sound festival 2020 review: Ten Wee Drams

SARAH WATTS: Bass and contrabass clarinets, composer and compère

Saturday 24th October 8pm

Ten Wee Drams? Yes, well that was it exactly. We heard ten short pieces composed by ten very different composers but all of them inspired by scenes, stories, poems and the history of the Scottish Isle of Raasay. It was the birthplace of the Scottish Gaelic poet Sorley MacLean (1911-1996). At least two of the pieces had his poetry at the heart of their inspiration. Raasay was also on of the places heavily affected by the Highland Clearances. Much of the town and the large house are now in ruins thanks to those events and some of the pieces reflected that. Others reflected the natural surroundings of the place, its birds and animals including whales and of course the weather.

Sarah Watts performed all the pieces with her two clarinets, bass and contrabass and before each one, she read out the programme note supplied by the composer. Some of the music was quite graphic and it was easy to connect the music with the inspirations, others being more abstract were helped by the programme notes.

The first piece, played on bass clarinet was Bring My Pipes by Alasdair Nicholson. It was inspired by childhood memories of picnics on Raasay when Alasdair would play amid the ruins of Raasay House where he imagined there were ghosts. Perhaps there were. It contained ideas of an old pipe tune called Bring Me My Bagpipes. There were long held notes along with ornate runs and leaps. Did these suggest the ornamentations of piobaireachd bagpipe music? I don’t know.

The Faery Cup by Jane Stanley was inspired by folk-tales of a young man who goes into a highly ornate fairy home and steals a gold cup from their table. He manages to escape which is unusual. In most of these tales those who enter fairy abodes are gone for ever or else they return years later.

There were slow echoing melodic motifs and leaps to surprising high notes. A rather ornate and atmospheric piece.

The next six pieces were played on the contrabass clarinet beginning with While We Wait by Iain Matheson which likened the wait for whisky to mature to the wait for a musical work to come to fruition. The instrumental sounds were roaringly deep but once again with some high note surprises. Was there a sense of bubbling in the music as the whisky matured or the thoughts came to life in the mind of the composer?

Sarah Watts introduced her own piece entitled The Sound of Temptation referring to a place on Raasay called Temptation Hill. Ooh! I wonder what went on to give it that name? Well for Sarah it was just a great place to enjoy the views and to watch the birds and animals, eagles and whales and of course the weather. Her piece was one of the easiest to follow because it was so graphic. The contrabass could mimic the eagles or whale song and the sounds of wind and rain. It used advanced playing techniques, breathy blowing, puffing and rattling of keys. Sarah worked very hard at delivering her piece.

MOBOFCROWS BY Stuart Macrae was almost as graphic. Macrae remembered seeing two white tailed eagles being mobbed by crows or ravens – an example of high altitude mugging. This was quite a filmic piece in which the motions of the birds were clearly reflected.

Time, the Deer by Piers Hellawell is taken from an image in a poem by Sorley MacLean in which the past is reflected upon and contrasted with the present day when much of Raasay has been given over to nature. A slow air followed by energetic bursts including trills recalled the bubbling streams of the present.

Oliver Searle decided on the subject of The Illicit Still. I knew Oliver from way back and he always had an animated sense of humour. Like Sarah’s piece, his was very graphic bringing out the rhythmic and mechanical sounds of the illicit still – hissing, humming and bubbling. Lots of advanced playing techniques were used with heroic amounts of effort from the performer. This piece was great fun.

Pete Stollery had not been to Raasay but he had heard and read about it. His piece ...the vivid speechless air… dealt in his imagination with the clearances. It was pleasantly melodic if rather sad and possibly a little dreamy as you would expect from the fruits of imagination.

Hallaig is the name of the small town where the poet Sorley MacLean was born but now largely in ruins. The old tune MacPherson’s Lament is used in the music. Piobaireachd and ceilidh music are part of the mix and Sarah had her foot stamping to intensify the effect.

The final piece was by William Sweeney and his title is in the Gaelic, ...ruadh, uaine, dà fhilleadh (red, green, to return) if the computer is correct. Again it is taken from a line in a Sorley MacLean poem. Sweeney uses part of his own setting of the poem The Woods of Raasay for his music here on bass clarinet. It was also decidedly melodic with almost hypnotic rhythms and with leaps from lower to upper notes. The melodic writing was ever more complex turning into a Scottish dance, really very attractive.

This was a most extraordinary concert with such a huge variety of musical inspiration and two musical instruments that you hardly ever hear especially on their own. At my age I thought I had heard everything there was to hear but I had reckoned without the soundfestival. Hooray!     

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