The New Tunemakers
at Strathspey Place, Mabou, Cape Breton
(10 October 2007)

It all started with a four-day incarceration.

The New Tunemakers, as the Mabou concert was wisely named, was just that -- a spotlight on 10 young music composers, who'd just spent the past few days working in close quarters to compose, arrange and rehearse music of their own devising.

This is, of course, one of the areas in which the Celtic Colours festival shines. While many similar events might place an excess of attention solely on traditional melodies, the Colours team recognizes that composition is also part of the tradition, and the festival focuses on new work as well as timeless classics.

Festival co-founder Joella Foulds deserves an immense amount of credit for bringing her vision to life with this particular event. Kudos, Joella!

Concert emcee Ron MacInnis said the 10 young musicians -- representing Cape Breton, Prince Edward Island, Scotland and Manitoba -- were sequestered in a small A-frame house for four days to get the job done.

Before bringing the musicians themselves onstage at Strathspey Place, MacInnis first showed a brief video documenting their days apart from the masses. "I consider it an honor to be here when we all find out what happened when those young people were left together for four days," he said.

Later, he called the music "intoxicatingly lovely."

The inmates of the house in Beinn Bhreagh were fiddlers Andrea Beaton, Glenn Graham, Colin Grant, Troy MacGillivray (who doubled on keyboards), Sierra Noble and Aidan O'Rourke. Also in the mix were singer Patricia Murray, who also played bodhran and piano, singer Kris Drever on guitar and bass, Martin Green on accordion and Ryan J. MacNeil on low whistle and pipes.

Aidan, Kris and Martin, a Scottish trio known collectively as Lau, were artists in residence at the festival this year and were in charge of overseeing the creative process at Beinn Bhreagh.

Their efforts culminated Wednesday evening, and the Mabou stage rapidly filled with musicians. Colin started things off with a lone fiddle tune on a crowded floor. The orchestra built slowly until the whole group was going full force, as melodies were passed to Glenn, then Andrea and finally Kris. The opening selection had a traditional foundation in its sound, but a fresh feeling and dramatic flourishes to suit the occasion.

All too soon, it was over, and Aidan celebrated the group's freedom. "It's great to be here after being locked up in the Beinn Bhreagh 'Big Brother' house since Sunday," he said. He then introduced Andrea, who started a series of spotlights on each individual's solo compositions. Her selections were "Starfish," "Gordie Sampson's" and "Fire on the Lino" (based on an incident at Nuala Kennedy's house), and the whole group joined in the fun.

It was, Martin said, a reflection of the fun they had at Beinn Bhreagh. "There were a lot of personalities in the house, and even the biggest house becomes small after a few days," he said with a chuckle. His contribution to the evening's playlist was a mellow piece composed for Flo Sampson, whose job at the house "was to make sure we were never hungry."

"This came together quite late, after most of the group stuff was finished," the accordionist explained. "I had eaten so much, there was no chance of playing jigs, reels or even marches." Slow, but solid, the well-rounded trio piece also featured Aidan on fiddle and Kris on upright bass.

Next, Troy joined Kris (on fiddle and guitar, respectively) to support Patricia, who perched behind the piano.

"About 11 months ago, I had a baby girl named Rowan Marie," she said. "Every night I sing to her, because she's not a big fan of sleeping. Well, they say write what you know." The result was a heartbreakingly beautiful lullaby, aptly titled "Sleep Baby Sleep."

Ryan was up next on the low whistle, with a selection of tunes he'd never named; he quickly came up with titles: "Big E," for his son Ewan, followed by "Schooner Lane" and "Shoot to Kill." Kris and Martin provided support. Then Sierra, down from Winnipeg in Manitoba, joined in the party with "The Warrior's Lament," a tune co-written with another pair of musicians in 2001.

"The tune evolved drastically" over a series of performances at various war memorials and battle sites, Sierra explained. "It's become an honor song for our fallen soldiers, our veterans, for our serving military today and our military families as well. All of those people are warriors, and we should remember and thank them every day." Aidan, Troy and Kris provided the foundation for Sierra's weeping fiddle.

