2020+1 Programme

Whale Song

Sunday 8 August

A new collaborative performance of music for poetry inspired by Whale Song.

For Arbroath2020+1 Lesley Harrison has devised a collaborative performance with viola-player Katherine Wren, and clarinettist Alex South.  

For Arbroath2020+1 Lesley Harrison has devised a collaborative performance with viola-player Katherine Wren, and clarinettist Alex South, on the theme of the voyage of the 19thcentury whalers to the polar seas, and the cultural aftermath of the whaling industry.  

Lesley grew up in Dundee and has always been fascinated with whales and the 19th century whaling industry, and with the local aftermath of their dramatic, often catastrophic encounter with this deeply strange, deeply ‘other’ environment.  

‘Much of my poetry is deeply rooted in the Angus landscape, both as subject and as a location from which to explore the wider northern coastline.’

‘My own reading and research and my travels to Iceland, Greenland and Svalbard – the end-points of the Dundee whalers’ journeys – have generated both poetry and prose, including the poem sequence ‘Beyond the Map’ (Mariscat, 2012) which reimagines the journey of the east coast whalers to Orkney and Shetland and on into the polar seas. 

These interests coincide directly with themes that Katherine and Alex have been exploring in their own compositions and performances.  Clarinettist and improviser Alex South is currently carrying out doctoral research into the relationship between humpback whale song and human music at the University of St Andrews and the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. Recent solo and ensemble performances have included notated and improvised music for clarinets and electronics inspired by whale and birdsong, as well as humpback whale recordings played in multi-channel immersive sound. His piece “Air Out Of The Night” was performed by Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra in last year’s GIOfest.

Katherine Wren has been a full-time member of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra since 1998. In 2016 Katherine founded Nordic Viola, a flexible ensemble specialising in contemporary and traditional music from the North Atlantic. She has worked with many musicians around the North Atlantic and memorable performances include an improvised concert in Reykjavik’s premier new music venue, Mengi, with East Iceland resident and former GIO member, Charles Ross. Katherine has also commissioned new works by emerging composers inspired by landscapes, history and the culture of the Far North. She was shortlisted in 2019 and 2020 for the Scottish Awards for New Music “Making It Happen” category. In 2020 she received a special commendation in the Salomon Prize, awarded by the RPS and ABO to orchestral musicians who have not only shone musically but made a remarkable contribution to the life of their orchestra, its audience and community. 

At one level, whale song provides a bridge between the human and the non-human; responding to its melodic patterns and its expressiveness gives us a way to imagine ourselves into worlds beyond our own temperate zone. This opens up the idea of music and sound as they create and structure our own landscape – from the rhythms and vowels of local language to bird song, fragmented archive ‘voices’ and even the hum of pylons. It also invites us to explore the legacy of musical response to the north, from the heritage of songs and fiddle tunes as they are carried by the whalers, to contemporary compositions which reinterpret and relocate this material.

For this performance, Katherine and Alex have composed new pieces around poems from Lesley’s most recent collection, Disappearance (Shearsman 2020).