Being Creative in the North East of Scotland

The following is a presentation I gave at the sonADA pilot event at Seventeen on Belmont Street, Aberdeen on 4 October 2014:

“When I was first asked to present at this seminar I was rather thrown by the initially proposed theme – “what does it mean to be creative in the north east of Scotland?”  For the length of my musical career I’ve been based in Aberdeen, so I don’t feel that I’m in a position to say how it might differ from being a creative person living in the Borders, for example.  However, the question did cause me to reflect on how I regard my own artistic practice and the various issues that come with that.  I began by making a list of pros and cons – I realised that several of these points lie somewhere in-between.  Here is a selection:

It means dealing with broken promises, regularly.

It means getting pissed off that people haven’t replied to your emails yet feeling bad that you haven’t got around to replying to other people’s.

It means being told that you’ll get “decent exposure” in place of being paid – like that’s some kind of fair compensation.

Or it means getting paid a pittance for producing the work that you’ve spent endless hours on and have put your heart and soul into, but receiving a healthy fee for something that either (a) a monkey could produce, (b) is dangerously close to robbing you of your artistic integrity, or (c) both.

It means miscommunication.  Endless miscommunication.

It means receiving a commission and then realising, just as the performance deadline is looming, that the person responsible for marketing has a “relaxed” approach to their job.

It means performing to audiences that wouldn’t fill a one-bedroom flat – but realising that some of those were actually your best gigs.

It means eventually earning enough to give up that shitty part-time job you hated.

It means lecturing for 2 hours a week to sixty students and having one stay behind at the end because they want to know more, and subsequently send you their work in their post-graduate life, because your opinion STILL matters to them.

It means doing workshops in rural areas and encountering young people whose parents want them to go into the oil industry despite the magnificent music that their child is producing in their bedroom.  Who’s to say that the next evolutionary stage of music isn’t beginning right now in Huntly or Kemnay or Inverurie?

It means realising that you’re in a position to offer people a welcome alternative to the banality of musical theatre and endless tribute bands.

It means collaboration; collaboration with other disciplines – multi/inter/cross, or whatever your preferred prefix might be; disciplines you might never have considered – but people who are very much on the same page as you.  This, for me, is the best thing about being a creative individual in the North East of Scotland – because, despite our tradition for being dour and unwelcoming, collaboration is one of the things that we do best in Aberdeen and the north east of Scotland.

On noting down these points, I also realised, with a sense of reassurance, that this list would have been quite different a year ago – the cons certainly would have outweighed the pros.

I’ve been known to bemoan the cultural scene in Aberdeen.  While I feel that it still has a long way to go, I believe that the tide has truly turned, especially within the last year.  Aberdeen is alive with culture.  I feel that we’re not a million miles away from being a city akin to Glasgow or Edinburgh; cities where you’re culturally spoilt for choice; where you encounter people who are still talking passionately about events – locally organised events – two or three years after they first experienced them.

In recent months I’ve encountered so many like-minded people through social media; friend requests from complete strangers – that “mutual friend” list has come to serve as a reliable, legitimate networking resource.  My Facebook news feed is no longer overpopulated by mundane posts about makeup techniques or video stills which feature the now predictable phrase “you won’t believe what happens next”.  Post-referendum, I refer to my Facebook news feed for crucial information that I know I will never receive from major (or even minor) news networks.  And culturally, the same, to a certain degree, applies.  It’s very often thanks to Facebook and Twitter that I know what’s happening In Aberdeen.  If Aberdonians were to rely on the “What’s On” guide for cultural reference, they’d assume that The Singing Kettle and some guy who once played in The Shadows was the sum of cultural talent in Aberdeen.  Thankfully, this is very far from the case.

Aberdeen has become a city of many artistic collectives and organisations – it is heartening to know that there are so many groups that have a similar goal in mind – SonADA can be added to that list.  On a personal note, I feel particularly proud to have been involved with Binary School.  I’ve performed at two of their nights and will be participating in a third on Halloween at Musa, in association with the Sound Festival.  Binary School, organised primarily by Colin Austin, who will be performing later this evening, showcases electronic musicians and DJs.  The musical range on show at these gigs is staggering – every sub-genre of electronic music can be experienced; approaches, techniques, inspirations, sound worlds, software and hardware all vary, but the passion is consistent.  To me, what Binary School offers is unique: music which is constantly new or, at least, emerging, the kind of music that, invariably, young guys are trying to create in their bedroom; the kind of music that they should, but are not, taught how to produce at college or university.

