Saturday, November 21, 2020

Scotland's Music: Joy and Andrew Dunlop: Dithis/Duo

Sister and brother Joy and Andrew Dunlop have been making music together since they were children growing up in Connel in Argyll in Scotland’s Western Highlands. Their musical interests led them on different paths, however. Joy’s deep love and curiosity for Gaelic culture led her to study at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig on the Isle of Skye. Andrew was drawn to classical music, studying at Manchester and receiving his doctorate from Eastman School of Music in New York. They’ve each created flourishing careers and received top awards and honours in their fields of music over the past decade.

They had not made a record together, though, and they decided it was time. For it, they set themselves a challenge.. “Despite Andrew and I having performed together for many years and having an extensive back catalogue, we actually chose to arrange and record repertoire that were new to us as a duo,” Joy said. As many musicians do “I’m constantly making lists of songs to learn,” she said. “When we decided to record an album together, I hauled out the lists and started singing through them. Since this wasn’t a themed album, I just chose songs that I loved to record on the album!”

The album is called Dithis/Duo. On it you will find quite a varied collection of song, told in English, Gaelic, and Scots.

Andrew’s work on the piano both supports Joy’s voice and carries the stories as well. It’s an intriguing combination.

Love of story is one of the through lines of the album. There’s a song based on testimony of a young woman who worked in the mines in 1842, one written for a priest who left his home in the Western Isles to serve in Ecuador, and another which comes from the perspective of man reflecting on the changes in his faith as he hears church bells ring, as well as one from a woman musing on motherhood. These are contemporary songs, written by Frank Higgins, Blair Douglas, David Francey, and Carol Ann Duffy and Esther Swift, respectively.

There’s a good helping of songs from the tradition, too. These include love stories from several perspectives, a set of puirt a beul, and a Robert Burns song.

“I like songs that tell stories - it doesn’t matter to me from whose viewpoint they are being told but there needs to be something there to which I can relate,” Joy said. “I love the story of A Mhairead Òg, where the man is heartbroken after accidentally killing his love, when his mother sent him out to hunt for ducks. We find out that it was also his mother who sent the girl that very pool to bathe and I always enjoy how the story unfolds in the song.”

One song that’s certainly not a love song. unless perhaps that comes in a young woman’s respect for her own dignity. is that one that comes from the mine worker’s words. “The lyrics are based on the actual testimony that Patience Kershaw of Halifax gave to the Children’s Employment Commission in 1842, by which time she had been working in the mines for over 6 years,” Joy said. “The dignity and understanding that she has for her terrible situation never fails to move me. This was actually a song that Andrew suggested trying, and I love it more and more every time that I sing it.”

I Wonder What’s Keeping My True Love Tonight is, like the tale in A Mhairead Òg, a story that shows up in many versions across the Celtic lands and their emigrant communities. The answer to that question comes in various forms too. Joy chose her favourite verses from several versions to tell the tale, and remarks that as a Gael, she was naturally drawn to the sadder one.

Also listen out especially for

Solas M’aigh/My Hope’s Light, an haunting and lovely song that evokes both loving a place and leaving it Saints and Sinners, David Francey’s song of distance and faith, which Joy says caught her attention when first she heard it. She and Andrew bring their own gifts to the quiet, thought provoking story.

Ae Fond Kiss. You will have heard this Robert Burns song before. Joy and Andrew add to the fine canon of Scottish artists who’ve taken it on and put their own stamp on it, offering some verses as Burns wrote them in Scots and some in Gaelic. In the sleeve notes you’ll find the full text of both versions if you wish.

Each of the eleven tracks is well worth repeated listening. You will no doubt find your own favourites.

What’s clear is that Joy and Andrew Dunlop are thoughtful creators in music, master storytellers both. They have joined their paths on record for the first time on Dithis. One would hope that there will be many more such creative collaborations yet to come

You may also wish to see
Joy and Andrew’s website
Joy focuses on songs from Argyll on her album Faileasan/Reflections
Hamish Napier’s album The River, where you’’ find more excellent, though quite different, piano creativity
Another excellnt, though again very different, album Gaelic song: Alterum from Julie Fowlis

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Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Canada's music: Sketches from Natalie MacMaster

Natalie MacMaster remembers when she came to hold her first fiddle.

