Thursday, 31 March 2011

The story of whaling

Traditional songs can be seen to express the voice of communities, the lives lived, and the stories these communities wish to tell. This is no less true for traditional whaling songs.

In the 19th century communities along the coast of Northeast Scotland ventured into whaling. To gear the industrial revolution energy was needed and hunting whales for their oil became a lucrative business. In towns like Peterhead and Dundee young men boarded industrial vessels to head for the seas east and west of Greenland for trips up to six months . 

Traditional whaling songs reveal how whalers look at this adventure. The song Farewell to Tarwathie tells of the cold coast of Greenland which is barren and bare and where ostensibly no life is possible. The song contrasts this with seed-time, harvest and birdsong at home. The young men that boarded those vessels thus travelled to a land where nothing was like what they’re used to at home.

And the trips were not without their challenges. In My Donald the smell of whale blubber on the ship is compared to the smell of roses at home. In the same song the whaler reminds his beloved of the whalers who were lost at sea. The shanty The Whale offers a stark contrast as it tells of a captain for whom the loss of a whaler is far less important than the catch of a whale. 

Above all, traditional whaling songs celebrate the comradeship and masculine environment onboard the vessels, and emphasise this by projecting the stories to the loved ones waiting for them at home. Farewell to Tarwathie captures this particularly well: ‘The cold ice of Greenland my love will not chill, and the longer my absence, more lovin’ she’ll feel’.

Nineteenth-century whale hunting did however cause the near extinction of certain whale species. The numbers of whales that Peterhead vessels caught annually decreased after the initial years and in the last decade of the 19th century whale hunting was no longer viable. However contested whale hunting is in the light of the international environmental debate nowadays, traditional whaling songs remind us of the context from which this activity originates and the role whale hunting played in coastal communities in the 19th century. 

I'm currently arranging four traditional whaling songs for SAB and SA to be used in singing workshops.

Copyright text and image Petra Vergunst

Monday, 21 March 2011

Ebb and flow

Since the Culter Mills project drew to a close I’ve started work on a number composition and community music projects inspired by the rich coastal heritage of the Northeast of Scotland and traditional songs about fisheries and whaling.

Another important source of inspiration is the work of other artists whose work relates to the sea. One of those works has been the book My Ghost of Time with art work by Gesa Helms and poetry by Merle Schroeder. Though the theme of this book is about loss at sea, I felt I had to look for my own interpretation of the story to help me identify the moods I wanted to communicate in my music. What stood out for me was the opposing moods of the sea and the way the sea can invite us to calm down: 

Time. At times it seems to slip through our hands. We do not manage to get a grip on it. Our lives pass by in a rush, we run, stumble, cope with things as they inflate beyond control.

How much we would like to be cradled by the roll of the sea. Keep up with the movement of the waves. The gentle movement telling us to slow down. Getting a grip on our lives as we nest ourselves even deeper in the arms of the sea. Breathe in, breathe out ... in ... out. We relax, find a new rhythm of life. Things lose their importance.

In the ebb and flow of the waves we have lost time but found ourselves.

But even my above interpretation, as expressed in my composition, turned out not to be fixed. Playing My Ghost of Time on the piano I see mental images of calm and rough seas. Other times I see the juxtaposition of calmness and restlessness to stand for other aspects of life. What the piece means to me is continuously evolving, reaching new depths. Playing the music over again, some parts of the composition have altered. Sometimes I even consider changing the title to better reflect what the piece means to me at this very moment. Originally finding my inspiration in Gesa Helm's work, the meaning of the music I composed gradually evolved in the process of composing, rehearsing and performing. I recognise that you as a listener may experience the music in yet another way.

Copyright text and music Petra Vergunst

Friday, 4 March 2011

The Horncall

Listen to some extracts of The Horncall! Written for a community music and arts project in Peterculter, the song cycle consists of five movements for soprano, alto and bass,  accompanied by flute and cello:

The Last Salute
Culter Burn
Together We Make Paper
The Horncall

The extracts from the sound files beneath are produced in the music composition programme Sibelius.

The song, Culter Burn, presents the history of the paper mill.

Culter Burn, down the hill meandering
Twisting and turning, from Loch Skene to the Dee
Pow’ring mills, sawing wood, grinding meal
Paper in Culter since Bartholomew.

Papermaker from England, with his wife and two sons
Leased the mill, the croft and the land
Rags from the market, collected on Fridays
Washed in the burn, paper in town to be sold

During one of the memory-sharing workshops with former mill employeees last autumn we explored the sound world of the mill. One thing that came forward in this workshop was how the horncall shaped the life of the mill staff and Culter as a whole.

The horncall sounds both far and wide
To waken folk to call then to work,
The hoot it blows day in day out
To announce the early morning.
For many years the Culter folk
Need not a watch, far less a clock
The horn it marked each space of time
And kept the day in line.

This February Friday morn’
Came the last salute of the horn
To say farewell to Culter folk
Black Friday eight-one
Now all is gone the silence irks
Those that answered the call of the work
The mill is now an empty shell
Silence rules the day.

Copyright text and music Petra Vergunst