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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