"My grand uncle, Charlie MacMaster, who lived in Boston, sent a three quarter sized fiddle to our family -- not just my immediate family, our whole extended family -- sent it up to Cape Breton and said any of the kids who want to play this instrument can keep it,” she recalls. “There were a couple of other people who looked at it. I remember Dad taking me to see the fiddle and I just fell in love with it. Nobody else wanted it, so I took it, and that night, I started playing." She was nine.

That falling in love with the fiddle has lasted.

Exploring and sharing that love have led her to become one of Canada’s most well known and well loved musicians, and equally well known and respected for sharing the unique music of Cape Breton Canada around the world. She’s received many awards, nominations, and other recognitions, among them a Grammy award and nomination, a Juno award along with seven nominations, numerous East Coast music awards, three honorary doctorates, and induction as a member of the Order of Canada.

All of which she appreciates, but it is the making of music, the music she grew up with which can be fiery, bright, and fast paced as well as haunting and gentle, that is at the heart of what Natalie MacMaster does.

It is at the heart of her album Sketches, too.

It had been a while since MacMaster had made a solo album -- not that she hadn’t been making music, having done two albums with her husband and fellow fiddle player Donnell Leahy, continued to tour across Canada and beyond, worked on founding the Greenbridge Music Festival near their home in Ontario, begun a couple of book projects, and worked on ideas for a concert with an orchestra -- not to mention working on home schooling the couple’s seven children. In the midst of all that, in the winter of 2019, she knew it was time for another project.

While preparing the duo album with Donnell, she and guitarist Tim Edey did some jamming together.They had not worked together before. MacMaster loved it/ “I said to him ‘We are absolutely going to record something that sounds just like this!’” she recalls.

t’s a fine pairing of talents. From the blast of reels which opens the recording, a tune each from Jerry Holland, Martin Mulhaire, and MacMaster herself, to the gentle Professor Blackie from James Scott Skinner on through reels, barn dances, strathspeys, jigs, a set of tunes to honor the dance, and a nod to Bonnie Raitt with the melody of I can’t Make You Love Me, it’s a good journey with many a twist and turn.

Joining Edey in support of her vision, Marc Rogers adds tasteful touches of standup bass, while on selected tracks Mike McGoldrick joins on flute, Stuart Cameron on 12 string guitar, Frank Evans on 5 string banjo, Remi Arsenault on bass guitar, and Mark Kelso on percussion.

MacMaster has a lot to say through her fiddle and she says it well, speaking clearly of the lively community, the changing seasons on the landscape, the tradition of dance, those who’ve passed the traditions of Cape Breton on to her, and her own creative take on all these things.

It is her playing an vision which center the recording. All the tracks are well worth repeated listenings.

One of my favourites is the Killiekrankie set, with the quiet namesake tune followed by a blast of faster tunes. Of the set MacMaster writes: “The first tune is one of my top picks of favourite fiddle tunes ever! Not sure why it didn’t make it on any of my previous recordings but I am delighted it’s here. Following are a typical blast of Cape Breton strathspeys and reels.”

Cape Breton music draws deeply from the well of the musics of Scotland which early settlers brought with them across the seas. It is also a music rooted in landscape and grounded in community in this place in Atlantic Canada where sea meets forest meet sky.

“No other music makes me feel the way this music does,” MacMaster said. “ I’m not talking about my own music, but the music of those who came before me, and of my peers. It lifts me up and makes me want to get up and dance, and it soothes my soul. It gives me pure peace.”

Those are qualities Natalie MacMaster well knows how to share with her listeners.

While preparing for the release of Sketches, eight years on since she had recorded her last solo album, she reflected that it was a time she wanted to mark. “This is a moment during my 47th year of life, my 37th year of fiddling, my16th year of marriage, and my 13th year of parenting,” she said. “It’ll be a moment of joyous appreciation inspired by years of parenting, marriage,friendships, music, and life.”

Give a listen to Sketches, and share those moments with Natalie MacMaster and her music.

Also to note: MacMaster, Leahy, and their children are taking their popular Christmas concert online this season, supporting a number of venues where they have often played in person. Look to their website for details on dates and tickets.

