Blas 2011: The Boy and the Bunnet

1 Sep 2011 in Festival, Highland, Music, Showcase, Writing

SUE WILSON investigates what connects this year’s Blas festival, Peter and the Wolf and the Curriculum For Excellence?

THE answer is The Boy and the Bunnet, an ambitious new musical production that will première during Blas at Eden Court Theatre (with another performance at Celtic Connections next year), and aims to introduce children to Scottish traditional music much as Prokofiev’s 1936 classic did for the orchestral sphere.

INTEGRAL to the project, which was initiated by former Scottish Government advisor Bryan Beattie, director of the cultural consultancy Creative Services, is the intention that it forms the basis of a teaching resource for schools, linking its musical content with both the Scots and Gaelic languages in a freshly engaging and accessible fashion.

“That was really the starting-point,” Beattie says, “to try and find a new way of getting traditional music into the classroom, which can be quite difficult using conventional methods. At the same time, our primary focus at this point is on these first performances – on getting the music and the words right so that the piece works onstage, as everything else will follow from that.”

James Ross is composing the music for the project

James Ross

To this end, Beattie has recruited a triumvirate of tried and tested talents to create the piece. Award-winning pianist and composer James Ross, whose Chasing the Sun suite, inspired by his native Caithness and premièred at Blas 2008, will soon be out on CD, has written the music, with a brief to incorporate both Scottish traditional instruments and key musical forms.

The accompanying Scots narrative, broadly inspired by traditional folk tales, is the work of Booker-nominated author James Robertson, co-founder of the acclaimed Itchy Coo children’s imprint. The Eden Court show, however, while surtitled with Robertson’s text, will feature a translation by renowned Gaelic poet Aonghas MacNeacail – who last year proved his aptness for the task by jointly winning the Scots-language MacCash Poetry Competition, under the nom de plume Innes Dow.

Aonghas MacNeacail has adapted James Robertson's story into Gaelic

Aonghas MacNeacail

“In terms of an initial framework, the model of Peter and the Wolf is just so resilient and successful that it seemed daft to ignore it,” Beattie continues. “So we’ve copied the bare bones of that model, but because we’re basing it on Scottish music, as well as bringing in the language elements, I think we’ve come up with a very distinct piece.”

Centrally targeted at older primary and younger secondary school pupils, while seeking to entertain all ages, The Boy and the Bunnet follows its hero Neil on a day-long series of adventures when he leaves his grandmother’s cottage to play, and gets lost in the woods after a crow steals his eponymous headgear. Before finding his way home, Neil meets sundry other animal and supernatural companions, including a stag, a selkie and a cat, as well as the fearsome, satyr-like urisk – or ùruisg in the Gaelic.

Wilma Kennedy will deliver the Gaelic narrative and Gerda Stevenson the Scots, while the music will feature a six-piece ensemble of contemporary folk luminaries, including singer/harpist Corrina Hewat, fiddler Patsy Reid, accordionist Angus Lyon and Fraser Fifield on pipes.

Harpist Corrina Hewat

Corrina Hewat

“James Robertson wrote the basic story first of all, then we collaborated on working it into a performance script in tandem with me writing the music,” explains Ross of the show’s development. “I’ve assigned each character both their own instrument and their own tune type, to create their different themes as the story progresses: Neil himself is the fiddle and the jig, the stag is bagpipes and the march, and so on. It sounds fairly straightforward, but it’s actually been quite a challenge: figuring out how to keep things clear when characters are in scenes together, writing links between the scenes, or underneath the narrative, without muddling up the instruments’ roles, and getting it all to work as a coherent ensemble whole. It’s been great working so closely with a writer, though – he gave me the initial story, and I sketched out some music based on that, then he’d adapt the script after hearing what I’d written, and it just kept going back and forth like that, both sparking ideas off each other.”

In the run-up to its first performance, a further process of mutual adjustment will take place between Ross’s score and MacNeacail’s translation, the latter being originally based on Robertson’s final text. “That’s where it will become even more interesting,” MacNeacail says, “Though I’ve already enjoyed the difference between translating from Scots and from English into Gaelic. It’s something that comes quite naturally to me: as well as growing up with Burns and the ballads at school, when I was a boy my family were very friendly with a group of fisherfolk from Easter Ross who lived near us, who spoke in East Coast Scots even though the surrounding community was Gaelic.” He acknowledges “taking some liberties” with Robertson’s version, on the basis that “every translation is an interpretation.”

“The most important thing is to recreate the vitality of the language, as much as its literal meaning,” he continues. “When it comes to particular idioms, often you can’t translate them directly, so you have to think in terms of parallels or counterparts that will best reflect both the sense and the flavour of the original. In this case I’m also writing for a wide range of ages, and for me the secret with that is to keep it simple and tell the story: I don’t mean make it naïve or simplistic, but if you focus on the story, and the story’s strong enough, it will grab any age-group. And of course, writing something that’s designed to be spoken aloud is fundamental to the Gaelic tradition.”

The Boy and the Bunnett poster image

The Boy and the Bunnett

Beyond its Gaelic and Scots premières – which Beattie hopes will be followed by further concert performances, perhaps with an added theatrical or choreographic dimension – the plan is to adapt The Boy and the Bunnet into school resource packs, usable even by non-specialist teachers. As a first step towards this, a recording of the piece is scheduled for later this autumn, while both audio and written materials are being developed in accordance with the Curriculum for Excellence, overseen by educationalist Cerin Richardson.

“The way people get inspired by any art-form is to experience it in a form that’s interesting, exciting and entertaining,” Beattie says. “Bringing Scotland’s music and languages together like this will hopefully be an accessible way to achieve that: accessible for teachers who don’t necessarily have a background in either, as well as for pupils. Peter and the Wolf is an obvious model, but also an ambitious one: if we can even be part-way as effective as it’s been, I’ll be delighted.”

The Boy and the Bunnett will premiere at Eden Court Theatre, Inverness, on 13 September 2011. Blas 2011 runs from 9-17 September 2011 – full programme details can be found on the Blas website (see below).

© Sue Wilson, 2011