Whale Songs

Blog entry by Lesley Harrison, contributing artist January 2021

I first met Katherine Wren in Shetland where I heard her and Gemma McGregor, the Orkney musician & composer, perform work that they each had written, along with Emily Doolittle’s ‘Social Sounds from Whales at Night’.  The set was just stunning; and I was absolutely delighted when Katherine agreed to work with me on the project that has now become ‘Whale Songs’.

Katherine leads Nordic Viola, an ensemble of woodwind and string players from countries and communities around the North Atlantic who play and compose new music based on traditional forms.  This matched my interests exactly : in my poetry I look to describe how being in this northern part of the world affects how we think or speak; how we locate ourselves in this cooler, complex, deeply historical landscape.  Katherine had already done some work with Alex South, clarinettist and improviser extrordinaire, whose own research and compositions around the songs of the humpback fit our mission perfectly. (Check them both out on Soundcloud – just amazing.)

Now, several months into our collaboration, we have a number of part-scored, part-improvised pieces in development.  Some of these elaborate parts of my long poemThe Voyage of the ‘Fox’, which grew out of McClintock’s journal of his hunt for the remains of the Franklin expedition in 1857.  Other poems in my collection Disappearance(Shearsman, 2020) have inspired experiments in harmonics, tempo and tone; and it is such a privelidge to listen in to Katherine and Alex’s Zoom sessions where they try these out, riffing off each other, deciding what to keep and what to ‘leave on the cutting room floor’.

Yes, Zoom.  Like many people, my techy skills have gone through the ceiling this past year. Luckily Alex’s knowledge of all things muso-electronic have enabled him and Katherine to bridge the 100 plus miles between them; files whizz back and forward on Sonibus and are stored in a cloud to be tweedled and twooded for the next time.  Sitting in my spare room watching them at work is like being in the very very front row of a live performance for only me.  A real privelidge, and incredibly moving.

For it is such a strange, and emotional experience when parts of your own poetry are rendered into music. Writing poetry (for me) is a very private thing – you shut yourself in the room upstairs, and explore the recesses of your own imaginative and emotional landscape to say something that is impossible to say in ordinary speech.  Even seeing these things in print in a book is a bit shocking – and reading them out loud in front of an audience can be excruciating.  As if you’re standing there in your vest and pants.

But when I see my words embedded in this musical landscape, it makes clear to me how what I say or think really is part of this part of the world.  I absolutely love living on the east coast : I realise how its colour schemes, temperature fluctuations, accents and contours shape my thinking and provide an anchor for (mental and physical) voyages beyond.  And until quite recently, you could stand out on the cliff and watch whaling ships from Leith and Dundee go past on their way to Orkney and Shetland to pick up crew, and then vanish into the polar seas … for how long?  And what was it like to see these people sailing out of the known world, to a fabulous world of solid white seas and a cold so intense it rotted off parts of your body; where they might return fabulously wealthy, or vanish forever?

Our set for Arbroath 2020+1 will echo this journey; we hope you enjoy the show.

Lesley Harrison, January 2021