You may also wish to see
Tim Edey: Christmas music on guitar
Natalie MacMaster and Donell Leahy: One
Leahy Live in Gatineau dvd
Alasdair Fraser, Natalie Haas, Hanneke Cassel: Travels in Music on Fiddle and Cello

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Monday, November 02, 2020

Three from Scotland: Music without words

Music has so many aspects: harmony, melody, all the instruments with their sounds, all the singers with their voices and how they convey the words.

There are times, as well, when music speaks most clearly when there are no words. It is not that words get in the way. It’s just a different conversation, or, if you will, another way of speaking about an idea.

Marie Fielding, Kevin Henderson, Neil Perlman, David Foley. and Jack Smedley have conversations in music to share that re well worth your listening.

Marie Fielding’s instruments are fiddle, five string fiddle, and hardanger fiddle. With them, she traces journeys to places which have inspired her. Mayo2Manchester honours both her Irish ancestors and her connection to flute player Michael McGoldrick as mentor and composer. The Connemara Reel Set comprises three original tunes evoking and honoring both Scotland and Ireland.

There’s the quiet of Gracie’s Lullaby, and the lively Muriel’s Oatcakes set. Most of the tunes are of Fielding’s own composition, and almost all of the tracks were recorded, as she writes in her sleeve note, “in the moment,” with just a few carefully noted touches added later on. The tunes are bookended by the title track Spectrum and Spectrum Outro, flowing tunes which are intended to highlight the circular flow of ideas in Fielding’s choices.

Immersed in traditional music from any early age, Fielding has a long understanding and a long time of thinking about the tradition to draw on in creating her own music,

A lecturer in Fiddle and Performance at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in Glasgow, Fielding has a confident and distinctive mastery of her medium. She is also a visual artist andsome of that sort of connection with the listener comes through in her music on The Spectrum Project as well.

Kevin Henderson, who comes from Shetland, and Neil Pearlman who is from New England by way of Atlantic Canada, know well how to explore landscapes through their instruments. In Henderson’s case that’s the fiddle. For Pearlman it’s keyboards and mandolin.

It’s a contrast and blending of styles and backgrounds that works. Their album is called Burden Lake. Henderson’s fiddle playing is precise, clear, and draws on his Shetland and Nordic background. Pearman’s inventive style, influenced perhaps by his Cape Breton fiddle piano duo history as well as his background studying and playing jazz, makes both subtle and generous compliment to the fiddle lines. Many of the pieces are of Henderson’s composition, and there are several from Pearlman and a traditional one. The duo handles both fast paced and quieter tunes with equal grace and interest. Listen out especially for Da Trowie Burn, the San Simon set, and Liam’s.

Also listen out for their other work. Each always has several projects on the go. among them the Nordic Fiddlers Bloc for Kevin Henderson and The Katie McNally Trio for Neil Pearlman. Both of these groups have new recordings upcoming.

David Foley and Jack Smedley have an ongoing group commitment: both are members to the award winning Scottish band RURA, founding members in fact. Foley, who plays flute, and Smedley, whose instrument is fiddle, enjoy the challenge that such collaboration presents, but they have also had the wish to play tunes in a more intimate way. They were invited to perform a duo gig at Celtic Connections in 2018.

The idea that has become their album Time to Fly was planted then, but their duo collabration has also been a long time growing. “With RURA we have been lucky enough to play big festival stage across the world and it is these experiences, alongside the travel opportunities that these performances allow, that have inspired a lot of the work on Tine to Fly,” David Foley says. “This album has been a great opportunity to get back to the fundamentals of our musicianship and explore the stripped back, acoustic sound we can created when it is just us and the instruments.”

Explore they do, with tunes both driving and lyrical. They well know how to do this, too. Jack Smedley comes from Cullen, where he grew up immersed in traditional fiddle music of the northeast of Scotland and of the Highlands. David Foley grew up in and around the Irish music scene in Glasgow. They met as students at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland before stepping up to help found RURA.

These varied strands of background and present interests inform the eleven sets they have chosen for Time to Fly. The title track honours the fact that though Jack and David have been studying and then playing together for more than a dozen years now, first at RCS and then as members of RURA, this is their debut album as a duo.

