It’s been 22 months since we set off for Ascension. In two more, all things being equal, we’ll arrive back in Scotland. It’s also eight months since I last wrote a ‘Piping on another planet’ blog for Bagpipe.News so now seems like a good time to round up our adventures over the last two years out here.
As some readers might recall, I closed part two by announcing the release the of an album I’d recorded in March 2017 in Glasgow with my friend, the experimental musician, Richard Youngs.
The record – History of Sleep – consists of four tracks, each an experimental improvisation on my extended range Lindsay System Scottish smallpipes, accompanied by Richard on his Rickenbacker 480. The final track – Dorrington – begins with, and is based on, the tune of the same name from the William Dixon manuscript, published by Matt Seattle in The Master Piper. The preceding three tracks are all grounded on original themes that Richard and I had developed during meetings in Glasgow (at the National Piping Centre, Tchai Ovna, and The Glad Café).
Although very pleased with what we’d created together, I’d no great expectations for the album, and would have been content with a fair review in Common Stock, the journal of the Lowland & Border Pipers’ Society, if it came to that. Moments after hitting the ‘send’ button and filing the second blog article, however, things began to take a very different turn. History of Sleep began to pop up on various channels of the BBC, including BBC Radio 3, Radio 4, Radio Scotland, and before the week was out I’d given an interview via Zoom for Radio 4’s Today programme.
A good internet connection can be hard to find out here, so to make sure the interview wasn’t cut off I made use of what is basically an ‘internet café’ (remember those?) called the Two Boats Club. Technically, they’re not cafés, but bars (there are four on Ascension), but the concept is the same: a ticket can be purchased for a half hour or an hour on the internet (or for a full day), using a faster and more reliable connection than the one we’ve got in the house.
Interviews for BBC Radio Ulster, and for the website, Social London, soon followed. The Today interview then re-aired later on the BBC World Service, bringing things full circle, as Ascension is home to the BBC Atlantic Relay station, which exists to relay World Service broadcasts into Africa and South America. The buzz continued up to Christmas, with good reviews in the press adding to the radio airplay, while a small package of CDs sent out to me by the record label (and destined for what might have been an Ascension launch night) ended up taking a six month detour to Tristan da Cunha by way of Cape Town, finally arriving about a month ago.
While experimenting in this way with the practicalities of managing a career as a recording artist, from a tiny rock in the middle of the ocean, the combined tangle of COVID 19 and Brexit was threatening to put paid to the parallel and earlier experiment in desert island musical instrument manufacturing for export. I’d relied since around 2017 on the services of a firm in Germany, which had proven essential to improving the quality of the chanter. This became as good as impossible to continue in the wake of Brexit, and it took a few months to find a workaround, unfortunately slowing down production significantly.
The time incurred by this delay was put to good use however, with the design of the chanter being ‘transposed’ into a range of possibly useful keys beginning from low F (below the standard A chanter), and reaching as high as E. Experiments into the possible effects of controllable air flow on stock resonances, tuneable holes on the chanter, new and potentially more responsive forms of drone shutoff, and other fringe innovations took a few steps forward around the same time. Needless to say, my patient customers will be benefiting from these forward strides, when they receive their instruments this July.
By the end of April, with the hot weather of the southern summer beginning to recede, the focus turned back to playing, and exploring the possibilities of the new extended range. With my eldest, Ryall having signed up to a third year here, and continuing to work on the RAF base, we’ve decided to extend the schedule for our Mars Bay project and make a more thorough job of the explorations of ‘wide-awake’ vocalisations that for the basis for that album.
In the meantime, I’ve been turning my interest in ‘found music’ and sounds from the natural environment in other directions. As you may have read on Bagpipe.News a couple of weeks ago, I’m currently in the process of creating a new show, a concert-length set on the new pipes, accompanied by a work-in progress film collage. The show – How’ve You Been? – and the film, will be in two halves.
The first half will cover our last four weeks out here on Ascension while the second will examine our transition home, and the first four weeks there, adjusting to the changes and documenting what we find. The majority of the music in the first half will be experimental in character – responses on the pipes, to environmental sounds recorded on Ascension (many of them very musical) – while the second half will be more based around traditional music and new compositions in traditional style, focused on the idea of dawn and the returning of the light in summer.
