Sisters have the world on a string
As they processed onto the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall stage back in January 2000, String Sisters gave not the slightest impression of being terrified. Here was a sextet of the international folk and traditional music scene’s top fiddle players slow marching to April’s Child, a tune brought to the group by Annbjorg Lien, the Norwegian representative in a Shetland, Irish, American, Canadian, Scandinavian troupe.
Their sound was richly harmonic, stately and measured, although the two days preceding this debut were, recalls Shetlander Catriona Macdonald, frenetic.
Macdonald had conceived the idea – there was word at the time that it had come to her in the bath – of gathering top women fiddle players into an ensemble that would celebrate all of their traditions. She took this to the then director of Celtic Connections, Colin Hynd, who immediately got behind it. Hynd it was who did all the contacting and negotiating, a laborious task in these pre-email days, and when he put it together, as Macdonald says, he didn’t hide it away in some corner of the Celtic Connections programme.
“It was a Friday and on the mainstage of what by then had become established as a major festival,” says Macdonald. “And everyone was excited. We hadn’t actually met before but we got together and thought, give it a few days’ rehearsal and it’ll all be great. Then, of course, reality hit us. There was an awful lot of music to learn and we began to think, maybe we’ve bitten off more than we can chew. But we just got on with it and put the concert together, and the chemistry between us felt really strong.”
Macdonald’s intention wasn’t to form a band that, eighteen years on, is still together and looking at exploring new territories. As someone who had been in the line-up of another supposed one-off fiddle celebration, pan-Highlands and Islands supergroup Blazin’ Fiddles, she might have known that String Sisters would develop a life of its own.
“The original idea came to me after I’d been touring a lot with the accordion player Iain Lowthian in Ireland, the US and the UK during the 1990s,” says Macdonald, who these days is Senior Lecturer and Degree Programme Director in Folk and Traditional Music at the University of Newcastle as well as being a gigging musician.
“I was aware through my CD collection that there were a lot of amazing female fiddle players – Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh, with Altan, and Liz Carroll being two who came into String Sisters – with great energy and drive. Yet we never seemed to meet each other. This is quite topical at the moment with the movement towards equality in festival programming and other areas of the music business, but back then it seemed that you would only find one band with a female fiddle player in it at any festival. I wasn’t sitting worrying about it; I just thought it would be amazing to play with your peers.”
In Colin Hynd she found a festival director who was only too willing to make it happen and rebook the band the following year, leading to its continuation. The comment that tickles Macdonald most when people see the cover of Between Wind and Water, the String Sisters’ recently released second album (their individual schedules have meant that the group hasn’t been prolific) is, “But there’s men in it!” This is down each of the fiddlers bringing an accompanist to the first concert. In Macdonald’s case she brought her regular rhythm section, pianist David Milligan, bassist Conrad Molleson and drummer James Mackintosh who became the nucleus of the String Misters, a backing band that would come also to feature Norwegian guitarist Tore Bruvoll.
“There was an element of pragmatism in taking my band on the road,” says Macdonald. “But it was also part of the band chemistry. It felt right and knowing the guys would have whatever we wanted to do covered, it let us get on with choosing the music, which because I was close to the Scandinavian scene – Annbjorg and I have known each other since we were twelve or thirteen – I wanted not to be just Celtic.”
From the start the combination of six fiddle players each lending their own styles, accents and bowing techniques to the ensemble gave String Sisters a richness of sound that might even have surprised Macdonald.
“I had no preconceptions of what it would sound like,” she says. “I thought it would sound good but when we started to work on each other’s music it was interesting how the different approaches came together. In Scottish and Irish music the fiddle is used to carrying the melody and certain players, Liz Carroll for instance, would have felt that playing the melody was their place, whereas Liz Knowles, Annbjorn and I naturally gravitate towards harmony. There’s also a grittiness and dissonance in Scandinavian fiddle playing that adds to the fullness of the sound and of course we wanted Mairead to bring her wonderful Donegal bowing and ornamentation.”
