Friday, February 15, 2019

Celtic Connections: Seeing Music

Celtic Connections is one of winter’s largest -- and most interesting -- festivals. It is held across nearly three weeks beginning in mid January every year in Glasgow, Scotland. The center of it is music -- there are more than three hundred official cocnerts during the festival, as well as talks, workshops, walks, and other events.

Here is a bit of what Celtic Connections looked like recently. I invite you to stay tuned for more to come...

Rhiannon Giddens, who appeared backed by a bespoke Celtic orchestra in a moving and uplifting performance

Siobhan Miller (with Meghan Henderson on fiddle) who offred a lively and gracious set of tunes new and old, original and traditional -- and it turned out, was celebrating her birthday as well

Appearing with the eclectic Blue Rose Code, Eddi Reader was as always in fine voice and having a fine time. One of the high points of the evening at City Halls happened when she got the whole hosue singing the chorus of her hit song Perfect along with her

The four women of the Gaelic a capella group Sian collabrated with Malian singer and ngoni player Basseyou Kouyate to the audience's -- and their own -- delight

Kathy Mattea and Bill Cooley offered a set at times introspective, and times sharing humor, always filled with good stories spoken, sung, and played

You may also wish to see
Scotland’s music: Emily Smith:Echoes
Ireland's music: Cara Dillon: A Thousand Hearts
Singer, poet, Scotland:Eddi Reader and Robert Burns

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Monday, December 24, 2018

Listening to Christmas

Winter. Whether Christmas is your holiday or not, it is a time which invites connection and reflection, solitude and community. Here is music to go along with those ideas... take a listen.

Here’s a song in Irish -- it is called Don oíche úd i mBeithil/That Night in Bethlehem. Perhaps you will not understand the words, but you will get the idea of reflection and hope. It is performed here by Altan, whose most recent album is The Gap of Dreams.

To pick up the pace a bit, here is Emily Smith with the lively Little Road to Bethlehem. You may find on her album Songs for Christmas.

The song Fine Winter’s Night draws on the idea of cold nights which yet hold bright stars, and darkness which draws us in to gather and connect. You may find it recorded on the album called Fine Winter’s Night, by Matt and Shannon Heaton.

You may also wish to see
Christmas, Reflections, and Travel at Perceptive Travel
Further thoughts (and music ideas) thinking about December at Wandering Educators
Candles in the window at Christmas time here at Music Road

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Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Listening to Winter: Aine Minogue, Cara Dillon, Matt Heaton

Winter. It’s a time of gathering in, of reflection, a time for preparation and anticipation, a time for solitude and for community.

Music goes well with all these things.

Aine Minogue gathered musical friends to help with her new single, Winter, Fire, and Snow. The Tipperary born artist draws on her deep connection to the mystical aspects of Ireland, and of music, in her work. She has visited winter before in her work, in albums and dvds including Winter: A Meditation.. This, however is a new offering for this season, a song written by Brendan Graham. Minogue's instruments are harp and voice. Seamus Egan of Solas and Eugene Friesen of the Paul Winter Consort are among those who join Minogue on this mediation on the changes of winter.

Cara Dillon’s album Upon a Winter’s Night began with an idea that she and her husband and musical partner Sam Lakeman had to make a gift for their children. “As musicians and singers we thought it was important that our kids grow up knowing isn’t all about Santa,” Dillon told Belfast Live. When the couple first released the album, they booked a small Christmas tour – which has now become a well loved tradition, for their own family and for others. When people have spoken to Dillon after these shows many of them “have said it brings the magic back into Christmas a wee bit because it’s the more traditional reverent songs,” Dillon says. Those songs include O Come O Come Emmanuel, The Holly and the Ivy, The Darkest Midnight, and Infant Holy Infant Lowly.

On his recording Snow Day , Matt Heaton mixes songs that share the joy, the connection, and the fun of the holiday season, There are songs kids will enjoy and songs parents and other adults will like too. There’s a really good answer to that question of when you should say Happy Holidays, in the song with that name. Have you met The Sneak? Always good to know about during the holidays… There’s a song for Hanukkah, one that celebrates Christmas Movies, a funny and gentle lesson in Can’t Judge a Gift. There’s warmth and connection in Christmas Eve With You. Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer is around and so is Winter Wonderland. Original songs and traditional ones, Heaton has created a collection of music which should become a well loved part of the winter season.