Through eleven tracks Jack and David lead a journey which travels from a quiet tune coming from a story from history that took place on the shore near Cullen where Jack grew up to a lively set that begins with tune inspired during the recording of the album by a microphone, a piece of metal, and...a hacksaw.

The music Foley and Smedley offer along the way is intricate and engaging. Each track is complete on its own, while at the same time creating a progression that leaves you looking forward to what will come next. All of it is original music by one or the other of the duo, as well as one track Drift, which they wrote together. Their longtime connection with musical tradition and their enjoyment of making music together come across clearly through all of the tracks. Joining the duo on the journey are long time musical colleagues and friends John Lowrie on drums, James Lindsay on double bass, and Jenn Butterworth on guitar.

With or without words, music speaks clearly. Give a listen to these three recordings -- give more than one listening -- and you will find many engaging paths to follow.

You may also wish to see
Katie McNally Trio: The Boston States
Music from Ireland & Scotland: Sitting in on the Session
Homecoming: A Scottish Fanatasy from Nicola Benedetti
Hope as a companion: music for the journey at Wandering Educators -- a performance video from Time to Fly is part of this story
Sarah Jane Summers: Solo more music without words to explore

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Sunday, October 04, 2020

Celtic Colours At Home: Connecting across landscapes, culture, and time

Celtic Colours: for twenty three years now this international festival has been celebrating culture, landscape, and above all music on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia in Atlantic Canada.

Warmth, welcome, music, and community spirit will all be part of the festival’s twenty fourth year 9 through 17 October. Things will be a bit different, though. You will be able to experience its unique atmosphere and offerings in your own home, through online events. This is Celtic Colours at Home.

Challenges: moving the festival online

Though it was not an easy decision to move on line -- and for logistics alone it was a decision which had to be made many months in advance of the the festival’s mid-October dates -- Celtic Colours had several things going for it in the transition.

Artistic Director Dawn Beaton has the responsibility of programming the festival. Celtic Colours usually presents more than fifty official concerts over its nine day span, and there are dozens of events including meals, ceilidhs, art exhbits, and more offered by community partners as well.

“Many factors were unknown,” Beaton said, “so I tried to approach the programming with the possibility that things could shut down again entirely, given October marshals the way for the traditional flu season. Even within family bands, if they were spread out over three or more households, back in March, that would have been impossible to present them on stage...For much of it, it was important to look at family clusters, duos or trios that would easily be accommodated on stage, to allow for physical distancing. Had things shut down, I felt confident we could still deliver the music as planned through other means.”

In addition to a strong presence of artists from Cape Breton, Celtic Colours always features artists from across Nova Scotia and the other Maritime provinces. Artists from elsewhere in Canada, along with overseas artists from Ireland, Scotland, and other places whose traditions have influenced music and culture on Cape Breton are integral parts of Celtic Colours as well.

It was important to keep this international aspect of the festival going, Beaton knew, in whatever ways they could figure out to do it.  “In the end, it came down to the artists, and to community,” she said. Respect for Beaton, who is herself a top class fiddle player and step dancer in addition to her admin roles with Celtic Colours, no doubt played a part too. “Sometimes the plans didn't work out,” she pointed out, “but we have such a great group of artists who love the festival and wanted to do whatever they could to make it happen.”

There were many factors at work as festival staff adjusted to the idea of an entirely online event. “What was in our favour was the fact that we as the festival had been doing live-streaming [of one concert of the six or more presented every night] since 2011, so we knew we could continue in that capacity,” Beaton said. “We looked at a number of options; could we still travel around the island? Could we have an in-house audience? If not, would we need a paywall for the sake of the performances? Much was discussed and many things had to be ascertained in terms of government aid to see if we could proceed. When I look back at March and April, there was just so much uncertainty in what would be, come October,” she continued.

Collaboration and connection

Uncertainty, yes, but there were some things that were clear, both in vision and and practicalities. “We wanted the look and feel of our online presence to match prior years.  That meant hiring a venue we've used in past years for the [in person] online portion, one we knew had strong internet and a stage capacity to give us the room for proper physical distancing, both on and off the stage. That came in the form of the Membertou Trade and Convention Centre, and it meant supporting our industry as well.”

