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Tragedy and Triumph

​Buckle up, folks: we’ve another lengthy rave in from our reviewer: if it’s just the funny stories you’re after, scroll on through till you find the line, “And now, back to the funny stories.”
 
Contrary to original predictions, there have been umpteen fortuitous benefits over the years to Celtic Connections’ January dates - primarily performers’ availability, and audiences’ eagerness to escape the midwinter blues - but a major added bonus this year, in artistic terms, has been the festival’s taking place immediately after Scotland’s centenary commemorations of the Iolaire tragedy in Lewis, on New Year’s Day 1919.
 
Hence the presence in the programme of two almost literally stunning, heartbreaking but hugely inspiring new works, co-commissioned by Stornoway’s An Lanntair arts centre - where they premièred late last year - and 14-18 NOW, the UK cultural programme marking 100 years since World War I. On Tuesday, a sold-out Mitchell Theatre witnessed Sàl/Saltwater, by Lewis singer-songwriter/piper Iain Morrison and leading Scottish visual artists Dalziel + Scullion, while Gaelic singer Julie Fowlis and fiddler Duncan Chisholm’s  An Treas Suaile (The Third Wave) likewise packed the Concert Hall to the rafters last night.
 
While the two performances’ myriad engrossing contrasts made them richly complementary companion pieces, heart and soul in each case were passionately in the same place, to profoundly powerful effect, and both were shining examples of 21st-century Scottish music rising magnificently to the most exacting of creative challenges.
 
Behind Sàl lay Morrison’s direct family experience of the Iolaire disaster, in which his great-grandfather drowned – an experience, reverberating down the decades, shared by so many Lewis families – and his prodigal-son relationship with Lewis traditions and culture, particularly as embodied by his father and first music teacher, the noted Pipe Major Iain M. Morrison.
 
Morrison Sr. is a particularly noted exponent of piobaireachd, or Ceòl Mòr, and this ancient musical ritual was spliced with another, Gaelic psalm singing (shading into the primal desolation of caoin), to underpin his son’s edgily compelling, often semi-abstract but tightly crafted compositions.
 
Besides Morrison on pipes, vocals, guitar and whistle, his line-up featured singer and fiddler Lori Watson, cellist Pete Harvey, Emma Connell-Smith on viola, drummer Joe Smillie and double bassist Gordon MacLean, all of whose performance matched the whole endeavour in calibre and commitment.
 
In genre terms, the music also interwove strands of folk, minimalism, trance and grungy, angry indie-rock, including such elements as long, single-note drones on both Morrison’s cauld-wind pipes and the strings; fragmentary but vivid lyrics in amongst other, wordless vocals, and a near-constant, insistent, underlying rhythmic pulse.
 
Modes, moods and effects spanned from the meditative, hypnotic, prayerful and incantatory to clangour, disorder, maelstrom and death-knells. The piece’s 12 sections, or ‘chapters’, were each punctuated by a deliberately protracted pause, subtly enacting the predominant silence that characterised individual and community responses to the tragedy in Lewis, dictated in no small part by Free Presbyterian strictures.
 
It was also a beautiful match between the music and Dalziel + Scullion’s achingly sympathetic, gracefully understated filmic approach, distilling imagery and narrative elements to purest essentials. Sàl means salt or salt water, evoking most obviously the sea, but also that same sálm tradition, together with cleansing, healing and preservation, and the visuals correspondingly centred on simple, single symbols that nonetheless resonated on multiple levels.
 
The first, potently unhurried onscreen sequence presented blurry old black-and-white photographs of those who perished, followed by lingering, full-colour, high-definition images of their descendants today. While the latter shots were similarly face-on, close up, still and impassive, however, their subjects eventually revealed - by a blink, half-smile, or lock of hair stirring in a breeze – that this was film, not photos: they were alive, not dead.
 
Other standout visual memories include a knotted rope stretching far across the Lewis landscape (variously evoking a fence, a washing-line - and thus moments of solitary female introspection - tautness, fragility and resilience); three herring on a plate (simultaneously death, and the sea’s life-giving bounty), and a single blade of marram-grass blowing in the wind, carving a single delicate line in the sand.
 
An underwater passage, over a waving kelp-bed, was filmed upside-down, thus inverting the sea’s surface and its depths, instantly evoking the boundaries between darkness and light, this world and the next. Next came a shot of sunshine dancing on shadowed water, scintillating into 200 or so points of light. Not that the creators disdained directness where appropriate, conjuring the story’s critical moment with chilling footage of a monstrously storm-lashed, spume-strewn sea, in all its pitiless might and menace, soundtracked by cacophonous musical mimesis.
 
The founding story’s terrible, implacable darkness was also searingly encapsulated in the piece’s only substantial verbal interlude, comprising excerpts of survivors and other islanders’ first-hand recollections of that night, sampled from a 1959 radio documentary. As expressed in Morrison’s chosen mix of elements, however, themes of survival, recovery, hope and emotional honesty were equally central to his vision as devastating loss, cross-generational trauma, and silence’s double-edged powers: all of the above shone transcendently through the performance, together with much, much more.
 
(A further report on An Treas Suaile to follow tomorrow.)
 
And now, back to the funny stories. . .
 
An instructive tale was overheard in La Bonne Auberge/Holiday Inn bar last night, recalling several years back when another longtime festival linchpin’s girlfriend, embarking on her first-ever Celtic Connections visit, arrived at the Holiday Inn Theatreland and asked for a second key to their room, so she could just turn up at his door and surprise him. The likewise longtime linchpin night manager at reception duly activated another card – then as soon as the lift doors closed behind her, he was on the phone to the boyfriend to tip him off.
 
The lady’s story in this instance was eminently plausible, unsurprisingly, as in this instance it was all true, but oor Andy and Alex – though we can’t imagine them getting caught out themselves – have seen plenty enough others caught out by such situations, one way and another, that they’ll make sure and cover the bases for their pals.
 
A certain longtime friend of the festival is known for dispensing aromatherapy remedies to folk who find themselves flagging over these long festival nights, specifically an elixir that banishes imminent slumber and magically clears the head. Highly efficacious as it is, however, it arguably missed the desired effect a couple of nights back, by reviving a near-comatose piper, arriving at La Bonne Auberge post-Folkytown, to the point where he immediately scurried back to the 24-hour shop he’d just stumbled past, to buy some equally legal, but considerably less wholesome stimulant seemingly on sale there.
 
That may have been the same night Michael McGoldrick regaled us with how he came to be the owner of a gaita, the Galician bagpipes, which he’s never actually played. It involved an early visit to Santiagio de Compostela, and a passing but possibly ill-worded expression of interest in learning the instrument, fatally made within earshot of a local pipe-maker. Six months later came an unexpected phone-call, to which Mike’s responses included “How much? How much!?!”, upon learning of his completed set’s price, plus postage costs. Feeling somehow obligated, he duly paid up and received his purchase, but it’s pretty much stayed in its case ever since, for reasons which became clear: “I did want to learn how to play it,” he explained. “But every time I tried, I just ended up bleeding.”