You may also wish to see
Aine Minogue Winter Through a Musician’s Eyes
Cara Dillon Wanderer.
Matt and Shannon Heaton Another Fine Winter’s Night

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Saturday, October 13, 2018

Scotland's Music: Sarah-Jane Summers: Solo

Image, emotion, connection, story: these elements are parts of what makes music, and what connects musician and listener. At times musicians use words. At other times sound of the instrument holds the stories and ideas.

So it is with the recording Solo, from Sara-Jane Summers. In it, Summers and her fiddles stand alone, and yet they are not alone, as they hold dear and convey a wealth of stories.

Often Summers shares her gifts of playing and composition in collaboration. The Nu Nordic band Fribo, the chamber folk ensemble RANT, the contemporary string quartet Quatuor Bozzini, the Celtic fusion Grit Orchestra, top Gaelic singer Julie Fowlis, are some of those with whom she has worked. There are also the albums Summers has made with her husband, Finnish guitarist Juhani Silvola, which have won wide acclaim.

For her album Solo, however, Summers wanted to create what the title suggests: just the woman and her fiddle. She recorded it in a church near her adopted home in Norway. Summers, who comes from the Highlands of Scotland, has long been drawn to and has studied music of the Nordic lands. Elements of that infuse her work. Her heart, though, is in the Highlands, and it is to that music she looked first when choosing what to include her solo project.

There are slow airs, and there's a snap of strathspey. There's a nod to the Nordic lands on one tune, and one original composition which stands well alongside material from the tradition. What comes clear is the sound of Scotland. Though it is not spoken, what comes clear is the cadence of Gaelic. In the faster paced tunes such as the set including three traditional strathspeys, one can hear the cadence of the dance, as well.

For the most part, the music Summers has chosen here tends toward the side of reflection. That's not to say it's quiet, always, though that's included. What stands out is, rather, the quiet intensity and the deep connection among musician, instrument, and the music she's chosen.

It is a recording well worth your time for repeated listening in order as Summers has set it out. If you've only time for a taster to begin, though, the opening track, Lath' a' suibhal Sleibhe Dhomh/ On a day as I traversed the mountain makes a fine place to start. Riddell's Lament for King George V, that set of strathspeys which begins with the tune Are You Always Pleased, and Morning Prayer, a tune written by Summers herself, combine to make a good introduction to the whole. You will want to listen to all of them, though, and to read the sleeve notes in which Summers gives a bit of history and context to each the tunes.

Some of the tunes Summers has chosen from her own research; some are ones she's known most of her life; in several she makes tribute to her teacher the late great Donald Riddell, and to his teacher, Alexander Grant of Battangorm/ Sandy Battan, who was a relative of Summers. "Donald was very excited to give the gift of the tradition back to my family and this circle has always meant the world to me," Summers says.

A gifted and creative tutor herself (she has. among other things made an instructional dvd focused on the strathspey), Summers keeps the giving of gifts going with that work, with her collaborative projects, and especially, with this recording, Solo.

You may also wish to see
Scotland's Music: Julie Fowlis: Alterum
website of Sarah-Jane Summers
Celtic Music and Nordic Music Meet: Fribo

Photograph of Sarah-Jane Summers by Johannes Selvaag.

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Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Scotland's Music: Patsy Reid: A Glint o' Scottish Fiddle

A Glint o’ Scottish Fiddle—that is the name Patsy Reid has chosen for her most recent recording. It is a title that fits the music she’s chosen. It fits  the point in her work she’s chosen to record a new solo album, too.  

The sets – there are ten of them -- include both music from the tradition and more recently composed music.

 

Reid was a founding member of the award winning group Breabach. Time came when she chose to step back from that work – and what she stepped into was a career as one of the most in demand fiddle players and arrangers working in Scotland.

