In 2001 I commissioned (with funding from the Scottish Arts Council and the Hope Scott trust) three new pieces by Scottish composers for the lute. They were given their premieres in a concert of historic and contemporary Scottish lute music in the kirk of Boarhills, Fife, not far from the houses of the Balcarres and Wemyss lute manuscripts of the 17th century.
The concert was videotaped, and has been gathering dust on my shelves since then. I eventually transferred it to .vob format, and again to mp4 format for sharing on YouTube. With all this conversion, the sound quality degraded, but is still acceptable. Also, as the night itself was extremely stormy, with eldritch winds circulating around the exposed kirk, the decision was made to amplify the lute. Consequently it sounds like I was playing with fingernails, which is not the case.
UPDATE: I have been given a good-quality sound recording of Eddie McGuire’s piece for oud (see below) and I have re-edited the video to include the improved sound. It is hoped that other pieces were also recorded. If so, those videos will be re-edited.
Sound quality aside, I think the performances are worth sharing, not least because of the three premiere performances, with the composers present in the audience.
1. Two medieval Scottish pieces arranged for 5c medieval lute
2. Three Scottish renaissance Pieces from The Art of Music, Edinburgh c.1570
3. Four Scottish Lute Pieces: A Port (Straloch ms); Milne’s Lilt (Wemyss ms); Lady Lothian’s Lilt and the Courante and Double (Panmure 5 ms)
4. Three Scottish Lute Pieces: I Love My Love In Secret (Balcarres ms); Lady Buccleugh’s Lament (Rowallan ms); Canaries (Straloch ms)
5. World Premiere: The Oud Player of Rosslyn, by Edward McGuire
From the programme note by Eddie McGuire: “While working towards my aim of writing a short characteristic piece for every instrument, one of the great benefits is the process of working with a performer and learning about the instrument. This has been one of the best examples, gaining knowledge through Rob MacKillop and his own study of the oud – combined with memories of meeting the oud player, Moustafa el Kurd in East Jerusalem in 1987. This piece gains a lot of its energy from the interaction of some Scots pipe gestures and rhythms with Turkish dance rhythms and Arabic scales.”
Eddie McGuire lives in Glasgow. Regarded as one of Scotland’s finest classical composers, Eddie is also flute player with the ground breaking folk group, The Whistlebinkies.
6. World Premiere: The Old Composer Remembers, by John Purser
a) The Day of Fanfares b) A Day with a Colleague c) A Day Fishing d) The Day of the Daft Dance
From the programme note by John Purser: “The Old Composer Remembers is dedicated to Mnemosyne and imagines the composer reminiscing on his lute. First he recalls The Day of Fanfares. He no longer has commissions for fanfares, but he no longer needs trumpets to recall the sounds. I have included a fanfare passage from Robert Carver’s Six Part Mass. Next he remembers A Day With A Colleague. This is a tribute to my father-in-law, Elliot Forbes, who was professor of music at Harvard University. His initials form the start of the upper line of a strict but affectionate two-part canon on EFBEs – Elliot Forbes = E F Bflat Eflat. The third movement recalls A Day Fishing. The water flows by and the day is full of daydreams and nothing is caught. Finally he recalls The Day of the Daft Dance. The idea came from nowhere and composed itself in ten minutes, the way daft dances do.”
John Purser lives on Skye, and besides being a composer is also a poet, playwright, archaeological musicologist and writer. His most influential book is Scotland’s Music (Mainstream Publishing), a history of Scotland’s classical and traditional music.
7. World Premier: The Rosslyn Oud, by John Maxwell Geddes
From the programme note by John Maxwell Geddes: “The title refers to the carving of the oud in Rosslyn Chapel (c.1450), and symbolises the influx of Middle-Eastern influence on Scottish culture at that turbulent time in our history. This single movement piece combines Scottish and Moorish elements in alternating fast and slow sections. The work is dedicated to Rob MacKillop.”
John Maxwell Geddes lives in Glasgow. His major works include Symphony No 1, Voyager, and several works commissioned by the conductor Bryden Thomson: Lacuna, Ombre and a second Symphony (1993), and his solo instrumental works include the much performed Callanish sequence.
8. Nine – a Poem by James Robertson, with Oud Improvisation by Rob MacKillop
Unfortunately, James Robertson could not be present to recite his poem, though we did record it for a CD called The Healing (Greentrax 227). Another poet, Robert Crawford, stepped up. Sadly the microphone did not pick up his voice so well. Hopefully this performance will lead you to seeking out the CD recording.
In 1995, the Nigerian government hanged the poet, Ken Saro-Wiwa, along with eight other environmental activists. On the evening of this tragic crime I gave a concert in Edinburgh. The poet, James Robertson was in the audience…
9. The Healing (Pibroch for lute) – for Lute and Lute Soundscape Backing Track, by Rob MacKillop
This piece was born in my imagination on the evening of the 11th September, 2001, in Casablanca. I felt the need to explore the hidden sounds of the lute, to dig deep into the dark recesses of our music, to find the invisible musical ley lines which are timeless, and which bind us. The entire piece, including drones and percussion, is played on the 12-course lute familiar in Fife and Angus regions of Scotland in the 17th Century. This is my humble attempt to feel some sense of healing through music after 9/11…
10. Encore: Niel Gow’s Lament for the Death of his 2nd Wife
The scores for the three premieres are on sale from The Scottish Music Information Centre in Glasgow.
The concert got a review from The Scotsman’s head music critic, Michael Tumelty:
Music Rob MacKillop, Boarhills Church, Fife
SOUTH of St Andrews, isolated, and completely exposed to the battering winds, stands Boarhills Church. On Friday night it was the unlikely scene for a set of world-premiere performances of new works by composers Edward McGuire, John Purser, and John Maxwell Geddes, all commissioned and performed – to a good-sized crowd – by lute player Rob MacKillop.
The composers responded to the unusual commissions in highly imaginative ways.
McGuire’s The Oud Player of Rosslyn, written for the fretless Turkish oud, was a powerfully expressive piece, with a wild, earthy, and janglingly percussive dance rhythm driving its faster music.
Purser’s four-movement work, The Old Composer Remembers, was almost a technical and historical survey of the lute, using a variety of musical forms – memorably, its reflective slow movement and its hard-edged eccentric dance.
Geddes, in his piece The Rosslyn Lute, threw down a real challenge in a work that juxtaposed musical extremes – dark, contemplative music contrasted with fast, insistent figures – used the extreme registers of the instrument, and basically put together music that was out of time (so to speak) with music that was time-driven.
All the pieces were fascinating, a bit over-amplified (though MacKillop was battling against the sound of the weather outside) and authoritatively delivered, along with ancient music for the instrument, and MacKillop’s own new and moving piece, The Healing. The lute player now needs more opportunities to play all these pieces, to get them more instinctively under his fingers and into his blood. A totally different evening of new music, and a real event.