Wednesday, May 09, 2018

Folk with Edge: Sarah-Jane Summers Virr and Moira Smiley Unzip the Horizon

Music, through listening, through creating, through playing, encompasses the new as well as the familiar.

There’s always more to explore, whichever path in music you follow. Two artists who know this well are fiddle and viola player Sarah-Jane Summers and singer Moira Smiley. They are both grounded in folk tradition and both have classical music experience and have worked in other genres of music as well. For recent releases, each has chosen to bring innovation to the fore.

Sarah-Jane Summers has chosen to call her album Virr. That is a word in Scots which can mean energy, gusto, or force. It can mean the sound made by an object in swift motion, a whirr, and it may also described force itself. Any of those terms work as a description of the music Summers creates for the twelve tracks on the album, too.

If you know Summers’s other work, Virr is maybe not quite what you would expect -- and yet it is, too. She has always been fascinated by sound, language, and landscape, and looked for ways to express these on her instruments (she plays fiddle, viola, and Hardanger fiddle). A native of the Highlands of Scotland, she’s also long been interested in the connections between the musics of Scotland and those of the Nordic lands. As a Scot now living in Norway, “it makes sense that Scots words which are etymologically Norse should be of particular interest,” she says.

One day, her husband and fellow musician Juhani Silvola suggested “Shall we go into the studio and record something?” Summers took him up on the suggestion, found her viola sitting in the studio, picked it up and began to improvise.

That interest Scots and Norse words, the unexpected opportunity to sit in the studio and improvise now and then across several weeks’ time, and her own observations of weather, language, and sound and the possibilities of her instruments come together on the twelve tracks on Virr.

Each is named for a Scots weather-related word having its origins in old Norse. A few are gently melodic. Some are harsh, as weather sometimes is -- emotions too, Summers notes. Several take journeys among and through these variations and back again. Though it is only Summers and her fiddle in play, the sounds she evokes at times remind of the crash of an orchestra in full flight. At others they suggest the rough haunting presence evoked by singers of sean nos. Tirl, Aitran, Katrisper, Aftrak, Rissen, Unbrak -- you can begin to hear a suggestion of the music in the words Summers has chosen as titles.

Creative, intriguing, thought provoking -- an adventure in the listening, and it would seem, in the creating as well. Summers has a suggestion: “I would be delighted if you would sit with a coffee, a cup of tea, a glass of red or whatever your thing is and have a wee listen and also ponder the power of the weather,” she says.

Moira Smiley is one for taking her listeners on not-quite-what-is-expected adventures, too. Her most recent recording is called Unzip the Horizon. Smiley’s primary instrument is her voice. She’s helmed vocal ensembles, composed classical music, been featured with the top Irish American group Solas, and currently, among other projects, tours with Jayme Stone’s Folklife. An encounter in Ukraine and time spent in the refugee camps at Calais were two things that became catalysts for Unzip the Horizon. Those other musical experiences come along on this project, as well.

Smiley’s voice and her songwriting -- twelve of the fourteen tracks are originals, two are reinvented songs from American folk tradition-- provide a connection through songs that are always questioning, sometimes dissonant, sometimes tender. As is true with Sarah-Jane Summers’s album Virr, there’s a lot going on and a lot to think about in the range of ideas Smiley offers.

Among other things, in addition to singing she plays half a dozen or so instruments. Many fellow musicians come and go on the tracks, among them a number whose work you have met here along the music road before -- Krista Detor, David Weber, Seamus Egan, Chloe and Leah Smith of Rising Appalachia, Darrell Scott, and Jayme Stone.

In Ukraine, Smiley had the chance to speak with an elder musician. The woman spoke of the power of voices to connect past and present, and to change the future. Those ideas, and her experience volunteering in the camps at Calais where she found music touching lives of people who had exactly nothing else, helped set Smiley on a path to exploring her voice and her songwriting in new ways.

“The voice can be a scary, tender instrument, not just sweet and pretty,” Smiley reflects. “I’ve long embraced that when singing certain traditional folk songs, but I longed to pull it into my own songwriting.”

So she has. There’s the spooky and enigmatic Appalachian style song Dressed in Yellow, hints of jazz, classical, and rock influences in various songs, lyrics with questions more than answers, and sound which includes all sorts of harmonies along with sighs, crackles, claps, stamping feet... it is a journey in both sound and idea. Bellow includes African, African American, and gospel sounds while celebrating the voice -- the joining of voices -- and urging connection. Smiley includes part of the lyrics in her sleeve notes:

Please don’t give up. Please don’t lose that sound
So many people fought to gain that ground
Please don’t give up. Please don’t hide your voice
So many people did not have that choice
Sometime -- anytime -- you want to bellow, call on me
We’ll unzip the horizon with our voices

Though pain, confusion, anger, and searching are all present, so too are joy and hope, in Bellow and in other songs. Almost quietly Smiley sings the last words of Sing It Out: “Though we might fear and we might doubt/We must remember joy and sing it out.”

That, really, makes a throughline of what both Sarah-Jane Summers and Moira Smiley celebrate on these recordings: the joy of creativity, the joy of exploration, the joy of connection -- and in some cases, the joy of surprises. Not always what you’re used to hearing, maybe not always easy to hear at first, but well worth the patience and the effort to listen, to explore, and to come to share that exploration as you do.

Photograph of Sarah-Jane Summers by Kerry Dexter; photograph of Moira Smiley by Alexandra DeFurio

You may also wish to see
Sarah-Jane Summers has another recent recording, Solo, about which there will be more here on Music Road coming up shortly
Excellent duo album from Sarah-Jane Summers & Juhani Silvola Widdershins
Sarah-Jane Summers talks about the Highlands of Scotland, at Wandering Educators
Jayme Stone’s Folklife, on which Moira Smiley appears
Carrie Newcomer’s Live at the Buskirk-Chumley, on which Moira Smiley sings harmonies
Moira Smiley’s song Refugee is part of this story at Wandering Educators about music and the geography of hope
Another sort of experiment in music: Kathy Mattea: Calling Me Home

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posted by Kerry Dexter at


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