In July 2018 I attended The North Atlantic Fiddle Festival and Symposium (NAFCO). The event ran for 5 days in Abdereen mainly hosted at the Lemon Tree and Anatomy Rooms with other venues across Aberdeen City and wider Aberdeenshire.
The festival included concerts, workshops and talks all focused on the fiddle and fiddle traditions from locations across the North Atlantic. There were visting artists that I interviewed including Patsy Reid and Anders Hall. Patsy is a key practitioner in my research and Anders Hall uses the viola extensively in his work with The Nordic Fiddlers Bloc.
I was presenting my first conference paper as part of the symposium on the Sunday. The title was ‘The Big Fiddle: Why the Viola is an Instrument in its Own Right.’ The paper was well attended especially as it was on the last day of a pretty intense week. Below is an overview of my slides and commentary:
My research explores the potential role the viola has in Scottish Traditional music. I have carried out contextual research to document current practice, identify if there is a need for the viola in Scottish Traditional music and to situate my practice and forthcoming creative contribution.
Aitkenhead carried out Ethnograpic research in 2014 exploring the viola in English traditional music, concluding that there is need for a focus in Scottish traditional music. There is limited documentation of the viola in Scottish traditional music and more research is needed to address this. However the viola timeline is well documented in classical music research and it has been necessary to draw on this in my research, Cobbett surmised in 1929 that the viola was:
Damning as this assessment is, it’s important to note the role in part writing, an occupation that traditional music practitioners are adopting more and more in their creative practice – examples of which we will see later on.
Scottish Violist William Primrose stated that the viola is, quote, ‘An Instrument Without Tradition’ (Primrose, 1988, said in 1978) this is both a blessing and a curse. Ultimately it should give freedom to practitioners to do what they want, and it does, but it can also place it, as being used as a token gesture which doesn’t help it gain any respect or lineage. This quote from Primrose pertains to the viola in the classical idiom however it is reflected in current trad. practice:
This is the practice that mainly happens in Scottish trad music with the viola; fiddle players use it for 1-2 album tracks or a fiddle player is employed to use it as a recording musician without any training. Although this sounds negative it is the situation of the viola in the scene at the moment.
Furthermore, one of the overriding opinions through the key practitioner interviews was that it was important for the viola to not trace a copy of the fiddle style and technique. That to be successful it must forge its own path. Shetland fiddler Chris Stout is keen for the viola to be used in a way that makes the most of its tonal & supportive qualities: ‘It’s [the viola] capable of so much, I think that’s where people devalue it, because of its supporting role, but I think that’s it’s amazing strength.’ (Stout, 2017) He also went on to say:
Highland fiddle player Lauren MacColl has been very cautious in her approach to the viola, ensuring that she doesn’t treat it like ‘a big fiddle’:
Interestingly in my interview with Anders yesterday, he talked about how he does treat the viola as a fiddle, and even uses a fiddle bow in his playing. However if he was to pursue solo playing on the viola he would want to spend practice time developing his style and technique.In February 2017 and 2018 I led viola workshops at Feis Gleann Albainn – a workshop weekend for amateur adult players. I provided 10 violas for participants to use over the weekend and then I ran a focus group, 2017 and a workshop/focus group 2018. The participants in this study could all play the fiddle. From beginner right up to professionally competent. If not competent on the fiddle then on another instrument such as guitar. Consequently all participants immediately compared the viola to the fiddle, as it being secondary to it;
The discussion began quite negatively with comments such as the viola is ‘restrictive’, ‘uncomfortable’, ‘limited fiddle’ and ‘hard’. The group were very open and forthcoming. They discussed the topics at length and concluded with a positive attitude towards the viola, ‘lovely gutsy tone’, ‘mellow’, ‘warmth and depth’, ‘adds a different flavour’, ‘more rhythmic possibilities’ [than fiddle], ‘more musical’ and ‘more choice of tunes’ if the viola was more established. Also an enthusiasm for more viola in folk music education.
