About 'Talamh Beò'
The creative quartet behind 'Talamh Beò' were commissioned in early 2020 to write an album-length new work responding to Coigach and Assynt, the people and the place. The idea had been to spend time through the spring and summer of that year in Coigach and Assynt, getting to know people, hearing and exploring stories and music, and responding with new music and words. Three weeks after winning the commission, lockdown hit, and the world stopped. But 'Talamh Beò' kept going, using virtual connection to keep moving, keep talking, keep creating. Tunes and words were swapped in emails, on g-drives, in zoom conversations. A brief window gave the four a chance to spend three magical days at the Lighthouse in Stoer before a second lockdown stopped everything once again, but it was enough to keep faith and to keep going. Gradually, as they were able to start working in the studio again, albeit in ones and twos, the recording was able to get underway, and by the summer of 2021, the recording was complete. And thanks to the Highland-based Blas Festival, the 'Talamh Beò' were finally, in September 2022, able to perform the whole work live against the stunning video backdrops created by Nick. 'Talamh Beò' was premiered in Finlay and Donald's home town of Oban, before taking the music itself home to Coigach and Assynt in an emotional performance at the Coigach Community Hall in Achiltibuie.
'Talamh Beò', the album, is released on Watercolour Music in Spring 2023. Guest musicians include James Graham (vocals), Patsy Reid (string quartet), Brian McAlpine (accordion), Simon Ertz (viola), DJ Zeeny (cuts) and James Mackintosh (percussion).
The collective behind ‘'Talamh Beò'’ has collaborated in various artistic combinations over many years. Mary Ann and Nick run Watercolour Music, a creative production studio in Ardgour; Finlay and Donald have co-written the geo-poetic 'Familiar Wilderness', while Mary Ann and Finlay are a long-established duo in their own right. All based in the West Highlands, they each of them have a unique artistic perspective which takes a global view inspired by connection with community and with place.
Even though the four writers were unable to reach Coigach and Assynt from their bases of isolation in Lochaber and Argyll, they spent their lockdown grappling with the micro and the macro - from the flora and fauna of the area to concepts of Deep Time and Gaels of an earlier age had made sense of them in their own way, through myth and legend. From the studios in Oban and Ardgour, the composers played with bathometric data to create new melodies, harmonies, rhythms; they mentally climbed the hill to the Bone Caves to sing into their reverberation; they spoke to local folk on the ubiquitous Zoom to try and find the energies of the inbetween spaces of cooperation and of conflict, of new arrival and long-established, of minoritised and dominant. For three perfect days in August 2020, 151 days since the world had changed, they were able to head north and west to make Coigach and Assynt real again. So much to do, and so little time – the four hadn’t seen each other, let alone others, and the need to make the collective and the ideas knit together into this new music was overwhelming. They gloried in meeting folk IRL – in real life – and hoped to return very soon to carry on. But of course, the virus had other plans. By the time they were finally able to return to Coigach, they had missed the opportunity of meeting one of the last few native Gaelic speakers of the area – Ali ‘Beag’ MacLeod, Achnahaird – happiest with the box in hand surrounded by friends and music, or out on the water on Badentarbat Bay. Ali moved on to the eternal cèilidh shortly before the quartet returned to Achiltibuie, and it was clear that his presence was keenly missed. So when 'Talamh Beò' was reaching its final stages, it seemed right that the main song, ‘Cèilidh Buan’, was inspired by and dedicated to him.
The Ideas Behind the Music
'Talamh Beò' is a multi-media composition, using original words and music coupled with found-sound and electronically manipulated soundscapes and samples harvested from locations in Coigach and Assynt, from the fishing port of Lochinver to the depths of Loch Assynt, and from the Old Soldier's cottage in Clachtoll and the working crofts of Achiltibuie to the Bone Caves of Inchnadamph. The twelve movements of 'Talamh Beò' are accompanied by a short film for each movement, each with its own character - from the majestic to the quirky and thought-provoking. It's a very individual response to the places and the people from each writer, brought together as a personal and collective love letter to Coigach and Assynt - past, present and future.
The Language - Cèilidh Buan & Dachaigh
Cèilidh Buan (The Eternal Cèilidh) is dedicated to Ali 'Beag' MacLeod from Achnahaird, who was the musical heartbeat of the community, always at the heart of a good session with his accordion. He was also one of the last native Gaelic speakers in the area. Dachaigh (Home) is a challenge to generations-long connections and new arrivals alike, to everyone who calls a place 'home', and what it takes to buy into the whole package that makes a community and a culture.
The Voices - Toiseach & Puffin Bistro
Toiseach is a soundscape built by Nick based on sounds harvested around Coigach and Assynt, and on voices collected in the Songs and Tales of Coigach and Assynt project which went on to form the basis of Ronan Martin’s book, The Coigach and Assynt Collection. Puffin Bistro is a recurring theme of hope and optimism throughout Talamh Beò inspired by the amazing folk of Coigach and Assynt and with thanks to Simon Jeffes! The second Puffin also represents the voice of the emigrant through the viola of Simon Ertz in N. Carolina, a voice that reappears in some of the other Talamh Beò stories.
