RSNO Go Out and About in Shetland

1 Mar 2012 in Music, Shetland, Showcase

Chris Stout (photo Michelle Fowlis)

Chris Stout (photo Michelle Fowlis)

NEW music by fiddler Chris Stout lies at the heart of the RSNO’s latest residency

CHRIS STOUT will have a new orchestral work unveiled on his native Shetland as the culmination of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra’s Out and About in Shetland project, but the fiddler won’t be there to see it.

INSTEAD, he and regular collaborator Catriona McKay will be in Nova Scotia, where they will be playing in performances of their own orchestrated version of their White Nights album with Symphony Nova Scotia.

“It’s hilarious,” Stout said. “Two of my dream gigs come along on the same day! It’ll be a bit bizarre knowing that the Shetland one will be happening as I’ll be coming off stage in Canada, but it is great to be involved in both projects.

“I’m delighted that the RSNO are bringing this project to Shetland. I think it’s fantastic, and it can’t help but benefit everyone, as far as I can see. It will take the orchestral musicians out of their usual context and let them experience something different, and it’ll be great for the Shetlanders to have the chance to welcome them into the community and work with them.

“For me that is a win-win situation, and I’m delighted that it will be Shetland getting the benefit.”

The Shetland commission is part of what the RSNO describe as their most geographically ambitious residential endeavour within the UK. Out and About in Shetland offers five days of rehearsals, education, community activities, workshops, masterclasses and performances. It is part of the Music Nation weekend happening across the UK, and inevitably qualifies as the most northerly component. The RSNO has been carrying out its Out and About programmes since 2004, bringing the orchestra to places they do not normally visit, and involving the community in various ways.

Chris Stout was commissioned to write a tune for local musicians and the orchestral musicians to work with in various contexts during the week, and also a 15-minute composition that will premiere in the final evening concert that brings the residency to a rousing conclusion.

“I composed a a small melody that was given to musicians in Shetland to work on,” Chris explained, “and they will then collaborate with members of the orchestra on it – the tune was really just a way of moving the creative process forward.

“I was also commissioned to write an orchestral piece around the tune for the final concert. I’ve called it Tingaholm, which is from the Tings, the old Norse name for their Parliaments, as in Dingwall and so on. They seem to have been very much gathering places where people traded ideas and even goods, and I liked the idea that my tune could be a kind of musical gathering place for the exchange of musical ideas.”

The Royal Scottish National Orchestra (photo Tom Finnie)

The Royal Scottish National Orchestra (photo Tom Finnie)

Although Stout is primarily known as a traditional musician, he is no stranger to formal composition. A graduate of the RSAMD (now the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland) in Glasgow, he has composed orchestral music before, including Dynrøst, a Celtic Connections commission with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra in 2008, and Drive with the RSNO in 2010, also a Celtic Connections commission.

He was involved in performing on both those pieces, but for Tingaholm – and the whole Shetland project – his role is purely that of composer.

“I’ve done it very much from my own point of view,” he said, “but I’m trying to allow the orchestra to access some of the features of traditional music as I see it, but in an orchestral context. I’m keen that we work quite a lot of the style of our unwritten tradition into the score, so we’ll see how that works out.

“I’m quite happy working on paper – I need to write things down anyway, or I forget them, so I’m used to doing that. I like the process of working with classical musicians – traditional music and classical music were the two things I was brought up with, and I like to try to erase the boundaries a bit. I usually start composing by ear, and once I’ve got something, I’ll get the score paper out and start to think about that. With so many instruments involved, you have always to be aware of what is going on right across the music, and where you are trying to go with it. I’ve always felt quite comfortable writing for strings, but this time round I feel I’ve been able to identify a bit more with some of the other instruments and what they need.

“I suppose I would have to admit that being only a composer on this project is a little odd for me. Although I compose a lot, what generally drives me to compose is the fact that I am then going to play the music on stage. This time it’s quite strange to only be a composer and not experience the end result. Of course, that is what most composers do, but I’m used to playing at the end of the process. In traditional music the composer wasn’t really important in the same way – most of the older players didn’t really think of themselves in that way, and when they wrote a tune it more or less got absorbed straight into the tradition.”

Catriona McKay and Chris Stout - the White Nights album cover shot

Catriona McKay and Chris Stout - the White Nights album cover shot

By the time this article is published, the fiddler and harpist Catriona McKay will be hard at work in Nova Scotia, preparing for the premiere of the orchestrated version of their most recent album, White Nights.

“We did a gig over there two or three years ago,” he explained, “and we had been chatting to them about the album, which I don’t think we had even recorded at that stage, but we were already thinking and talking about maybe doing some of it with strings at some point. Lo and behold, six months later they were inviting us over to do the whole album with the symphony orchestra. Catriona and I worked on the orchestration – we have shared skill sets and also different ones, so it works well in that respect.

“We are doing three concerts with them over there, two in concert halls and one in a church. It seems to be our thing just now, because we just did a gig at Celtic Connections with the Scottish Ensemble playing Sally Beamish’s Seavaigers. That was a great experience – it was definitely playing music from a master. Her string writing is so effervescent ­– it’s constantly moving. We are doing that again in Edinburgh in April. The Ensemble were really fired up about it, which was great, and we are going to do a bit of it in Halifax with Symphony Nova Scotia as well.

“I would love it if the Shetland piece went well and it could also be done again sometime, if only so I get to hear it! I’ve learnt a lot doing it, and I hope the orchestra and the audience get something from it as well. As for myself and Catriona, it’s all bigger forces at the minute for us, and when you do the duo music for a bigger ensemble it feels a bit like letting go of it, and it’s hard then to come back and do it in duo format again, so I think we need to get some new material together and make a new album.”

RSNO Out and About In Shetland runs from 1-5 March 2012 (see RSNO website for details).

© Kenny Mathieson, 2012