Chris Stout - have fiddle will travel
It’s not quite Around the World in Eighty Days but if Chris Stout should start signing postcards home "Phileas Fogg" he’ll be well within his rights. The Shetland fiddler’s world tour actually only takes him away for around half the duration of Fogg’s odyssey, although the locations are just as contrasting and exotic.
Over the next six weeks Stout will undertake, first, a "hilarious" schedule of thirty-five gigs in fifteen days in Norway, which will take him inside the Arctic Circle, before flying to Brazil for what is essentially a learning visit but will include a few concerts too. From there he’ll move on to Australia, where he has a four-day stopover at the National Folk Festival near Canberra, and then – as one does – he’ll play a concert as the featured soloist with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra in the orchestra’s own concert hall on the way home.
Only the final destination is completely new to Stout – he has played in Norway often, toured Australia twice with leading Shetland band Fiddlers’ Bid, and was part of the Orquestra Scotland Brasil project that united musicians from the two countries for exchange visits in 2003 – and not surprisingly, it’s one that intrigues him.
"The Singapore people contacted me out of the blue and said they had a local composer who was going to write a piece specially for me," he says. "I’ve since discovered that they heard about me through Alistair Anderson, the concertina player who was part of the Double Helix tour I did a few years ago and who’s artistic director of the Folkworks project in Gateshead. Alistair’s actually going to be in Singapore at the same time, doing a featured soloist thing too and I think we’re going to be doing something together. So because we know each other, there is some continuity. However, it’ll be interesting to see how someone from an entirely different culture views what I do as a Shetland fiddler and what this composition turns out to be like."
Not the least fascinating aspect of this part of the tour is how the orchestra is made up. The Singapore Symphony is a Chinese orchestra which uses largely traditional instruments.
"They have no counterpart to the cello or double bass, so they use western instruments in those cases, but everything else is the Chinese equivalent," says Stout. "The violin section is comprised of erhus, which have two strings rather than four, and the woodwinds are bamboo instruments. I’m not sure about the brass section – they have these pipe-like things – but it’s certainly not trumpets, trombones and french horns. I can’t wait to hear what it all sounds like with fiddle and concertina joining in."
This kind of adventure is typical of Stout, who has developed into one of the traditional music scene’s most enquiring musicians and composers. Born on Fair Isle, where he was drawn to the fiddle from the age of three, he moved with his family to the South Mainland of Shetland when he was eight. His father plays accordion and Chris was brought up playing traditional Shetland tunes at home, although he also studied classical violin, spending his final school years at Douglas Academy’s music school in Glasgow before going on to complete a degree in classical violin at the RSAMD.
By this time he’d long since proved himself capable of moving in both traditional and classical circles. He won both the Young Shetland Fiddler of the Year and the classics-based Young Musician of the Year titles in 1990 as a fourteen year old and had been playing with Fiddlers’ Bid since his early teens. It was his choice of postgraduate study, the largely experimental field of electro-acoustic music, that perhaps revealed how open-minded was his approach, although he’ll tell you that it was working with jazz musicians that really inspired his quest for freedom.
In recent years he’s featured with drummer John Rae’s Celtic Feet and trumpeter Colin Steele’s jazz-folk-classical amalgam Stramash and he continues to be an integral member of guitarist Graeme Stephen’s urban jazz meets North-east tradition sextet. Indeed, the quintet that Stout runs as a parallel enterprise to Fiddlers’ Bid often gets described as having elements of jazz in its music.
"I think that’s because the quintet has a saxophone in it and it swings in a way," he says. "I certainly don’t consider myself a jazz musician and although I’ve picked up a lot from jazz players that’s allowed me to free up my music, it’s still traditional music to me. The way I see it is, traditional music is based on dance rhythms but if I’m not playing for dancing, if it’s a sit-down audience, then it’s good not to be pushed into a certain tempo or time signature. As long as what we’re playing is vaguely whistleable, I think that’s okay."
He concedes that he is a musical magpie, always interested in learning from other cultures and picking up bits and pieces of other musics that he can add to his own compositions and playing style, which is why this world tour holds such appeal.
"The way it happened was, the bookends, if you like, Norway and Singapore came in first," he says. "My friend Susanne Lundeng, who’s a great fiddle player and composer, invited me over to Norway. She’s arranged thirty school concerts and five evening concerts in fifteen days, which is hilarious, just crazy. But Susanne’s a real character and she composes these tunes without any rules at all. You have no idea how she’s arrived at these melodies yet at the same time, they’re beautiful and so catchy. So I always take something away from her music. Then when Singapore got in touch, I thought maybe there’s a way of working in this visit to Brazil, which I’ve been planning for a while and actually have some Scottish Arts Council funding for, as well. So I booked a round-the-world ticket."
An email to the National Folk Festival in Canberra produced an invitation by return to Australia, where Stout will play solo fiddle and possibly hook up with a guitarist, and the four continent hop was complete.
"It would be wonderful if I could find an indigenous Australian equivalent of the fiddle because the other three continents all have their own quite different versions and I’m looking forward to getting a closer look at the Chinese version," he says. "I’ve worked with Norwegian hardanger fiddle players and Brazilian rabeca players before and it’s amazing to hear and learn from these very individual instruments which have very different styles of playing yet are from the same family."
For Stout, his six-week trip is really just a stepping stone on a voyage of discovery that he sees as lasting throughout his career. He does, he says, get bored playing to a set formula, and is always looking to develop, and the best way to do that is to keep travelling and meeting other musicians.
"What I’m finding more and more – and I know this isn’t rocket science – is that traditional music all over the world is so similar," he says. "The philosophies are the same: you dance to it, fall in love to it, drown your sorrows to it, all that stuff. I feel very settled with these similarities and yet there are so many different accents, musically and literally, at work and small bits of them stick to me. And I hope they’ll continue to stick to me because that excites me and really, if you want to convey excitement to an audience, you have to be excited by music yourself."
From The Herald, February 16, 2008