Friday, 23 December 2011


Midwinter. The bleak midwinter, as Rosetti wrote. Trees are in a meditative state after they celebrated another fruitful summer by orchestrating a mosaic of reds, oranges, greens, yellows and browns. No longer leaves dancing on the wind, but soon their buds will start to swell, preparing for yet another spring. The embodiment of spring for me is the unfolding of leaves of the sycamore. Each year, in the beginning of April, I witness the unfolding of their lobed leaves from an old stone bridge over a nearby burn. The burn, in full flow, is dipper territory. Upstream it is free to spill over into the low-lying wooded embankments. Old lichen-covered alder, elder, hazel, rowan and sycamore live entwined, welcoming a range of small birds. Only walkers can reach the bridge. From the bridge you look down on the lowest branches of the sycamore. The old tree takes several days to unfold its leaves, slowly stretching finger after finger until it welcomes you with an open hand. The translucent yellow green leaves emerge from pale red buds from which blossom develops as well. Soon the leaves will turn saturated green, keeping this colour until late summer. But for me contentment lies in the birth of spring, and this is but a fleeting moment.     

Copyright text and music Petra Vergunst

Friday, 2 December 2011

Social listening

Chamber music inspires me. As compared to a full orchestra I love the relative simplicity of only a few instruments playing together. But most of all the context in which chamber music was conceived and performed originally influences how I think about my own piano performances. In the 19th century friends and family tended to play music together and for each other. Whether they played a song without words by Mendelssohn, one of Schubert’s Lieder or a violin sonata by Schumann, they took turns in making music.

This is a far cry from the way in which we appreciate chamber music nowadays. Rather than attending a formal concert by a professional musician in which each listener quietly appreciates the music, 19th-century chamber music was performed by amateur musicians in people's living rooms. The appreciation of chamber music was highly social as those attending happily discussed the music and other issues. I’d like to think of this as social listening. What’s more, the distinction between performer and audience was blurred as musicians took turns in performing for each other.

What inspires me most of all, however, is the kind of music being played. To cater for the skilled amateurs who played chamber music, composers wrote chamber music in a less complex style. Personally I find the simple textures more powerful than the sometimes complex and virtuosic textures of music written for the concert stage. In concert stage music a lot of things tend to happen at once, requiring listening more than once to appreciate the full complexity of the music. The clarity of expression in for example Mendelssohn’s songs without words tends to move me much more - and right from the first time I hear it.

Taking inspiration from chamber music, I prefer to perform piano music that is easier to listen to, in informal settings where there is space for talking in between and during the music. On 6 December I’ll provide background music for an event celebrating art work in Aberdeen Royal Infirmary and on 10 January I’ll play piano during a music-in-the-cafe session at Newton Dee.

Copyright text and image Petra Vergunst

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Album leaves

I’d like to think of a performance as an album of stories, poems and images that we browse through, encountering a whole new imaginary world with every new piece played. The album then is an invitation to the listener to draw on his or her imagination to make sense of the music heard. 

Listeners to popular music do this intuitively. They express how the music effects them through dancing to, and singing along with, songs of their favourite artists and bands. The dancing and singing can literally be seen as a bodily expression of the memories and imagined worlds conjured up by the music. John Lennon actively invites his listeners to engage in such a process:

 Imagine all the people,
Living life in peace.

You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope some day you will join us
And the world will live as one.

The metaphor of a performance as an album of stories, poetry and images is an invitation to listen creatively. As a form of active listening in which the listener imagines worlds and ideas that are original and meaningful to him or her, creative listening can be transformative. The creative listener doesn’t necessarily have to be able to express the outcomes of his listening clearly, it may also entail a deep-felt experience. If the listener wishes to express the ideas and feelings conjured up by the music, he or she may do so in music, poetry or drawings. My own composition A Different World started out in this way as a response to Bach’s Two-Part Invention no 9. 

Can a performer in any way help audiences to listen creatively? I believe so. The performer can explicitly invite the listener to do so, but also create a context that triggers the listener’s imagination. Rather than a set-up that juxtaposes the performer and passive listener, listeners may gather around the performer in a venue full of poetry and paintings. A performer could even invite the listener to turn the pages of an album of stories, poems and images whilst listening to the music and ask the listener to contribute his or her own album leaves.

Copyright text and image Petra Vergunst

Tuesday, 15 November 2011


Last week I visited the exhibition by Elizabeth Blackadder at the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh. Her Japanese still life paintings, in which she spaces out objects and plays with repetition of form, provided a whole new perspective on the idea of composition. Blackadders’ Japanese paintings stand out because their composition is unusual, freed from Western conventions. What light does this shed on musical composition?

