First published in The Herald on 13 June, 2018; photo of Kate MccGwire‘s Sasse/Sluice at Snape
Thea Musgrave — Scottish composer, conductor, pianist and teacher who turned 90 last month — thrusts a glass of wine into my hand. She’s teaching me “la langue verte”: juicy phrases she learned in France in the 1940s. “Merde a la treizième” is her favourite, she grins. “Can you print that?!”
There is cause for celebration. The day before we meet, Musgrave was given an Ivor Novello Award alongside Billy Bragg, Lionel Richie and Shane MacGowan. The day after, she’s off to Buckingham Palace to receive The Queen’s Medal for Music. Around the world her 90th birthday is being marked by orchestras and ensembles — including a portrait concert in Glasgow with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra this week. “They got me started,” she says. “They gave me my chance when I came back from Paris in the 1950s. And you know who was assistant conductor? Colin Davis!”
Musgrave was born in Edinburgh on 27 May, 1928. She studied at the University of Edinburgh, where she was inspired by the legacy of Donald Francis Tovey and his belief that that meaning in music comes from the music itself: that there’s plenty of drama in the way notes relate to each other without grafting on some kind of external narrative. After graduating, she trod the path of many brave 20th century composers to study at the Paris Conservatoire with Nadia Boulanger, whose fastidious ear and fierce attention to craft founded in Musgrave a lifelong propensity for clarity and discipline. She spent four years in the French capital, during which time she began to turn heads back home with her student works. In 1954, she returned to Edinburgh for a composing apprenticeship, and many of her early orchestral pieces — Obliques (1958), the Scottish Dance Suite (1959) — were premiered by the BBC SSO.
First published in The Herald on 30 May, 2018
Ronnie Hughes started fishing out of Pittenweem in 1968. At first he worked on the small boats that would land their catch daily at harbours around the East Neuk of Fife. After a couple of years he graduated to bigger vessels out of Aberdeen, crewing alongside men from Peterhead, Fraserburgh, Lossiemouth. They would head out to sea for weeks at a time — and that’s when he became aware of the singing.
It mainly happened on a Sunday, he tells me. “The lads from the north-east coast, they were generally more devout than us Fifers, and a lot of them would not work on the sabbath. That meant the boats would just shut down for the day, just lie there, even if we were out at sea. It was a strange thing, that silence, because generally on fishing boats there is gear hauling, there are radios blaring. Generally it’s a very noisy business. And then there would be this strange calm, and the songs.”
First published in The Herald on 16 May, 2018
Last week the Scottish guitarist Sean Shibe was named Young Artist at the prestigious RPS Awards — call it the Mercury Prize for classical music. He was nominated alongside the soprano Louise Alder and the conductor Elim Chan, which means he had stiff competition.
The award recognised his “significant impact in the UK during 2017”, which indeed was a big year for 26-year-old Shibe. He released his first solo album — Dreams & Fancies: English music for solo guitar — a disc of refined, intelligent, stylish musicianship. Last summer, he toured a programme called softLOUD using acoustic and electric guitars, from Scottish medieval lute manuscripts to Steve Reich’s Electric Counterpoint. Now he has recorded that programme, and it’s due for release on Edinburgh’s Delphian label in September.
First published in The Herald on 25 April, 2018
When I was at music college, I dearly wanted to learn to play a rare early electronic instrument called the ondes Martenot. That career dream was thwarted by the fact I never managed to get close enough to actually try one in the flesh, but it turns out there is a small room at the Paris Conservatoire — where else? — that is home to the world’s most extensive collection of ondes Martenots. Herein reside seven of the glorious instruments, in various states of playability, but still: seven ondes. Being in their company makes me feel simultaneously giddy and guilty, like waiting years to see a wild cat then rounding a corner and meeting an entire nonchalant family.
My host here is Nathalie Forget, one of today’s leading ondistes and a featured artist at next weekend’s Tectonics festival in Glasgow. She shows me around like a protective mother, eyeing my water bottle (liquid and rare electronics: not an ideal mix) before switching on various instruments to see which one might “be in a good mood” on this given morning. An exquisite array of sounds emerge: astral swoops, angry grunts, whispered snippets of sad elegies. “Since the beginning,” she tells me proudly, ”these instruments have had important fans. Messiaen, Varese, Murail. Composers in Japan and Canada. A lot of cinema and theatre makers. Pop singers. Jacques Brel, Radiohead, Kraftwerk. These ondes” — she surveys the room — “have experience in every kind of music.”
First published in The Herald on 4 April, 2018
Time is noisy but we’re good at not hearing it. The ticking of second hands, the beep of a watch marking the hour, the thrum of a pre-set heating system switching on just before morning. Cockerels and church bells. School bells. Radio alarms. The pips. The dawn chorus. The one o’clock gun. The city revving up for rush hour. We choose when to tune in and the rest becomes prosaic din.
