Mike Vass - Composing himself for 2015


Mike Vass will look ahead to 2015 with more optimism than he did to 2014. This time last year the composer and multi-instrumentalist from Nairn was recovering from a life-threatening illness, Lyme disease, which affects the central nervous system, that left him wondering what lay ahead. He’s no surer about what’s in store for 2015 but having been given the all-clear and having gradually built up his strength to the point where he’s almost back to 100% while writing two ambitious projects, he’s ready for whatever musical challenges might arrive.


“It’s true what they say about music having healing powers,” says Vass whose In the Wake of Neil Gunn album and tour were among 2014’s highlights. “I was lucky that I had such a great support system, with pals visiting me in hospital and then coming round to my flat for a tune once I got out. That definitely played a part in my recovery and having something to look forward to, like the Neil Gunn idea, really helped.”


In the Wake of Neil Gunn materialised after Vass’s father brought him some books to read in hospital, including Caithness-born Gunn’s Off in a Boat with its vivid descriptions of the voyage he made off the west coast of Scotland in 1937. Vass, who has been sailing since childhood, was immediately entranced by the thought of making the same trip. So in May he set off from Portree in his father’s thirty-five foot sailing boat with a small crew, collecting ideas and found sounds, or samples, along the way.


He’d undertaken some preparation, researching music specific to each of the ports he’d be visiting, and he knew the instrumentation he wanted to write for, trusting that the various locations would inspire him as they had Gunn.


“I actually wanted to write for the pipes because I love the sound of the Scottish smallpipes especially, but they’re limited in range, so I decided that the oboe, which has a related sound being a reed instrument, would be a suitable replacement,” he says. “I’d never written for the oboe before but I love the sound it makes and I’d love to work with it more.”


With photographs, film, sounds including Old Morse SOS, and memories from the five concerts he and the musicians on board played on shore leave, he returned to his spare bedroom, where he’d recorded his well-received, entirely solo Decemberwell album in 2011, and got to work composing for an ensemble including oboe, piano and string quartet as well as his own fiddle and tenor guitar, which lies at the music’s heart.


“I’ve been composing outside the confines of the traditional dance tune format since I wrote my New Voices commission for Celtic Connections in 2009, although not in any disciplined manner,” says Vass, who will reprise In the Wake of Neil Gunn for Celtic Connections on January 21. “Quite a lot of that commission was made up of jigs and reels but there were a couple of extended pieces for bagpipes and strings and they whetted my appetite. Decemberwell came a couple of years later and was really me trying to find my own voice but it was a great jumping off point for working with larger ensembles.”


The piece Vass is about to premiere grants his wish to work on a broader canvas. Away Being is a collaborative project with artist Jan Bee Brown that features photographs of abandoned Hebridean croft houses and drawing inspiration from both the photographs and his own experiences as an international travelling musician, Vass has written a suite for the twenty-five strong Edinburgh Youth Gaitherin’ Orchestra, with whom he has been working over the past two years.


“Normally with the orchestra we work on arrangements of traditional tunes, four or five times a term, so this is quite a departure,” he says. “Having the photographs to work with was really helpful and I was able to think about how it feels to go away on tour and then try and capture these feelings in music.”


Knowing the orchestra’s individual capabilities, he has written for pipes and whistles as the main soloists and with the experience of writing for string quartet on his Neil Gunn project, he has been able to achieve a similar effect by writing different fiddle lines alongside mandolin, accordion and double bass parts.


“There’s always a feeling of apprehension about performing new music but that’s just part of the process, I think,” he says. “”After being quite ill and taking time just to get my playing strength up, it’s been really good to have something like this and the Gunn project to work on. I’ve no idea what’s happening in 2015 but I’ll use the Christmas and New Year holiday to relax and then think about where I go next.”


From The Herald, December 23, 2014.


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