As well as more than fifty concerts all across the island offered in person in past years, non profit groups and organizations and businesses offer community meals, walks, talks, informal music sessions, art exhibits, farmers’ markets, and other events. “We knew we weren't going to sell in-house tickets to any of the shows, so it meant fewer folks on the ground, putting our Community Cultural Experiences in jeopardy. It was also important for them to feel safe and stay healthy. That was first and foremost in all of our thoughts and actions, so for all of those reasons, we couldn't incorporate those wonderful experiences into the festival this year. And that was another tough blow,” Beaton said, “as economically, having our festival patrons here helps to bring revenue to these not-for-profits as well.”

Festival staff worked out a way to include some of this, though.“This will be an area we ensure comes back of course, but until then, we wanted to highlight a few of those great partners and approach this year as a chance to tell some of the stories of the island and what we love about it.  Each night of the festival, our Outreach Coordinator, Yvette Rogers, takes us around the island to focus on a different region and speak to the history, the scenery and of course the people,” Beaton said.

Music at the heart

As with the in person festival, music remains at the heart of the online event.

So who are some of those artists you may hear at Celtic Colours at Home?

Internationally renown Gaelic singer Mary Jane Lamond is a longtime Celtic Colours favourite. Emma Stevens, who is still finishing up her high school course on Cape Breton, was a hit at last year’s celebration as she sang Blackbird in her native Mik’maq language, trading verses with Julie Fowlis from Scotland, who sang in Scottish Gaelic.

Piano and fiddle combinations are characteristic of Cape Breton music, whether other instruments are included or not. Hilda Chiasson is one of the most creative and in demand of Cape Breton pianists. She will be show up playing with a range of artists across Celtic Colours concerts.

This year’s Artists in Residence each have a long history with the Festival. Fiddle player Troy MacGillivray, is from Antigonish County, Nova Scotia, and flute player and singer Nuala Kennedy, is originally from County Louth and now living in Ennis in Ireland. They have enjoyed performing together before, and word comes that they have been planning out surprises for this online event, when Nuala will join in remotely from her home in Ireland and Troy will be onstage in Cape Breton. Troy will be joined by siblings Kendra and Sabra MacGillivray, while Nuala’s performances will include Tara Breen on fiddle, Tony Byrne on guitar, and dancer Siobhán Butler.

Guitarist Kaia Kater will join in remotely too, from Ontario. She will be bringing her creative musical ideas which fuse and blend Caribbean, Appalachian, and Canadian elements.

Beolach, a group whose core members are Mairi Rankin, Mac Morin, and Wendy MacIsaac, brings deep knowledge and love of Cape Breton music as well as its heritage in the musics of Scotland and Ireland. Last year they shared Artist in Residence honours with the band Breabach, from Scotland.

You may also recall the members of Beolach becoming part of The Unusual Suspects of Cape Breton, a Celtic big band project led by Corrina Hewat and Dave Milligan. No big band this season, but Hewat and Milligan will be joining in with their own music from their home in Scotland.

Innovative Cape Breton fiddle player Ashley MacIsaac will be part of the opening concert, and he’ll be a part of a continuing Celtic Colours tradition of including up and coming artists, as he shares the stage with We’koma’q First Nation fiddler Morgan Toney, Mary Beth Carty, and Stoney Bear Singers from Eskasoni First Nations for a cross cultural collaboration.

Scottish, Irish, Manx, First Nations, and Acadian music will all form part of the festival as musicians make their ways through concerts called, among others, Right at Home, Bell without a Tongue, and Through the Generations. Things will conclude on the final night with a concert featuring French Canadian band Vishten and along with long time festival favourites The Barra MacNeills, who created and channel Cape Breton and Scottish music in English and in Gaelic. This concert is called The Bright Side. If you’re up for it, an after hours festival club will close out the last night of Celtic Colours at Home.

Celtic Colours at Home: connecting across miles, culture, and time There will not be listeners in person in seats this season, but there will nevertheless be community and connection.

“It's showing others, be it folks that always came to our live performances, or new folks that have never ever heard of the Celtic Colours International Festival what Cape Breton is all about, what shared ancestry we have, and to celebrate the differences amongst us too,” Artistic Director Dawn Beaton reflected. “I hope folks will celebrate great music and camaraderie and maybe find new favourites this year.  And as always to show the importance of culture, as a means of inclusion, never to divide us.”