One of the surprising and pleasing responses was how phrasing structure of a tune could change when using the viola and they wanted to see more of that:
Some of the best musicians in Scotland meet in Glasgow sessions, not only to play tunes, but to improvise and communicate at an advanced musical level. This level of musicianship demands technique and skill that would not be a stranger in some of the top orchestral and solo scenes.
This is important to my work because it opens up a direct creative avenue to pursue for placing the viola in traditional music, from relating it to a genre that it is already established in, that I am very familiar with and that reflects the Scottish Trad. Music scene in contemporary practice
Keeping with Chamber Music, the string quartet nearly constitutes a genre of its own, and as a concept, carries particular preconceptions of style and virtuosity.
1. Build a stylistic language – My approach to building a stylistic language is to work through historical repertoire and established tune styles such as Strathspeys, Marches, Waltzes, Slow Airs, Reels, Jigs & Slip Jigs etc. from a solo perspective to form a bank of left hand and right hand ornaments that reflect traditional styles whilst showing the viola’s qualities of tone and depth. Part of the unknown with this is how the voicing of a tune will affect the ornamentation and consequently the phrasing. Equally the chordal, rhythmical and melodic possibilities that change dependent on keys and style of tune.
2. Set tunes for the viola – I intend to compose original tunes for the viola exploring keys out with the ‘trad’ norms.
3. Run a series of ensemble experiments – I intend to conduct a series of practical experiments working on existing and new repertoire in the forms of duos with viola & ‘trad’ instruments. I want to see how the viola fits with different timbres and styles that are already established in the Scottish Tradition. I have tried the viola with guitar, not extensively and with caution. On reflection, the guitarist needs to be sympathetic enough to treat the viola as a viola, not a violin. I have also performed viola tunes with Gillian Fleetwood on the Clarsach and with Adam Sutherland on the fiddle.
4. Chamber Folk Ensembles – Write for Chamber Folk Ensembles as I have identified a similarity with current traditional music and values held in the chamber music community.
Historically the viola, in Scotland, has been implemented in orchestral, sacred and chamber music works. In the last fifty years, we can see evidence of occasional use in Folk music, as an addition to the fiddle tradition. The viola does not have a Folk music tradition of its own (unlike the various instrument traditions in Scotland e.g. fiddle, cello, pipes, harp, lute/guitar).
Key practitioners, performers, composers and learners agree that the viola has something to offer, not only to establish a strand of tradition but to facilitate the discovery of wider creative prospects for the ‘living tradition’.. Furthermore, previous research and existing literature explicity request and support the creative and critical exploration of the potential of the viola in this genre.
Traditional music practitioners are using the viola in traditional music composition, arrangement and performance. The majority are fiddle players, in search of a new sound or texture in their creative practice.
Primrose states, ‘the two great distinctions between violin and viola playing lie in the proper use of fingering and bowing.’ (Primrose, 1976: 174) Fiddle players are not yet employing the viola to full potential and few violists play in ‘the tradition’ identifying as a violist. For me, engaging with Scottish traditional music as non-native and a violist; the scarcity of violisits is overwhelmingly evident.
The context and preliminary creative work provide evidence that the viola is versatile, wanted by practitioners, interesting in its qualities and could be a vehicle for creativity in traditional music.
Practitioners have highlighted the viola’s potential in it’s sonorous qualities, being its richness, depth and warmth consequently holding quite an emotive place in the music they create. There is interest in exploring the middle line in traditional music more extensively with the viola being automatically suited to that due to it’s role in other genres.
The next stage of my research will explore the capabilities of the viola; what instruments it works best with, form a skills base for viola practitioners, challenge current roles of melody players and produce creative outcomes to represent the findings.
This research is fundamental to establishing a ‘creative space’ for solo viola-fiddle practice, composition, performance and learning.
The big fiddle has big potential and I’m really looking forward to exploring it. Thank you.