According to the Oxford Dictionary of Musical Terms, composition is the activity of composition and the result of that activity. As such it describes a process of construction, a creative putting together, a working out and carrying through of an initial conception or inspiration. Composition thus is a conscious process in which material is placed in relation to other material. What’s more, as it is a conscious process it is done with a pre-conceived idea in mind. Composition is not something done by musical composers only – painters, photographers and writers compose their material as well.

When we view a painting – say a Japanese still life by Blackadder – the way our eyes move through the painting is not predetermined. We may look at it from a distance to get a general impression, then step forward to look at some details. Detail is appreciated as part of the whole. In a musical composition, however, the listener doesn’t get the benefit of viewing the whole before hearing the detail. The musical journey takes the first-time listener into the unknown. What is heard can only be interpreted in terms of what has been heard before – not in relation to what is still to come.

Blackadder’s paintings point at another thing as well. In conventional still lifes all spaces seem to have a purpose. Blackadders’ still lifes celebrate the spaces-in-between as she explores how the components of her still lifes relate to each other. Painters and draughtman call this negative space. The musical equivalent would be silence. John Cage famously celebrated silence in his 4’33. Silences are not empty space, they may be filled with environmental sounds like in John Cage’s work, they may also be spaces in which what has gone lingers and what is to come is anticipated. In the same way as Blackadder’s spaces-in-between are an integral part of her still lifes, so silences should be an integral part of musical compositions. I, for one, am a composer who makes far too little use of the expressive qualities of silence.

So what does this mean for composers – of music? In addition to thinking about our musical material, the sequence in which we present it is important. New material will be interpreted only in terms of what has come before. The way in which we space material is important as well. A new idea emerging from a dense texture may be hidden from hearing, the same material following a silence will make much greater impact. In the Berceuse from his Escenas Romanticas, for example, Granados makes powerful use of the spaces-in-between by letting passages die away completely before starting the next passage quietly. This all sounds so simple, but how often do we actually consciously compose?

Links to blogs with own compositions:
Repetition (horn trio)
Unfolding (piano)
A different world (piano)
Silver (flute)
The home of the whale (choir)
Ebb and flow (piano)
The horncall (choir)
Charr Bothy (piano)

Copyright text and image Petra Vergunst

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Songs of the earth

Ever since I came across Gustav’s Mahler’s orchestral song cycle Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth) I felt I had to do something with it. Taking inspiration from Chinese verse, Mahler associates the earth with seasonal transformations, death and re-birth. A drinking song of earth’s despair versus youth and beauty. Since it was written in 1908, Das Lied von der Erde has been the starting point for work by other artists. The Scottish Clarinet Quartet, for example, used the title for a collaboration with photographer Terry Williams and composers Stephen Davismoon, David Fennessy, Sadie Harrison and Anna Meredith that resulted in four audiovisual images of the Isle of Skye. Das Lied von der Erde has inspired me as well. I’ll use the title for a project in which I express my connections with my local natural environment – the earth, one could say – in musical compositions.

My compositions Silver and A Different World both stem from my frequent rambles in the woodlands and along the fields around my Scottish home. Fleeting moments, telling encounters, and atmospheric hues have etched themselves in my mind. The rhythm of my feet heightens my attention and opens up my imagination. Creative writing helps me to identify how I may express these experiences in music.

Artist Reiko Goto writes that creativity is a process of changing our place, our culture, and its ecological context, resonating with Ai Wei Wei’s understanding of creativity as a transformative process. Working on Silver and A Different World I noticed that while originally local woodland inspired my compositions, my compositions eventually made me see these surroundings in new ways. Whereas Mahler used the words of Chinese thinkers a thousand years ago to express his feelings in Das Lied von der Erde, I express my own experiences in songs-without-words. One could even argue that my Songs of the Earth project is a form of artist-led inquiry, in which, as Mendelssohn said, the music can express feelings and understandings that may be difficult to capture in words.

Over the next few months I intend to continue expressing my connections to the natural surroundings of my home in music compositions. I am aware that I’m not the first artist to do so. The work of other artists may indeed be a body of work to compare and contrast my own experiences with, in turn helping me to develop my own approach.

Links to all blogs on the Songs Of The Earth project:
Social listening
Album leaves
A different world

Copyright text and image Petra Vergunst

Sunday, 6 November 2011

A different world

Heavy snow has glued branches and twigs to an archway that forms the entrance to a fairytale world. This is a memory that opens up a new chapter every time I reach the edge of the forest. The archway connects two worlds – one being left behind when the other one is entered. The houses and streets where people dash off to work and school become but a distant memory when I observe the white bark of the birches peeling off and the moist  knots glistening in the sun. A blackbird rustles leaves on the woodland floor in search for insects. A wren hops busily between low twigs. Though it may still be a few weeks before this winter’s first snow falls, the edge of the woodlands has remained an entrance to a different world.

Below an extract from the composition A Different World.


Copyright text, music and image Petra Vergunst

Saturday, 22 October 2011

On whose terms?