As well as their instrumental capabilities, Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh and Emma Hardelin, who replaced original member Natalie MacMaster, from Cape Breton, when she had to step down due to work commitments, bring very distinctive voices to the group.
On the new album Ni Mhaonaigh sings Wind and Rain, an American version of the Scottish ballad The Twa Sisters, and Hardelin draws on the Swedish song tradition with the strikingly dramatic tale of unrequited love and betrayal, Det Bor I Mina Tankar.
“The songs are an important part of what we do,” says Macdonald. “Although the idea of the group is and always has been to highlight women instrumentalists, there have been many, many great women singers in all of our traditions and having two fiddle players who could stand out as singers in their own right in the line-up, it would be silly not to feature them. There’s something very earthy and authentic, almost uncompromising, about Emma’s singing that adds another dimension to what we do as a group and underlines the point about us all doing what we do in our own vernacular, although we also have great fun trying out each other’s dance tune styles.”
After eighteen years, with only a few adjustments in personnel, String Sisters has become a family unit. Some of the musicians have become mothers (and fathers) during the time they’ve been working together and for Macdonald the sense of having a friendship group to call on has become increasingly reassuring and important.
“Having five other women who havealready gone through or are going through what you’re going through is brilliant,” she says. “We’ve become part of each other’s families, as well as bonding as a kind of family unit, and that makes it easier to decide things. It can still be a logistical nightmare having band members in so many different countries, different time zones even. But when we decided we needed to make a new album we were able to post tunes on an internet platform and everybody could learn them. Actually, we could have made several albums with the tunes that collected there but it shows there is lots of life in the band. We have America in our sights for next year, because we haven’t really addressed the two Lizzes’ homeland. We’ll probably end up playing together in some String Sisters old folks’ home but we’re a long way from that.”
String Sisters play Orkney Folk Festival on May 24; Eden Court, Inverness, May 29; and Queen’s Hall on May 30.
From The Herald, May 23, 2018
Inspired by the mermaids, ghosts and magic of Sandwood Bay
Duncan Chisholm is not a mind-reader but there are times when the Inverness-based fiddler is playing a melody that he would love to know what his audience are picturing in their imaginations as they listen.
Over the past ten years or so Chisholm has become increasingly inspired by places and the desire to communicate a sense of these places in his music. His multi-media project Kin, which he premiered at the Blas festival of highland culture in 2007 and for which he subsequently won a Herald Angel award during the Edinburgh Fringe, took him deep into the Highland landscapes of his forebears. This led on to his Strathglass Trilogy, which actually became four albums as he followed his musical representations of the ancient clan Chisholm lands, Farrar, Canaich and Affric, with a live album recorded in Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum during Celtic Connections in 2013.
It was during the process of conceiving, composing and recording the Strathglass Trilogy that Chisholm realised that he’d caught the theme bug. So when it came to following it up he needed a project and one presented itself as he read a magazine article about Sandwood Bay. Located on the far north-west coast of Sutherland, this natural phenomenon with its mile-long beach of pink sand and 240-feet high sea stack requires determination to visit as it’s down a six-mile path from the nearest car park.
“I’d known about Sandwood for about thirty years and although I knew the area quite well, I’d never been to the bay,” says Chisholm between rehearsals and sound checks for the various concerts he’s involved in at this year’s Celtic Connections. “Reading that article, about two years ago now, made me think, I have to go. I’d no thoughts about making an album dedicated to it but on that first trip I immediately felt that I belonged there. Getting there really felt like making a pilgrimage, which is what I eventually called the first track on the album, and being there, miles from so-called civilization and feeling as if you could be living at any time in the past, present or future, made me start imagining melodies to describe this extraordinary place of beauty.”
Over the next eighteen months Chisholm made that pilgrimage another seven times, seeing Sandwood in all seasons and all weather. He read up about it and learned about the Viking longship that, legend has it, is buried beneath those pink sands and the many ships that foundered at nearby Cape Wrath and were washed up on the shoreline.
