Mons Graupius ‘Ingatherings’ – an online article series in word, sound & image by musician and musicologist Dr Sally LK Garden
Travelling through time in song and questioning the past is the theme of Scottish musician Sally Garden’s article series Ingatherings. Here, from the author, is what to expect.
I didn’t set out to be a time-traveller in song. But drawn to older, rarer repertoire and songs that, as a musician, drew me into a world of emotion and imagination – a past filled with stories and surprises – perhaps it was inevitable.
Born into a Scottish farming family and rooted in the land, you might think it strange I should wander in time and space, transported by the medium of song. But every song, too, has a place in the landscape, a moment of birth and a language and culture to which it belongs. Unfolding that, as a performer, an interpreter, became my passion.
And that is why, too, I began to immerse myself in Scandinavian song. How else could I find proper context for the Scots song tradition, with its rich Gaelic influences, I had imbibed from birth? I belonged the ‘North’. So too did my native song.
So what does it mean to travel through time in song, and why might it matter?
A universe of discovery
To me, every art song, folk song, ballad, stev, lied, romance, call it what you will, is a universe of discovery. A world-within-world that unfolds the more you explore its material and its making.
Always, I begin with the song itself and the emotional potential of its melodic, harmonic and textural qualities, the play of its words, imagery, mood and meaning. And from this ‘world’ – the story or scene the song presents, and my first conception of it, I travel, impelled by a flood of questions, deeper into the next – the story of its genesis: from the ‘world’ of the song today, to the ‘world’ from whence, yesterday, it came.
Yet here lies the paradox of my time-travels in song – these two ‘worlds’, no matter whether decades or centuries apart, must meet and reflect subtle light upon one another before I feel I may inhabit and give meaning to a song in our own contemporary world.
Sometimes the light is dim, intriguingly mysterious, the origins of the song difficult to trace. Sometimes it can come like a flash.
Who, for instance, was Scotsman Dr John Greig, arranger of traditional songs and subject of my first Ingatherings article? How is it we can miss, or at least overlook, a man capable of bringing elegant Chopinesque filigree to a traditional song about a river in Ayrshire, or a dark undercurrent of pathos to a traditional ballad refashioned from oral tradition? Does knowing that he quit his native land after being passed over for a professorship in music change our perception of his work and his place in our cultural memory?
And does it matter?
Songs from the past in contemporary perspective
It matters because without curiousity and understanding, we will lose our literatures of song.
And there are so many questions: what of our women song makers, or our singers of the past and how they approached their art, or our languages, our landscapes, our European musical connections? We must put our songs from the past in contemporary perspective if they are to be carried, not as artefacts, but fresh, as living art, into the future.
Questions of this varied ilk and more are the motivation for my online article series Ingatherings – a harvest, if you’ll forgive the farming metaphor – ingathered from my own repertoire, and which I hope you’ll enjoy.
Dr Sally Garden
Scotland, 24 Jan 2022