Up to several years ago I worked as a university researcher, studying rural community development and social integration. One of the questions that fascinated me was what it takes for people to become part of a new community. I found that becoming part of a new community, whether as a new resident in a rural community or as a migrant worker, not only demands that you actually participate, but also that you do so on the terms set by that community. This way of thinking provides interesting insights in issues of engagement in community music projects as well. 

The Culter Mills and Parallel Lives projects have both been larger community music projects in which I tried to reach out to people who have little or no experience in music-making in the traditional sense. What’s more, I wanted these participants to actively contribute to the process and outcomes of the project. Like other community musicians and artists I often find it difficult to convince people to participate.

Sharing memories of Culter Mills
Looking at a community music project as a community and understanding that a project involves a set of norms and assumptions about music and music-making, and expectations about these by potential participants, has helped me understand how people I try to reach out to may feel about my invitation to do so. For example, in conversations about the work I do I’ve come across the prejudice that the word choral work sounds posh while songs sounds much more acceptable.  

In order to reach out to people I try to look at my projects from the perspective of the people I want to engage. This has been one of the reasons why I’ve chosen to work with folk songs. For many people the idea of community music is new. It is much more likely that they will engage if, in first instance, I work on basis of their understanding of what music is and should be. In Scotland folk music is a genre many people are familiar with.

But is it not only with respect to the content of my community music projects that I have to think about my participants, it is also with respect to the way in which I try to engage people. For the Parallel Lives project I had no existing contacts with people from Central and Eastern Europe. To build establish contacts and build trust I therefore took an ethnographic approach, visiting a group of mothers and toddlers that met weekly. Aware that I was entering their community I realised it would not be possible to deliver a full workshop on my terms, but had to fit my work around the way in which the mothers interact in their sessions.

In both the Culter Mills and Parallel Lives projects I aimed to bring communities together. I’ve used music to achieve this. What I've learnt from the social integration research I've done is how important it is to be sensitive towards participants' understandings of what music is and should be, and the often invisible and taken-for-granted norms for social interaction.

 Copyright text and image Petra Vergunst

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Two songs, one story

The previous two blogs contain the songs written as part of the Parallel Lives project, a community music project in which we try to bring together long-term Torry residents and people from Central and Eastern Europe who live in Torry through songwriting and singing.

We’ve Left Oor Hame in Aiberdeen, on the melody of Burns’s A Man’s A Man For A’ That, has been written people born and raised in Torry. Many of them have worked in the fish industry themselves or have family members who have done so. The song was written over the course of two workshops. In the first workshop we explored how herring girls might have felt about moving elsewhere to work in the herring industry, the community they moved to, home, and fellow herring girls. This inspired two members of the groups to write a number of verses that were then revised and added to by the full group in the second song writing workshop.

We Came Here For A Better Life, on the melody of Lothian Hairst, has been written by me, based on the experiences of a group of Polish and Czech mothers. Some of these participants arrived in Torry only a few months ago, others have lived here for over five years. They welcomed me to two of their mother-and-toddler sessions and were happy to share their experiences of moving to Torry, and their feelings towards home and fellow people from Central and Eastern Europe.

Though the stories of herring girls and people from Central and Eastern Europe vary, they have even more in common. The song We’ve Left Oor Hame in Aiberdeen tells the story of young women moving to Orkney to work in the herring industry as part of a quest to become independent and a desire to see new places and meet new people. At the same time they missed home, and in particular their mother, and were highly aware that their family needed the money they earned. The Polish and Czech mothers describe the tension between moving to Scotland with their children to reunite with their husbands while at the same time leaving behind their family in Poland or the Czech Republic, and thereby an important support network. Yet, in moving to Torry they’ve found a well-paid job, an attractive place to live, and a good school for their children. 

Herring girls and people from Central and Eastern Europe thus share the experience of moving elsewhere to work, but whereas herring girls would return home after the summer, most of the people from Central and Eastern Europe intend to stay. Whether they stay for a long time or not, their migration is an economic migration involving the excitement and challenges of  living far from the home, feelings towards home, fellow migrants and the community they’ve moved to.

Copyright text and image Petra Vergunst

We Came Here for a Better Life

My conversations with Polish and Czech mothers have given rise to the following song. The melody is based on the Scottish song Lothian Hairst, an upbeat tune. 

We came here for a better life
A home and a good job
A good school for our children
A happy family home

Our husbands were already here
We followed with the kids
We now live as a family
In a pleasant Torry home

Our husbands work as bricklayers
We have a cleaning job
This gives us income and good friends
To make a decent home

We love the sea, green fields around
The space where our kids play
We love the Mother and Toddler group
A space that is a warm home

We meet each other after mass
At home, in the Polish shop
The school that our children attend
Torry is a friendly home

We left our mum and dad behind
And stand on our own feet
No mum who helps us with the kids
That can be a challenge at home

Our friends are mainly Polish
We speak a common tongue
And understand each others’ plights
They provide a familiar home

We came here for a better life
And love our Torry home
We hope to stay for a long while
At home away from home

Copyright text and song lyrics participants in the Parallel Lives project and Arts Development

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

We've Left Oor Hame in Aiberdeen

After reflecting on how herring girls might have felt about moving away from home to work, their feelings towards the place they've moved to, home and their fellow herring girls, the participants in the Parallel Lives project with Arts Development in Torry, Aberdeen, have written a song on the melody of Burns's A Man's A Man For A' That - in Scots.