The harpist Rhodri Davies grew up fascinated by the mechanisms of time. His grandfather, Titus John Davies, was a horologist who opened a jewellery shop in Aberystwyth in 1948. He sold and repaired clocks and watches, and later Rhodri’s father took over the business. “I was fascinated with my grandfather’s workbench,” says Davies. “Fascinated by my dad’s workbench. They held the same kind of allure as a harp workshop. Rooting through tiny, delicate, mysterious objects. Clocks at various stages of dismantling. All those cogs and springs.”
First published in The Herald on 21 March, 2018
Mermaids and mermen — let’s call them merfolk — live for approximately 300 years, after which they turn into sea foam. Who can say for sure what happens to humans when they die, but I doubt it involves much sea foam. This disparity is just one of the great melancholies that hang over The Little Mermaid, Hans Christian Andersen’s tale about a mermaid who makes an ill-fated deal with a sea witch. The mermaid gives up her identity — tongue cut out, tail lost — for the love of a human prince. He hardly even notices her sacrifice. It’s a hopeless love, a feminist tragedy. His soul will live on after death (or not) while she’ll be foam.
Andersen was a complicated character himself. Born into poverty in Denmark in 1805, he was bisexual but he died a virgin. He wrote plucky female characters who head out on bold quests, and his handsome princes have flaws and sensitive sides. He published his works as plain Fairy Tales, soon abandoning the label “for children” because he realised his disturbing, wondrous imaginary realms belong to everyone. Some of his stories, like The Shadow, are so dark that I doubt many parents would risk reading them at their own bedtimes, let alone their children’s. Disney still cashes in on Andersen’s legacy — think of recent hits like Frozen, a rehash of Snedronningen (The Snow Queen). Except that in Disney, the most haunting details are glossed over and prettied up.
First published in The Herald on 7 March, 2018
What’s the point of awards? I’m not talking Oscars, though this week we feel the reality check of a ceremony that saw the fewest female winners in six years despite all the high-vis momentum of #MeToo. Big industry awards validate big industry, and that ship turns slowly.
Even without matters political, the notion of declaring objective “better” in the arts is endlessly problematic. Which is better: a film in which a woman procreates with a sea creature or a film in which a woman finds her way with clove cigarettes? A new piece of music about an eczema sufferer or a new piece about the suffering Mary while Jesus was on the cross? It might sound like a platitude to say that anyone shortlisted is already a winner, but when it comes to music awards — especially contemporary music awards — basic recognition is the ultimate raison d’être.
First published in The Herald on 23 February, 2018
It’s Bartok week at City Halls. The Hungarian composer is the latest to get the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra’s ‘composer roots’ treatment, which means his works will be presented in the context of the rich traditions that inspired him. For Bartok, that’s easy: folk music. He was an avid collector of folk songs in the early years of the 20th century, lugging around the latest recording technology (Edison wax cylinders) to Carpathian mountain villages and further afield to North Africa and the Middle East. There’s no overstating the impact of what he called ‘peasant culture’ on his music — and if that phrase sticks in the mouth nowadays, he meant with the highest possible reverence.
First published in the Guardian on 28 January, 2018
The second track of Martyn Bennett’s 1998 dance album Bothy Culture features the word ‘aye’ muttered in multiple inflections. It’s a stroke of deadpan brilliance, spoken word stripped back to a single redolent syllable. Bennett never overdid things.
Three years ago Celtic Connections commissioned a full-scale orchestration of Grit, the last album Bennett made before he died of Lymphoma at 33. Now conductor Greg Lawson and his Grit Orchestra were back, this time upscaled to the biggest venue in town. Sound quality was never going to be priority here, a fact driven home by the appearance of trials cyclist Danny MacAskill as soloist. (Not as random as it sounds: MacAskill used the track Blackbird for his global hit video The Ridge.)
First published in the Guardian on 25 January, 2018
Revamping a cult masterpiece is a dangerous business, and Bright Phoebus — the 1972 album by Mike and Lal Waterson — really is a masterpiece. Imagine the most severe voices in folk music pitched against lush, boozy, crushingly tender instrumentals. The songs have a gnarled lyricism, a concise and dreamy poetry. If you’ve never heard the album that’s probably because half of the original vinyl copies were pressed with the hole in the wrong place and it took until last summer for Bright Phoebus to be remastered and rereleased — largely thanks to the efforts of Lal’s daughter Marry.
And if anyone’s got the credentials to risk putting these songs on stage, it’s Marry and her family. The evening featured her cousin Eliza Carthy, Eliza’s dad Martin. Marry’s son Joe Gilhooley unleashed a sweet baritone during the trippy psych-folk interlude of Magical Man. Even Richard Reed Parry of Arcade Fire, who appeared as a sensitive guest singer, has family connections: his parents sang with the Watersons in Hull in the 1960s. The odd one out was John Smith, whose stylised crooning and Americanised vowels sounded pallid next to Eliza’s force in the devastating To Make You Stay.