A Time to Keep – Lise Sinclair and Astvaldur Traustasson

9 Mar 2012 in Music, Orkney, Shetland, Showcase, Writing

St Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall, Orkney, 8 March 2012, and touring

WHAT happens when a fine poet bounces off another fine poet? You get a new insight into both.

COMPOSER and writer Lise Sinclair is from a croft on Fair Isle, and her writing, at times wistful, at times gutsy, is thoroughly bedded down in her island. With great and commendable persistence she garnered funding from all the available pots for this project of songs inspired by A Time to Keep by George Mackay Brown – Scotlands’ Islands being the major helper. This performance, and the CD accompanying it, is the result.

Lise Sinclair

Lise Sinclair

In her introductory remarks she described how she ‘heard the songs’ as she read. The breadth of humanity in the voice, and the backdrop – the sea, the horizon, the struggle to make a living – all were familiar to her, and to other islanders.

She described her fellow performers as ‘representatives of the North Isles’ – Brian Cromarty from Orkney, Ewen and Inge Thomson from Shetland and Astvaldur Traustasson and Adalsteinn Asberg Sigurdsson from Iceland. It went without saying that they all had a creative response to their particular sea-girt surroundings.

GMB’s association with Peter Maxwell Davies is well known. There’s a largeness to that composer’s work. It feels urgent, metropolitan, modern. Interesting that the most enduring pieces of his oeuvre here in Orkney will be the simplest airs, and the many fine works for young people, I think, rather than the major orchestral pieces. Despite his commitment to island life, or perhaps because of it, Max can’t help negotiating intensely with the busy world; GMB acts as a focus, yes, but also a contrast, a spur to engage.

The work we heard in the Cathedral – beautiful setting, of course, all rosy and ancient, blithely presenting its sight obscuring pillars and medieval acoustic to all comers – was a new collaboration with the Orkney bard, and a very interesting one.

Lise Sinclair introduces some of her fellow performers in the Cathedral (photo Fran Flett Hollinrake)

Lise Sinclair introduces some of her fellow performers in the Cathedral (photo Fran Flett Hollinrake)

It was clear that Sinclair approached each story with an attentive and responsive ear. The comments which preceeded each song got right to the core of the tale – ‘Celia’ was ‘about anybody anywhere coping with pain’. In A Time to Keep ‘you see the harsh landscape at the back of Hoy, and feel the hand of the sea.’ In safe hands then, as far as understanding GMB’s world.  How then to take the language and make music from it without obscuring the purity of the original. ‘I wanted his voice to come through,’ she said.

It did, in the most unexpected way. Ewen Thomson’s melancholy fiddle, underscoring and counterpointing like another voice in the conversation; Inge’s accordion, which somehow had to be there – it’s so redolent of island knees ups, but here worked like a sea swell, rising and falling – and the piano playing of fellow lyricist and arranger Astvaldur, which was benevolent, reproachful, ominous, meditative by turns – all this topped by Lise Sinclair’s husky tones. I want to call her a contralto but her sound isn’t defined in that way at all; she takes the words and somehow moves them about the tune unexpectedly. I expect there’s a word for it; it’s kind of like a jazz riff infused with a smoky peaty island rhythm.

There were eerie moments . As the Gravedigger’s Spade dug, the fiddle swept down in time and the women keened, an anguished dissonant sound just like pure loss. Music was saying what’s unsayable.

The sense of the eternal, never far from Mackay Brown’s mind, was well caught in ‘Cornerstone.’ There we sat next to ancient sandstone, as she sang, ‘a hundred years of rain falls/and a hundred more’, and the fiddle underscored her voice. It could have been a hundred years ago – or a hundred years on.

Adalsteinn Asberg Sigurdsson reads (photo Fran Flett Hollinrake)

Adalsteinn Asberg Sigurdsson reads (photo Fran Flett Hollinrake)

The novelist and translator Adalsteinn –  a fine reader and a perky presence in his red check shirt – gave us the lyrics in Icelandic. Here I was glad I had the CD by me, to get the lilt of it, and the gist. I suspect some folk at the back thought he was an Orcadian and they were just mishearing him a bit. But what the readings did was point up the universality of the concerns Mackay Brown deals with. There was utter understanding of the trials of the sad, generous drunk Celia, or the money-challenged, wife-challenged whaler, or the family whose son brings a wireless to the valley, but never returns from the war. Islands are islands, whatever language they speak. Folk are just folk.

I liked ‘The Five of Spades’ best, on the night (the CD is another matter – you will listen and listen, I guarantee, and re-read the stories, and find your own special favourites). Here Brian Cromarty’s sharp clear tenor rose above Lise’s softer tones, as he sang Check Harra’s shanty whilst she sang about the card game that’s life – ‘Flogged on the mast/Burn the bothy down/leave the five of spades/on the smoking ground.’

It got me thinking, amongst many other things, about how this was essentially a womans’ take on what is almost always a male narration, in the stories. There’s an insistent overwhelming gentleness in many of the songs which I think is a very honest response to Mackay Brown’s persona. His heroes are often outcasts, out of step, deserted or lost. They’re weak, or scared. Women are to them a puzzle, a torment or a blessing, never much in between.

Lise Sinclair ‘s response is to create a new conversation with his characters. There’s no slavish copying or uninspired mimicking or hagiography here (there’s a lot of that, in the GMB world). This is a fine new take. Get the CD. It’ll haunt you, send you back to Brown, and, more importantly perhaps, send you to the work of Lise Sinclair.

© Morag MacInnes, 2012