Not unlike the referendum aftermath, many more people are feeling empowered to try to make changes to a cultural scene that they’ve become increasingly dissatisfied with.  And that is a very exciting thing to be a part of.”

The Ribbon and the Limb

Thursday, 26th June 2013 saw the debut performance of The Witching Hour at Woodend Barn, Banchory.  The project, inspired by the folklore and dark history surrounding Aokigahara – a dense forest at the base of Japan’s Mount Fuji, was based on a concept by Ross Whyte and choreographed for dance by Thania Acarón.

Below are a selection of photos by Colin Thom.


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Below is a recording of “The Ribbon and the Limb”, a poem written specifically for this project by John Mackie.

First Braemar Residency with Alasdair Roberts

On the 6th April, I arrived in Braemar to begin the first of four week-long residencies with musician and songwriter Alasdair Roberts.  I was only vaguely familiar with Alasdair’s work – a friend had introduced me to his album The Amber Gatherers which I’d enjoyed a great deal.  I’d also had the opportunity to hear him perform live at 17 on Belmont Street in Aberdeen last November.  Other than that, though, I only had a rudimentary awareness of his work.

Our initial residency was very much about getting to know about each other’s practices and working styles.  For me, it has certainly been a learning process and I feel a greater appreciation for traditional music as a result.  The biggest challenge, perhaps for both of us, is to find a common ground between our musical approaches.  I was very conscious of  bringing something to the table that wasn’t just an electronic accompaniment to the songs that we rehearsed, but instead something that might offer a new angle; a response to a style that is, to a certain degree, foreign to me.

I grew up listening to the folk-tinged albums of Van Morrison (Veedon Fleece), Joni Mitchell (Blue) and Nanci Griffith (various), and later became obsessed with alt-country bands and solo artists who fell close to that genre (Uncle Tupelo, Wilco, Sun Kil Moon, Sparklehorse, Mazzy Star and many others), and I admired what I regarded as their abstraction of folk, traditional and country music – to me, it made those genres somehow more legitimate or palatable.  I’ve often been cynical of traditional open mic sessions.  In the past I’ve found them to be slightly exclusive and wary, if not a touch hostile, towards other genres.  On reflection, this has probably had as much to do with my own prejudices as it has with those performing in those sessions.

On the Wednesday evening, Alasdair and I attended an open mic folk session at the Aberdeen Arms in Tarland and we had the opportunity to meet and hear the fiddler Paul Anderson performing.  It was deeply inspiring to hear Paul’s stories about the local history as well as his work as a composer and I greatly admired his interaction with the other musicians.  The session reminded me of the very strong communal aspect of musical performance that is, I believe, an essential element of traditional music – an element I feel that is sometimes lacking in contemporary classical music and certain sub-genres of electronic music.

church

Our first rehearsal took place in the semi-derelict St Margaret’s Church.  I began playing a slightly melancholic chord progression on one of the church’s two harmoniums while Alasdair sang what I would later learn was a traditional song titled The Seasons.  Alasdair repeated the song’s two verses, often allowing the melody to fall independently of the chords.  I moved things even further out of sync by processing Alasdair’s voice through my laptop with delay and looping effects.  It felt like a very strong start to the project.

harmonium

Back in our accommodation – a church which had been converted into flats – we continued to experiment with other improvised material.  Using a piano sound, I put together a progression which fell somewhere between E flat major and C minor – I’ve always been interested in using one hand crossed over the other on the keyboard to produce ambiguous tonalities.  The result was a slightly pastoral effect.  Alasdair began singing the melody of the ballad, Cruel Mother.  The macabre lyrical content seemed to give the music a very uneasy edge to it – an edge which I tried to accentuate by drawing out the more minor harmonies of the arpeggiated patterns I was playing.

