Celtic Connections New Voices

Item Posted: Saturday 2nd January, 2010

Some of the most ardent ‘traditional’ music aficionados are still less than enthused about ‘modern’ compositions of music that purport to be in the traditional genre. Yet feelings that age give a tune quality, or that the old masters like Scott Skinner and Niel Gow would turn in their grave if they heard new Celtic Rock, are largely on the wane.

All music has survived, and blossomed, by new music being composed and adaptation and interpretation being not only allowed, but encouraged. This isn’t to say that that what is new is good, and what is old is not. Certainly folk and trad music is filled with plenty of ‘singer/songwriters’ who can do neither very well, and plenty of unmemorable tunes unlikely to survive the lifetime of a festival – or at best the lifetime of a particular band. But, like literature, no-one quite knows what will be the favourites in years to come.

Most musicians need little encouragement to write the occasional tune – it seems to be pretty much in the blood, but longer, bigger pieces often need support to get an airing. One festival that has regularly commissioned up and coming musicians to compose new works is Celtic Connections through their ‘New Voices’ series.

Quite how these musicians are chosen I do not know, but the focus seems to be on outstanding young musicians who the organisers feel can contribute something new and fresh on the larger composition scene. Often the mere fact of pushing back the boundaries means that there are inevitably pieces that do not work for everyone, but if you are prepared to be open- minded and try something a little different, these are acts definitely worth catching. As the previous Celtic Connections Musical Director, Colin Hynd, said : ‘Since 1998, Celtic Connections has commissioned composers to produce new pieces of music based on traditional themes. These very special events promote the composition of new work in Scotland with the aim of helping to keep traditional music alive and flourishing. Many of the musicians who are given the projects relish the opportunity to experiment with new styles and new influences or simply appreciate being give the chance to showcase their own work to a large audience, often working with large numbers of their musical peers to produce some of the greatest highlights of the festival.’

In the past specially commissioned pieces have been composed for New Voices by Croft No5 and Treacherous Orchestra fiddler, Adam Sutherland, the talented harpist, Jennifer Port, and the refined Gaelic singer Maggie McInnes: also by Aiden O’Rourke, Tom Richardson, pianist James Ross, Gillian Frame, accordionist Martin Green and percussionists, Fraser Stone and Paul Jennings. A New Voices commission is now seen as an important watershed for up and coming composers.

Fiddler Anna-Wendy Stevenson who showcased ‘My Edinburgh’ as part of New Voices told me ‘It is a massive honour to be asked. Most of us will have written a number of short tunes, but here it all has to be orchestrated, and the experience of dealing with a wider range of instruments over a much longer time period than usual is an enormous challenge.’ There were four movements in her forty five minute orchestral piece ‘which revolve around my memories and impressions of my home town Edinburgh. I have drawn inspiration from sessions, festivals and walks.’ New Voices is always innovative and different, and Anna-Wendy’s piece was an emotive, powerful, and thoughtful contribution.

Martin Green was already a mainstay of the traditional music scene and Edinburgh’s unique jazz/folk crossover music when he got the call from Celtic Connections. Crossover projects included travelling to Canada with The Unusual Suspects and gigging in Europe with Salsa Celtica. Since his ‘First Sighting’ New Voices composition, he has gone onto enormous success with the band Lau. ‘First Sighting’ was a 9 piece band with vocals, brass, electronics and accordion. Martin said ‘I play bits of keys and samplers and accordion, though it's not an accordion- led band. We are traditional musicians, but in these pieces I have chosen to do something very different. A touch of Ellington, a wee bit of improvisation.’

Pianist James Ross’s experience in composing a piece for New Voices certainly worked for him, the audience and event organisers. He has had numerous requests to reprise his piece ‘An Cuan’(The Ocean). This is an evocative and powerful portrayal of the Caithness coastline, written in six sections for an octet comprising soprano saxophone, two fiddles, viola, cello, double bass, percussion and piano. The piece confirmed Ross as a composer totally in charge of the materials at hand, and was a work of impressive authority. The piano remains something of an outsider in traditional music, certainly in terms of being a frontline melody instrument., but the Ross piece certainly ranks as one of New Voices most impressive achievements. As one reviewer commented ‘if there's any justice, it will hasten Ross's progress towards the higher profile that his talent deserves’

Mairearad Green went on from a New Voices composition to win the Composer of the Year Award at December’s MG ALBA Awards. Her commission, 'Passing Places', was a musical and filmic journey through the spectacular scenery and cultural riches of the Wester Ross Coigach peninsula - earned her a standing ovation from the audience and a five star review from The Scotsman.

These are just a few of those who have had success at New Voices. This year’s crop of New Voices compositions includes a variety of musical backgrounds and styles.

Iain Morrison’s pedigree is in pop (Crash My Model Car) and alternative folk (Sleepy Café Band), but he also comes from a fine Lewis piping background. Melding these diverse strands should be fascinating. (17th January)

Mike Vass, now the fiddler with the band Malinky, was a BBC Radio Scotland Young Traditional Musician of the Year finalist and won the inaugural International Niel Gow Fiddle Composition competition. His composition is a seven person line up including piano, pipes and vocals. (24th January)

Lori Watson’s ‘Sanctuary’, inspired by places of refuge, will be an interesting blend of old and new. Steeped in the Borders fiddle and song tradition, yet with her own twist on the genre and a fine stylist, this New Voices is bound to be a crowd pleaser.
(31st January)

More on the festival at www.celticconnections.com

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