Vass contructs the four pillars
Mike Vass is talking about his latest commission, which premieres at the Scots Fiddle Festival in Edinburgh this month, and commenting on how he almost forgot about it because of the time lag between initial discussions and being given the go-ahead.
A composer forgetting about a commission might sound unlikely and, indeed, even affectedly blasé. Demand for Vass’ services as a record producer in recent times, however, has filled his diary to the extent that things that might take a week to ten days under normal circumstances now have to be packed into an eight-hour shift.
The recording of The Four Pillars – in a switch from standard practice, Vass is going to perform the new piece and have it on sale at the concert – took place in one day less than a week following its completion and is being pressed onto CDs even as Vass speaks to your correspondent.
“It’s been quite an intense process,” says Vass, who exudes the air of a man for whom intensity could never in a million years equate to becoming flustered. “There was quite a delay while the fiddle festival waited to hear about funding, which tends to be the way of these things, and I actually started writing the music on September 25 and completed it about three weeks later.”
Named for the four main tune styles in Scottish traditional music – the slow air, march, strathspey and reel – The Four Pillars features nine melodies played by some of the leading fiddle players in Scotland who have been well chosen for their specialisms. Lauren MacColl, herself a composer and a former winner of the BBC’s Young Folk award, is eminently suited to playing the slow airs with her ultra-expressive, deeply characterful style. Perthshire’s Patsy Reid will play the strathspeys and her Shetland-born namesake, Jenna Reid the reels, while Vass himself takes the marches.
“Originally I was going to write ten minutes of music for each tune style,” says Vass. “When I started putting ideas together, though, it became clear that that would be too long, so I gave each player two melodies and Patsy got three because the extra strathspey is a kind of linking piece.”
The music came together quite quickly – of necessity – in a house in Anstruther, to where Vass retreated so that he could get away from the busyness of his life in Glasgow and where he could devote himself to four-hour bursts of composerly activity followed by head-clearing walks and things such as remembering to eat, which can easily be neglected with the creative juices in full flow.
“Four hours is about my limit when I’m writing,” he says, “and after that I’m spent.”
When it came to the recording he was able to call on the pianist and composer, and singer-songwriter Errollyn Wallen, whose own time is precious these days with several commissions currently on her desk. Wallen became Vass’ mentor after they met on the leading advocates for traditional music, Hands up for Trad’s Distil project.
Distil, which takes place in New Lanark every year and encourages traditional musicians to think ‘out of the box’ in terms of composing and arranging, has a history of putting musicians in the same rehearsal space as people they’d otherwise probably never meet. A recent instalment had the young Highland quartet Tannara working with Dutch violist Oene van Geel, of the up for anything string quartet Zapp4 and swing, raga, funk and chamber music trio The Nordanians.
“I’d been on Distil before, in the run-up to recording my Decemberwell album in 2011, and it gave me a lot of confidence to keep working with the ideas I had,” says Vass. “Then a couple of years later, they invited a fiddle player they thought I would benefit from meeting, so I was asked back. Unfortunately the fiddle player had to drop out due to illness but Errollyn was there and we just seemed to hit it off.”
In a trick of navigational destiny, Vass was living on his boat at the time and Wallen spends half of each month in Strathy Point lighthouse on the north coast of Sutherland. So they kept in touch, with Vass visiting Strathy Point armed with musical scores he’d been working on, and they have plans to work together on a new project in 2019.
“As well as being a ridiculously good orchestrator, Errollyn has a lot of experience of working in the studio,” says Vass. “Unlike me, she’s also very forthright. I’m not very outspoken as a producer and tend to get things done with a gentle approach, whereas Errollyn’s not at all shy about telling people – including me - when something needs to be played differently. So, with the time constraints of recording an album in a day, she was the ideal person to produce The Four Pillars and we managed to have a lot of fun as well as finishing the recording to a very tight deadline.”
In addition to the four featured fiddlers, the ensemble Vass brought together to perform and record The Four Pillars includes the superbly inventive jazz pianist Tom Gibbs, the versatile Iain Sandilands on tuned percussion and a string quartet led by violinist Fergus Hetherington.
“Recording it was a massive challenge, especially since only the fiddlers had seen any of the music they were being asked to play in advance,” says Vass. “But Errollyn and I went over the parts the previous day to iron out any creases and everyone brought their A game to the studio, and it was recorded on the Sunday and mixed on the Monday.”
The recording studio has become Vass’ comfort zone, particularly over the past couple of years. Based at Glo Worm studios, a creative hub where very active producers on the traditional music scene, Barry Reid, Andrea Gobbi, Duncan Lyall, Vass and proprietor Iain Hutchison seem to be working round the clock, Vass has and will be working on recent and upcoming releases by Gaelic music duo Fiona Mackenzie and Brian O hEadhra and singer Fiona Hunter. He also has albums with folk band Malinky (in which he and Hunter both feature), singer-songwriter Kim Richards, fiddler-composer Grainne Brady and the Paul McKenna Band lined up.
“I love production work,” he says. “It’s always different and there’s tremendous job satisfaction in having people come in with raw ideas and leaving with the finished item. Some people just want me to set up the microphones and make it sound nice. Others might only have some song lyrics and I’ll work on the melodies and arrangements. Fiona and Brian for example, I thought, were very brave because they’ve been in the business for quite a long time now, and yet they completely embraced the idea of trying a new sound. I’m quite proud of that one.”
Also on its way, in February or March, is Vass’ “indie folk jazz pop” album, Save His Calm, another project that almost got forgotten in a busy schedule that has meant Vass the gigging musician becoming a rarely seen phenomenon.
“There are so many projects going on,” he says. “But there’s always a way of fitting something in if you really try and if, like me, you love a deadline.”
Mike Vass’ The Four Pillars premieres on Friday, November 16. The Scots Fiddle Festival runs from November 16 to 18 (further information here).
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