Skye & Glass (2017)
for fiddle and string quartet - 20'
Commissioned by the Ciompi Quartet
I have been writing concert music inspired by traditional or ‘folk’ music for many years, but until Skye & Glass I have not had the opportunity to write for a combination of a traditional musician with a classical ensemble. When I began I knew I did not want to ask the fiddler to play in classical music idioms, nor did I want to ask the classical ensemble to play traditional styles. This work is about the tension and space between those two approaches to making music and about combining to ideas, referenced in the title, which served as inspiration: ‘Skye’ and ‘Glass.’
‘Skye’ refers to The Skye Collection, a book of over 400 Scottish fiddle tunes published in 1887. I find the style and practice in Scottish fiddling and diasporic styles in the United States and Canada to be rich and compelling music, so I keep returning to them for inspiration and guidance. The second idea from the title, ‘Glass,’ refers to the glass of a telescope. While I was sketching the piece and looking for another underlying theme to compliment the fiddle tunes I came across a research group called “Space, Science and Spirituality” which “brings together a research team of scientists, philosophers, and scholars in the humanities to investigate, both theoretically and empirically, the effects of outer space travel on the inner space of experience.” The research analyzes astronaut responses in interviews about their emotional reactions to their experience of viewing earth from space. The researchers came up with four categories of experience: (1) awe, or “ones direct and initial feeling when faced with something incomprehensible or sublime”; (2) wonder, or “a reflective feeling one has when unable to put things back into a familiar conceptual framework”; (3) curiosity, or “wanting to know, see, experience, and/or understand more”; and (4) humility, or “a sense one has about one’s relation to one’s surroundings or of one’s significance” (http://chdr.cah.ucf.edu/spaceandspirituality/index.php).
In Skye & Glass I attempt to reflect these (quite huge and intimidating) themes in the music. The piece is structured like a traditional Scottish fiddle medley beginning slowly before accelerating to energetic reels and back again: Slow March, Strathspey, Jigs, Reels, and an Air. I incorporate the “Space, Science and Spirituality” themes throughout the work, with the Slow March corresponding to “Awe,” the Strathspey, Jigs and Reels as both “wonder” and “curiosity,” and the final Air as “humility.” There are ten tunes from The Skye Collection used throughout the piece in the fiddle part, and also a Beethoven quote in the string quartet during the jigs section (see if you can spot it!).
The ‘Awe and Wonder’ themes are represented in the shifting relationship between the fiddle and string quartet. There is an energy cross-fade over the entire piece. At the beginning the quartet is energetic, fast, and bubbling while the fiddle is slow and stately. By the end of the work the roles have switched. The fiddle is dancing energetically while the quartet is slow and singing. Skye & Glass ends with a humble presentation of the Air “Bothan Airigh am Braigh Raithneach” (or “The Sheiling on the Braes of Rannoch"). The title evokes an image of an old, single hut on a vast hillside in the Highlands of Scotland.