Duncan Chisholm - singing postcards, musical landscapes
Singing postcards have largely gone the way of the “press button A” facility in public phone boxes. But there was a time when tourists would send their ‘wish you were here’ greetings on cards that doubled as records, complete with grooves and a hole in the middle, and extolled the virtues of their holiday location in song.
Duncan Chisholm may just have revived the trend, but with a difference. The Inverness-based fiddler, whom many regard as Scotland’s leading exponent of the instrument, has just released the final instalment of his Strathglass trilogy of albums that portray, in music, the glens of Farrar, Cannich and Affric, the wild, beautiful country in the Highlands to the west of Beauly where his family’s roots lie.
It represents six years’ work and although Chisholm says he’s unlikely to create something of this magnitude ever again, it’s been an exciting project for him that has resulted in three of the truly great albums in the Scottish traditional music canon. Indeed, rather than showing signs of flagging or running out of ideas, the third album, Affric, would stand alone as a masterpiece with its gorgeous, aching slow airs and joyful, grooving dance tunes.
“I realised when I was half-way through putting the music together for the first album, Farrar, that I was going to have to make a trilogy,” he says. “I’d never worked this way before; I was trying to imagine a journey down Strathfarrar and I wanted to create a soundtrack to that journey. Along the way there would be particular parts of the landscape or maybe just a change in the weather that I’d want to capture and the idea of moulding music to fit those scenes became very interesting to me.”
Chisholm’s confidence to go ahead with a plan to create three albums, each with its own character and instrumentation, partly came through working on his 2007 commission for the Blas festival, Kin, for which he picked up a Bank of Scotland Herald Angel award following its performance on the Edinburgh Fringe this August. Not what he’d describe as a prolific composer previously, with Kin, he was thrust into the position of producing an hour’s worth of live music to accompany film of his own and other traditional musicians and singers’ homelands. After brief fearful thoughts about what he’d taken upon himself, he found that he loved the whole process and couldn’t understand why he hadn’t composed more music sooner.
“Another factor that helped was that I felt, as I was approaching my forties at the time of Farrar, that I’d never played better,” he says. “I was aware that, with these three albums, I was going to have to present a strong musical personality and I felt I was ready to do this. I also knew more about the recording process, having worked on quite a few albums with the folk-rock band Wolfstone and my previous solo album, Red Point, and I was able to envisage each album, track list, running order, personnel, everything, from an early stage of preparation.”
In an age when downloads are a fact of life in the music marketplace and listeners can cherry pick favourite tracks for their iPlayers, Chisholm remains a huge fan of the album as a means of presenting music.
“I’ve always seen albums as forty minutes of escapism,” he says. “Music, for me, isn’t about three-minute soundbites. It’s about telling a story and some of my favourite albums, such as The Storm by Moving Hearts and The Brendan Voyage by Shaun Davey, can really take you somewhere else in your imagination. I’m pretty sure that everyone who listens to The Brendan Voyage has similar images in their mind as the album unfolds, and that’s the sort of thing I wanted to do with all the albums in the trilogy. The first two I regard as like novels and Affric’s more like a collection of short stories but I think, well, I hope, I achieved the coherence that keeps the listener listening to the end.”
He may be wary of the instant gratification of downloading single tracks but in one sense Chisholm has targeted the listener who will act on the message that individual tracks send out. In capturing the sense of place that runs all the way through the Strathglass trilogy, he was aware that certain tunes might be like postcards. In this case there are no pictures on the front, so the music becomes the picture and the vocal quality that he strives for in his fiddle playing, the sense that the notes are communicating as directly with the listener as would words, brought us to the singing postcard idea.
For Chisholm, the whole of the Scottish traditional music scene, with its long history to draw on, is a major selling point for Scotland abroad. And it’s entirely possible that that someone hearing the music that the countryside around Strathglass has inspired would want to visit these same landscapes.
“I think you could say that about a lot of music and songs in the tradition,” says Chisholm, who begins touring the music from Affric throughout Scotland next week. “Wherever I go to play I always tell audiences about where the music comes from and I know from speaking with them after the concerts that they’re genuinely interested in the stories behind the tunes and the places I’ve mentioned. We should be doing more to export our traditional music and have our traditional musicians playing all over the world because our music goes hand in hand with the landscapes, the architecture, the history, all the things that tourists want to see, and the more we get out there and share our musical impressions of Scotland, the more successful our tourist industry will be.”
