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.
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.
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.
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.
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.