Scottish Storytelling Centre, Edinburgh, Wed 28 October 2015
Alpha Munro's project Leirsinn
Storytelling comes from an oral and aural tradition making blindness by no means a disadvantage, in fact Greek mythology often casts its sooth-sayers and truth-tellers as blinded but able to access a more profound way of seeing. The same is true of music, the extra sensitivity of hearing which often comes with the absence of sight has made for a tradition of blind musicians and composers which was celebrated at this captivating event named Lèirsinn or Vision.
Fiona J Mackenzie, our genial host, took us through an evening of songs, reels and airs by blind composers from the 17th Century to present day, dextrously played by the 6 strong band including various strings, pipes and an accordion, and lightly peppered with pieces of history and trivia.
Starting strong with the appropriately titled King of the Blind from 1724, the earliest piece of Irish music to be found in print, the evening then moved further back in time as Bill Taylor performed Port Atholl, sweetly plucked on on the wire-strung clarsach. This beautiful melody was composed in the early 1600s by Ruaidri Dáll Ó Catháin, or ‘Blind Rory’, composer of the famously heartbreaking tune to which the song Danny Boy is now sung. Later in the bill the whole group came together for Give me Your Hand by the same composer, a gorgeous playful piece which had the whole audience tapping their feet.
Across the water and around 50 years later there was another Blind Rory but this one the Scottish, Ruairidh Mac Mhuirich, whose Oran Mor Michleoid was sung by Fiona J Mackenzie with a plaintive loveliness, with Duncan MacGillvray’s whistle bringing another voice to the melody. We learnt that many of the blind composers from this period had been blighted by smallpox but their talents had brought them into contact with great clans and houses who became their patrons and commissioned many of these pieces.
Just as entrancing as these historical works were the compositions of two of the band members. Mark Throw’s love song Lost for Words in which he laments his inarticulacy when faced with the object of his affection was, contrary to the title, beautifully written, with his music adding to the eloquence of his words. Fiona Kyle’s composition for the gut-strung clarsach, Stepping Out, was dedicated to her guide dog Jerry and, entirely without words, narrated how tentative footsteps turn to confident strides as she ventures into an unseen world with her trusted companion.
All in all the evening was a powerful demonstration of the narrative power of music. Despite the fact the performances were illustrated by projected images of ravishing landscapes in Scotland, it was the music that painted the most vivid pictures. Archibald MacNeill’s Islay Ball conjured up a great ceilidh and Turlough O’Car olan’s Bridget Cruise spoke of the bitter-sweet pan of unrequited love. The festival’s title this year, Stories without Borders, was appositely demonstrated in this event where words and music became interchangeable in their emotional potency.