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Interview: Alistair Anderson, folk musician and composer

08 April 2016

‘Playing by ear is not as hard as you think’

Eamonn McCabe

I play the English concertina and the Northumbrian pipes. The English concertina is the oldest of the squeezeboxes invented by Sir Charles Wheatstone (of Wheatstone Bridge fame) in 1829. It’s a small hexagonal or octagonal instrument. Mine had been played by the late grandfather of a schoolfriend, and I was fascinated by how much music came out of such a small box.


The Northumbrian pipes are a small bagpipe: much quieter than the great Highland bagpipe, and with a much more delicate tone. I was fortunate enough to meet some of the older shepherd musicians of Northumberland while I was still at school — many years ago now.


My work A Lindisfarne Gospel was performed again as part of the St Cuthbert Festival in Durham Cathedral last month. In this work, I play concertina; Andy May plays Northumbrian pipes — he’s a fantastic piper, way better than me; Rachel Newton plays Scottish harp; Emily and Sophy Ball play fiddles; and Fiona Beyer cello.


As you probably know, the Lindisfarne Gospels, one of the most remarkable manuscripts in the world, are housed in the British Library in London. In the summer of 2013, they were brought to Durham for a wonderful exhibition.


The people of the Holy Island of Lindisfarne felt that the actual island where they were created should not be overlooked; so the Revd Paul Collins of St Mary’s, Holy Island, commissioned me, on behalf of the Holy Island Partnership, to write a piece to celebrate the book’s creation 1300 years ago.


I’ve always loved the amazingly detailed illuminated script and carpet pages of the Lindisfarne Gospels, and as I read up on the history of this work, and discovered that it was all the work of just one man — not of a scriptorium full of monks — I was truly amazed. I had long known a little of St Cuthbert’s life; but, again, the more I read, the more fascinating details I found of this remarkable Christian, and his work both before and after the Synod of Whitby.


Growing up in the Celtic Church, Cuthbert was committed to going round talking to ordinary people, convincing them of the benefits of Christianity and spreading the word. After the Synod of Whitby, most of the monks left Lindisfarne, and he was left holding that community together and building it up again. Apparently, he wasn’t keen on being a bishop: he was keen on being by himself in prayer, or the austere life of a travelling priest. But he was persuaded, and the community flourished under his guidance.


The ruins we see of the abbey and monastery today — that’s not what they were living in. They had huts made of stones, up to three feet high, then sod, and sod roofs. Even the churches were not much more than that. And the Gospels: one guy did that sitting in the doorway of his little hut. Eadfrith was producing something like the Gospels when the conditions they were living in we can barely imagine. It’s remarkable what they did. I’d be fascinated to meet any of the people from those days.


Hopefully, elements of all that, and the island itself, and the wildlife, are in the music. I’m extrapolating my ideas on how Cuthbert felt about the tension between the Celtic and Roman Church; so, at the beginning, half the band is playing in triple time and half in double time, in the Ancient Phrygian mode, which never feels quite finished. Later, I interweave the melodic lines — almost separate melodies — to reflect the complex intertwining designs of the Gospels.


Performing it in Durham Cathedral, at St Cuthbert’s last resting place, and where they took the Gospels after the Viking raids, and doing it on Holy Island where they were created — both were very special. The cathedral is an amazing building. I think it’s my favourite. (I’ve a soft spot for Lincoln, as well.) I’d be keen to know if churches elsewhere in the country might be interested in the concert.


I became a professional musician in 1971. I had been teaching for a couple of years, and performing on the side. I saved up enough so that I wouldn’t starve, and just went for it. I toured all over the world for many years, then became involved in encouraging others, especially youngsters, to play and sing. In more recent years, I’ve combined teaching on the folk degree-course at Newcastle University with performing and composing.


I’ve found that, once young people have a chance to experience good folk-music, many of them are very keen to get involved. It is a combination of the social context of the music and the fact that there is room for real personal expression across a wide range of ability levels.


