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Margaret Chrystall has a Q&A session with Sarah-Jane Summers

By Margaret Chrystall

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Sarah-Jane Summers and Juhanni Silvola. Picture: Jonas Sjovaag
Sarah-Jane Summers and Juhanni Silvola. Picture: Jonas Sjovaag

On Saturday, the Inverness Fiddlers Rally attracts musicians from all over Scotland to form a large orchestra to play traditional music from Scotland and beyond. This year the Inverness Fiddlers will introduce talented guest artists, internationally-acclaimed Norwegian-based fiddle and guitar duo Sarah-Jane Summers – originally from Inverness – and her husband Juhani Silvola for the performance. Below, Sarah-Jane answers Margaret Chrystall's questions about her musical background and her music life:

Q Last time I saw you play was at Celtic Connections in 2020. You had a group of musicians from Finland, Norway, England and a Scot (yourself!) and others and it was your 2018 Celtic Connections commission Owerset that you were playing. You were comparing words and creating jazzy but also traditional-sounding soundscapes. Is it a project you can perform often, or is getting everyone together a challenge?

A Sarah-Jane: Yes, this was Owerset, a commission I wrote for Celtic Connections 2018, for a line-up of two fiddles, trumpet, accordion, acoustic and electric guitar and double bass. A CD of the music – also called Owerset – was released in 2019. But I had a baby that year (with my husband and musical partner, Juhani Silvola (a Finnish guitarist)), so the release tour was delayed until 2020. The concert you saw at Celtic Connections was part of the album launch tour, but the rest ended up being cancelled due to Covid, which was a shame. I re-arranged a couple of the Owerset tracks to be played by Juhani and me with a chamber orchestra. Firstly, we performed it with Oslo Chamber Orchestra at Oslo World Festival in 2020. We then created our own 'chamber orchestra', Sølvstrøk, consisting of many of Norway's top fiddle players in order to play the music at Førdefestivalen 2021. It was a complete blast! We managed – by the skin of our teeth due to Covid – to get 14 people into a recording studio just before Christmas and the album will be coming out next year. Exciting!

Q Did your own background learning fiddle start young? I think you were taught by the great traditional fiddle-player and teacher from Clunes, Donald Riddell – but did you also learn classical violin and how did your education in music continue?

A Sarah-Jane: I'm incredibly lucky to have been taught by Donald Riddell. He was a truly fantastic and inspiring teacher; I absolutely loved him. He learnt his fiddling from a relative of mine, Alexander Grant of Battangorm, so he was very excited to give the gift of the tradition back to my family. When I turned up for lessons, he actually started to cry, as it felt so meaningful to him as well. No, I'm not classically trained. I did a Bachelor degree in Law and Gaelic at Glasgow University – it wasn't possible to study traditional music at degree level when I was a student. I did a two-year masters degree (2010-12) in Norwegian folk music and improvisation at the Norwegian Academy of Music in Oslo on Hardanger fiddle. Hardanger fiddle is Norway's national instrument, a fiddle with four strings on the top that you play with the bow as normal and four or five strings running in parallel underneath that resonate in sympathy when you play the top strings.

Sarah-Jane Summers. Picture: Johannes SelvaagSmirre
Sarah-Jane Summers. Picture: Johannes SelvaagSmirre

Q You are coming to play as a guest at the Inverness Fiddlers Rally. Did you play with them as a youngster? Is this your first time appearing at the rally or have you played at it before? And can you give a flavour of what you might be playing on the night – or is it a surprise!?

A Sarah-Jane: I was a member of the Highland Strathspey & Reel Society, which was formed in 1903 by Alexander Grant of Battangorm. 'Battan' (as he was known) formed the HS&RS in order to try to preserve the art of playing strathspeys, something he felt was in danger of dying out. He very much succeeded, I would say. I played with the society until it became defunct after Donald Riddell's death in 1992. I loved playing with them! The music consisted of a lot of strathspeys, which have always been a deep passion of mine, so I was in my element. I actually competed at The Inverness Fiddlers' competition when I was 15. I won my competition and was meant to play at the concert that evening, but it was the day Donald died, so I didn't go.