Celtic Colours at Home: adapting to different circumstances, it it remains a celebration of connection, community, and music in the unique place that is Cape Breton.

Photograph of Dawn Beaton by Ryan MacDonald. Photograph of The Barra MacNeills courtesy of the artists. Other artists photographs (Anna Massie and Kristan Harvey, Cathy Peterson and Mary Jane Lamond, Julie Fowlis and Emma Sweeney, Wendy MacIsaac and Mac Morin, Corrina Hewat) by Corey Katz, courtesy of the Celtic Colours International Festival

There will be one concert on each of nine evenings, 9 through 17 October. On the two Saturdays in this span, there will be a second concert, honoring the Celtic Colours tradition of late night festival club celebrations. Some artists will be on stage and others will join in virtually. The concerts are produced in partnership with NovaStream and Soundpark Studios. Celtic Colours at Home is presented by TD Bank Group, with the support of ACOA, Canadian Heritage, the Province of Nova Scotia, and its many other partners. For information on this year's Festival, artists and the schedule, visit the festival’s web site at

You may also wish to see
A look back at Celtic Colours 2017
At Wandering Educators, Geography of Inspiration: Music and Place includes music from Dawn Beaton and her sister Margie
At Perceptive Travel, Exploring Cape Breton Island through Celtic Colours
Another musical collaboration which may be of interest: The Lost Words: Spell Songs

-->Your support for Music Road is welcome and needed. If you are able to chip in, here is a way to do that, through PayPal. Note that you do not have to have a PayPal account to do this. Thank you.

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Sunday, September 27, 2020

Ireland's Music: Thar Toinn/ Seaborne from Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh

The sea, especially the sea in the west of Ireland, has always been part of Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh’s life. So has Gaelic. Music has, as well. It is natural, then then that she should bring these things together in her six song project Thar Toinn/Seaborne.

Nic Amhlaoibh plays flutes and whistles, and sings. Those are talents she often put to use in her thirteen years as lead singer with the top traditional band Danu, and in collaboration with other artists as well. She has traveled the world with her music. but it is to west Kerry, to the Dingle peninsula, that she returned to build her own career as a solo artist, and to raise her family.

For all that it is somewhat shorter than a full album, Nic Amhlaoibh makes the most of that concentrated form. There are stories told in Irish and in English, as well as one in Scottish Gaelic, with narratives drawn from truth, legend, and maybe a bit of both. The arrangements serve to enhance Nic Amhlaoibh’s choices in how she presents the lyrics. She has one of the best voices around, and that’s illuminated with a musical and poetic intelligence which makes her performances last well beyond first hearing. All that is present as part of what’s going on here.

One of Nic Amhloaibh’s gifts is saying much by saying little, in both story and style. That holds true whether she is telling a story of a faithless lover in Blackwaterside, venturing into Scottish Gaelic to sing a Cape Breton song of a woman whose sweetheart is lost on the sea, offering a west Kerry song wishing good luck and safe home to fisher folk, or telling a story of looking back at a well loved place in Ireland which may have been written by a man who survived the sinking of the Titanic.

Nic Amhlaoibh bookends these pieces with a song written by a friend who was both poet and boatman, and a song which may have come across the water from the singing of fairies.

The opener to Thar Toinn is Faoiseamh Faoistine, with words written by Danny Sheehy and music from Gerry O’Beirne. The song urges and encourages the listener to connect with land and sea. As Nic Amhlaoibh writes in her sleeve notes, Sheehy’s words also encourage listener to seek solace there.

Many years ago, a fisherman from the Blasket Islands heard the music of Port Na Bpucai one night while out on the sea. Perhaps it was wind, perhaps whale song, but then again, those fairies... it is after all a story fo a woman taken across the sea by fairies. It is also the song from which the title of the album comes.

For this arrangement of Port Na Bpucai Nic Amhlaoibh is joined by Billy Mag Fhlionn, who plays the Yaybahar, an acoustic instrument with which adds an otherworldly sound fitting for the song’s story. Mag Fhlionn built the Yaybahar himself after a concept by Gorkem Sen.