From The Herald, September 27, 2012
Duncan Chisholm - tracing kith and Kin
As a celebration of Highland music, the Blas festival might be viewed as a snapshot. Opening tomorrow and with concerts and gatherings taking place from Lochaber to Caithness over nine days, the event offers a window on a bigger picture that is ongoing, a currently vital living tradition that nurtures Gaelic song, dancing and instrumental prowess.
At the heart of Blas, though, is a project that encapsulates in an hour the changes seen in the Highland way of life over the past one hundred and fifty years.
Conceived, written and produced by fiddler Duncan Chisholm, Kin uses live music, film and historical recordings to focus on the lives of four Highlanders who grew up in very different times but have a connection to the tradition today.
"It’s amazing to think that one of these characters, whose granddaughter, Rona Lightfoot, is appearing elsewhere during Blas, was born only a few years after the American Civil War," says Chisholm, who is best known for his work with folk-rock band Wolfstone, his duo with guitarist-singer Ivan Drever and as a former member of Blazin’ Fiddles and current member of Gaelic singer Julie Fowlis’s group.
"In the grand scheme of things that’s only the blink of an eye but so much has changed, so much progress – technologically speaking - has been made in that time that life in the Highlands now for someone from those days would be completely unrecognisable."
Chisholm got the idea for Kin after listening to a recording of his own great-grandmother talking about her life around the time she was married in 1900.
"She was born in 1879 and the recording was made in 1965, so she was quite an old woman by that time and even then, the changes she had seen were remarkable," says Chisholm. "When they got married, she and my great-grandfather had gone to live in the wilds of Strath Glass and she talks about going for the half-yearly shop. I found her recollections fascinating, not just from my own family’s perspective but from social perspective too. So when the people at Blas suggested that I put together an extended work, I thought it would be really interesting to go back to Strath Glass, to the house where my grandfather grew up, and film myself there and combine that with this old recording and new music that I would write."
The trip to Strath Glass proved inspirational in more ways than one. Like many composers before him, Chisholm found that gaining a sense of the place he was writing about made it easier to put meaningful music to the location. He’d also picked up the researching and filming bug. So he took himself off to the School of Scottish Studies in Edinburgh and availed himself of the library of recordings there.
"They have such a vast collection there and the material is so rich that I had to rethink my plans," he says. "My initial thought had been that I could work on six characters but in the end I brought it down to four so that I could do them justice in the hour that Blas gave me as the project’s running time."
Among the characters he chose was a woman who turned out, like his own great-grandmother, to have a direct connection with the current Highland music scene.
"All four of the characters are strong and have links to the music or storytelling tradition, but finding Rona Lightfoot’s grandmother was a particular buzz," he says. "Rona’s a great Gaelic singer and I was able to take her back to South Uist where her grandmother was born to film her there and I was actually able to make a recording which has Rona, her mother and her grandmother singing a waulking song together, although they weren’t obviously singing round the same microphone."
To say that working on Kin as film cameraman, composer and editor consumed Chisholm would be true if only other work commitments had permitted. A man who likes to spend time on the golf course when not playing on gigs or sessions, he found himself cramming Kin into what were supposed to be days off.
"Just as the commission came through I had to go off on a thirty-five date tour with Julie Fowlis and then a thirty date tour with Ivan Drever. So there’s hardly been a day this year that I haven’t spent with a fiddle in my hand or on the computer," he says. "But Kin has definitely given me a taste for this kind of work and I could easily see myself going for Kin 2, 3 and even 4."
On the concert presentations of Kin, Chisholm will be joined by keyboards player Brian McAlpine and guitarist Marc Clement, both musicians with wide experience of Highland music.
"Everything down to the film editing is my own work and it was great to have complete artistic control on something like this," says Chisholm. "But at the same time, when we play the music I don’t want it to be set in stone, I want it to have a life of its own, to develop as we do the tour and to give a sense that the whole project is alive."
From The Herald, August 30, 2007