 

She has visited India a number of times and collaborated with Indian, Pakistani, and Bangladeshi musicians. She’s played with Zakir Hussein’s Pulse of the World in London, with the Celtic big band The Unusual Suspects, and participated in the Cecil Sharpe Project.  

At the 2018 Celtic Connections Festival in Glasgow she appeared as part of Scotland's Wild Heart, at Innes White’s New Voices concert, and in support of award winning Gaelic singer Julie Fowlis. Recently she supported US folk and country songwriter Gretchen Peters at the Southern Fried Festival in Perth. Reid has also worked on record and in performance with Donald Shaw, RANT, Ross Ainslie, Ali Hutton, Robyn Stapleton, Hamish Napier, and others.  

It’s been several years since Reid last released a solo album ( Brightest Path, in 2014). She has had in mind and been working on another solo album for some time. As much as she loves creating music with others, she wanted to focus on her own sound for a bit. “I had reached a stage where I could see myself only working on other people’s projects and never having enough time to so something of my own. So I’m taking the risk that I might have to say no to something exciting, and I’m investing in my own music. I wouldn’t want to regret not giving myself the chance to do that,” she said.  

For her listeners, and one would expect, for her own musical path, A Glint o’ Scottish Fiddle proves a worthwhile investment.

The music Reid chose for this recording was in some ways a look back. It includes music she's known since childhood, and pieces she learned and played while attending Alasdair Fraser’s fiddle camps, winning the Glenfiddich Fiddle Championship, and studying for her university degrees.   

That's not to say these are simple tunes, nor is the feeling nostalgic. What Reid offers is a clear eyed and clear hearted take on a well chosen gathering of tunes which move within the history of the fiddle in Scotland and at times reach its diaspora.  

The works of James Scott Skinner, Niel Gow, and the unnamed composers of Scotland’s long held fiddle traditions were companions of Reid's own learning and of her finding her own sound in music. She has repaid that favor, honoring the tunes while adding her own mark to them.  

Most of the tunes come from Scotland’s east coast traditions, whether they are from the likes of named composers or not.  Reid well knows how to balance tunes which invite the step of the dancer with those which suggest the more contemplative and thoughful side of the life of Scotland.  

The opener for the first set, Strathearn, is a strathspey from the tradition with which Reid invites thoughts of the wilder sort of Scotland’s landscape and weather, before heading into a lively collection of old reels. Another notable set includes The Quartz Jig from Grainne Brady, The Double Rise, composed by Phil Cunningham, and Halloween Jig composed by Donald Shaw. Two more especially outstanding tunes are the haunting slow air Mrs. Jameson’s Favourite and a nod to the late Angus R. Grant with his composition 2:50 to Vigo.  

On these as through all the tracks, Reid is accompanied by Alastair Iain Patterson on piano. This makes an excellent collaboration which allows both participants to be fully in service to the music, and to their creativity.  

Every set on A Glint o’ Scottish Fiddle is a keeper. It’s no wonder Reid is in such demand as a collaborator for concerts and recordings. It’s great that she also chooses to take the time and focus to create solo projects as well. If you’ve interest in the fiddle, the music of Scotland, or fine acoustic music well played, then A Glint o’ Scottish Fiddle is your album.  

A note on the photos: I was fortunate to be at the Celtic Connections concert in 2018 when Reid and Patterson debuted this album. That’s where these photos were made.  

You may also wish to see
Julie Fowlis: Alterum
Hamish Napier: The River
Capercaillie: At the Heart of It All

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Wednesday, July 04, 2018

Scotland's Music: Hamish Napier: The River

Rivers were some of the earliest ways people traveled, connected, and explored. They were also, quite possibly, part of the first music people heard, and made. These aspects of rivers have held true through history, and still do today.

Hamish Napier grew up alongside a river, the Spey, in northern Scotland. His family fished explored and traveled the Spey, and its music formed the background to Hamish’s learning on the instruments he’d make his own, flute and piano. 

Hamish is a well respected player, composer, and teacher who has worked with many of Scotland’s top musicians, some of whom you’ve met here along the Music Road, among them Karen Matheson, Emily Smith, and Eddi Reader.