It had been a long time since I had improvised using acoustic instruments with another musician and it would have been very easy and comfortable for me to have solely used the harmonium and piano (albeit a virtual piano).  However, this, in a way, went against our remit of “new approaches to traditional music”, and I felt that Alasdair was keen to explore the digital possibilities, including ways of manipulating his voice.  So, on the third day of the residency I decided to make a selection of field recordings around Braemar.  Among the sounds I collected were the misleadingly titled “ringing stone” in front of St Margaret’s church, the rusty squeaking and banging of the church’s door handle, crows cawing in the nearby rookery and the rope of a flagpole slapping in the wind.  I felt that it would be interesting to use some of these sounds as a percussive and rhythmic basis for a song.  After some manipulations, I’d created a drum loop of sorts which became the backing for Alasdair’s arrangement of Billy Taylor - the origins of which Alasdair describes in a previous post.

door

A great deal of our time, outside of practicing, was spent discussing our own musical backgrounds and interests, the potential of using a venue’s space and dimensions to diffuse sounds, and initial thoughts of the overall shape our final performance (later this year) might take.  We also did a lot of walking.  Morrone Birkwood, a nature reserve just outside Braemar was a particularly inspiring area in which to observe the local landscape.

birkwood

I feel that we produced a considerable amount of material in our first residency.  Whether or not all that material will be revisited in the future remains to be seen.  However, it feels like a very strong start.  We both agreed that during our next residency, it would be beneficial to become more familiar with the local area, its people and history.  There may even be the opportunity to incorporate interviews with local people, as well as archival recordings of songs, in the work that we continue to produce and develop.

In some ways, the time between residencies will be as important as the residencies themselves.  It’s a period to reflect on the material we’ve produced, to further research the other’s practice and to consider how we might develop the material produced in the early stages.

Ross Whyte

April 2014

Aberdeen

Cruel @ The Barn

Cruel and Unusual – a work exploring cutting-edge research using experimental music, film and spoken word in various languages - will have its second performance next month following the success at last year’s University of Aberdeen May Festival.  It will be held at Woodend Barn, Banchory on the 24th April.  Further details and ticket booking can be found here: www.woodendbarn.com/whats-on/.

Lisa Collinson, Adam Cresser and I began rehearsals earlier this week.  The session went well, despite the catwalk (pictured below) collapsing on my foot…

rehearsal

Cruel and Unusual asks “what did the bull mean to the ancient inhabitants of the British Isles and Scandinavia?”  The question reveals a strange, and often dark symbolism.

Also performing at The Barn that night is Claire M Singer with a new work for string quartet, guitar and piano, and Bill Thompson who will be performing his latest release, Solace.

This event is the second in the Witching Hour series.  Further details here.

Ellie

elementz

 

On the 29th March 2014, there will be a screening of Ellie – a new dance film by Mhairi Allan and Paul Foy for which I’ve written the score.  The screening is part of an event titled Elementz and Friends and will be held at The Lemon Tree in Aberdeen.  Further details can be found via the link at the bottom of this post.

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Further information and tickets can be found here.

Upcoming Residencies

6-13 April: New Approaches to Traditional Music (Residency #1) with Alasdair Roberts

14-18 April: Temporary Blindness: dance residency with Gabriela Sanchez

5-9 May: dance residency with Aaron Jeffrey, Rob Heaslip and Simon Gall

5-6 June: dance residency with Thania Acarón and Richard White

9-13 June: dance residency with Thania Acarón and Richard White

Some exciting collaborations coming up over the next few months.  The first is an ongoing project with folk musician Alasdair Roberts which is working towards a performance at Woodend Barn, Banchory as part of this year’s Sound Festival.  We will be doing a series of residencies in the Braemar/Cairngorm Park area to explore the history, landscape, folklore and musical heritage of that location; a process of researches which will inform the musical work which we create together.

Immediately following this is a collaboration with the dancer and choreographer Gabriela Sanchez who I’ll be working with for the first time. In May I’ll be working alongside musician Simon Gall and dancers/choreographers Aaron Jeffrey and Rob Heaslip where we’ll be developing material produced during the Fast and Dirty workshops run last November in Aberdeen by Bill Thompson and Ian Spink.

Finally, with the help of Thania Acarón and Richard White, I’ll be bringing my Witching Hour project to life during the course of two residencies (one at Woodend Barn and the other at His Majesty’s Theatre in Aberdeen).  Also contributing their vocal talents is poet John Mackie and Anna Lavigne.

I feel very honoured and excited to be working with so many gifted artists and can’t wait to see/hear the work that we eventually produce.

On a completely unrelated matter, here’s a piece of music that’s been inspiring me over the last week: