Vikingdom Coming

Last weekend my parents and I attended Largs’s annual Viking Festival. The weather was fantastically sunny, the best they’d had all week, and I want to tell you about this really fun day.

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Arkansas Ramblers

We woke unreasonably early, about half past nine in the morning (the horror!), and drove for an hour and a half to arrive in time to see my mother’s friends from work performing on the music stage. These friends were members of the recently established, Glasgow-based band the Arkansas Ramblers, a group of ten musicians who perform Old Time Americana, Country and Bluegrass music. I really enjoyed the performance; there was a nice mixture of older music, such as the pro-unionist, Civil-War tune ‘Kingdom Coming’ to more recent compositions like ‘Ashokan Farewell’, which was written in 1982 but still fit the overall tone with its mellow traditional sound.

The stand-out section for me was the fantastic duet, ‘Tennessee Waltz’, between Bernadette Collier and Sandy Semeonoff. The harmonies during the chorus are spine-tinglingly rustic, with Collier taking the tune while Semeonoff offers a simple tenor accompaniment that hangs very close to the melody and makes heavy use of third and sixth intervals. The sound is very characteristic of the genre and the voices blend together splendidly. It was fantastic.

It wasn’t even entirely out of place to have traditional American music playing at a Viking festival. After all, the Vikings reached the Americas centuries before Christopher Columbus was born – and towards the end Bill Macaulay, the founder of the group, had even donned a knitted Viking helmet!

After the performance was over, I explored the rest of the festival. There were myriad stalls selling a variety of crafts, lotions, foods, and souvenirs. There were also several fairground attractions, but more fun, for me, was the Viking Village.

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Doctor’s manual (made from vellum). Also plastic amputations, because medicine was horrible back then.

The Viking Village was like an outdoor museum, with wicker huts, old-fashioned stalls, and experts dressed in old Norse outfits who were eager to tell you about their specific roles in the village. There was a fletcher making arrows, a doctor who told us about ancient Norse medicine, a couple of metal workers using traditional Norse tools to shape souvenir coins, and a variety of traders selling furs, bracelets, candles and (harmless) weapons. The candle seller talked about how the keepers of bees were particularly well regarded in old Norse society – they would make mead from the honey, which pleased the locals, and the leftover beeswax would be donated to the churches and made into candles. Meanwhile, the book crafter was showing some children the animal-skin vellum that was used for paper and the children took turns trying (and failing) to rip the tough material.

I got my runes read by a very nice rune reader. She had a bag of tokens and I picked one blind. I drew the “prosperity” token, which looked like a wonky F. Although somewhat fitting given I start my new job tomorrow, I imagine all of the other tokens would have been equally vaguely relevant, too. It was still fun and interesting to experience the ancient Norse superstition, although at the same time it did feel a little uncomfortably New Age-y. That said, I did receive a pretty card and got to keep the token, which was a nice souvenir.

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My favourite hut was the one with the Norse musical instruments. It was really great to see so many ancient instruments; there was an ancient Norse lyre, some ancient panpipes, a type of drum called a bodhrán (which is technically Irish, but oh well), and a bukkehorn made from an animal horn. The man in the hut was playing a tiny harp called a clarsach, which is mainly associated with Celtic origins, but was also played by the Norse people. It was a pretty tune – I didn’t recognise it, but it was soft and atmospheric. I liked it.
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After the Viking Village, my parents and I went to an ice-cream parlour on the beach and had gigantic sundaes. I could only eat about a quarter of my Marshmallow Heaven – vanilla and raspberry ice-cream, with a mountain of cream, and marshmallows, and several wafers, and marshmallow sauce! It was amazing, but it was also huge.

Later that evening, we also got a traditional fish and chip supper (although mine was a smoked sausage, because fish in batter is gross). We were staying out late in order to attend the Festival of Fire, but the restaurant was so understaffed, it took forty minutes for the food to come. It was a bit nerve-wracking – I was worried we’d miss the parade! Luckily, crisis was averted and we arrived just as the parade was starting.

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There were all sorts of characters wandering around, but by far the best costume goes to this guy, who had a clockpunk metal dragon draped around his neck!

The Festival of Fire, was pretty rad; the parade gave everyone who had dressed up the opportunity to show off their amazing costumes. I particularly enjoyed the burly man who, trying to get past a huge crowd of bystanders, called out, “I have an axe, and I’m not afraid to use it!”

I was sceptical that it would get dark in time for the fire in the Festival of Fire to really make an impact, but pleasingly I was proved wrong. As we followed the burning torches through the stalls, and anachronistically through the funfair, the evening light dimmed into nighttime darkness.

We reached the sea, where a Viking longboat was set aflame. It was spectacular, but there were so many people it was difficult to get a good view. Even harder to see, though, was the short re-enactment battle. I didn’t especially mind; there were a lot of children, and it made sense to let them get the better view. My parents and I (along with a lot of other people) were up on a nearby hill where it was a bit dark to see the fighting, but the fantastic fire dancer who followed was very visible. He spun the flames around him in loops and juggled burning torches to the accompanying theatrical Norse music.

The evening ended with a pretty impressive fireworks display. I’ve never been so close to fireworks – it was like they were exploding directly above me! It was very loud, and I had to cover my ears for most of it, but the cost/benefit of the proximity still ultimately landed on the good side!

All in all, it was a very enjoyable day, and driving home listening to the CD of Icelandic singer, Hafdís Huld, was an appropriate end to a lovely Nordic-inspired experience.

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Burn, boaty, burn (Viking Inferno!)

Feature: Echo Chamber

Imagine sitting on a couch next to a stranger, surrounded by arcade games and Nintendo wall decorations, staring into the face of a paper mâché mounted smilodon head, while a string quartet plays a mashup of medieval chant and Jimi Hendrix. This was the unique musical experience that the Mancunian string quartet Echo Chamber offered four nights ago (Monday 6th) at the MegaBYTE cafe in Glasgow.

An arcade cafe might, on the surface, seem an odd choice of venue for a classical music concert. Similarly, Jimi Hendrix and Kanye West are not necessarily the most intuitive musical companions to Franz Schubert, Arvo Pärt, or Pérotin. But Echo Chamber, although still very new on the music scene, is eager to challenge some of the social mores that have sprouted up around classical music.

The choice of venue was a result of the quartet’s association with the company Groupmuse, an organisation that provides a platform for people to set up classical music concerts in small, unlikely venues. Quite often, that even involves a member of the public arranging a concert in their own living room! The idea, which has already taken off in the States, is to build a community of like-minded people who really enjoy classical music and listening to it in unexpected places. As violinist Stephen Bradshaw put it when we talked after the concert:

Chamber music is very much a tradition of friends coming together to play music. It is often described as being like a conversation. As soon as you take that out of a small room and put it in a big concert hall, some of the more salient elements of that are lost.

This is very true. Although a concert hall’s acoustics may be better, this particular experience really invokes the salons of, say, Haydn and Mozart, friends who occasionally met to play string quartets together, or the 19th-century Viennese parlours that Franz Schubert gathered in with his circle. Although, perhaps an even more fitting analogue there would be the Schubertiads, established after Schubert’s death, which often involved fans of Schubert coming together in drawing rooms to celebrate the music they loved in an informal setting in the company of others who shared their passion. This practice fell out of fashion eventually; even as early as 1946, the music critic Alec Robertson was bemoaning the loss of these cosy gatherings. But perhaps Groupmuse’s house concerts will inspire a resurgence.

If such a renewal is to take place, Echo Chamber’s unique style is perfect for the situation. Their repetoire, inspired by listening to songs on shuffle in Spotify and the Radio 3 show Late Junction, is vibrantly innovative. As Bradshaw pointed out, there’s no rule that says you can’t pair 13th-century music with Kanye West, so if it sounds good together, why not go for it? The unconventional musical juxtapositions are interesting and engaging and during each performance there’s a sense of a shared joke between the players and the audience, which is enhanced by how close everyone is gathered. The cello was less than an arm’s length away from where I was sitting.

This was an unforeseen addition to this particular evening’s arrangement (even for the players!). After the first piece, the quartet’s artistic director, Leo Mercer, suggested we all moved to sit around one table with each member of the quartet situated at one of the four corners. Personally, my initial reaction was intrigued bemusement, but I was pleasantly surprised by how relaxed the rest of the concert turned out to be, given its intimate nature.

I think also, this was a really positive inclusion for a concert of this style, where the individuality and variation from concert to concert is a big attraction. The quartet also includes improvisation for the musical transitions, and these are completely different each performance. For example, Monday night’s transition between Pérotin’s Viderunt Omnes and Jimi Hendrix’s Purple Haze featured a lot of powerful, dramatic tremolo that was fantastic, and all the more impressive for having been made up on the spot. During the interval, when the performers came and chatted with the audience, Sophia Dignam (viola) was laughing about how she started the tremolo, unsure whether it would work out well, and the others followed her lead and they just went for it – and I have to say, it worked brilliantly! Mercer, the artistic director, even mentioned that he thought it was their best transition to date! It was lovely that all of the group were so open and willing to talk about the performance; they were all really friendly and it enhanced the whole atmosphere.

It’s a somewhat unusual setup for a string quartet to have an artistic director, most quartets operate as a purely democratic unit, but here Mercer is very much an asset to the group, always coming up with new ideas to encourage both the audience and the players to experience and think about the music in new ways. Bradshaw described to me the group’s rehearsal process. Generally they will spend about forty-five minutes rehearsing the music, then Mercer will come in and “do his artistic directing thing”, for example:

He might get us to think about different lines of music as different characters in a play, or get us to move around the room, sit in different parts of the room, try and experience the music in a different way in order to get us to play in more kind of fresh and exciting ways. […] He has a very unique style of artistic direction, and he’s constantly trying to take us out of our comfort zone, which is a really good thing. Classical musicians have the worst comfort zones, and we’re just used to doing a very specific thing within a certain set of confined rules. And Leo’s all about taking us out of those comfort zones, taking us out of those “echo chambers” and getting us to try out new stuff all the time.

Echo Chamber’s house concerts are not Mercer’s only out-of-the-box production. He’s written an opera called The Marriage of Kim K, based on Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro. Again combining classical and contemporary, the opera will feature reality-TV style aspects alongside music from Figaro as well as newly composed material. Echo Chamber will actually be providing the music for the production at the Edinburgh Fringe in August. It’s an intriguing idea, and judging by the surprises of Monday’s concert, I’m not sure what to expect, but I imagine it will be distinctively special.

Bradshaw told me about what the quartet hoped to achieve with their concerts:

We really want people to experience classical music in a non-pretentious way, and that’s probably one of the biggest features that we do as a quartet. Making classical music less about turning up, smartly dressed, and not clapping between movements and more about just coming and enjoying the music you like, with a drink in hand, with friends. That’s what we want people to take away from this. Yes, a sense of community, a sense of – not necessarily classical music being cool – but making it something accessible, something you enjoy going to listen to. Have fun, have fun going to a house party but one where you listen to your friends playing classical music! Simple as that really!

I think they have accomplished that goal. Everything about Monday’s concert was crafted to make the experience as unique, friendly and hospitable as possible. It was a relaxed and enjoyable evening, with very talented, thoughtful musicians and their beautiful music in a small retro cafe. And although the word is frightfully overused, I’d go as far as to say the evening was “hygge”.

Echo Chamber Quartet

From the left: Chris Terepin (cello), Stephen Bradshaw (violin), Sophia Dignam (viola) & Rebekah Reid (violin).


Echo Chamber’s Facebook: www.facebook.com/musicechochamber
Echo Chamber’s Twitter: twitter.com/_echochamber
Echo Chamber’s Instagram: www.instagram.com/echochambermusic
Groupmuse’s Website: www.groupmuse.com