Alasdair White - Home thoughts from abroad
Florida would be regarded by most people in these parts as a holiday destination and Alasdair White is no exception. The fiddler with one of Scotland’s longest-serving and most widely travelled folk groups Battlefield Band, White is enjoying some down time between tours near Orlando while his girlfriend, New York-based bodhran player Anna Colliton, fulfils a spring-into-summer residency with another Scottish folk outfit, the Paul McKenna Band at the Disney Epcot Centre.
It’s not all sun and relaxation, says White, however, as he finds a spot that offers both shade – he has the type of Scottish features that don’t fare so well in hot weather - and a mobile phone signal. White has been spending a lot of his time during the day thinking about home, for creative rather than nostalgic reasons, as he works on the commission he will premiere at this year’s Hebridean Celtic Festival in Stornoway.
White is a native of the Isle of Lewis and was an impressionable young fiddler and piper when HebCelt, as it’s become affectionately known, was first staged in 1996.
“I remember that summer well,” he says. “I’d been at Alasdair Fraser’s fiddle school on Skye and then went to the Ceòlas summer school on South Uist and they were real revelations for me because there were so many fiddle players and that in itself was really inspiring. But when HebCelt came along and brought all these great bands that you just didn’t hear on the islands at the time – it’s different now – it gave a kind of validation to what I was doing. It wasn’t cool to play traditional music back then and I wouldn’t say that I suddenly had street cred – I wish! - but HebCelt showed me that maybe it was possible to consider playing this music as a career. I’d say that my life was shaped to quite a large extent by the early HebCelts.”
The first HebCelt in fact gave the then-thirteen year old White a taste of what it was like to appear on a big stage in front of a big crowd when Alasdair Fraser, who was one of that year’s stars, invited him onstage for a tune.
Fast-forward nineteen years and White, who was hand-picked by Battlefield Band manager Robin Morton as fiddler and multi-instrumentalist John McCusker’s replacement and joined straight from school in 2001, is one of the opening night attractions, playing newly composed music with a specially formed seven-piece band.
Writing the suite he’s calling An Iuchar has been, quite fittingly, as eye-opening an experience as was the first HebCelt.
“In the past I’ve probably been guilty of waiting for ideas for new tunes to come from wherever they come from,” he says. “But when you have to deliver something with a specific deadline, you really have to get down and exercise the composing muscle. I’ve heard it called that and not really thought too much about it and I also remember Michael Marra saying that he forced himself to write something every day just to keep the muscle working, and I understand why. I might not keep every idea I’ve come up with but just producing phrases or sequences gives you something to go back and work on and polish it into a piece of music.”
The musicians he’s gathered together to play the new music – he’s been emailing them computer files over the Atlantic at a fair rate – are all players he knows and admires and has chosen because he trusts them to bring their own personalities to the parts he’s provided.
“They’re all expressive players,” he says. “I’ve always loved the sound of the uilleann pipes and Jarlath Henderson is such a great all-round musician that he can only be an asset. I also wanted the Highland pipes in there because they’re part of my own background, as well as being so central to the music of Lewis, and Alan Kelly on accordion is really good at making music flow. They’re obvious choices in a way and I know that I can tell them if I don’t like something, if that situation should arise, without it becoming a big deal. At the same time I don’t want to stifle them. I want to hear what they can bring to my music.”
The idea is that An Iuchar, which translates as The Key, should capture the spirit of HebCelt itself since the festival has played such a key role in White’s own story. It’s a suite of tunes but not necessarily the kind of suite that might lend itself to a refined environment.
“I’ve been to many gigs in the festival tent over the years as HebCelt’s grown into this massive event that makes a huge impact on the local people and economy,” says White, who grew up in Tong, just outside Stornoway. “The atmosphere’s always fantastic and I’ve just tried to write a really good HebCelt gig.”
HebCelt 2015 runs from July 15-18. For full details log onto www.hebceltfest.com
From The Herald, July 8, 2015.