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Sound Unbound with Karine Polwart

Nothing Concrete text
12 Feb 2020
15 min listen

Folk musician, Karine Polwart, speaks about storytelling traditions in folk music and the importance of place encapsulated in Peter Maxwell Davies’ 'Farewell to Stromness', an unlikely protest song against a proposed uranium mine in Orkney.

The reason I'm into folk music is because it tells stories, it speaks to social history, and it speaks to how people connect with place and landscape and ‘Farewell to Stromness’ definitely does that 

Introduced by Josie Long and with help from conductor Ben Gernon, Sound Unbound meets with creative minds to learn about the music that moves them. Part of Nothing Concrete, the Barbican podcast.

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Nothing Concrete: Sound Unbound with Karine Polwart

Listen as folk musician, Karine Polwart, speaks about storytelling traditions in folk music and the importance of place encapsulated in Peter Maxwell Davies’ 'Farewell to Stromness', an unlikely protest song about a proposed uranium mine in Orkney.


JL: Hello, and welcome to Nothing Concrete, the Barbican podcast. I'm Josie Long, and I'm here to accompany you through Sound Unbound, where we meet an eclectic collection of creative thinkers to dig into the music that they love. 
Today's guest is a musician with a love of the natural world. She's chosen music by a maverick composer who is equally inspired by the landscape that he immersed himself in.

KP: My name is Karine Polwart and I am a folk singer, songwriter, theatre maker and writer, based just south of Edinburgh. And I'm here at the Barbican today for a project called The Scottish Songbook which is a 50-year romp through Scottish pop history, through the ears of a folk singer.

I've chosen Peter Maxwell Davies' ‘Farewell to Stromness’. It's a very short piece and it's very, very simple.

My background isn't in classical music, I wasn't brought up listening to classical music. My background's in folk music and pop music. And the reason I love ‘Farewell to Stromness’ is because of its simplicity. It's quite unlike lots of other music, which is quite difficult. It's quite difficult and tricksy to listen to and quite angular. But he lived on the island of Hoy at Rackwick, in Orkney for years and to me that piece of music reeks of that place. Which I know, I love Orkney and I've been on Hoy and walked just where he lived and sailed around the boat in those waters round about there and there's something about the feeling of that piece of music. And the story behind it, because it was written in 1980 as a political protest, which is relatively rare in the world of classical music. But not at all rare in my world of folk music. The reason I'm into folk music is because it tells stories, it speaks to social history, and it speaks to how people connect with place and landscape and ‘Farewell to Stromness’ definitely does that because it was written in response to a proposed uranium mine development in Orkney, just a couple of miles away from Stromness. One of my other obsessions is with nuclear culture. And I have written songs around nuclear power and around industry and around land and environment and how humans exploit it. I have a whole theatre piece called Wind Resistance that's about a local moorland area close to where I live in the south of Scotland. So I'm really interested in the whole idea of deep ecology and how humans inhabit landscape and to me ‘Farewell to Stromness’ nails it, I find it so moving. 

I mean I was walking down on the banks of the Thames today, just reminded myself of how it sounded, and it could bring me to tears at any moment. There's something about the... the opening part of it is structured like a folk melody. I have loads of friends who are fiddlers and accordion players and pianists who write in a folk, a Scottish folk idiom and loads of the tunes have A parts and B parts and they're repeated and actually repeated with slightly different iterations each time. And what makes a folk melody stick is that it can be passed orally from one person to another. So things that are too complicated, don't last. But things that are instantaneously memorable are the things that have legs. And so the first part, of ‘Farewell to Stromness’ is just like a fiddle melody to me. It even has a little kind of snap to it. Da dum di! It's very identifiably Scottish, the rhythm of that opening phrasing. 

And then there's a wee journey that it goes on from there before coming back to close with that same very, very simple, stark melody. So yeah, it's about place. It's about loss. It's clearly - it's leaving a place. I mean, the idea behind it is that these people are leaving the place because the land has become polluted as a result of radioactive, you know, poisoning. And I, I find that really profound and I am actively right now writing about nuclear waste and nuclear weaponry and nuclear science, and the whole idea of the legacy that we leave for future generations by engaging in that kind of technological activity. So, ‘Farewell to Stromness’ just captures all of that.

JL: Ultimately, Stromness was spared and the uranium mine never came to fruition. And I'm not saying that that was solely down to this piece of music, but at the same time, what creating it and performing it did, was connect people in other parts of the United Kingdom through an issue that might otherwise have seemed remote and separate from them. And listening to it makes you want to go to Orkney to understand that sense of place. But who was Peter Maxwell Davies? Although he lived on Orkney for years, he was originally from Salford. Here's conductor Ben Gernon, who worked with him.

BG: Sir Peter Maxwell Davies is one of Britain's most celebrated and notorious composers of the 20th century. Max, as he was affectionately known, had this wonderful combination of medieval mysticism, modernist rigour and a wonderful sense of accessibility. He was not scared to tackle important political and philosophical issues. And also his music was extremely challenging to listen to as well.