Kris next sang "The Banks are Made of Marble," a song he recently revised. "I really like the words," he said. "The tune didn't offend me, but I saw fit to write a new one. So if you like the old one, please don't be offended. It does still exist." This time Aidan, Ryan, Martin and Patricia bolstered the sound; Kris and Patricia in particular sounded good together vocally.

And the baton kept passing, as Colin next came out for a set of fiddle tunes. Indicating the hard work of his backup band -- Aidan, Kris and Martin -- he recalled Kris earlier that day, sacked out on the couch, worrying: "I don't even know if it sounds good anymore. It's all just noise." The audience, with its applause, hastened to assure the crew that it was coming together just fine. The successes continued with Colin's pieces, "Windsor Whirlwind" and "Trolley's Reel."

"I hope you're happy. I know we're happy," Martin said before the full ensemble closed the first half of the evening with a brilliant set of pieces written by various members of the party. Another powerful group blast signaled the start of round two.

Troy had the first spotlight, seated behind the piano for a slow solo number that had no rehearsal. "I'm just going to mess around a little bit," he warned the audience. "I didn't get a chance to compose yesterday, so I'm composing right now." It worked -- so well, in fact, I'm half convinced a few hours of preparation time could only have spoiled the process. From there, the tune picked up for a lively piano/bass duet, followed by the reel "Earth to Troy," named for an e-mail he'd just received, that also featured Martin's accordion and Aidan's and Andrea's fiddles, while Kris swapped his bass for guitar. Somewhere along the way Troy stepped out from behind the piano with his own fiddle, but I missed the seamless transition as Colin and Sierra joined the fray.

Patricia then returned with a Gaelic praise poem for Prince Edward Island for which she'd written a tune; she and Martin performed the music as the Gaelic lyrically and hauntingly described the PEI landscape.

Martin said the project was arranged in the hopes that "spontaneous tune-writing would occur within groups of people who hadn't met or worked together before," and to a large extent it worked exactly as planned. He, Aidan, Colin and Ryan proved their worth next with an improvisational piece titled "Beinn Bhreagh," followed by the disturbingly named "Porcelain Surprise."

After another round of musical chairs, Glenn led off a set with his air, "Lost," with Troy on piano, followed by a family-themed strathspey and the reel set "Amy's Hockey Reel," "Water in the Gas" and "Kinnon Beaton's." Andrea, Aidan, Martin and Patricia jumped for some of the faster bits. Then it was Aidan's turn, with a slow and lovely tune inspired by a beach in the Outer Hebrides and another, livelier tune that sprang from a dull tour of Germany titled "Bah, Hamburg."

Patricia dialed the energy level down a bit with a mournful song she wrote to the tune of "Hector the Hero," about a fierce and oft-honored soldier in the Scottish army just over a century ago who was accused of homosexuality by jealous peers. Arrested for his alleged transgressions, Hector committed suicide to keep the shame from spreading to his family. Already immortalized in the well-known pipe and fiddle tune, Hector has been resurrected again in Patricia's sad, stirring ballad. Ryan's pipes at the end, soaring over the massed fiddles, was chilling.

Aidan announced the close of "our spasm of music" with a final group blast. It was, as so many festival concerts are, over way too soon. But I headed out of Mabou content in the knowledge that the tradition of composition is being carried forward with pride by a gifted generation of young musicians who pour their hearts and souls into every note.

Nine of the 10 musicians -- lacking Ryan, who "fell into bad company somewhere in Mabou" -- reprised their music and their crowd-pleasing success at the Festival Club that night with three sets ("Frank & Flo's," "Girls & Boisdale" and "A Night in Skye") bracketing another take of "Hector the Hero."

Patricia noted later that 35 to 40 percent of the music performed Wednesday night was scribed during the preceding four days, while the rest was arranged from songs and tunes the 10 musicians had brought with them to the four-day writing session. The isolation, she noted, was useful. "It really took us out of things and allowed us to focus on our writing."

review by
Tom Knapp

20 October 2007

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