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VARIOUS ARTISTS - Border Tunesmiths

VARIOUS ARTISTS - Border Tunesmiths
Borders Traditions LTCD4003

The sixth volume in the Borders Traditions series, produced by the Scottish Borders Council, differs from the earlier CDs in the series in that it focuses on the production of new music for the region. It derives from a live concert given in the Heart Of Hawick auditorium in March 2009, which itself was the programmed culmination of the Borders Tunesmiths project. In essence, this involved the collective composition and eventual performance, by nine traditional musicians from all around the Scottish Borders (Jedburgh to Kelso, Hawick to Chirnside, St. Boswells to Birgham), of new instrumental music inspired by that special region. The project, which was coordinated by fiddle player Shona Mooney, in her role of Traditional & World Music Development Worker, began with a residential weekend near Kelso which gave the musicians space to create and explore melodic themes connecting the Borders, using various experimental techniques to spark off creativity (for instance, over 20 tunes were composed using a kind of “pass-the-parcel” technique dubbed Write A Bar!) and express melodic ideas arising from aspects of Borders life and tradition (landscapes, observations, sayings and personalities).

Five of the participating musicians happen to be fiddle players: Shona Mooney, Iain Fraser and Lori Watson, with Innes Watson who doubles on guitar, and Matt Seattle – who’s arguably more well-known for his skill on the Border pipes, an instrument which both he and low whistle player Chris Waite play for this project. Completing the roster are flautist Martin Marroni, accordionist Christopher Keatinge and harpist Elspeth Smellie. The end-product is just over an hour’s worth of new music, 14 individual tracks mostly given titles which give a definite clue to the musical identity enshrined within. Some are individual pieces, others take the form of suites or tune-sets; a handful are true collective compositions, and even then rarely do all the musicians perform as an ensemble for the composed textures are light and airy with melodies given space to breathe and develop at what feels like an unhurried, leisurely pace.

Inevitably, many of the compositions are programmatic or pictorial in nature, and these range from the genuinely delightful and gently evocative (Teviot Stepping Stones and Cheviot Summit) to the more contrived, indeed over-literal (On Auld Lauder Licht’s portrayal of a steam train journey); and Gypsies is a fairly obvious eastern-European pastiche. There’s a tender solo harp portrait from Elspeth, and The Hill Road To Roberton incorporates a recitation of words by W.H. Ogilvie. One of the best tracks is the blandly titled Harp vs Accordion, which builds nicely from its pleasingly reflective opening via jazz and café inflections to a stimulating final ensemble section. On the other hand, the tentative slow-jazz groove of Twairse doesn’t really seem to get very far in development terms. But arguably the most satisfying of the pieces (at any rate for repeated listening) are the more extended ones like Sweet Suite and the Cheese Well set, for these embody more of a sense of adventure (and enjoyment) and betray less of an “occasional” nature to their invention.

The disc is an enhanced CD-ROM and also contains full tune notations, further information on the project and the musicians including photographs.

David Kidman

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This album was reviewed in Issue 86 of The Living Tradition magazine.