Robert McFall: RememberedImagined #1

My role with Mr McFall’s Chamber includes a fair amount of roadying, so my day started with loading a van with heavy boxes. Once at North Edinburgh Arts, which is rapidly becoming a home from home for us, I was, by stages, drawn into an extraordinary team, all of them experts in their field. Amble’s friend Tom was first to arrive, along with our general manager Judith. Then Ben Seal and his brother Jo, who arrived on the dot of midday having driven from Inverness. Next Amble herself, the only begetter of this whole project and also the composer for the first day, closely followed by Angus Peter, writer and actor, Maeve Mackinnon, Gaelic singer, Pippa Murphy, electronics expert and composer, and, of course, Rosenna, Su-a, Rick and Andy, the other musicians – a full team of thoroughbreds, though pulling in perfect step.

I had not understood Amble’s piece until today. She has taken a recording of the telling of a folk tale from South Uist, chosen by Angus Peter from the archive of recordings in the School of Scottish Studies and recorded in the ‘70s, and has painstakingly notated every aspect of the narrator’s rhythm and pitch. This central thread of a melody line, taken from speech, is sometimes played along with by players, sometimes sung along with by Maeve and sometimes echoed both in English and in Gaelic by Angus Peter. Meanwhile the other strings, those not playing the speech melody, accompany in various ways. I do not remember hearing of anyone attempting this process before. I suppose it comes close to what Messiaen did with bird song. As we started to disentangle the piece my initial admiration for the idea became beset by the thought that just because something is an original idea doesn’t necessarily mean that it is a good idea. This feeling stayed with me for a while until we started to get a bit more accurate with the help of a click track, and until we started to add Maeve and Angus Peter to the mix. As we started to get the feel for Amble’s intended sounds the room seemed to fill up more and more with the atmosphere of this extraordinary folk tale – fancy electronics set up by Amble and Pippa turned the girls’ (Rosenna and Su-a’s) giggles into riotous seabird shrieks, our pizzicatos into shadowy echoes from the supernatural world. What with those and also the language and inflections of the recorded story-telling, echoed by Maeve and Angus Peter’s own delivery, we felt ourselves drawn into the sound world of South Uist. The music chimed in perfectly with this strangeness. A quite extraordinary day.

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