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James Clapperton on Northern Skies (Movements 1-3, out of 4)

From a very young age I became acquainted with the landscape and culture of the far north. My father Chalmers, now retired was a geography professor at Aberdeen University. I travelled with him on field expeditions to Iceland, and we were accompanied by an earnest group of student geographers, replete with thick Arran jumpers and pipes. My father also spent a total of two years on the Antarctic Peninsula. The first story I recited at school was the race for the pole between Roald Amundsen and Captain Scott.

As a musician my cultural life above the Arctic Circle began in 2002 with invitations to play piano with the Bodø Sinfonietta. In January 2014 I took up the post of producer of the Arctic Arts Festival of Norway. My main tasks have been promoting Samí, or Lapp culture and music, and cooperation with Arctic Russia. The latter task came about as a consequence of involvement in the Russian cultural scene dating back to 1992.

It cannot be underestimated how much the weather and changes in light impact upon the psyche in the polar regions. My home town of Harstad is situated 160 miles above the Arctic Circle. During the months of the midnight sun the entire town is relentlessly active. From late November the sun disappears altogether for over two months. Last December I was on tour. As we entered the village of Honningsvåg, at the tip of the north coast of Finnmark, it as pitch black at midday.

The Aurora Borealis in searing temperatures and all encompassing darkness often appears from nowhere. Due to the latitude it is regularly seen in Harstad. On winter walks home it shoots across the sky. At one moment it is all around; at the next it fades away…then moments later it will stretch far out across the fjord. The opening movement of the ensemble work Northern Skies, commissioned by Sound Festival and Red Note Ensemble, recalls those evenings.

I live outside of town on the site of a former Nazi Concentration Camp where an unknown number of Red Army soldiers perished in brutal conditions. It is a sad, yet beautiful place and where only myself and an organist reside. The winter walks home are ones of frozen solitude, except for the Northern Lights, which banish that sense of melancholy. The music is therefore, a tribute to a constant friend from the heavens, that makes the long Arctic night no longer seem so bleak, but quite magical.

Tone Anita Karlsen, Gunnhildur Gunnarsdottir and Svetlana Zhukova pre-recorded three texts to be played before three of the four movements. The texts are in Norwegian, Viking Norn, and Russian. I wanted the languages of the Arctic regions to be heard in the performance.

As I composed the second movement portraying Iceland and summer evenings spent as a child by the glacier Vatnajökull an altogether different picture manifested itself. This was a nostalgic vision of midnight sun, and the vast peaceful blue ice sheets of the glacier. The title Fornyrðyslag means; “the manner of old utterances”. The inspiration comes from the lines of the Viking sagas, and the language of Iceland remains a medieval version of the much more modern Norwegian. The thought was to compose a simple, translucent melody, reminiscent of plaintive Icelandic song.

Beloe Bezmolvie is preceeded by Svetlana´s erudition of Pushkin´s poem Winter Evening. Harstad is surrounded by mountain peaks, but further east the landscape flattens out into the Arctic tundra. Beloe Bezmolvie (“the white silence”) was inspired by recent trips to towns such as Zapolyarnyi and Murmansk. There is a keen sense of both beauty and cruelty. First, the endless birch forests, bears, wolves and thriving wildlife which lives among the trees. Then there is the weather, which reminds you constantly of your fragility, and that it´s unpredictable temperament has to be respected at all times. The music in this case, aims to create a rough edged rawness. The snare drum emerges as the central protagonist.

(1/2) Second part including the final movement will be posted soon.

James Clapperton, Composer

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