Hands Up for Trad’s Ignition Award is an award for musicians and bands who put the charge into the tradition. At Hands Up for Trad we like to celebrate innovation so we have brought forward this award to celebrate those musicians who take chances and in doing so make Scottish trad music an exciting place to be.
We asked violinist, arranger and composer Robert McFall the following questions.
When did you first start playing music?
We always sang a lot in my family – often songs from the Cecil Sharp folk song book (it was wonderful to return to some of these songs, like, for example, Lord Bateman, with Dave Brady). I had piano lessons from the age of six but didn’t get on very well with it. It was only when I started playing the violin at the age of eight that I really took off.
Did you make a conscious decision to be innovative with your music?
In the early days of Mr McFall’s Chamber definitely yes. We were trying to go into almost absurd areas of music for a string quartet – Pink Floyd’s “Interstellar Overdrive”, or the Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy in the UK”. We wanted to get as far away as we could from the classical mainstream. We wanted also to make unusual juxtapositions, both in terms of programming (Piazzolla to Weather Report to Purcell to Webern) and in terms of bringing different acts together on the same stage (string quartet to live poetry to traditional music to free jazz). We embraced weirdness, perhaps more than innovation, and weirdness presented itself often and easily (I’m talking about the early days of the group). Part of that search for unusual partnerships led us, very early, to collaborations with traditional musicians such as Dave Brady and Matt Seattle – and later, of course, Fraser Fifield, Corrina Hewat, James Ross and Aidan O’Rourke.
What are your main influences?
We were impressed by the range of music the Kronos Quartet were bringing about. It was probably they, for example, who led us to Arvo Part and John Adams (though we beat them in that we actually premiered “John’s Book of Alleged Dances” in the UK,, the piece John Adams wrote for them, before they had a chance to do so themselves.) We were also impressed by the way they used string quartet in so many different strands of World music. I guess another big influence for me was my two sons, who were involved, as teenagers, in a rather exotic music scene in Edinburgh at the time, which I definitely wouldn’t have known about otherwise.
What music excites you that we should be listening to?
One of my sons, George, runs a record company – Tenement Records – with his friends Riley Briggs and Dominic Harris. They release their own albums on the label, all of which are brilliant (of course, I’m not biased!) So their bands are Aberfeldy, Dominic Waxing Lyrical and Clean George IV. I’ve got a lot of pleasure this year from listening to Dominic Waxing Lyrical’s “Woodland Casual” album. I’ve also enjoyed Kate Young’s album “Swimmings of the Head” and Twelfth Day’s album “The Devil Makes Three”. Seeing as all three albums were gifts from the artists themselves, you can see that I’m not very good at supporting the recording industry with my custom! The SCO’s cycle of Schumann symphonies with Robin Ticciati are also good, although I tend not to listen back to these things very often – too much of a busman’s holiday. I enjoyed those sessions very much, in spite of terrible toothache at the time. Also on the classical front, Simon Smith’s new recording of piano music by Valentin Silvestrov has been a revelation to me – a late Soviet composer from the Ukraine, his music has a tremendous warmth and glow.
What are your plans for the future?
We’re touring a new setting of poems about islands by both Caribbean and Scottish poets in the autumn. The composer is from Belize, London-based Errollyn Wallen, the singer, Scottish soprano Susan Hamilton. This tour will take us to both London and Cork. We’re reconvening our jazz line-up for a concert with new commissions featuring SCO clarinettist Maximiliano Martín and bassoonist Peter Whelan. We’re also repeating our semi-staged production of Astor Piazzolla’s “María de Buenos Aires”. We’re planning further collaborations with Kate Young, Dominic Harris and others. Oh, and there’ll be a lot more…
How will you celebrate receiving Hands Up for Trad’s Ignition Award?
I will celebrate the award by sending up a number of rockets, maybe 5 large ones, each of which will have an invitation attached which the finder can redeem for a ticket to any of our October events along with a free drink – “igniting” the rocket?