Others join in to support Nic Amhlaoibh through the album, too. Scottish singer Julie Fowlis adds her voice to the Cape Breton song,. Among others who sit in are Donal O’Connor, Gerry O’Beirne, Niamh Varian-Berry, and Donogh Hennessy.

It is, however, Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh’s voice, vision, and connection with the waters which center Thar Toinn/Seaborne. It is a gathering of songs which invite repeated listening to explore the many facets of that vision and connection.

You may also wish to see
Seeing Ireland: 3 Music videos
Foxglove and Fuschia, another album from Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh
About the album Buan from Danu
About the album Alterum from Julie Fowlis.

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Monday, August 31, 2020

Music in times of change: The Point of Arrival from Carrie Newcomer

Endings and beginnings, change, balance -- or not --- of faith with uncertainty, ways all these things connect and intertwine: those are some of the threads which run through the songs Carrie Newcomer offers on her album The Point of Arrival.

Newcomer always looks for the story behind the story Through the music on each of her more than a dozen albums she has traced varying ways and times and places of finding the deeper tale, as she often names it, the sacred in the ordinary.

She does this with poetry and melody, with music that crosses between and braids folk and Americana told in a lovely alto voice with storyteller’s phrasing.

Newcomer’s considerations, both lyrically and in arrangement, are as likely to include dark as light. They are also more likely to ask and invite questions than to offer answers.

Dashes of humour and language which illuminates ideas in unexpected ways thread through the lyrics and music, too.

Learning to Sit With Not Knowing brings in the challenging aspects of doing just that, sitting with the uncertainty, the questioning, the waiting, which may make way for and blend into possibilities of hope and healing..

It is a constant in Newcomer’s writing that she says a lot by saying little. Often, she begins by working on ideas through writing a story, a poem, an essay, sometimes more than one, to have, as she describes it, a lot of language in hand. Language and idea meet as Newcomer distills them together into song..

Though her songs vary in subject and in sound, she’s been working on that aspect of her art across her career. At present that spans seventeen albums, as well as a respected presence as a spiritual thinker, and a collaboration with writer and teacher Parker J. Palmer on live presentations, a newsletter, and a podcast.

What sets her off exploring idea and language varies. Nature and landscape in their many aspects are constants. Newcomer is a native of Indiana. She continues to be based there, and draws directly and indirectly on ideas she comes in walks in Indiana woods near her home.

Snippets of conversation, or bits of things she’s read also spark ideas for her writing. Newcomer is a visual thinker, as well -- she has a degree in art -- so it’s natural that how things look and ideas from things she’s seen inspire her words and music as well.

Her choices of melody and arrangement evolve and change, too. She’s as adept lyrically and melodically at a lively song such as Impossible Until It’s Not as she is at reflective pieces with a touch of classical influence such as The Plumb Line or The Brink of Everything.

of these aspects find place through the songs on The Point of Arrival, and naturally enough, several aspects often come together within one song.

You will discover your own favourites in the eleven songs Newcomer offers on The Point of Arrival. Within them and through the course of how they are sequenced, you will find stories of endings and beginnings, of grieving, loss, hope, and resilience.

In addition to the song named above, listen out for Writing a Better Story. The title alone suggests all sorts of stories to find within the song. The Shelter of the Sky brings in nature to frame thoughtful ideas, as does the title song, The Point of Arrival. It’s Always Love and The Plumb Line find poetic and quite different ways to tell of what lasts and what may change.

Newcomer begins her music on The Point of Arrival with a piece called Learning to Sit with Not Knowing and draws things to a close with a song called The Brink of Everything. Those two song titles, suggest a journey, as do the stories, music, and language they contain.

Thoughtful questions, creative language, ideas that may seem at once familiar and new: all of these are present in Newcomer’s music. All are well worth your discovering, and repeated listening.