A few years back he was commissioned to compose an hour of music as part of the New Voices strand at Celtic Connections. Others who have been asked to compose for that well respected strand include Nuala Kennedy, Hannah Fisher, Maireard Green, and Sarah-Jane Summers.    

Hamish turned to his past and present experiences of the River Spey for ideas, creating the music which would become the recording called The River. . These ideas he framed in a range of traditional music – reel, jig, strathspey, slow air, and more – weaving his ideas about aspects of the river’s voice and history to create a new story which becomes lasting.

 

That new story is drawn from traditions of the music of Scotland, and traditions, both of nature and man made, along the river.    

If you’ve ever seen a water bug dart above flowing water, you will appreciate The Mayfly. With the tune called The Dance, Napier reflects on the changes in ways a river flows, and the connections it makes as it does so. In the sleeve notes for The River he remarks that “The natural cycle of the river is one epic, glorious and ever changing dance… everything around us is interconnected and flowing.”  

Flute, piano, and keyboards are how Hamish Napier speaks about this this dance, from whirlpools to the story of floating down the river now and in the past, from the sweep if the Spey’s course to the small conversations of those humans who are part of its life.

There is light (listen out for the tune called Huy Huy, and the vigorous dance of the salmon in Out to Sea) and there is shadow in life along and within the Spey, as well.

Napier takes account of the shadow side especially through two tunes. The Drowning of the Silver Brothers, 1933, which was inspired by a somewhat mysterious tragedy, and Iasgairean nan Neanhnaid (The Pearlfishers). The second of those is in the form of a . warning pibroch – a piper’s warning call. The idea came both from a childhood experience of encountering those who were making destructive raids on the river’s freshwater mussel beds to take their pearls, and, some years further on, considering what effects pollution may be having on the river.  

The eleven tracks on The River . draw to a close with two pieces which in various ways bring together the stories and the music Napier creates of the journey. There’s the lively Speycast (Part 1) through which you can well imagine the arc of fly casting on the Spey – particularly as one needs to take into account not snagging one’s line on the trees growing along its banks. Spey Cast (Part 2) bursts into joyous celebration of a lively and lighthearted raft race that takes place on the Spey.

 

As creator and composer, Napier has well chosen his companions on this river journey. Sarah Hayes adds alto flute, James Lindsay plays double bass, Martin O'Neill is on bodhran, Andrea Gobbi does synths and post-production, and Calum MacCrimmon, rather than playing the pipes as he often does, in this case sings Canntaireachd as part of that warning pibroch of The Pearlfishers. Natural sounds oystercatchers, blackbirds, curlews, heron, and the River Spey itself also take part. Classy, intricate artwork and the design of the album come from Somhairle MacDonald.              

You could enjoy these pieces  knowing nothing of the River Spey and the landscape in the north east of Scotland which frames it – but the stories Hamish Napier has has chosen to tell through his instruments will draw you into the land and the life of and along this river, and, perhaps, enlarge your vision of other rivers and watersides you may encounter.    

Hamish Napier has been working on another recording project since The River was released. It also has to do with life in the northeast of Scotland, but in a rather different way: it is called The Railway . The Railway and at this writing is planned to be released in August. I hope to bring you more about that recording then – meanwhile, here is more about The Railway ..

Photos by Peter Trimming and Kerry Dexter  

You may also wish to see  
Scotland’s Music: Emily Smith: Echoes .
Ainie Minogue: In the Name of Stillness .
Julie Fowlis: Alterum .          

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Sunday, June 10, 2018

Ireland's Music: Altan: The Gap of Dreams

The landscapes of Donegal suggest mystery and legend. There is connection and there is solitude. There is history and there is the moment as immediate as the blooming of a flower or the rise of a wave up on the shore.

The music of the band Altan holds all these as well. Their story as a band began in this far northwestern part of the island of Ireland. Though they have traveled the world with their music, it is to Donegal the band returned to record their album The Gap of Dreams. 

Their selection of song and tune draws in the many strands of life, landscape, and history. Édaín O’Donnell’s album sleeve art work helps set the stage for the music.