We’ve left oor hame in Aiberdeen
Excited by the venture
The train will tak us up the coast
New places, fit a pleasure
Oh, we’ll miss oor ma and we’ll miss oor da
There’s naething surer aboot that
Sine we’ll hae a laugh and we’ll sing a sang
Wi’ quines and loons and a’ that.

It’s early in the morning
And the sun’s begun tae shine
Oor fingers wrapped in clooties
Tae save them frae the brine
We’ll gie a chap and anither loud chap
On Beldie’s door so she’ll hear us
We’re awa’ tae gut the herring
That’s been soaking in the bree.

Sae young and independent
In search for oor ane life
New faces and new places
Tae become a fisher wife
We now hae oor ane money
Tae help oor ma and da
We ken we’ll get a bittie back
Tae hae some fun for a’ that.

We’ve gutted a’ the herring
Had fun wi’ a’ the loons
Frae up the north in Stronsay
Richt doon tae Yarmouth toon
In bonnie days and stormy days
It’s a’ the same tae us
The season it’s now over
We’ve siller in oor purse.

So now we’re aff back hame again
We feel it is a shame
But a hug fae ma and een fae da
Will seen make up for a’ that
Tae see oor folks, and a’ the bairns
Will bring us great pleasure
To be back hame in oor ane bed
It's something ye canna measure.

(Repeat of the second part of the song:)
For a’ that, an a’ that
We’ve hid a great time an’ a’ that
As for the life, tho’ hard it’s been
We’ll be back next year for a’ that.

Copyright text and song lyrics participants in the Parallel Lives project and Arts Development

Below the surface

Copyright Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums
If anything, last Saturday’s song writing workshop at Aberdeen Maritime Museum revealed that the whaling songs collected as part of the whaling project only scratch the surface. Below the surface there is a sea of possible angles to the theme of whaling. The singing of the traditional Scottish whaling songs, the talk by formal learning officer Lynsey Merrick, and the reading of real-life accounts of the 19th-century whalers triggered some surprising new angles to the theme of whaling.

Douglas Watson, who was unable to attend the workshop but sent me his song lyrics by email, decided that he’d let the whaler speak to his wife.

Oh Mary I’ll miss you in the morning
With your red ribboned hair in the dawn
What will you tell all our children
Where is their daddy gone

He’s gone hunting the whale
He’s gone hunting the whale

Grace Banks found the accounts of the hunting activity in traditional whaling songs quite shallow and uninvolved, and decided to write a much more engaging, close-up narrative of whaling inspired by the Scottish sea anthology Glimmer of Cold Brine and Gavin Sutherland's The Whaling Years Peterhead (1788-1893).

Marka Rifat took an entirely new approach and combined her discoveries of what different parts of the whale were used for with her observations of the sound world onboard the ships.

Chorus: Oh the creak of the ropes
And the creak of the boat
And the creak of the ladies’ stays.

Who gives you the oil to light you to bed
Who gives you the grease to spread on your bread
Who gives you the button hooks for your wee feet
The whaling boys of the whaling fleet.

I myself felt intrigued by the fact that whalers encountered an alien world with animal species they had never encountered before and decided to present this in the form of a letter to loved ones at home.

Dear mother and dear father
Dear Jane and John, hello
I’m writing from the Greenland shores
Midst sea and ice and snow

For days we’ve waited for a whale
No right whale to be seen
But ghostlike whites and unicorn nars
Bottlenose and Greenland sharks.

Interesting about last Saturday’s workshop is that the same songs and readings of real-life accounts gave rise to completely different songs. Most of us managed to write a full song within the time given, some even managed to write two. Diving below the surface we discovered a wealth of creative approaches to writing songs about whales and whaling.
(The photo was taken by Aberdeen Arts Gallery & Museums during The Home of the Whale workshop at Aberdeen Maritime Museum on Saturday 8 October 2011.)

If you want to learn more about the whaling song project, you may want to have a look at the following blogs:
With Scott to the Pole
Writing folk songs
Why folk songs?
The home of the whale
The story of whaling

Copyright text Marka Rifat, Petra Vergunst, Douglas Watson and Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums

Monday, 26 September 2011


The mundane sometimes becomes extra-ordinary. A few weeks ago I sat down at the edge of the water in one of the local woodlands that I frequent on my local rambles. The light dimmed as the weather came in. I've tried to capture this fleeting moment in a short composition for solo flute. Imagine the sounds of the flute being carried by a lake and disappearing into vast coniferous forest. 

