Alasdair Fraser: Scotland's Ambassador of Fiddling

By Michael Simmons

Alasdair Fraser has probably done more to introduce people to the beauty of Scottish music than any other fiddler. He has released ten CDs on his own Culburnie label; he has founded two fiddle workshops -- the Valley of the Moon Scottish Fiddle Workshop in his adopted home of California, and the Gaelic College Fiddle Course in his native Scotland; and he plays concerts around the world, both as a solo performer and with his band Skyedance. He was the cover boy for the Spring 1996 issue of Fiddler Magazine, and we recently caught up with him during a break in his busy schedule. He talked to us by phone from his Northern California home about his recent recording projects, including Return to Kintail, a collection of fiddle and guitar duets with Tony McManus, Skyedance:Live in Spain; and Legacy of the Scottish Fiddle, a tribute to the Gaelic fiddle music of the 19th century that inspired him to take up violin as a boy.

What was the genesis of Legacy of the Scottish Fiddle?

The record before Legacy of the Scottish Fiddle was called Labyrinth, which I made with my band Skyedance. All of the tunes on that CD were original compositions, either by myself or one of the other band members, and while the music of Skyedance is in the Gaelic tradition, the arrangements are contemporary. My musical journey is cyclic. Sometimes I push forward, like my work with Skyedance, and other times I need to get back to the music I grew up with -- the Scottish fiddle music of the 18th and 19th centuries. So for me, Legacy of the Scottish Fiddle is a journey back to the well, to the source material that inspired me when I first started playing fiddle, and continues to inspire me to this day. I really enjoyed recreating the fiddle and piano sound of my childhood with Paul Machlis, who I've played with for years. The hardest thing has been deciding which tunes to leave out, but in the back of my mind I know I've given myself permission to make as many records of this music as I want. I don't know how long a series this will be, but I will enjoy finding out.

I noticed that unlike many other Celtic styles of music, you are able to credit the composer who wrote the tune.

That's true, Scottish fiddle music tends to be better documented than other Celtic styles. I think that's primarily thanks to the efforts of Niel and Nathaniel Gow, who wrote down and published their famous collections of tunes in the 18th century. They inspired other fiddlers to do the same. On this CD I play tunes composed by fiddlers who played in the Northeast region of Scotland like William Marshall and James Scott Skinner, who published a couple of good collections. But while it's lovely to have all of these wonderful tunes available from the 19th century and earlier, the downside is that many people today treat the written text as gospel. The tunes aren't allowed to roam as widely and evolve as wildly as they might have otherwise. I believe we should respect the written versions, but at the same time the spirit of many of these tunes is being lost. But I find this music so satisfying because I get to play in Gaelic, as it were.

Gaelic? Could you elaborate on that?

I try to use the older sounds and rhythms of the Gaelic language when I play these traditional tunes. When I started studying Scottish fiddling seriously when I was younger, I noticed that there was a correlation between the way people spoke and the way they played. In Aberdeenshire, for example, they speak with a very distinct brogue called the Doric, and they're very proud of it. If you or I went there tomorrow, we would be very enthusiastically told the proper way to say a sentence in Doric. And I hear that same vocal phrasing in their fiddle playing. Doric is very different from an Edinburgh accent or a Glasgow accent, which has a bit of an Irish inflection. But I feel that if you listen carefully to the accents of the speakers as you move across Scotland, you can learn lots of new ways of adding local color to your fiddling. I see it as a way to move further away from a generic treatment of the tune, to find greater depth in the music. If you listen to the ways people talk, to their rhythms, and the way they pronounce consonants and vowels, the stresses they put on certain syllables and so forth, you can pick up different ways of entering and leaving notes, nuances of tone, and ways to phrase. The fiddle tradition used to be passed on orally, and it seems only natural that local spoken accents would affect the way people phrased the tunes. Today in Cape Breton you hear people talk about how certain fiddlers have more Gaelic in their music, and I don't think it's an abstract concept. I think that people are hearing a Scottish accent, a Gaelic voice as it were, in the music....

What music are you planning for the second volume of the Legacy of the Scottish Fiddle?

The next CD will be associated with Edinburgh and the music that Robert MacIntosh and Nathaniel Gow played in the city at the end of the 18th century. Nathaniel Gow was a remarkable man. He lived in Edinburgh and as well as being a fiddler he played cello and trumpet, and was even named to the post of the King's First Trumpeter. He wrote dance tunes and dabbled in 18th century compositional ideas like themes and variations and so forth. I like to fantasize about him going back home to visit his Gaelic-speaking father Niel and playing these old strathspeys and reels. I think he would have played the notes in the cracks, because the western scale hadn't quite taken over yet. He would have played the old modes as well. What a great richness of possibility for any musician. He had his formal, classical music in the city, but he also played the ancient, wilder Gaelic music as well. And that's the thing that's inspired me, and it's something I strive for in my own work -- to be that versatile. After the Gow CD, I'll do one of the music of the Highlands. When I make that CD I'll probably use fewer tunes from the written page and go back to the folk memory and play tunes that don't appear in any of the collections....

[Michael Simmons, Fiddler Magazine's Review Editor, is a guitar player and writer living in Mountain View, California.]