There are songs in both Irish and English, some recently written and some handed down in the tradition.

The tunes, too, come from varied sources, recent and traditional, learned from fellow musicians and written by members of the band. There’s as much story in the conversation among fiddle guitar, bouzouki, keyboard, and accordion in the tunes as there is in the word and melody of the songs. I

t is a story of landscape, life, love, and imagination. When she was growing up in Donegal, founding member of Altan Mairéad Ni Mhaonaigh recalled, she’d sometimes ask older players where they got a tune. I heard the fairies sing it, they would tell her. That became part of the idea behind the music choices and the title for The Gap of Dreams. 

Altan is Ni Mhaonaigh on fiddle and voice, Martin Tourish on piano accordion, Ciaran Curran on Bouzouki, Mark Kelly and Daithi Sproule on guitars and vocals, with Tommy McLaughlin sitting in on keyboards. For Gap of Dreams, Mairead’s daughter Nia Byrne and Mark’s son Sam Kelly each contribute an original tune to the recrding. They play on them on the album too, Nia on fiddle and Sam on concertina.  

With the title slip jig The Gap of Dreams composed by Mairéad, the tunes from Nia and Sam -- Nia’s Tune and The Beekeeper -- comprise the lively and engaging set which begins the album. 

Several of the tune sets pair music from the tradition with recently composed pieces. One such is Seán sa Cheo / Tuar / Oíche Fheidhmiúil (A Spirited Night), in which Seán sa Cheo (John in the Mist) comes from the tradition and Tuar and Oíche Fheidhmiúil are tunes accordion player Martin Tourish has written. 

Each of the tunes in The Tullaghan Lasses set -- the others are The Cameronian  and The Pigeon on the Gate-- come from the tradition, albeit in the different ways. The first is one often played by great Donegal fiddler John Doherty, which may be a very old tune he had learned from local sources. The Cameronian came over from Scotland -- trade, family, history, and geography  have made many connections between Donegal and Scotland. The Pigeon on the Gate is a tune which shows up in Celtic lands and has crossed the ocean to North America as well. It is a well known tune to Donegal traditional players. This set, in fact, is a fine example of Donegal style fiddle playing.

The gentle reel Port Alex, which Mark Kelly wrote for his nephew, draws in strands of quiet steadiness in journey, with no words spoken or sung.

Bacach Shíl Andaí is a gentle song, too, with words from a nursery rhyme well known in Donegal. The warmth of Mairéad’s voice in the song well suits that idea.

Several of the other songs Mairéad has chosen are a bit more dramatic. There is a lost and wandering lover pining for his lady through the landscape of Donegal’s northernmost place in Dark Inishowen. An Bealach Seo ‘Tá Romham (This Road Ahead of Me) moves with a sense of journey and hope, perhaps in the physical world and perhaps through that gap of dreams to the otherworld the journey of this album explores. Either way, Mairéad sings it and Altan plays it in service to the ideas of journey and connection. The song was written by Moya Brennan of Clannad along with her father Aodh Ó Dúgáin.

The song Altan have chosen to bring The Gap of Dreams to a close is a collaboration in a different way. Songwriter and scholar Pádraigín Ní Uallacháin who comes from the east coast of Ireland in the Oriel region, heard Shetland fiddler Tom Anderson’s tune Da Slockit Light. It inspired to write Fare Thee Well a Stór. The song is about love and leaving, and, in Altan’s playing with Mairéad’ singing, it suggests the landscapes of Donegal as well as those where the music originated.

That evocation of landscape through voice and instrument is woven through each of the tracks in The Gap of Dreams. Indeed that is one of the gifts Altan always brings to their listeners, a gift that, some thirty years from when they first began, the band members continue to give in creative and thoughtful ways.

You may also wish to see
Ireland’s music:Altan: The Widening Gyre
Scotland’s music: Julie Fowlis: Alterum
Ireland’s music: Aine MinogueIn the Name of Stillness  
Music of Ireland: Pádraigín Ní Uallacháin Songs of the Scribe

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