannie Robertson, Lizzie Higgins or Lucy Stewart sing at first hand.  I have nevertheless found great enjoyment over the years through listening to and studying recordings of both of these singers, among others, and have had the good fortune to hear and see some of their descendants sing in person (for example, Jeannie’s nephew Stanley Robertson, one of whose ballad workshops I attended a few years ago at the Scottish Storytelling Centre in Edinburgh; and Lucy Stewart’s niece Elizabeth Stewart, whom I heard singing at the Fife Traditional Singing Weekend more recently).

 

Also, although I am not a Scottish Traveller myself, I have for several years been very interested in the musical and oral culture of this group.  As such, I have appreciated the work of individuals such as Hamish Henderson and, more recently Maurice Fleming, in documenting the wonderful songs and stories of Perthshire Travellers in the berry fields of Blairgowrie and its environs: singers such as Martha Reid, Willie MacPhee, Charlotte Higgins, Belle Stewart and of course her daughter Sheila Stewart.  In fact, I had the great pleasure and very memorable honour of sharing a stage at The Tolbooth Theatre in Stirling with Sheila Stewart some years ago.

 

So it was that I brought with me to Braemar the notion of working with some traditional song texts learnt from some of the singers – either singers from the north-east, Traveller singers, or both – I have mentioned above.  As my normal tendency has been towards lengthier narrative ballads, I thought it might be an interesting experiment with this project instead to work with shorter, more lyrical song texts.  I had in mind a short song fragment which had appealed to me when I  encountered a recording of it being sung by the late Lizzie Higgins, daughter of Jeannie Robertson – a pastoral/romantic 19th century lyric entitled ‘The Seasons.’  I also had in mind a relatively popular traditional song which I had first heard sung by the Perthshire singer Sheila Stewart, entitled ’False, False’.

 

With its talk of ‘the wild deer in the glen’ and ‘the grey grouse in the heather’, ’The Seasons’ for me seems to sum up a very Victorian idea of the north of Scotland – fitting for this residency, given the ‘Royal’ Deeside location of Braemar and its close proximity to the Balmoral Estate.  To my mind, the song presents a very romanticised, idyllic view of life amid the ‘sublime’ and rugged beauty of the Highlands.  ‘False, False’, by contrast, is a sombre piece apparently told from the point of view of a jilted lover; its vaguely surreal, mysterious poetry referring to ‘a white snowflake’s nest’ and to the act of ‘lifting warm water oot aneath cauld clay’ had intrigued me since I first heard it.

 

On the first day of our residency, the Monday after our arrival, Ross and I set up our equipment in a nearby church, St Margaret’s.  The church, only a two-minute walk from the door of our accommodation, was in a semi-derelict state – white paint peeling from the walls, scaffolding in place, the heating most definitely broken!  Andrew Braidwood of Braemar Gallery very helpfully provided us with some technical equipment – amps, microphones, a PA system – to help us generate the sounds that we would create together in the coming days.

 

It wasn’t very clear where Ross and I, as two individuals who had never before made music together, should begin the process!  As it happened, I thought that singing to Ross my own versions of the aforementioned songs (‘The Seasons’ and ‘False, False’) would be as good a place as any to start.  I suggested that these pieces might act as preliminary templates, so to speak, which would allow us to explore the various ways that we might find to work together.  Perhaps we could ultimately abandon the texts of these songs to create something utterly ‘new’ and without the reference to whatever musical and historical pasts their use entails… or perhaps the old songs would somehow be seamlessly incorporated into the new… or perhaps some completely different type of occurrence would take place.

 

I sang into the cold church air, and soon Ross was pedalling away at one of the two harmoniums which stood at either end of the building; it wheezed into life and he began to coax beautifully slow, sonorous chords from it.  The notes filled the wonderfully resonant acoustic of the church in a very satisfying way and Ross responded to it by lingering contemplatively over chords and tonal clusters, appreciating the way they reverberated in the space.  Ross sampled a note from the harmonium into his laptop and began to play it on his MIDI keyboard.  As I sang, he fed my voice back through his laptop and processed it, creating disjointed shards and echoing tumbles of vocal noise.  I had often thought about experimenting with vocal processing in this way, but had never really done it before until this point; I found it a fascinating experience and one which I am very keen to explore further with Ross through the course of the residency; these two old songs developed under Ross’s fingers and in the cavernous church space into something strange and new.

