On January 31, Scottish pianist and composer Mhairi Hall will release her third album, Airs, a collection of newly composed works and spellbinding arrangements of historic Scottish slow airs.
While her previous records, Cairngorm and Contours of Cairgornm, re-imagine traditional Scottish music in a piano trio format, Airs finds the pianist in a solo setting, playing on a Steinway Model D “wrapped in sounds from the landscape, warm drones and old archive recordings“.
The album was recorded at Crear “Space to Create” in Argyll, on the west coast of Scotland. By sampling the air flowing through the instruments and the surrounding environment, the composer allows the music to “breathe”, using the resulting “space” to explore the timeless, boundless quality of these melodies, some of which haven’t been played in centuries.
For this project, Mhairi is joined by renowned landscape artist Beth Robertson Fiddes, who created an exhibition of mixed media paintings inspired by the music. The exhibition will accompany the musician’s live performances throughout 2020.
I caught up with Mhairi to ask her about her upcoming album, her collaboration with Beth and what makes traditional Scottish music special.
As a pianist, what drew you to traditional Scottish music?
I was classically trained on the piano. When I was fourteen or fifteen, I started being introduced to traditional Scottish music through school and through music that was in the community. I fell in love with it and with the freedom it gives you. You don’t follow the written note as such. Maybe you learn a melody, but then you’re free to do whatever you like with it. I’ve always liked that approach. It’s very interesting.
At that time, there weren’t many pianist in the Scottish music scene playing traditional music, so I had to find my own style. I drew inspiration from fiddle players and bagpipe players. I had to learn how to put ornamentation onto the piano. In order to give an instrument that isn’t Scottish that Scottish sound, that’s really the only way you can do it: through ornamentation and the knowledge of different instruments and what gives them that particular sound. I developed a style on the piano that drew from those different instruments.
Then, I studied with Irish pianist Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin. For Irish music, he was very inspirational, because he also came from the classical side and developed his own style of Irish-sounding piano. I suppose you get that in different countries. In France, there’s Didier Squiban. I find it interesting to take our own melodies and just do something with them on the piano.
I spent a year studying with Mícheál in Ireland, but that’s the only formal training I’ve had in terms of studying academically. But I’ve been playing since I was fifteen, mostly in the traditional music scene. In 2009, I released an album called Cairngorm, with my trio (Fraser Stone on drum kit and Michael Bryan on acoustic guitar). Up to that point, I was playing with lots of other bands and musicians and singers. Cairngorm was my first. Off the back of that, we did a live commission from Celtic Connections, which included Patsy Reid and the Edinburgh Quartet.
Please tell me a bit about the creative transition from Cairngorm to Airs. What made you want to do a solo piano record and approach the music in this way?
Well, I suppose that my age has something to do with it. (laughs) You know, when you’re young, you want to play fast music. I work in the house band for the BBC Scotland Young Musician of the Year. All the young guys coming there are playing it like a million miles an hour. With time, you gain experience and a love of quality of music — quality of notes and sounds.
I’ve always loved slow airs and I’ve worked with a lot of singers, so I’m always learning slow melodies. For Scottish music, the slow airs are regarded as the hardest art form. I like the space they offer you. I love feeling the actual sound that comes out of the piano when you give it that space to breathe.
This album is all about the air flowing through instruments. It’s not just about slow airs. I’ve taken the air that comes through the piano and the harmonium and sampled it, to create drones. Also, the air that’s in the environment: the wind, the trees and the waves. It just allows everything to breathe and have space.
The basis was just collecting tunes that I’ve been drawn to. Some of the pieces I’ve learned from the fiddle player that you hear on “Sileas”, Aonghas Grant. He’s eighty-seven years old. I play music with him a lot and we’ve played that melody for a long time. Some are pieces that I wrote for specific events.
What makes these traditional Scottish tunes special to you?
To me, what makes them special is the age of them. Quite often, they’re three or four hundred years old. Some of them haven’t really been heard or played for a couple of hundred years. We have a lot of old collections of manuscript in Scotland from the 17th and 18th centuries. I love studying them.
With some of the songs, you only really get 8 or 16 bars. There won’t be any chords or anything with them, there will just be a melody line. So you’re getting free reign. There’s no bench mark.
The people who played these tunes wouldn’t have written music. They were collected by classical musicians and I suppose it was maybe just their interpretation of the tune. I find that quite interesting.
Also, the piano wouldn’t have existed when these melodies were written, and that’s kind of cool. (laughs) I don’t know what the composers would have made of the sound of the piano. I find that very fascinating.
I love listening to an album sequentially. Airs has a very beautiful, consistent flow throughout. Did track placement play any part in the way you envisioned the album?
Yes, I think it did. I didn’t write the songs one after another. I guess Contours of Cairngorm was more through-composed in that way. But I was definitely aware of the flow of it, especially later, when I was putting it together. The mastering engineer, Zino Mikorey, got that straight away. That was really interesting and I was delighted that he did.
You’ve invited landscape artist Beth Robertson Fiddes to be a part of the project. What made you want to work with her?
I always knew that I wanted to ask Beth if she was interested in doing something. I’ve admired her work for a long time. I didn’t know her personally. I knew her family because I went to school with her younger sister. Her work then popped into my life and I kept an eye out for it.
This seemed like the right project. Her paintings take a traditional view and she adds different layers to them, to give them a contemporary quality. It’s quite similar to my approach to music. So I asked her and she said yes. She’d never done this kind of thing before.
We didn’t have a plan. When we were at Crear, she sat in on the recordings, but she wasn’t drawing or sketching. She just observed. Then, she went out into the landscape to take photos. The weather was awful. (laughs) I started sending her mixes afterwards, so she was listening to the music while she was painting and she kept sending me images of her paintings as they were developing. Then, we started adding the layers, keeping things and taking things away. We both work in the same way, I suppose.
What is your greatest wish for Airs? What would you like this record to achieve?
Well, I’d love to sell some albums, so I can make another one. (laughs) I love the creative process of making music. I’d like to do gigs on my own, for a bit more flexibility, because I have two little children. I have a live set-up now, so I can recreate the sound of the album.
Do you already have your next project in mind? If so, will there be a thematic connection to this one?
It will be connected to this because I feel like, in some of the tracks, I just struck on a new technique of taking the sounds of the instrument. I like dynamics in music. I’d like to explore that more.
29 January 2020 Concert launch of ‘Airs’, Celtic Connections, Recital Rooms, City Halls
Glasgow. Art exhibition runs for the duration of the Celtic Connections Festival.
27 March 2020 Concert – An Lanntair Arts Centre, Stornoway, Isle of Lewis
Art exhibition runs 20th March – 18th April 2020
May 2020 Concert – Eastgate Arts Centre, Peebles TBC
Art exhibition runs full month
13 June 2020 Concert – Lyth Arts Centre, Caithness
Art exhibition runs full month
4 July 2020 Concert – Eden Court, Inverness (Highland launch) and
Art exhibition runs 4th July – 1st August 2020