The footage in the first half will be shot at various locations around Ascension, during sun-up and the ‘golden hour’ when the sun is still rising and the light has a very specific quality. The dawn filming will continue in Scotland, receding later and later until encountering the ‘simmer dim’ in Orkney and Shetland at the end of July, when effectively dawn blends into the sundown of the night before.
With civilian flights having returned in some form (a St Helena Government chartered plane, calling once every seven to eight weeks), and the Scottish Government having released a schedule for the reduction in restrictions at home, I began to look into the possibility of organising a tour during July and/or August. With everything that’s happened in the world, live music seems to have all but disappeared at home, and the proposal to tour a piece of new work has been met with trepidation and enthusiasm in equal measure. Keen to share How’ve You Been? with communities living on islands normally considered ‘remote’, I began by organising a tour to the North Isles of Orkney, including Papay and North Ronaldsay.
Common ground was found with both, and on North Ronaldsay we’ve already discussed the possibility of school twinning, plus it turns out that the date we plan to visit is the day before the beginning of the North Ronaldsay Sheep Festival, focused on the unique seaweed-eating sheep who live on the beach there. I’ve undertaken to shoot some special footage of Ascension’s own feral sheep for this stop – while they’re not as long established as North Ron’s 5,000 year old breed, they’re also quite unique and interesting.
Encouraged by this response, I went on to arrange a visit to Fair Isle, followed by five dates in Shetland, where on two of the islands we’ll be visiting (Yell and Whalsay), we discovered former oilmen who have travelled to Ascension in the past while working on Maersk tankers.
No amount of careful planning is immune to the ravages of COVID 19, however. Having observed from a distance the increasing uncertainty arising from the spread of new (in some cases apparently vaccine-resistant) strains of the virus, and being anxious to avoid inadvertently infecting islands almost as remote as our own current home, I’ve begun considering how the process of tour planning can be adapted in 2021 to introduce the flexibility to renegotiate dates where necessary, with the worst case scenario being that the tour might have to be postponed to 2022 or 2023 (the date of our final return from Ascension to Scotland is currently set for July 2023).
To allow this kind of flexible approach, I’ve turned to crowd-funding. The idea is, that if funds can be raised in advance to defray some of the costs of the tour, then patrons from Kirkwall to Georgetown, Ascension Island, and from San Francisco to Tokyo, could be rewarded after the final delivery of the tour, with an album-length recording of the piece, and an accompanying feature-length version of the ‘film collage’ used in the piece. The film will effectively be a kind of extended music video, telling the story of the journey visually for the most part, with minimal dialogue.
If this bid is successful, it will allow the tour to be extended from Orkney and Shetland, to include the North Coast 500, the Inner Hebrides, and the Outer Hebrides, plus possibly mainland dates during September. We’re highly safety conscious, and in undertaking each leg of the tour would plan to self-test, and to repeat that test every few days as the tour progresses. We’ve been vaccinated ourselves, with Ascension having fully vaccinated all adult residents by the end of May, however we’re increasingly aware that this neither confers 100% protection on us, nor does it preclude the possibility of our transferring the virus if we were to be careless, so it seems that any tour in 2021 (even a carefully planned solo one, travelling between remote islands mostly shielded from the virus), will have to be conducted with an extra level of care in the planning.
We’d like to invite readers to consider supporting How’ve You Been? and signing up to receive a copy of the finished album and film. Any additional funds raised through this campaign, beyond those necessary to deliver tours in the North Isles, Highlands and Western Isles in July and August and to record the piece in the studio during September, will be folded back into additional performances along the way, and visits to island communities we might not otherwise be able to afford to include. We’ve already booked dates on Papay, North Ronaldsay, Fair Isle, and others, and would love to include as many North Isles, Highland, and Hebridean communities, as our budget will allow.
If the worst happens, and a Level 3 or higher lockdown were to resume, we would commit to hold over the tour until 2022, or 2023 if necessary. The completion of the album would in this way be delayed, however we’ll get there in the end, and in the words of Norman McCaig (as quoted by Duncan Chisholm for his recent album, Sandwood), “The light comes back, the light always comes back”.