 

The following day, Ross began to improvise alone with a piano sound on his MIDI keyboard while I listened in from the adjoining room of our accommodation – he had created some beautiful overlapping minor-key arpeggios.  At some point I began to sing over the music that Ross had created; the song that came from my heart/brain to my mouth, the thing that seemed appropriate to sing, was the grisly old ballad of ‘The Cruel Mother.’  This is a song which I have sung for years in a particular version – but the version I sang that day with Ross was completely different.  Indeed, it was a north-east variant of the ballad (which is number 20 in Professor Francis James Child’s ‘English and Scottish Popular Ballads’), from the singing of the aforementioned Elizabeth Stewart; not only is the melody different from the version of the ballad which I usually sing, but certain details of the plot are different – for example, the titular cruel mother has not one child, but two.

 

Personally speaking, I found it very interesting to sing a different version of a ballad I have known for years – the atmosphere of the piece and the mental images it conjured for me as a singer were totally different from the variant of the ballad to which I was more accustomed.   New nuances, shades of meaning, and details within the song made themselves apparent to me. Ross was layering and adding other sounds to the original MIDI piano loop and, again, was processing my voice in interesting ways, and so another piece emerged and developed – although I would always argue that because singing a ballad such as ‘The Cruel Mother’ is really a lifetime’s work, it will always be in development.

 

Every subsequent day Ross and I would spend around two to three hours working and making sounds in that church space.  Sometimes we would improvise with no particular aim in mind, Ross on harmonium, MIDI keyboard and laptop, me on amplified acoustic guitar and voice, sometimes treated with effects such as reverb or delay; other times I might give air to my inclination towards song and suggest another lyric we might work on.  So it happened that we began to work on a ballad from the famed Greig-Duncan Folk Song Collection, the first volume of which I had brought with me to Braemar (I would like to mention that the book was a very thoughtful gift to me from the great Aberdeen musician Alan Davidson).

 

The song in question was ‘Billy Taylor’, one which is also well-known in England under the name ‘William Taylor’ or ‘Bold William Taylor’ – a dark tale of cross-dressing, seafaring and eventual murder.  The lyric which I used, having been taken from the Greig-Duncan collection, was Scottish in origin; however the melody which I began to sing had more in common with that used by the Lincolnshire singer Joseph Taylor, as recorded on wax cylinder in the village of Saxby-All Saints by the English composer Percy Grainger way back in 1908!  It’s a grand old melody in the dorian mode which, to my ear, seems to suit the narrative of this fairly solemn song better than the more major-key feel of old Scottish recordings of the same song which I’ve heard.  As I broke into the song on voice and guitar, Ross began to experiment with various percussive sounds from his laptop, including some generated from recordings of his interactions with nearby objects – the sound of a pebble hitting the local ‘ringing stone’ (which, despite its name, didn’t have a particularly noticeable ‘ringing’ sound – the name refers instead to the stone’s use in the process of ringing cartwheels with metal) and the sound of the church door squeaking and being slammed shut.

 

On one evening of our stay, Andrew kindly drove Ross and me to the village of Tarland, where a music session was taking place in the Aberdeen Arms pub.  A great collection of fiddlers, guitarists, mandolin players, flautists, bodhran players, harmonica players and singers were playing their tunes and singing their songs with gusto and it was a great pleasure to hear.  At some point in the evening I revealed to one of the assembled musicians as a singer (unfortunately I didn’t catch her name) and she invited me to sing.  After some gentle coaxing, I did indeed sing a couple of unaccompanied ballads (‘The Fair Flower of Northumberland’ and my original version of ‘The Cruel Mother’).  At that point, the well-known fiddler Paul Anderson came over to introduce himself; Andrew, Ross and I chatted to him for an hour or so.  I was hugely grateful to him for imparting some of his vast store of knowledge about the local area and its history as well as his equally huge knowledge of the various musical traditions of the north-east of Scotland.  It was a fascinating and hugely rewarding discussion which opened up many possibilities for future avenues of research and enquiry.

 

At our times in Braemar when Ross and I were not making music or generating sounds together, we would be discussing our respective approaches, practices, artistic preoccupations and musical interests, getting to know one another better (after all, as I said, we had barely met before the beginning of the residency!).  These discussions, conducted either in our accommodation over dinner or during walks around Braemar and its environs (Morrone Birkwood, Braemar Castle and so on), felt like an equally valid and important part of the process of creation as the actual making of music, the discussions feeding and sustaining our musical creativity.  At the point of writing this we have completed a week of what will be a month-long residency.  I am certain that the process of getting to know one another will continue apace during our remaining visits to Braemar,, in tandem with the process of creating new music together, and that the more we become familiar with one another’s working methods and musical interests, the work that we create together will develop in novel and unexpected ways.

 

Alasdair Roberts

Glasgow

April 2014