You can also hear in Max's music, a wonderful sense of Orcadian folk melodies. There's a piece he wrote called ‘The Mirror of Whitening Light’. And this piece written in the 70s, was all about him looking out of his window and looking at the light falling from the sky, but also onto the water below. And he was very aware of the environments in which he lived. I remember when I worked with him for his 80th birthday Prom, we spoke quite at length about climate change. One of the pieces I was recording of his was called ‘Last Door of Light’. And this was all about his concern that he would one day be covered in water with rising sea levels. So he wasn't afraid of confronting audiences with difficult issues and also music that challenged you in the sense that it wasn't always a comfortable listen. Often strings would slide up and down on strange harmonics, then you'd have very violent punches in the brass. And then you could possibly have a wonderful folk melody to finish off in a really nice Orcadian way.

KP: So my first introduction to Peter Maxwell Davies actually comes through my brother. My brother studied classical guitar up at Napier University in Edinburgh. And I remember him talking about Maxwell Davies with a kind of 'Phffff, jeeso. This stuff is difficult!'. And he was in a pop band at the time, called Why Bradley? and they had this song, it was called ‘Whatever Happened to Melody Maxwell?’ And Melody Maxwell was like this fictional character that they'd created. But basically it was also a response from all the guys in the band, to unlistenability of loads of Peter Maxwell Davies' music! So that was my first awareness of Maxwell Davies as a composer and ‘Farewell to Stromness’, I guess it came a few years after that. I can't even remember exactly how it happened but I remember being shocked that it was the same composer because it didn't bear any relationship to what I understood to be his music. And to me, that's the interesting thing about ‘Farewell to Stromness’ is that you can enjoy it as a piece of music on its own, with no knowledge whatsoever of what, you know, initiated the writing of that piece. There's a feeling to it like it's unmistakeably lonesome and makes your, makes my heart just sort of lift out of my body a little bit. But to know the story behind the piece of music, to me, adds just an extra level of heft. And gives it a kind of filmic quality, in my opinion. I can literally see the boats filled with people leaving Stromness. I can situate myself in the actual place and environment and I find that not a distraction from the music itself, but something that enriches what it means. 

I think Maxwell Davies is an interesting character because he lived in Orkney for such a huge chunk of his life, and so much of his work is complex and jagged. And, you know, to the...well to someone like me to be frank, that's not come through a culture of classical music, you know, in my early years, it's quite difficult to find a route into it. And it is music that demands head energy it is not music that I can immerse myself in. It's music that feels like it requires constant concentration. He was able to do that, whilst respecting the culture of the place that he found himself in, as a composer of the highest order.

BG: One of his pieces that's extremely famous is ‘An Orkney Wedding with Sunrise’. And you may know this piece because it finishes with the entrance of a bagpiper. This may quite possibly be one of the only pieces written for an orchestra that features a bagpipe. But throughout this piece, there's this great depiction of an Orkney wedding and everybody's drinking a little bit too much whiskey and falling on the floor. And it's, it shows a really fun side to Max as a composer. So whilst he could tackle serious issues, he had this wonderful, childlike simplicity to his temperament. And I think ‘Farewell to Stromness’, its success as a piece is its simplicity. It's not challenging in the sense that it makes you feel uncomfortable. It really makes you value what's there immediately in front of you. And therefore you think about the loss that may come as a result.

KP: What I get from him writing pieces like ‘Farewell to Stromness’ and ‘Orkney Wedding’ is that he had the utmost respect for the folk culture that surrounded him. Because there's amazing musicians in Orkney and Shetland and in the north of the country, and a fabulous folk festival there. My favourite folk festival anywhere in Britain is in Orkney and the hub of it in Stromness and The Stromness Hotel itself. And it's clear to me that he had listened to that music and would have known the players and the composers of tunes that were there. And to write a piece like ‘Farewell to Stromness’ means that he has viewed that music as equal to the much more complex or intellectually stimulating music that he would otherwise write. And I love him for that. Because I believe that to be true, I don't believe that any music is more important than any other kind of music and nor do I think that as a writer or performer you need to necessarily find one furrow only and plough that. Some people do and they do so beautifully. But that's not my way. So I think I'm a natural, I'm naturally drawn to eclecticism. And I'm naturally looking for the connections between different kinds of music. Which are to do with common feeling, but also common themes and common images, and just all kinds of different connections between how people know each other. Because lots of the time when new music is made, it's to do with very personal connections between musicians and writers, because they inhabit similar spaces. And I get the feeling that he was like that too. He had an awareness of, although he lived in one of the most remote places imaginable, in a properly harsh environment, he had an ear for the wider world. And a respect for the people that have gone before them, who didn't necessarily do the same thing as him. And I don't think you can write something as simple and pristine as ‘Farewell to Stromness’ without sooking that into your bones.  

JL: Thanks to Karine Polwart, Ben Gernon and to you, for listening to this episode of Sound Unbound with me Josie Long. In the next episode, we'll be talking to the director Ken Loach about Dvorak.

KL: 'The Cello Concerto stayed with me obviously since. And not only enjoy it as a wonderful piece of music, but also for the for the sadness of those times but also for the generosity of spirit, the comedy, the warmth, the human warmth, that I think Dvorak captures and that I remember some of those films'.

JL: Thanks for listening to Sound Unbound, part of Nothing Concrete from the Barbican. To listen to the rest of the series, subscribe to Nothing Concrete on Acast, Spotify or wherever you find your podcast. And if you'd like to hear more of the music connected to this episode, listen and subscribe to the Barbican's Sound Unbound playlist on Spotify. Sound Unbound is produced by Freya Hellier for Loftus Media. The assistant producer is Alex Quinn.

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