Strathspey and Surreal Review (Kinda)

Well, Celtic Connections is over. So,

theoretically that pile of washing, chain of email correspondents and healthy eating you abandoned for two weeks should be taken care of… ish. However, there is no need to be sad because I’ll be looking back at that grueling 18 days of Music and reviewing some of the shows I was lucky enough to get a seat! Now, it would make sense to start with my very first gig wouldn’t it? Well, this was actually my second.

Strathspey and Surreal – Saturday 23rd January 2016

Strathspey and Surreal is a joint project between Fiddler Aidan O’Rourke and Simon Thoumire of Hands up for Trad to pay tribute to the Strathspey and Reel Societies of the land. The project premieres four innovative compositions by O’Rourke and Thoumire as well as Shona Mooney and Jenn Austin. Did I mention they were written for 21 fiddle players? Quite literally, name a fiddler and there is a high chance they were on that stage. Rua MacMillan, Patsy Reid and Lauren MacColl to name a few! I really enjoyed this concert and all four pieces were typical of each composer’s personal style whilst still in keeping with the recognized attributes of a Strathspey and Reel Society. But, if I had to pick a favorite, it would be Jenns!

“The tradition is nothing without innovation. Innovation is nothing without the tradition. They go hand in hand. We need innovation to keep our music and culture moving forward, to keep the interest of young people. We need the tradition because its what we love. It’s what’s in our hearts; it’s why we are part of it all.” Simon Thoumire

I could not agree more with the wise words of Simon Thoumire in his introduction of the 21 strong Fiddle Orchestra. Even in the strong place that the folk world finds itself in, Innovation is essential to keep our tradition strong. I took an immediate interest when I heard about this project as I have had a few varying experiences when it has come to playing in a Strathspey and Reel society. Here are two examples where one society is embracing innovation while the other still has a bit to go.

Now, I know that every group is different and have different ways of running and doing things but some of my own experiences have been quite odd. First of all, I have had so many great times playing in my ‘home’ society. I’ve been literally half way across the world to Cape Breton Island and well, all the way across to Benbecula. Simply just for the tunes and to immerse ourselves in the culture. I’ve played in countless rallies up and down the country-admiring guest Fiddlers, Singers and Musicians from a few rows further back on stage like the lucky sod I am. I suppose I was lucky with my ‘home’ society that they have always wanted to get younger people involved within the group, mostly by leading and teaching at the Junior Section. Prior to the main practice setting into full swing. I also struck lucky in that there has always been a core committee of people doing exactly what Simon says is needed, Innovating. I like to think I do quite well for knowing the “in” contemporary tunes in funny keys and time signatures. Don’t get me wrong I LOVE the old tunes, but have we not all gone ugh! When we hear the Athol Highlanders for the tenth time that night? Luckily, my home society is not scared to challenge themselves with new and different tunes that you sometimes wouldn’t expect to hear at one of our ceilidhs. Sure, there is always a place for MSR, two steps and the like, but we’re daring! We have had slides, slip jigs and god only knows what is next.

However, when I moved away from home to study I was still keen to play and get in and about within the local scene. So, I joined an ‘away’ society to help my efforts. Now, I didn’t exactly know what to expect when I turned up but… I was youngest person there by thirty years, at least. Don’t get me wrong, the people were lovely, friendly and welcoming and loved their wee society but it soon became evident why I was the youngest member they had had in a long time. For a starter, the same booklet of Music was played front to back every week with no variation in it at all. One thing I also ought to mention is that I am a full on tune geek. I love discovering new tunes, old tunes, Highland, Lowland, Manx, Irish, Cape Breton, the lot. But, playing with my ‘away’ society I was aware of most of the tunes already and as it turns out so were the rest of the group. I later learned that the music was being recycled from twenty years earlier with much of the group having played it the first time round. We speak about how Innovation is so important to get young people interested in our traditional music. But what about keeping the older generation interested? Surely, innovation is just as important to keep older people interested in trad music as well as the young. It is sad to say that there was a general downward decline in numbers in the society as time passed until eventually I myself decided that it wasn’t worth me going either. I didn’t look forward to it each week and finally decided it wasn’t worth it.

So, yeah…that wasn’t really a review. But, most importantly Parents, teachers and other musicians please encourage fiddlers of all ages and abilities to go along to your local club and give it a shot. Who knows, they might just be on stage for installment 2 of Strathspey and Surreal.