Where the wind blows

27th June 1997 at 01:00
Svend Brown finds the elements playing a part in this week's St Magnus Festival

Back in 1977, when the St Magnus Festival was born, it was way ahead of its time: an event which brought great stars of the music world to a remote Scottish island and insisted they share the spotlight (not to mention the dressing rooms) with amateur enthusiasts of all ages from the community. It is an approach which has given rise to 20 years of innovative education work, and created an audience for new music which puts Edinburgh and Glasgow to shame.

The two community events this year were sharply contrasted. The Orkneyinga Saga is a pageant telling the history of the islands with a cast of hundreds against a backdrop of Kirkwall's historic centre. Similar to York's Mystery Plays, it was very much about a cross-section of the community coming together to create a finished performance with the aid of a professional, and largely imported, artistic team directing.

The performance itself had its highs and lows. Gloriously euphonious bell ringing, and spectacular choreography; wonderful masks and stiltwalkers; sadly, way too much ham - blood-curdling screams aplenty. All in all it was a triumph, a complex piece, well realised and unique to these islands.

This year's other project was more up to date in its aspirations. It included a performance, but had its sights set on exploring creative processes in an innovative way. Marc Yeats is an artist and - for the last two years - composer. His piece The Anatomy of Air is this year's Festival commission. Building on his multiple skills, the Festival, Scottish Chamber Orchestra and Pier Arts Centre brought together 10 artists, two schools and two musicians to experiment with translating sound into pictures, and vice versa.

The foundations are Yeats's themes: Orkney's low landscape, the way air works on the island, the complex tapestry of sounds created by gull, sea and wind. Yeats took these ideas to the artists and they created works in response. Next, he acted as amanuensis, encouraging them to realise their thoughts in sound - music for the cello of Su-A Lee and clarinet of Alison Walker.

Finally, Yeats worked with two groups of children (classes from Kirkwall Grammar and St Andrew's Primary) to create pieces in response to each of the artists' works. All in all this was an intricate, Chinese box of a project.

Given the theme of weather, it is poetic irony that fog, wind and rain slightly compromised the project. The musicians' involvement was cut short because they simply could not get onto the island. As a result, I suspect Yeats had to take a more pro-active role than he might have done in an ideal world. Certainly, many of the artists' soundworks were sketchily realised, and sounded very Yeatsian. More than one of them was a little surprised at what they heard.

The children were wonderful: confident and unabashed, using vocal techniques that would have many a professional giggling. Grunts, roars, rasps, moans and whispers. A great leveller, this: you need no prior training to shout and scream.

The results were dramatic and compelling, creating some ravishing textures and sounds to contrast with clarinet-cello duo. All in, the performance lasted around an hour, which was stretching the audience, particularly as it was not given the opportunity during the music to roam around the exhibition and connect sound to artwork.

As important as the performance, though, and potentially more significant in the long term were the responses of the participants. Several of the artists now feel open to exploring sound in their work. The children have been encouraged to see music in a different way, and realise that performance is something very much within their grasp, not necessarily demanding years of practice.

Ultimately, everyone there - audience and participants - will have had an insight into Marc Yeats's world. If every audience for every premi re could be offered something of that preparation, maybe the traditional mix of bemusement, intolerance and irritation that greets so much new music could become a thing of the past.

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