Autumn skies approach between the blue pines. Golden birch leaves rustle in the disappearing sun while silver drops scar the reflecting surface of the water as if this were Sibelius’s Karelian lake. The sound of traffic in the distance makes way for a croaking frog and the chatter of birds just behind me. My eyes drop. The black-and-white reflections of the lakeside pines and birches take me in their midst. As if in a still movie an owl emerges from between the pines. Quiet silver magic.

If you want to listen to another of my compositions, you may be interested in My Ghost of Time.

 Copyright text and music Petra Vergunst

Thursday, 22 September 2011


About a year ago I read Christopher Small’s book Musicking: The Meanings of Performing and Listening, a book that radically changed my understanding of the role of the composer, performer, and listener in music. In asserting that music is an activity in which the composer, performer and listener participate actively, Small turns the traditional understanding of the performer who is a conduit of the music that is written by the inspired composer and received by the passive listener upside down.

Taking Small’s argument a step further, it is not hard to appreciate that the listener can shape his or her own music experience. It is not the composer who determines how a listener should interpret his or her composition, but the listener him or herself. Over time even my own composition My Ghost of Time conjures up different images and associations.

Understanding music appreciation in this way unleashes a range of new ideas. Think, for example, of a performance as an album of stories, poems, images, perhaps sensations that we cannot express in words or images. A performance then is like turning the pages of an album and encountering a whole new imaginary world overleaf. 

Next time you listen to music, why not close your eyes for a moment and let your imagination roam free?

Copyright text and images Petra Vergunst

Thursday, 1 September 2011

With Scott to the Pole

In 1910 Captain Robert Falcon Scott set out for the Antarctic. He never returned. Having reached the South Pole, Scott and his fellow adventurers died on their return journey just 11 miles from the safety of a supply depot. This autumn Aberdeen Maritime Museum will host an exhibition of historic photographs held by the Royal Geographical Society of this ill-fated expedition. Interesting about this exhibition is that it reveals the seeds for two ostensibly contrasting attitudes to wildlife. Scott and his fellow adventurers set out to discover the South Pole and its resources, but as adventurers they were also keen to document it.
The story of Scott has much in common with the story of whaling that started a century earlier. While whale hunters sailed to the Arctic to kill whales, sailors also made detailed documentation of the wildlife encountered. In the end, this led to the conservation of these species. The 19th-century demand for blubber led to the rapid decline of the Greenland whale. Meanwhile the detailed documentation of beast was of great interest to naturalists who eventually promoted the protection of this beast.

Harpoons after a display in Arbuthnott Museum in Peterhead
Folksongs express the experiences and thoughts of the communities they stem from. Whaling songs are no expectation. The whaling songs we sing nowadays celebrate the killing of whales. The exhibition With Scott to the Pole may be a good opportunity to reconsider these traditional whaling songs in the light of the conservation debate. In the workshop Rewriting Our History we will express our feelings towards this dilemma by writing new songs.

The exhibition With Scott to the Pole will be at Aberdeen Maritime Museum from 24 September 2011 to 8 January 2012. Rewriting Our History is a workshop for adults that will be held on Saturday 24 September from 10.30 am to 4.30 pm. To book a free place phone 01224 337714.

Copyright text Aberdeen Maritime Museum and Petra Vergunst
Copyright image Petra Vergunst

Monday, 22 August 2011

Songs without words

Music can express things that cannot be captured by words. This is what Felix Mendelssohn meant when he said: ‘Music represents a higher form of language, one that communicates its meaning with a precision unmatched by the ambiguities of mere words’. In last Saturday’s music feature The Shorthand of Emotion on Radio 3, Katie Derham used the word spiritual to describe how the famous Russian author Leo Tolstoy experienced the expressivity of music. She even suggested that Tolstoy might have found it easier to describe emotions through music than through words.  

Mendelssohn was an expert in communicating emotions through music and each of his 48 songs without words expresses a particular atmosphere or feeling. Songs without words are short lyrical character pieces for piano. As textless piano songs, their melodies makes them easy to listen to. In expressing one mood only, they are very similar to folk songs in which the melody of the verses repeats itself and doesn’t respond to the content of the lyrics. 

The very fact that songs without words express one atmosphere or feeling only, is their very strength. As the verse is repeated there is a sense of calm and time to really experience, and reflect on, the music. That this is a special quality becomes even clearer when we compare a song without words with Beethoven’s piano sonatas. Especially in the first movements of his piano sonatas, Beethoven embarks on an emotional journey in which we encounter  a range of strongly contrasting emotions in quick succession. This makes the listening experience very intense and requires full attention.  

