Scottish Ensemble interviews Chris Stout and Catriona McKay on their brand new piece, teaching musicians to play by ear, and the importance of experimentation.
We first worked with Fair Isle fiddler Chris Stout and Dundonian harpist Catriona McKay back in 2013, collaborating on Sally Beamish’s Seavaigers. A concerto for fiddle, Scottish harp (clàrsach, for those in the know) and string orchestra, it’s an incredibly evocative piece depicting an adventure at sea, and all the hope, fear, anticipation and comradeship that comes with that. If you’ve heard this performed live, you’ll know what we’re talking about – the way Sally is able to conjure up a certain emotion or feeling through her writing is something special.
We also had such a good time making the recording and touring that it’s always been a delight to perform this piece again, so it’s with a particular excitement that we’re looking forward to our upcoming tour with Chris and Catriona (Court & Country, 13-16 March 2018) when we’ll also be performing a new work, Dealer In Hope.
Written by Chris, and arranged by Chris and Catriona, the pair taught us the piece in a series of workshops across 2017 – without a single note written down. This practice of playing and learning by ear is deeply rooted in traditional music; a way of getting past the fact that the music doesn’t always sound like it looks on the paper, and works best when it’s played and learnt through feeling and freedom, not a precise following of the notes. It’s not so deeply rooted in classical learning… which made for some really satisfying, challenging and fun sessions and, thankfully, a successful premiere performance of the piece from memory at this year’s Celtic Connections festival (read the Scotsman review here).
Ahead of Court & Country, we spoke to Chris and Catriona to find out about how they wrote their new piece, their experience of leading the workshops with us – and if the feeling was mutual…
Where did the idea come from for Dealer In Hope?
Chris: Originally I just wrote a little tune, just a small melody intended as a little dedication to [SE Artistic Director and Leader] Jon and his 10 years in charge of Scottish Ensemble. Then, I have to confess, there were elements of it I wasn’t completely happy with. When I came to perform it again there was the opportunity to look at it and really work on it. So Catriona and I sat down, and I looked at the melody again and Catriona brought magic to it, and we created something that went from a melody into a proper piece of music.
We then took that idea and sat down with Scottish Ensemble players and taught them the melodies entirely by ear, which was a really, really amazing thing to do. It was important for us that we didn’t have to start writing down things that shouldn’t be written down, like elements or style. The musicians just used their natural musicality, and that’s fundamental to the sound of the music, because it sounded genuine. It didn’t sound like a bunch of classical guys playing folk music or a bunch of folk guys playing classical – it sounded like exactly how it should, how it was. It felt really natural.
What went on in the sessions when you taught the Scottish Ensemble musicians to play by ear, and what were the challenges or surprises you experienced?
Catriona: The format took the good old-fashioned style of everybody sitting round in a circle, nothing fancy.
Chris: It was very laid-back and relaxed, no music stands. There was an element of… surprise is too strong… but, of joy in the fact that the musicians were able to loosen up into the styles so easily. It was as simple as getting rid of the music itself and getting their ears to be the thing that we worked together with. There was a young guy who was sitting in on the rehearsal as well. He’d never played by ear on any instrument before, and the impact it had on him was profound and will stay with him for the rest of his career. It made him consider music in a way he’d never considered before, and that’s amazing. There are so many musicians in the world that play by ear, and that’s all they do – it was lovely to open that up to people.
The special relationship you enjoy with the Scottish Ensemble musicians always feels apparent in the performances. When did you start working with them, and what’s it like to collaborate with them?
Catriona: It was really Sally Beamish that brought us together. I used to teach Sally’s daughter harp lessons, and Sally sat there and listened to this harp music and was just absorbed. She used to come along and support our concerts too, so I think it was a really natural progression for her to want to write for us. It was then Sally’s vision for us to perform the piece with Scottish Ensemble.
Chris: That was the first time we started working with SE – in 2013, through Sally’s concerto, Seavaigers. Since then, we’ve done a number of concerts with them – and it’s nice to have Sally writing something for us again for this concert [her new second movement for Bach’s third Brandenburg Concerto]. It’s something completely different, but still with us in mind.
But, we already shared an awful lot, in terms of the way we think, with the member of SE. Although Catriona and I come from a more traditional music background, we actually studied side-by-side with many of the people who play in SE through studying classical music at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland – so, we’ve known about half the group for a long time now. They kind of knew a bit about traditional music, and our training was in classical music, so there wasn’t really anything to worry about when we came together. There’s a lot of mutual understanding.
From the very first instance it felt very natural, and it’s just got stronger and stronger. We’re now working with them in a workshop capacity, which means working on music before its actually complete, if you know what I mean, rather than just rehearsing complete pieces. It’s a different process. We’ve been working on music which is, say, only 90% ready, which means we can try ideas out. That process in particular has really strengthened our musical relationship with them.
Catriona: Absolutely. What’s really cool is that there’s a shorthand way of getting things across now. We’re comfortable enough that if an idea’s mentioned, you get where the person’s coming from straight away. You don’t have that sort of awkward politeness or need to reassure each other – there’s a familiarity between us that really allows us to get somewhere.
SE are particularly interested in collaborations with musicians from other genres, and artists from different art forms. As musicians who have always escaped categorisation, do you think this is important? How do you feel about labels such as traditional, Celtic, classical…?
Chris: I think there’s room for these musics to remain in their pure form as well as the boundaries being blurred and new things being created. There’s room for everything, and that’s where we are – sometimes our music is more ‘pure’, genre-wise, than other times, but I don’t like using the word ‘pure’ because if we start aspiring to something that is pure and perfect then we’ll never stand a chance! When you experiment or collaborate, that’s often when the most excitement is – and the most vulnerability, because you’re really stepping out there and trying something new, ground that hasn’t been walked before.