The Night With… TURNING THE ELEMENTS – Review by Alan Cooper at Sound Festival 2018






Wednesday 31st October, 2018


Downstairs at the larger BrewDog in Aberdeen’s Castlegate, (it used to be the Athenaeum), this turned out to be the ideal venue for Wednesday evenings concert by TURNING THE ELEMENTS. This is the rather unusual name of the soprano and clarinet duo of Frances Cooper and Joanna Nicholson. Despite the numerous fancy roof lights, the large underground auditorium had a gentle twilit almost nightclub atmosphere which mirrored the delicious intimacy of the performance we were about to enjoy.

That performance featured startlingly imaginative musical settings of very colourful, even filmic landscape poems by Jane McKie, Stewart Sanderson and Nan Shepherd along with a more complex wordplay poem by the Danish poet Helene Grøn and an amazing bit of sassy fun with Jo Nicholson’s special arrangement of a song by the American singer/songwriter Beck Hansen. There was also one truly fascinating piece for solo clarinet which allowed Jo Nicholson to exploit her most colourful and impassioned playing.

The performance was divided into three parts with two intervals. The first and third were introduced from the rear of the auditorium by Frances Cooper singing unaccompanied, the old Scots song ‘Turn Ye To Me’. It was composed by John Wilson (1785 – 1854) Professor of Moral Philosophy at Edinburgh University. He was closely involved in Blackwood’s Magazine in which he used the pen name of Christopher North. He was a friend of many of the famous poets of the day including Wordsworth and Coleridge. It contains the lines, ‘The sea mew is moaning drearily, drearily, Horo Mhairi dhu, turn ye to me. Cold is the storm wind that ruffles his breast….’  The spirit and indeed the words of this song were to appear in many of the pieces we were about to hear. In the excellent programme notes the duo write, ‘We asked poets Jane McKie and Stewart Sanderson and composers Rebecca Rowe and Stuart Murray Mitchell to create new works for us inspired by the early 19th century song Turn Ye To Me. The poems’ themes delve into the life around and within the Scottish landscape, and our human relationship with it’.

The words of the poems were also printed in the programme but during the performance, as I had not brought my glasses it was too dark to read them but in any case Frances Cooper’s diction was so clear and so perfect that I did not really need to see the words – well done Frances!

The opening work was a suite of three songs for Soprano and Clarinet. ‘Beautiful feathered tyrant’ had words by Jane McKie set by Rebecca Rowe. The words explored a kind of melding between the world of humans and that of birds. The human voice, Frances Cooper, was intertwined with bird like playing on the clarinet. The second piece in this triptych was a largely wordless vocalise in which voice and clarinet were sometimes closely married together or else contrasted with one another. In the programme note, the duo speak of their two instruments and that was precisely what Frances Cooper’s voice was here – another instrument along with the clarinet. Oohs, aahs and hums were employed rather like changing stops on an organ or the use of mutes on a stringed instrument.

The third song, ‘Past Sula Sgeir’ was Rebecca Rowe’s setting of a poem by Stewart Sanderson. It was very filmic taking us through various winter landscapes and even into Glasgow. It took us back to the opening seascape at the conclusion. Frances Cooper led us through the ‘film’ and Jo Nicholson gave us an extra level of colour and emotion with her ‘film music’ as it were.

There followed the clarinet solo ‘Vas Odani…/Yours Sincerely’ by the Croatian composer Marko Ruzdjac (1946 – 2012). The music progressed in florid passages interspersed with ‘pregnant’ pauses. It had a definite eastern European flavour almost Arabic in some passages?

Composer Matthew Whiteside was present to introduce his piece, a setting of poetry by the Danish poet Helene Grøn. The words were a touch fragmented and both voice and clarinet were written to match that idea – a kind of musical pointillism, at least at the outset, and with a spoken section near the conclusion. Finally voice and clarinet were brought satisfyingly together. This was splendidly forceful music, the single notes on voice or clarinet almost like musical popping candy.

Jo Nicholson’s arrangement of ‘Do we? We do’ on an original song by Beck Hansen was performed, and I do really mean performed, that is to say fully acted by both performers. It was jazzy, fresh and saucy and above all great fun. Jo was even able to bring to life the sounds of a drumkit with her mouth.

‘Horo’ a word from Turn Ye To Me was a second suite of three songs composed this time by Stuart Murray-Mitchell. The first ‘CEÒL NA’ was a setting of another poem by Stewart Sanderson entitled First Song. It was a detailed pictorial piece that expressed itself visually, in sound and even in smells. There was lovely smooth singing from Frances and full colour underlining of the words from Jo. A clarinet solo based on the original Scottish song followed entitled ‘Mhairi Du’ and finally another bird poem by Jane McKie in which the words ‘Turn ye to me’ were highlighted. At the end, voice and clarinet came together beautifully.

The final piece had Joanna Nicholson playing bass clarinet across all its pitches at the rear while Frances read out Nan Shepherd’s poem ‘Lux Aeterna’. Joanna herself was the composer here. With the poem read out in the dark, it was a wonderfully atmospheric performance. Our two performers had taken us to so many places I had never even imagined before!