The Living - MacAskill Croft & Trawler Beat
Trawler Beat plays a familiar story against the sounds of working the sea. Changing times draw into focus familiar clashes between old and new, sometimes causing division or even conflict, but Donald's words playfully suggest taking a different route, with the hope that we might get a little better at living with each other - and thriving together! MacAskill Croft is inspired by the history of Lewis MacAskill’s family - 'born and raised' in Inverkirkaig, but with roots as economic migrants from Skye.
The Big Stories - A' Bhan-Asainteach & An Saighdear
Inspired by the ‘Old Soldier’s House’ in Clachtoll. The soldier in question was in fact Angus MacAskill, who served in the army, was invalided out and worked the croft until his death in 1945. Donald’s words are not Angus’s story, but a universal one about the heartbreak and loss occasioned by war and made personal by our own choices and actions. "You’ll feel my flight in the running stag, My fall in the breaking wave, My song of love in the restless gale, My dream in the unmade grave."
The There & Back Again - Eddrachilis & Eimhir
Eddrachilis is inspired by a true story of emigration and successful return and a series of events turning a life full circle. It comes from Wilson's Historical, Traditionary, and Imaginative Tales from the Borders, and the Highlands, published in 1848. And the legend of Eimhir in Loch Assynt is a vivd storytelling of legend making sense of the very rocks that create the spectacular and ancient landscape of the north-west. The music is based on a scale drawn from a bathemetrical survey of the Loch in 1885 and supplemented by hydrophonic recordings.
How We Got There
'Talamh Beò' was recorded by Nick at Watercolour Music in Ardgour, a purpose-built residential studio on the shores of Loch Linnhe, looking from sea level up to the UK's highest peak, Ben Nevis. Lockdown meant that recording had to be done with individual musicians coming in to record their parts in isolation, including Patsy Reid becoming the whole string section on violin, viola and cello! Additional material was recorded by Finlay at his Oban studio and by Simon Ertz in North Carolina.
The video backdrops to 'Talamh Beò' were recorded by Nick across two visits to Coigach and Assynt - the first 'lighthouse' return in the first easing of COVID restrictions, and again when the world finally started to open up again. Andy Holbrow at Atlantic Diving Services opened up the coastline for the crew, exploring around Lochinver, Badentabart Bay and Tanera Mòr. Each movement of the work has its own dedicated film, played in live performance through vMix live video streaming software.
The pan-Highland Blas Festival gave 'Talamh Beò' its live world premiere in 2022, with performances in Oban, Invergarry and Achiltibuie. As a project that was supposed to start with live music and finish with an album, this was the final part of the back-to-front realisation of the project, but the music wouldn't be what it is had this not been its path! Donald, Finlay, Nick and Mary Ann were joined by James Mackintosh, James Graham and Patsy Reid from the studio album, and by Alice Allen, Katrina Lee, Seonaid Aitken and Queen MacArthur on strings, and Gregor Lowrey on accordion. Reece Mackay joined the touring crew as assistant to Nick.
Soundfield SPS200 Ambisonic Microphone Array.Sennheiser MKE 44P Stereo Condenser Microphone Tascam DR70d 4 Track Recorder.Tascam DR100 Mk II Stereo Recorder.H2a-XLR Hydrophone x 4
Collection of original field recordings and compositional methods to be detailed on the "notebook" part of the website
The performative/compositional forces include: .
Mary Ann KennedyWords & Music, Project Manager
Nick TurnerLead Writer, Sound Designer, Album Producer
Donald MacleanWords and Deeds, Philosophical Guru
Coigach & Assynt:A Living Landscape
Communities and nature, working together
Coigach & Assynt Living Landscape (CALL) is one of the largest landscape-scale restoration projects in Europe, covering 635 square kilometres, included within a 40-year vision. The project area is blessed with some of the most dramatic and instantly recognisable landscapes in the British Isles, and within these some of the rarest and most endangered habitats
The Coigach & Assynt Living Landscape Partnership Scheme (CALLP) is a five-year National Lottery Heritage Funded project comprising 14 Partner organisations, of which the Scottish Wildlife Trust is the lead partner. CALLP is a mechanism for delivering outputs of the CALL 40-year vision..
The Partnership comprises community land-owners, community interest groups, charitable land-owners, private land-owners and charitable membership organisations. The eclectic group of organisations involved represent and reflect the unique heritage and structure of land ownership and management present in this part of the Highlands.
Collectively, these Partners are committed to delivering a Scheme comprising 28 individual projects between September 2016-2021.
The Heritage Lottery Fund’s Landscape Partnership Scheme programme identifies nine outcomes which the scheme’s collective projects must achieve:
Heritage is better managed; in better condition and;identified / recorded.
People have developed skills;learnt about heritage and;volunteered time.
Communities have reduced environmental impacts;are more engaged with heritage and;the area will be a better place to work, live and visit.
Watercolour Music, Ardgour, Fort William Highland. PH33 7AH