Puppet masters After months of delving through old photos and songs, three performers aim to bring to life Scotland’s long-lost folk ballads through experimental vocals, video and glove puppets. Rachel Devine reports
I n a quiet corner of the School of Scottish Studies Archives in George Square, Edinburgh, three contemporary musicians sift through stacks of old photographs, documents and tape reels
looking for ways to bring the past into the present.
Presented with unlimited access to the archive during a three-month residency at the University of Edinburgh, Aileen Campbell, Alasdair Roberts and Drew Wright were each charged with developing an original performance based on the material they found there. In October, the trio will tour the result, Archive Trails, to eight venues around Scotland, a commission from maverick independent music promoters Tracer Trails to mark the 60th birthday of the archives. It’s an exciting and enticing task. But where to start when faced with a collection of 9000 recordings of songs, stories and oral history that represents hundreds of years of Celtic and Scottish tradition?
‘I’ll be honest, it was a little overwhelming,’ says visual artist and chorister Campbell. ‘I thought, ‘Shit. What am I doing?’ says Wright, alias Wounded Knee.
Only Roberts, who has built a career on reinventions of the Scots ballad tradition, had an idea of what he wanted to go rooting around for: a centuries-old folk play called Galoshins that all but died out about 100 years ago. Roberts collaborated with puppeteer Shane Connolly to build glove puppets for a new drama and song cycle based on the tradition.
‘I knew I wanted to investigate Galoshins after reading a great book by Brian Hayward on the subject,’ he says. ‘So I had an area I could focus in on, but it’s still incredibly overwhelming to go in there and take in the sheer number of options. All that history under one roof.’ Also known as a Mummers play, Galoshins is a short, largely unscripted drama that was performed in houses, pubs or the street, featuring a Lazarus-like resurrection of one of the characters at the end – the 18th century version of a Hollywood ending.
Puppetry is a new area for Roberts but he’s enjoying the experience. ‘It’s not something I ever thought about doing, but I’ve really started to appreciate the art form. A lot of the fun comes in making the puppets and bringing characters to life. Normally I play the guitar and sing a song. It’s ethereal – it’s there and it’s gone. This is different.’
What Campbell and Wright discovered in the archive is just as substantial. In the course of her residency, Campbell became fascinated by the mechanics of the oral tradition and, in particular, the way in which songs and stories are learned and passed on. ‘The recordings are intimate and unpolished, but that’s what’s so wonderful about them,’ she says. ‘The sound of a dog barking or a clock ticking. The dialogue is often as much a part of the recording as the performance, the stories about where the song came from, how it was learned and when it was passed on.’
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For an artist whose work is rooted in improvisation – she is a member of the Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra – the spontaneous, ever-evolving nature of folk song was a natural draw. As well as learning songs from the archive performed by the likes of Belle and Sheila Stewart and Mary Williamson, Campbell produced a series of real time videos documenting her attempts to learn a song from first listen through to having a grasp of the words and structure. ‘We don’t generally want to learn in public, but I wanted the awkwardness to come through. Everybody who performs has to learn the thing, it doesn’t matter if you’re a concert pianist or an amateur singer – it’s a common experience.’
Drew Wright’s contribution, meanwhile, is a lottery. The experimental vocalist is keen to add an element of surprise to his set. Wright will assign an individual number to a group of songs from both his own repertoire and the archive. Numbered balls will be placed in a bag and the audience will pick them out on the night. Wright will then tell the story behind the chosen song before performing it, seat-of-the-pants style and no setlist required.
‘The songs in the archive are very intimate, very informal and spontaneous, not dissimilar, I suppose, to a folk session in a pub, and I want an element of that to come through in my performance,’ he says. ‘Although I’ve drifted from an experimental background towards a more traditional way of performing, it taps into my thinking about context and how it affects a performance. In a sense, this way, anything can happen.’ What none of the three were expecting was to be so completely enchanted by the archive’s vast wealth of material. Plans are already under way to digitise the collection to make it more accessible to the general public, something that all three are keen to see happen.
‘I thought the archives might be a dry, unwelcoming place but it’s quite the opposite,’ says Campbell. ‘I feel like I’ve joined a club that I’ll be a part of for the rest of my life.’ Roberts agrees. ‘I should have gone there [the archives] years ago. On a personal level it has reinforced in me the idea that my own music will progress in that direction, that I will continue to investigate the Scottish folk tradition and try to make something new out of the old.’
The Archive Trails tour: Eastgate Arts Centre, Peebles, Thu 13 Oct; Perth Concert Hall, Fri 14 Oct; Castlehill Hall, Cupar, Sat 15 Oct; Scottish Storytelling Centre, Edinburgh, Sun 16 Oct; Old Bridge Inn, Aviemore, Mon 17 Oct; An Tobar, Tobermory, Tue 18 Oct; Village Hall, Rosehall, Wed 19 Oct and CCA, Glasgow, Fri 28 Oct. For more info, see archivetrails.com