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.

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posted by Kerry Dexter at


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