“There are lots of stories, about sailors haunting the beach and mermaids crying out in the sea,” he says. “It’s also reputed to be the site of the first Pictish settlement in what became known as Scotland. Nobody lives there now but so much has happened there over time and the topography is fascinating. Some of the most ancient rocks in the world are situated there and of course, the sea stack, Am Buachaille is beautiful.”
Each time Chisholm visited Sandwood he took his camera and returned home with images that fed into the tunes that make up Sandwood, the album.
Appropriately for a fiddle player whose style is very close to singing, when he is composing Chisholm absorbs scenes and gets to know images in the way that a traditional singer might learn the narrative of a ballad.
“I don’t actually look at the images as I’m writing,” he says. “I would look at what I’d captured on film for pleasure and then try to come up with phrases that describe the scene from memory. For me, playing the fiddle is very much like singing. I want the notes to be accurate but there has to be a human element and I find when I’m learning new music I tend to sing the melodies first to get to know the nuances.”
As with the Strathglass Trilogy, not all of the tunes on Sandwood were composed by Chisholm and his co-writer on this project, pianist-flautist Hamish Napier. The aptly titled A Precious Place comes from the pen of Celtic Connections director Donald Shaw and is given glorious “voice” by Chisholm, whose fiddle tone and technique, in an ideal world, would be, he says, a combination of Maria Callas’ perfection and the warm, golden sound of Gaelic singer Roddy Campbell from Barra. Shaw also provided Islands on the Edge and other tracks come from the writing of piper-saxophonist-whistle virtuoso Fraser Fifield, Irish singer and keyboard-player Tríona Ní Dhomhnaill in her Nightnoise era and Hamish Napier flying solo.
For Chisholm, using someone else’s composition is all part of the process of conceiving an album. He organises melodies into a linear form so that before he goes into the studio the album is planned with a beginning, a middle and an ending.
“I absolutely love playing live,” he says. “It’s the ultimate form of communication, a kind of one-to-one conversation with the audience where, especially in an intimate venue, you’re making the equivalent of eye contact to see if people are understanding what you’re saying musically. At the same time, though, and in a different way, recording is also a wonderful process, a joy. It’s like sculpting. You take in ideas and if you have the right people with you, magic can happen as the music takes on a subtly different shape to what you originally had in mind.”
Helping Chisholm to bring his ideas to fruition on Sandwood were musicians including uilleann pipes and whistle player Jarlath Henderson and guitarist-bass guitarist Ross Hamilton, both trusted studio allies from the Strathglass Trilogy. Hamilton, whose “day job” involves studio work with rock and pop bands, gives Chisholm’s music a current edge, with a canny use of electronica, that the fiddler himself wouldn’t necessarily find for himself.
“Ross has a great ear for sounds,” says Chisholm. “I often go into the studio with an arrangement idea where I’ll think, the pipes should come in here or this part needs a whistle line – and I know Jarlath will come up with a great harmony, for example – but Ross is the master at blending in something quite unexpected that enhances the atmosphere of a composition. It’s really inspiring and fascinating to hear phrases that might have started as something I hummed to myself on the beach or sitting on a rock come together into a whole album.”
The next phase in Sandwood’s life as a collection of music is to be performed live and following its premiere at Celtic Connections Chisholm takes it out on the road in late April. Beyond that, there will be more musical impressionism as, just as he says, Scotland offers limitless possibilities for a composer who likes to create a sense of place in his music.
“I’m not going to say too much,” he says, “but there is somewhere I have in mind that would be perfect for the next project.”
Sandwood is released on Copperfish Records.
Duncan Chisholm presents Sandwood live at Eden Court, Inverness, April 29; Perth Concert Hall, May 5; and Orkney Folk Festival, May 24-27.
From The Herald, January 31, 2018
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