If you can learn by ear, you absorb the style in which it’s played as you learn the melody. There’s a tendency to play a classic jig with six even quavers to the bar if you’re looking at notation; but, in traditional music, you anticipate the beat and make the music come off the page, as it were. Certainly, plenty of people who used to play notated music take to folk music. You just have to be consciously aware that what’s written down is not what you play.


What’s important is the microscopic: the note played a fraction before or after the beat, and you have to decide that on the instant, and in reaction to other musicians. The melodic structures aren’t fantastically complex, but there’s a lifetime of fun in bringing them to life.


If you’re playing in a session, you have to work out what key you’re in, but it’s usually in G or D, or occasionally in A or F — sometimes modal or minor tunes. Listen to a few things, and try them from books or websites like The Session, or the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library. Listen to people who know what they’re doing, and a lot of it’s about what you put into it. Playing by ear is not as hard as you think.


I love playing for dancing; it is one of the great ways to understand how to play with lift, and it’s good to dance yourself. I love the physicality of playing at a ceilidh. Obviously, when you’re playing a traditional dance it’s in set forms. Working with contemporary dancers is a very different thing: their relationship to music is different, and the length of time it takes to unfold a series of moves might vary; so you may need to improvise to match with their movements. I love that excitement of responding to them, or taking the lead and driving their movement, being in the moment.


I’ve been privileged to play with some of the previous generation of musicians, whose pedigree stretches back into the 19th century and beyond. My great friend and mentor Will Atkinson [1908-2003] once said, after I had taken him to a festival with a very wide range of music: “I’ve never heard any music yet I couldn’t learn something from.” That’s good enough for me.


I hesitate to use the word “fusion”, but I like opening windows in my music and helping other people see perspectives on what I’ve been doing, and gaining an understanding of their music. When we compose together, I try to have each voice heard distinctly, and then create a space to entwine those two vocabularies in ways that seem appropriate, to draw energies from each voice. It’s a fascinating, but not an easy process, to get right.


In South Africa, we did a tour with some Xhosa musicians and dancers, and I was getting really involved in their music. I’ve also worked with the great jazz trombonist Annie Whitehead. And with the Singapore Chinese Orchestra: I wrote a couple of pieces for a small ensemble, reacting to what their instruments could do, and they wrote a piece for me to play with their full orchestra.


This summer, I’m playing with a newly formed band, Alistair Anderson and Northlands, which will be a more traditional folk line-up of singer and flute player Sarah Hayes, Sophy Ball on fiddle, and the amazing Ian Stephenson on guitar. We’re working on songs and tunes, old and new, from the north-east and beyond. We’re playing at Hull Truck Theatre on 3 June.


I’m sure all sorts of music can be appropriate in worship, if used sensitively. Certainly, many folk festivals will have a folk-based service on the Sunday morning of their festival. I’ve played at the festival service at Whitby many times, and it seems to be welcomed by the local community and the music followers alike.


My father was churchwarden and treasurer of the local church, both where I was brought up and where my parents retired. He felt it was something he could do for the community. He was an electrical engineer, and my mother had been a nurse. I grew up in Wallsend, Northumberland. Yes, that affected my music-making. Everything affects everything.


My parents and my wife have been the greatest influences on my life, and Billy Pigg, a piper I met when I was aged 16; and Will Atkinson, whom I played with for about 30 years till he died in 2003.


My favourite sound is the wind over a hillside. I’m happiest when I’m walking in the hills, or playing music for people to enjoy.


Computers doing things that sometimes seem so illogical for a machine based on logic — that’s what made me angry last.


Playing and walking the hills can get quite spiritual at times, but I wouldn’t presume that it has the same resonance as prayer.


If I was locked in a church with a companion for a few hours, I’d like to be with St Cuthbert.


Alistair Anderson was talking to Terence Handley MacMath. A Lindisfarne Gospel is available on WMR 2013CD from www.alistairanderson.com.

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