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We’ve been dotting all over the place this summer – all over Scotland, from Skye to Paxton, but also Europe, having just returned from the very successful German premiere of our contemporary dance collaboration, Goldberg Variations – ternary patterns for insomnia (the relief that came from remembering the music and the moves for this one was nearly as exhilirating as the performance itself – not your standard concert!).

But with the end of August comes the inescapable back-to-school feeling of knuckling down for the autumn and winter ahead. Fortunately, if you’re a member of a string ensemble, knuckling down means playing lots of music – some you’re already familiar with, but some completely new.

The first Scottish tour of the 2016-17 season, inspired by North America, is a mixture of the two. All of it 20th-century – a word enough to make some people wither in their seat (or at least move their cursor from the ‘book tickets’ link) – and yet all of it (all of it!) is in turn fascinating, brilliant and ultimately highly enjoyable. If you don’t believe us, here’s an official guide…


Mark Stewart – To Whom It May Concert, Thank You


The inspiration for this piece is rather helpfully all explained in the video above – Stewart’s father is an Episcopalian priest, and his mother an atheist who, one Thanksgiving, came to a rather brilliant solution for the tricky problem of how to say grace at family dinners by standing up and simply announcing: “To whom it may concern, thank you.”

How this inspiration relates to the music is a different question, and one we would love to pick Mark Stewart’s brains about. For now, we’re content with listening to and playing this brilliant short piece.

Philip Glass – Company (1983)


Philip Glass’ second string quartet was not originally meant to be a string quartet as such, but a piece of music to use in a production of Samuel Beckett’s Company. He did, however, intend for it to stand alone as well as being used on stage. The result is this satisfying, cinematic quartet that drives forward with a feeling of melancholy tension. This version for eight cellos chooses to really heighten that sense of unnerving tension; in other versions, the higher strings bring out the melancholy beautifully.

By using just a few notes – none of the instruments ever venture too far from the dense core where they began – the whole thing feels intimate, contained and intense, like being stuck in the inside of a troubled mind. Perfect, in other words, for Beckett’s dark, strange and haunting play.

For those interested in the connections between Philip Glass and Samuel Beckett – we’ll be providing a pre-concert talk in Inverness, Dumfries and Glasgow on the connections between the two. This article in the New York Times on what Glass learned from Samuel is equally very interesting; a topic you could easily get lost in…

Nico Muhly – Motion (2010)


Described by The Guardian as “one of the most celebrated and sought-after classical composers of the last decade”, Nico Muhly‘s influences span American minimalism and the Anglican choral tradition – as can be heard in this one, which is based on an anthem by Orlando Gibbons (one of the leading composers of the early 1600s). It was inspired by Muhly’s own experiences as a chorister – he would get so entranced by the intense lyrics (See, O see the fresh wounds, the gored blood, the prick of thorns, the print of nails) that he’d forget where to come in. With this piece, he wanted to capture that nervous energy of obsessive counting.

John Adams – Shaker Loops (1978)


Ah, Shaker Loops. This shimmering, shaking, looping, building journey of sound has become an all-time Scottish Ensemble favourite (in fact, it’s a little strange and a little heart-warming to think that SE had been in existence for nine years before this piece was written. New music can triumph!).

While the piece has become Adams’ most performed work, the double inspiration behind it is lesser known. Yes, it was inspired by the oscillating wave patterns made on the surface of water – that much can be heard and noted and studied in the notes themselves, and in Adams’ process of assembling them. But something was also triggered by a childhood memory – glimpsing members of a sect of Shakers dancing, at a colony near his home. In Adams’ words, the piece “summons up the vision of these otherwise pious and industrious souls caught up in the ecstatic frenzy of a dance that culminated in an epiphany of physical and spiritual transcendence.”

In 2014 we performed the piece in a previously derelict building and modernist landmark, Glasgow’s Anderston Centre, just as the sun began to set on the motorway behind us, with the last rays glinting off a trail of distant cars as the strings spiked and shook – a very special moment.

James Manson – Meeting at Nisqueunia (2016)

Jamie is a musician, composer and long-time friend of SE – an excellent double bassist who is, incidentally, married to SE double bassist Diane. We were excited to commission this brand new piece from him for this concert – and then even more excited when he explained the inspiration behind it:

The first Shaker settlement in America was in a small town near Albany in the state of New York called Nisqueunia [Nis-kuh-yoo-nuh]. It was here in 1776 that a small group from Manchester, England, led by Mother Ann Lee, began their work to establish Shakerism in America. In 1781 Valentine Rathbun, a Baptist minister from Pittsfield, Massachusetts, published a book which was highly critical of the sect. He and several members of his family had initially embraced the Shaker gospel but later rejected its doctrine. His book had the rather catchy title of ‘Some brief hints of a religious scheme, taught and propogated by a number of Europeans, living in a place called Nisqueunia, in the state of New York’.

Inside, he describes in detail a worship meeting which he’d attended – and an account which I used as inspiration for this new piece:

The manner and form of their worship is entirely new, and different from all others: It differs but little on the Sabbath from any other day: They begin by sitting down and shaking their heads in a violent manner, turning their heads half round, so that their face looks over each shoulder, their eyes being shut; while they are thus shaking, one will begin to sing some odd tune, without words or rule; after a while another will strike in; and then another; and after a while they all fall in and make a strange charm:—Some singing without words, and some with an unknown tongue, or mutter, and some with a mixture of English: The Mother, so called, minds to strike such notes as makes a concord, and so form the charm. When they leave off singing, they drop off, one by one, as oddly as they come on.” 

Come Life Shaker Life (image for James Manson note)
A reproduction of an early publication of Come Life, Shaker Life, using a form of notation which the Shakers called ‘the letteral system’

Aaron Copland – Appalachian Spring (1944)


There’s a bit in this piece, for those hearing it for the first time, where you get a frisson of excitement that comes with suddenly recognising a melody. Many will know is as the tune from Lord of the Dance (whether you’re thinking of Michael Flatley or fumbling the words during your old school assembly) – but it was originally a Shaker melody written in 1848 called Simple Gifts. If ever a short melody could sum up spirit of 19th-century America, with its connotations of Pioneers and liberty and sweeping, multicoloured Pennsylvanian landscapes, it’s this one – which makes sense, given that this was the setting of the ballet the piece was originally commissioned for.

Interestingly, although the title conjures up these leafy New England mountain vistas so well – and so many praised Copland for so perfectly conveying this scene through the music – the title was added afterwards when the choreographer spotted the phrase in a Hart Crane poem, and thought it sounded nice. The pictorial nature was unintentional, unconnected to the ballet, and apparently left Copland slightly bemused – but this remains the vision that so many people now connect with this piece.

Copland’s masterpiece is now easily one of the touchstones of the 20th-century American canon, and we’ll perform it across this tour with flute, clarinet, bassoon and piano.

[Rosie Davies]

Scottish Ensemble take their American Life tour to Dundee (7 Sep), Inverness (8 Sep), Dumfries (10 Sep) and Glasgow (11 Sep), with a free pre-concert talk in Inverness (6.45pm), Dumfries (6.45pm) and Glasgow (2.45pm).

Scottish Ensemble – American Life tour from Scottish Ensemble on Vimeo.