Fiddles On Fire

Venue: The Sage
Town: Gateshead

At the beginning of May, I made the trip up to Gateshead, for the Fiddles on Fire Festival. I had never been to Gateshead, or Newcastle at all for that matter and had heard a great deal about the place and how musical and welcoming it was, (which are two very true facts).

The festival was held in the Sage, I magnificent building and arts centre. It was to be my base for the next few days, where I would eat, drink, listen, learn and on the odd occasion stand in amazement at the sheer brilliance of what was being played. As I climbed the long set of stairs that leads to the main building of the sage, it struck me what an incredible venue this was.

As I walked into the building and collected my tickets for the weekend, I could already hear in the distance, some music. As I walked further into the concourse, I saw that infront of the cafe and overlooking the Tyne, was a stage. This came as quite a surprise because I had been expecting all music to have been in the three halls at the sage. I went to get a coffee and then sat down to listen to the musicians, who were Emma Reid on the fiddle and Daniel Carlson playing various saxophones. I've always been weary of the saxophone and fiddle in the same line up especially in a folk and traditional music context. However, the music they played was simply devine. The close simpatico between the two musicians made for tightly arranged Traditional English and Swedish music with some basic but effective harmonies and incredible dynamic contrasts which had a lovely natural reverb from the environment in which it was played. After this, I accented to hall two, just above the concourse, to see Ganesh and Kumaresh. These two brothers performed South Indian Carnatnic music on 5 string fiddles, accompanied by a virtuosic Mridangam player and Ghatam player. The whole two hours was an extremely hypnotic mixture of improvisation and fixed composition played to the highest standard. The quartet fully explored the tonal colour and rhythmic possibilities of this music which made for a great evening.

The next morning, classes began. The vast majority of the workshops lasted an hour and a quarter. The first was held by the two Norwegian fiddle players from the band, As the Crow Flies, Nina Fejldet and Maja Toresen. This was a very interesting session where the tutors explored the concept of a Hailing, (a type of dance tune in Norway). Next, was an intermediate workshop in chopping, (a percussive technique) which was expertly taught by the genius of Casey Driessen. In the mere hour and a quarter Driessen covered everything from the basics to playing basslines and simple accompaniment through this technique. After this came lunch, and more music on the concourse from the Fiddle player for Bellowhead, Sam Sweeney who was recently nominated for the BBC Radio 2 Folk Musician of the Year award. Sweeney played what could be called the comfort food of tunes, in that they were all relatively well known traditional English tunes played to the highest standard. At one point one of the strings on his fiddle slipped drastically out of tune, and took a micro second out of playing to re tune and then kept going as the professional that he is. After lunch and the mini recital came a workshop from my favourite English Fiddle player, John Dipper, on Ornamentation. Dipper taught a tune in which he would demonstrate and apply all the ornamentation that he taught. He made the point that if you go back in the history of English fiddle playing, all the embellishments that are present in Irish and Scottish fiddle playing are still or once were present in English Fiddle playing. He then went through a very long list of ornaments and demonstrated them. He also touched on the subject of the border between ornamentation and variation and gave some examples of conventional forms of variation and then some examples of changing and shifting rhythm and pitch.

The concert that evening was defiantly the highlight of the whole festival for me. A triple bill of Casey Driessen, Vamm and Alistair Fraser and Natalie Haas. Casey Driessen opened up the whole show, by himself, (and his bodacious pedal board). He started with a cover of the Stevie Wonder song, Living for the City. Dreissen finished his set off with an original composition called the Heartbeat Kid. It was inspired by the heart beat from the first ultra sound of his first born child and fully shows off his skills in live looping. Next came the relatively newly formed trio, Vamm. Made up of Shetlander Catriona McDonald, Perth Native Patsy Reid and Norwegian, but with roots in Sweden, Marit Fait this trio was like a breath of fresh air. In a small space of time these three musicians have developed a very distinctive signature sound, comprising of clean and precise playing from Reid, thick and rich double stop orientated playing from McDonald and all complimented by sensitive and bassy accompaniment from Fait. The final act of the night came in the form of legendary Scottish Fiddle player, Alistair Fraser and Virtuoso Cellist, Natalie Haas. After the concert was a ceilidh on the concourse.

The last day started with another workshop from Casey Driessen. However, I don't think anyone at the Sage anticipated there being such a big turn out for this workshop. In the end, Driessen had to set the pupils in more of a classroom layout rather than in a circle like most of the other workshops. Beginners, amateurs and professionals flocked to this hour and a quarter workshop, where Casey Driessen taught people to play in the time signatures of 3/4, 5/4 and 7/8 amongst other very valuable techniques. After this was fantastic hands on workshop on improvising by the Dutch string quartet, Zapp 4, in which everyone in the room improvised on the spot, an idea, (be it melodic, harmonic or rhythmic).

At a quarter past one, the Nordic Fiddlers Bloc performed an hours worth of music. Of all the fiddle groups out there, this one has to be my favourite! Kevin Henderson (Shetland), Olav Luksengard Mjelva (Norway) and Anders Hall (Sweden), play music from the three countries with great gusto and sensitivity and the same time. A very thrilling concert to watch and listen! After this, came another bout of workshops, including one from Hardanger fiddle master and member of the Nordic Fiddlers Bloc, Olav Luksengard Mjelva. After this, there was a break from the formal concerts and workshops, however the music continued on the concourse in the form of highland Fiddler, Rua MacMillan accompanied by Suzanne Houston on piano, and a fantastic musician in her own right. Then at six fifteen, Methera and Mats Rehnman came together to perform a highly engaging concert of music and storytelling.

The finale of the whole festival was the, "Fiddlers Two by Two" concert, where in the first half all the professional fiddle players were paired up with each other, and asked to get a five to ten minute set together. There were many interesting combinations, such as Casey Driessen and Olav Luksendgard Mjelva, Shona Mooney and Kathryn Tickle, Oene Van Geel and Natalie Haas and many more. After the interval, everyone came out on stage and there were a series of group performances. All the Scottish fiddle players, (Duncan Chisholm, Alistair Fraser, Rona Wilkie and Kevin Henderson) played a set of tunes, as did the Scandinavian fiddle players, (Anders Hall, Olav Luksendgard Mjelva, Nina Fjeldet and Maja Toresen). The whole thing was wrapped up with a set of tunes played by everyone.

Matt Tighe

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