You may also wish to see
Carrie Newcomer’s website
Music & Mystery: conversation with Carrie Newcomer continues.
Signposts:Music of Hope, at Wandering Educators, which includes video of The Plumb Line
Laws of Motion, from Karine Polwart

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Thursday, August 06, 2020

Scotland's Music: Steall/Torrent from Ewen Henderson

Ewen Henderson has been part of many aspects of the music of Scotland, from playing with the Battlefield Band and Manran, to studying with Aongas Grant Sr to writing music for film to researching music in the archive at the School of Scottish Studies. He comes from Lochaber in the Highlands, growing up in a musical family and along the way picking up skills on fiddle, viola, piano, Highland pipes and small pipes, harmonium, whistles, and singing in both English and Gaelic.

When he set out to make what would become his album Steall/Torrent. , he thought to make a work that would offer a curated journey comprised of pieces carefully structured to reflect these many interests and experiences.

As he began, the music took him in a different direction.

It did have its origins in his first plan, but

“When that particular creative sluice is opened, one can quickly find such fine intentions overwhelmed and engulfed by the cascade of memories, impulses, and ideas released in its flow,” he writes in the sleeve notes. Hence his choice of title for the album: Steall, which means torrent in Gaelic.

The result is a journey worth the taking, moving from jigs to airs to song to waltz and back again, all the while allowing Henderson to create good stories with his mastery of numerous instruments. Keeping him company are Ewan MacPherson (who produced the project) on guitars and jaw harp, Jame Lindsay on bass, James MacKinstosh on percussion, and Thomas Gibbs on clarinet.

Through eleven tracks, music from traditional sources meets with with original compositions. The album opens that way, in fact, as the Melbourne Morning set sees the originals A Melbourne Morning and The Pneumatic Drills bookending a longtime favourite traditional jig Gillean a Drobhair/The Drover’s Lad.

Henderson points out that once he began working on the music from a different perspective than he had planned, he decided to, in keeping with the torrent idea -- dive in. “I respectfully suggest the listener do likewise,” he adds.

If you do that you will enjoy a line of melody and story which unite Henderson’s diverse musical skills. In recent years he has worked as a musical director for various projects and written music for film, both of which require a good ear for and knowledge of the stories told by sequencing music. That is a strength here as well, with those opening jigs followed by the Duncan Ban MacIntyre song Oran a’ Branndaidh, and later finds MSR, a set of fast paced pipe tunes played on the fiddle moving into the gentle Dileab na h-Aibhne.

Henderson also knows well how to evoke ideas of place and geography in his writing and playing as well. Have listen to that Dileab na h-Aibhne to discover many layers of music which do that. The title translates as The River’s Legacy. Henderson was living in Glasgow’s West End when he was asked to compose a soundtrack for documentary concerning a youth pipe band being established in the area. “It was inspired by thoughts of the River Clyde’s lasting influence on Glasgow, Scotland, and the wider world, but, in particular, the role it has played in the changing fortunes of the Gaels,” he writes. It is a piece of depth and imagination which well brings in the voice of the river and the people along it.

Camus Daraich evokes a different sort of landscape, although also a waterbound one. The title comes from a beach in the western Highlands overlooking Skye and the Small Isles, a place of childhood memories and more recent ones, as it was where Henderson’s sister Megan married Ewan Robertson. They are musicians as well: you will know them from their work with Breabach.

There is much more to explore on Steall. Henderson draws the journey to close with a tune he wrote for his wife, Maria, which was meant to be a surprise gift to her on their wedding day. That didn’t go quite as planned. I will leave you to find that amusing story in the sleeve notes (which are offered in both English and Gaelic). It’s a fine tune, though, which draws many threads of the music on Steall together and makes a closer at once spirited and gentle.

Follow the music straight through or dip in and out of Ewen Henderson’s Steall: either way, you will find engaging, thoughtful music in which to immerse yourself and emerge refreshed. A torrent indeed.

Ewen Henderson is one of the founding members of the top group Manran. Another place to hear his work, in a bit of a different context, is on their recording An Da La.

You may also wish to see
Scotland’s Music:Breabach: Frenzy of the Metting.
At Wandering Educators Music for Hope and Celebration, part of the Music for Shifting Times Series, including a song and video from Manran
Scotland’s Music:Hamish Napier: The Railway
Scotland’s Music: Julie Fowlis: Alterum.

-->Your support for the work,here at Music Road is welcome and needed.
Here is one way to chip in, through PayPal. Note that you do not have to have a PayPal account to do this. Thank you.

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