What I appreciate in Mendelssohn’s songs without words (and similar songlike pieces by other composers) is that they allow for a less intense listening experience. Their lyricism makes them attractive even as background music. 

If you want to explore this for yourself, you’re welcome to visit the cafe at Newton Dee (in Bieldside, Aberdeen) on Tuesdsay 6 September at 2.30pm when I’ll play a number of Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words alongside similar mood pictures by other composers.

Copyright text Petra Vergunst

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Singing the fishing

As the project Parallel Lives with Arts Development in Aberdeen is gathering pace I thought I’d give a brief update. Our taster session with Torry Arts Forum last June helped us to set up the song-writing sessions for Torry residents in September. Our current focus therefore is on engaging people from Central and Eastern Europe living in Torry. Fortunately, we’ve been given a few leads so we hope to get in contact with them over the next week or two. We hope to be able to set up a number of meetings to talk about the project and share experiences about moving to Scotland to work. The song lyrics for the song about migrant workers’ experiences will be based on those conversations. Over the next few weeks I also hope to find some violin, viola and cello players who can accompany the singers during the final event. It will be great to arrange an accompaniment for strings. At the moment, our attention is, however, focused on our preparations for Torry Gala where we hope to promote the project by making herring mobiles together.

Talking to people about the project often helps to shed new light on elements of it. A few weeks ago  Aberdeenshire youth music coordinator Lorna McLaren told me about the background of The Song Of The Fish Gutters. The song was written in 1966 by Ewan MacColl as part of a radio ballad about Britain’s fishing communities called Singing The Fishing. Together with Peggy Seeger, Ewan MacColl visited Great Yarmouth and Gardenstown (Gamrie) along the Moray coast to record traditional songs and speak to people who used work in the fast declining herring industry. In this light, it is interesting that The Song of the Fish Gutters is about young women from Northeast Scotland who travel to Yarmouth to work in the herring industry, connecting the two areas the radio ballad focused on. 
In the video below I’ve added the lyrics to the music, so you can sing along with The Song of the Fish Gutters.

If you live in Torry and want to be involved in the project, please register your interest with Mandy Clarke, community arts officer with Arts Development, at 01224 814738 or

Torry Gala will take place on Saturday 27 October and the project will be promoted between 12 and 2 pm. The song-writing workshops will take place on Friday 16 and 23 September from 9.30 to 11.30 am. The final event, in which we’ll sing the three songs with all those who have been involved with the project, will take place on Saturday 29 October from 11 am to 1 pm.

Copyright text, images and video Petra Vergunst

Monday, 8 August 2011

Writing folk songs

In folks songs people like you and me tell about the events, experiences and feelings that they feel are important. There is thus scope for adding new songs to the folk song repertoire. This is what I’ll be doing in the Parallel Lives project and in a workshop for the Aberdeen Maritime Museum.

Though I’ve thus far mainly worked with maritime themes, most songs have a love theme. This can entail expressions of love as in The Gallant Weaver, but more often it seems to be about unrequited love or broken promises. There are also ample descriptions of natural beauty such as Flow Gently, Sweet Afton. On the less idyllic side there are political folk songs like those about Jacobite cause. A category of folk songs that I particularly enjoy is those describing occupations like weavers, coopers, millers, and of course herring gutters and whalers.

The songs often use a place, object or person as a peg to construct the narrative around. For example, in This Is No My Plaid a young woman sings about how she finds out that her lover is betraying her through finding a plaid that is not hers. Pegs can also be used symbolically. In A Rosebud By My Early Walk, the rosebud stands for a much younger girl for whom Robert Burns has amorous feelings.   

Different voices can be used to tell the story. What Auld Lang Syne and The Song of the Fish Gutters have in common is that they let us take ownership of the song by describing it as a shared experience. Songs like The Gallant Weaver tell the story in the eyes of one person. An exception is My Donald in which we listen in to a personal conversation between a husband and wife. More common are descriptive songs that share a narrative without personal involvement. Flow Gently Sweet Afton is a good example of this.

One may think that writing song lyrics is a difficult task, but we forget that many of the people who did so in the past were not trained as songwriters either. Instead, I’d like to think that song writing is a creative challenge that is achievable so long as we make some conscious decisions about the theme, the peg to construct the story around, and the voice we want to use in telling our story.

The song writing workshops that are part of the Parallel Lives (or herring gutters) project will be held on Friday 16 and 23 September 2011. For more information and to register contact Mandy Clarke, community arts officer with Arts Development at 01224 814738 or

The workshop Rewriting Our History in which we’ll write our own texts for a contemporary whaling song will be held at Aberdeen Maritime Museum on Saturday 24 September. For more information and to register contact Aberdeen Maritime Museum at 01224 337700. 