Q If it's not too cheeky a question, how did you and Juhani meet – and did music bring you together? And was it an easy decision to go to live in Norway (on a peninsula, I remember you describing it at that Celtic Connections gig). And is the music scene there as vibrant as ours in Scotland?

A Sarah-Jane: Juhani and I met in 2008 in the Dancing For Dummies class at Haukeliseterfestivalen, a festival high up in the mountains of Norway, which sadly doesn't exist any more. It was the end of June and it was snowing! Cold, but extremely good fun! The local paper came to the dance class and took photos. A photo of Juhani and me laughing during the class ended up being used as the sole photo in the centre of a two-page spread about the festival! A few years later, the festival advertising included our wedding photo!

Q I think looking at your website your music is an interesting blend of things – maybe well described in the phrase "Blending the lyricism of traditional music with the rawness of improvisation". But do you see yourself and that combination as a true reflection of who you are musically?

A Sarah-Jane: Traditional music from the Highlands is my native musical language and always will be, but I also play a lot of improvised and experimental music. Last month, I did several wildly different concerts. Firstly, I performed a solo, 15-minute experimental music piece. The following week, I performed an hour-long commission at a jazz festival that I co-wrote with the wonderful Hardanger fiddler, Benedicte Maurseth. After that, I played a solo concert of improvised music on viola. Then Juhani and I played a duo concert of traditional Scottish and Finnish music, and now we just came back from playing at a Scottish country dance weekend in Germany! And yesterday I recorded strings on a Norwegian singer's album. So, I do a pretty broad spread of music. I love being a musician! I have recorded and performed with a wide variety of musicians, from Highasakite (one of Norway's most famous pop groups), to a Belgian Baroque music consort (Ricercar Consort), to one of the world's leading contemporary music string quartets (Bozzini Quartet)... I have played at classical, jazz, world music, noise music and, of course, folk music festivals. To me, music can be narrative (telling a story, as with folk music) or elemental (ie describing a raging storm) and everything in between. It can be functional (for dancing) or wildly abstract. I simply love music, as long as it's played with the deepest integrity. I love sound...

Q And I should probably ask about what you will be doing the rest of this year, assuming the world remains relatively Covid-free?!

A Sarah-Jane: This year got off to a pretty exciting start! Our latest album, The Smoky Smirr o Rain, was nominated for a Norwegian Grammy! It's the first time traditional music from a country outside Norway has ever been nominated in the Traditional Music Category of the Norwegian Grammys. That alone felt like a major win for us! It was a glitzy event that was televised live, and many of the major Norwegian pop stars were there, some sporting pretty wild outfits! What an experience! Last year, Juhani and I spent several months writing an hour-long commission for us and string quintet, which was premiered at Nordlysfestivalen, a festival in the North of Norway. We hope to record it within the next few months. We have a project with Aasmund Nordstoga, one of Norway's leading traditional singers, where we sing Robert Burns songs that were recently translated into the Telemark Norwegian dialect. We're recording an album in September. I have a new project with Benedicte Maurseth, a truly fantastic Norwegian Hardanger fiddle player and author. Our commission was premiered at Vossajazz this year. We have several concerts coming up and also plan to record. I also play a lot of improvised and contemporary music and am just about to record my third album of experimental music, this time solely on Hardanger fiddle. But, of course, one of my absolute favourite things is running about with my three-year-old.

Sarah-Jane will play as a guest at the Inverness Fiddlers Rally at Eden Court on Saturday (May 14) at 7.30pm. More: https://eden-court.co.uk/event/inverness-fiddlers-rally-2022

Sarah-Jane Summers (fiddle), Bridget Marsden (fiddle), Hayden Powell (trumpet), Leif Ottosson (accordion), Juhani Silvola (electric, acoustic guitars), Morten Kvam (double bass).

Here is a link to a review of Celtic Connections and of Sarah-Jane Summers and musicians' set: https://www.whatson-north.co.uk/whats-on/music/review-celtic-connections-190770/

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