James Clapperton & the sound of North

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First published in The Herald on 14 October, 2015

At the end of December, 1967, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) aired an experimental radio documentary called The Idea of North. It was the first of what became known as the Solitude Trilogy produced by pianist Glenn Gould, whose poetic, slightly bashful, very personal narration explores notions of isolation and frontier living across the remotest parts of Canada.

“I’ve long been intrigued by that incredible tapestry of tundra and taiga which constitutes the Arctic and sub-Arctic of our country,” Gould confides at the start of the documentary. “I’ve read about it, written about it and even pulled up my parka once and gone there. Yet like all but a very few Canadians I’ve had no real experience of the North. I’ve remained, of necessity, an outsider. And the North has remained, for me, a convenient place to dream about, spin tall tales about, and, in the end, avoid.”

Many of us are prone to spinning tall tales about the north: the romantics among us, the escapists, the blithe adventurers. In his documentary Gould goes on to interview an anthropologist, a sociologist, a nurse and a surveyor to discuss those romantic notions and the somewhat starker realities of northernness. He weaves their voices together like counterpoint — he called the method “contrapuntal radio” — and only toward the end of the hour-long documentary does he introduce any actual music. For a mainstream channel in 1967 it was pioneering radio art; nearly 50 years later it is still captivating. Monday was Canadian Thanksgiving, and the time felt apt for a repeat listen.

That notion of northernness, that ineffable idea of north, is a lingering preoccupation too for the Scottish composer and pianist James Clapperton. He lives 150 miles north of the Arctic circle in the Norwegian town of Harstad. “Right now there’s still light outside,” he describes over the phone, “but we’re heading for winter. In about five weeks it’ll be total darkness.”

Clapperton moved to Harstad four years ago to produce the town’s midsummer Arts Festival of the North of Norway. “Last year it snowed on opening night,” he laughs. “I wondered what on earth I’m doing here.” But he’s enthralled by the place, by its landscape and its laconic personalities. “I like this part of the world. People are very direct. With this kind of wilderness in all directions, there’s no point in not being direct.”

Next week a north-inspired piece by Clapperton opens this year’s Sound festival of contemporary music in Aberdeen. Scotland’s Red Note Ensemble will give the world premiere of Clapperton’s Northern Sky. The same programme features Australia’s Griffyn Ensemble — Red Note’s antipodean counterparts — performing a piece called Southern Sky by the Estonian composer and astronomer Urmas Sisask.

For Clapperton, the commission fit like a glove. He has been spending time in Norway and Russia on and off since 1989 and both countries have infiltrated his music ever since. “The landscape effects the community,” he says. “In the summer months everyone goes a bit mad. People start mending the outsides of their houses at 3 in the morning because they can. In the winter months the aurora borealis can be incredibly intense. I remember watching green ribbons shooting down toward the town graveyard like a huge hand touching the earth.”

He says that as a composer it is near impossible not to be effected by such monumental surroundings. “There’s so much space here. Such a cruel beauty. The mountains look like shards of glass that have fallen from the sky.” Clapperton’s musical language tends to be stripped back, spacious, contemplative, but there is something of the expressive romantic tone poet about the way he conjures images of place. Northern Sky is a half-hour piece for flute, clarinet, viola, cello and percussion. It’s in four movements, each a portrayal of a particular northern clime. Three of the movements are preceded by poems: one read in Norwegian dialect, one in the Old Norse of viking sagas and one in Pushkin’s 19th century Russian.

The first movement is about Norway, the aurora borealis “portrayed through shimmering transparent textures based on the natural harmonic series”. The second movement is about Iceland, inspired by memories of childhood visits with his geologist father who travelled to research glaciers and volcanoes. This is the work’s slow movement, nostalgic and flecked with folk idioms.

The third movement begins with a Pushkin poem read by Clapperton’s fiancee Svietlana. The text describes the depression that comes with dark nights and suggests that the only possible remedy has something to do with drink. “Here we hear the sharp-edged savagery of the tundra up near Murmansk,” Clapperton explains. “Vast expanses of silver birch forests and tough mining towns.” The piece closes with a Scottish movement based on Strathspey rhythms — Clapperton grew up in Banchory, James Scott Skinner territory, and describes how he has “started to think about this business of the composer in exile. I can relate to Scottish folk music now in a way I never did before. There’s a yearning.”

Clapperton is a fine pianist as well as composer and festival programmer. When we speak he is just back from giving a recital in Vladivostok and preparing another programme for St Petersburg next month. The mainstay of his repertoire as a performer is 20th century modernism — Stockhausen, Boulez, Xenakis — and it’s intriguing how markedly different that stylistic complexity is from the space and simplicity of his own music.

“I wouldn’t be able to survive if I wrote the kind of music I play,” he explains. “That realisation happened at the age of 20, when I was learning a lot of fiendish composers like Brian Ferneyhough and others. As a composer I was trying to push it further but kept getting stuck, kept realising there was nowhere I felt I could go. Then I wrote a wee piano piece called Haar. It was totally stripped back” — a spare, hauntingly atmospheric work that Steven Osborne has often included in recitals. “Writing that was such a release,” Clipperton says. “I found a language that was right for me and for the landscape around me. A whole horizon opened up.”

Red Note Ensemble premieres James Clapperton’s Northern Sky on October 22 at King’s College Chapel, Aberdeen. Sound Festival is October 22 – November 9. Glenn Gould’s The Idea of North is available at www.cbc.ca