Copyright text and images Petra Vergunst

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Parallel lives

Folk songs are a great source of shared memories, but we often overlook the opportunity to explore the relevance of such songs for the here and now. In the project Parallel Lives: Herring Girls and Migrant Workers the aim is to explore the stories and lived experiences behind The Song of the Fish Gutters (which is about young women who migrated along the Northeast coast of Scotland in search for work) and compare this with the experiences of people from Central and Eastern Europe who currently work in Aberdeen’s fish industry. This project, commissioned by Arts Development, Aberdeen City Council, with money from the Fairer Scotland Fund, will take place in Torry, Aberdeen, from August to October 2011. 

The project, the first impressions of which I have described in my blog on folksongs in community music, consists of two strands that come together in a final event. In the first strand we will hold two workshops with residents of Torry (Aberdeen) in which we invite residents to step into the lives of herring girls by singing The Song of the Fish Gutters and studying the other documentation, after which we will express how herring girls might have experienced the temporary annual migration in song lyrics. The second strand aims to capture the experiences of migration of migrant workers in Torry, many of whom work in the fish industry, again in songs lyrics. The outcomes of these events will form the basis for two songs composed especially for the occasion, which, together with the original folk song will be rehearsed, first with Torry residents and migrant workers separately, and then with the two groups together.

For more information about the project, click here.

Other blogs on this project:
On whose terms?
Two songs, one story
We Came Here for a Better Life
We've Left Oor Hame in Aiberdeen
Singing the fishing
Writing folk songs
Why folk songs?
Following the herring
Community music - music for communities

Copyright text Petra Vergunst

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Why folk songs?

Many of my community music projects are based on Scottish folk songs or explore heritage otherwise. In the Culter Mills project I set the memories of former staff of the paper mill to music in folksong style. In the whaling song project I am interested in the stories these songs tell about what it means to go whaling. A few weeks ago I started the project Parallel Lives with Arts Development, Aberdeen City Council, to explore the stories of migration told in The Song of the Fish Gutters. Folk songs are part of our local heritage, but why do I use this in my community music work?

Singing together (photo taken by Mandy Clarke of Arts Development)
Composers and song writers write about the world around them, lifting out events, experiences and feelings that are important to them. When Karl Jenkins was commissioned by the Royal Armouries Museum to write a piece for the Millennium celebrations, he wrote The Armed Man, an anti-war mass dedicated to the victims of the Kosovo crisis. Folk songs do the same thing, be it on a smaller scale. When we sing traditional songs we feel that these songs tell something about our history, and what was important to our grandparents and great-grandparents. As folk songs celebrate everyday experiences people are able to identify with them. When presenting The Song of the Fish Gutters to the participants in Aberdeen, participants were keen to share their own experiences of working in the fish industry and what they knew about herring girls. Using folk songs in community music projects can for some participants thus be an empowering experience. 

Reflecting on the experiences of herring girls
But there is a more profound reason for working with folk songs as well. Many folk songs tell interesting stories that can be used as a starting point for discussion. The whaling songs, for example, celebrate man’s dominion over the whale, and thereby provide opportunities to reflect on our own heritage in relation to the current internal ban of whale hunting. The Song of the Fish Gutters tells the stories of the annual migration of young woman to work as casual workers in the herring industry. Parallels with the experiences of people from Central and Eastern Europe who are currently working in Scotland are not difficult to find. The reason why I work with folk songs in my community music projects thus is that they present a story with which people can identify, in turn giving an easy entry for reflecting on more difficult social and environmental issues. 

A few weeks ago I read a quote from  the Chinese artists Ai Weiwei: "Creativity is the power to reject the past, to change the status quo and to seek new potential." In shaping my community music projects I draw a lot of inspiration from the socially engaged arts that stress the importance of dialogue between the artist and participants, and among participants themselves. Folk songs connect past, present and future: our interest in our past forms a starting point for a dialogue about the present, and this will in turn help to shape our future.

Copyright text Petra Vergunst 
Copyright images Mandy Clarke and Petra Vergunst

Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Following the herring

When ten Central and Eastern European countries joined the European Union in 2004, young men and women from those countries came to the UK to work. Such migration for work is nothing new. In the 19th century young Scottish men sailed to Greenland to hunt whales, while young women travelled along the Northeast coast to Yarmouth to gut herring. Both Scottish traditions of migration for work live on in traditional songs and tale.

‘Come, a’ ye fisher lassies, aye, it’s come awa’ wi’ me,
Fae Cairnbulg and Gamrie and fae Inverallochie,
Fae Buckie and fae Aberdeen and a’ the country roon,
We’re awa’ tae gut the herrin’, we’re awa’ tae Yarmouth toon.’
(The Song of the Fish Gutters)

The Song of the Fish Gutters (you can listen at the melody at the bottom of this blog) tells the story of so-called herring girls, young women from highland and lowland Scotland who travelled from Stornoway, Wick, the fishing towns along the Northeast coast of Scotland to Yarmouth to cure herring. As the fish migrated from the Norwegian waters into the North Sea, these women started curing fish in the North of Scotland during the summer and arrived in England in the autumn. To gut and pack the large quantities of fish caught, up to several thousand fish gutters could work alongside each other on the quay of Yarmouth. Leaving home for work in the herring industry, the girls often stayed in wooden lodgings along the quay.

We’ve gutted fish in Lerwick and in Stornoway and Shields,
Warked along the Humber ‘mongst the barrels and the creels,
Whitby, Grimsby, we’ve traivelled up and doon,
But the place to gut the herrin’ is the quay at Yarmouth toon.’
(The Song of the Fish Gutters)

Herring girls worked in crews of three, one packer and two gutters. A barrel of 700 fish took around 10 minutes to gut and pack, and a crew could manage up to 30 barrels a day. As they were paid per barrel, speed was important. Working conditions were challenging as salt would aggravate any cuts from the sharp gutting knives. Girls therefore tied strips of rag round their fingers to save them from getting cuts.

‘It’s early in the morning and it’s late into the nicht,
Your hands a’ cut and chappit and they look an unco sicht;
And you greet like a wean when you put them in the bree,
And you wish you were a thousand mile awa’ frae Yarmouth quay.’
(The Song of the Fish Gutters)

There are striking similarities between the circumstances described in The Song of the Fish Gutters and the stories we hear about migrant workers nowadays. Many men and women from Central and Eastern Europe have found work in the Scottish fish processing industry as employers are said to find it hard to attract a local staff for the the kind of work, low pay, and seasonal work they have on offer.

To listen to a recording of The Song of the Fish Gutters, see Singing The Fishing.

Copyright text and image Petra Vergunst

Sunday, 8 May 2011

Community music - music for communities

Community music is gradually gaining ground in Britain. The most famous example may well be More Music Morecombe, but recently Sistema Scotland’s work in Raploch, Perth, has received a lot of media attention. 

My own background is in rural community development, urban regeneration and community processes. One of the themes I’m really interested in is community asset ownership, i.e. communities developing their assets such as heritage, woodlands and buildings for the benefit of the community. For communities to take such initiatives residents need to know each other and share a strong sense-of-community. Community music can contribute to this. Carefully thought-out community music initiatives can bring people together and help develop a story that can form the basis for a developing sense-of-community. 

In a way, this has been the approach in the Culter Mills project. Through the project former mill employees and other residents of Culter came together to sing about the former papermill in the village. They met each other face-to-face in a come-and-sing event, in turn creating a new memory for the participants. The Culter Mills project created a story on a range of levels: it formed the reason for bringing people together and the topic of the songs. As the story started to spread word-of-mouth  and through media attention, it started to contribute to people’s sense-of-community.

This interpretation of community music is different from that of More Music Morecombe and Sistema Scotland in that my aim is less to provide classes or otherwise enhance people’s musical ability (and thereby creating confidence), and more to use the music project as a trigger to bring people together to create a dialogue, and a story people can relate to and derive confidence from as a community. 

My approach to community music is inspired by socially engaged arts that stress that the dialogue created through the project can be seen as a form of art itself. Recently I had an inspiring conversation with Chu Yuan, a PhD student at RGU, who uses her Taste Buds project to open up a conversation about cultural similarities and differences. Yuan works one-to-one or with small groups. My emphasis is on bringing communities together and I therefore tend to work with slightly larger groups.   

Music can be a means for community development. The strength of music is that it communicates moods and atmosphere. Creating a story is important in community music and this means that the music has to be accompanied by words. This can be in the form of song lyrics, accompanying poetry or story telling, perhaps even combined with visual outputs. The impact of a project increases if the experience is shared rather than individual, and if people contribute actively rather than listen or observe only.

Copyright text Petra Vergunst

Friday, 6 May 2011

The home of the whale

The arrangements of whaling songs for the singing workshops are now finished. Each of them has its own atmosphere. My Donald is one of my favourites as it conjures up images of an intimate conversation between a sailor and his wife in which they express their feelings about the perils of whaling:

My Donald he works on the sea,
On the waves that blow wild and free,
He splices the ropes and sets the sails,
While southward he rolls to the home of the whale.

Ye ladies wha' smell of wild rose, 
Think ye for your perfume of whaur a man goes,
Think ye o' the wives and the bairnies wha' yearn,
For a man ne'er returning frae hunting the sperm.

He ne'er thinks of me far behind,
Or the torments that rage in my mind,
He's mine for only half part of the year, 
Then I'm left all alone wi' nocht but a tear.

Ye ladies wha' smell of wild rose, 
Think ye for your perfume of whaur a man goes,
Think ye o' the wives and the bairnies wha' yearn,
For a man ne'er returning frae hunting the sperm.

My Donald he works on the sea,
On the waves that blow wild and free,
He splices the ropes and sets the sails,
While southward he rolls to the home of the whale.

Copyright text and music Petra Vergunst