It is often said that things always happen for a reason. At first glance, that may seem an obvious thing to state, but through time, I have come to appreciate the truth and reason in this simple expression. We all find ourselves on our own unique journey through life; journeys which are often shaped and guided by who and what came before us. However, our lives are usually so fast-paced and varied that we don’t always take the time to reflect upon which journey we are on, and how we might have got here. In this blog, I thought I would share with you a little about my background, thoughts and experiences, all of which have come together to help shape the journey I currently find myself on.
A little bit of background…
My name is Alistair Iain Paterson, and I grew up in the village of Bishopton in Renfrewshire. I am a musician, and work predominantly with traditional music and other musicians rooted in traditional/folk music. That being said, I’m not always keen on the labelling of genres in music, but that probably best describes what I do. I tend to find the more you are labelled or ‘put in a box’, the more you want to get ‘out of the box’! To my mind, music is music.
Growing up, I wouldn’t say I always thought I wanted to be (or knew I would become) a musician. However I would say the love of music has always been there, both consciously and sub-consciously in equal measure. I didn’t start learning an instrument until I took up the recorder in primary 4. One day, our school teacher had asked everyone in the class to raise their hand if they wanted to learn to play the recorder, but I clearly remember being one of those whose hand remained firmly by their side. It was probably mostly down to shyness – I have always had a natural reticence in my character, something which I’ve gradually learnt to push aside at certain times over the years. Despite not raising my hand there and then, I must have internally actually wanted to learn to play. I managed to find a recorder back at home, and gradually taught myself enough notes to get through a few tunes, independent of the group that was learning in class. After a while, my mum must have cottoned on to the fact that I clearly should be part of the recorder group, and spoke to my teacher about it. Eventually I was encouraged to join the group, which continued throughout primary four and five, and so began some of the first steps of my musical journey.
Whilst I was perhaps slightly hesitant to say I wanted to learn to play an instrument at that age, my appreciation of music was already well-formed. You are often told that one of the things you inherit from your parents is their taste in music, and in my case, I can say that is nothing but true! Some of my earliest memories are of car journeys accompanied by a soundtrack of The Eagles ‘Greatest Hits 1971-1975’ (a well worn tape that was rarely out of the cassette player), and I have remained an unashamed fan ever since. Many of these car journeys were on trips to and from the Isle of Lewis, where my dad and much of my family is from. In fact, I have connections on both sides as my mum’s dad was from a village called Arnol (on the west side of the island) meaning that three out of my four grandparents were from Lewis. My dad is from a village called Carloway (also on the west side), as were both of his parents. Pictured is his dad (my grandfather) – John Paterson (or ‘Seonaidh Meg’ as he was known), who was a crofter and Harris tweed weaver. This picture was taken in the loom shed at his house in Carloway in 1955, where he would sit for many hours a day weaving tweed.
Being of Hebridean descent, it is perhaps unsurprising that Gaelic music featured strongly in my parent’s cassette collection as well (alongside The Eagles, Kenny Rogers, Don Williams et al). As a result, I too inherited a similar passion for traditional music from an early age, particularly Gaelic music.
By age 10 I realised I wanted to learn another instrument, and my choice was narrowed down to either the fiddle or the bagpipes. I wisely (or unwisely depending on your own persuasion!) chose the pipes and started going to chanter lessons soon after, eventually going onto join the local pipe band (Johnstone) a few years later. Piping wasn’t necessarily a strong tradition in our house growing up – the closest relative that played the pipes being my great uncle. However I really enjoyed starting the chanter and pipes, which were my first steps in actively learning traditional music.
This passion for Gaelic music was also undoubtedly fostered by my gran (on my mum’s side) – the only grandparent not from Lewis. Despite being born in Glasgow, she herself was of Highland descent, with her parents hailing from Sutherland and Ardnamurchan. From an early age I knew my gran was a great piano player – we spent many hours listening to her play, tell stories and joining her for a barn dance or two round her living room in Mosspark. She herself was raised in a musical house in Ibrox, and was very involved in the social circles of the Glasgow Gaels around that time. She would often be asked to play at cèilidhs, dances, concerts, gatherings, and was a popular accompanist for Gaelic singers in and around the Glasgow area. As a result, she would play lots of traditional music on the piano – Gaelic airs, marches, strathspeys, reels, jigs etc, in her own distinctive style.
We didn’t have a piano in our house growing up though, and so it was only when we would go to gran’s that we would hear her play. When I was young I hadn’t really voiced an interest in learning to play, but I vividly remember my gran sitting my sister down at her piano one day, and teaching her the right hand melody to ‘Mari’s Wedding’. Gran was great friends with another woman called Muriel, who lived just a few houses along from her. Muriel unfortunately passed away when I was about 11 years old, but we very luckily ended up inheriting her upright piano – a beautiful old dark mahogany Steck.
My sister began to get piano lessons soon afterwards. I didn’t go for lessons like she did, but as like with the recorder, I myself would sit behind Muriel’s piano for many hours, working out simple Gaelic melodies and often playing tunes I had just learnt on the chanter. However this time it was a very different experience to the recorder – I discovered I had a real connection with the piano. It is slightly difficult to describe, but I found that I had an instinctive draw to this instrument. Rather than learning to physically play something on an instrument and then remembering it (as had been my experience mostly up until then), I was now trying to learn how to play music that was already in my head on the piano – it’s a fairly subtle, but very different relationship. In hindsight I now realise that by that age, I had been so steeped in listening to Gaelic music growing up, and of course to my gran’s piano playing, that I had internally absorbed so much of it. I continued to teach myself bits of piano for several years, mostly by ear, but occasionally off sheet music too. I later went on to start lessons at around age 15/16, but the influence of my gran’s playing was always at the forefront. Here is short clip of us playing ‘Fàgail Lios Mòr’ together at her piano in Mosspark on her 90th birthday in 2017:
I went to Park Mains High School in Erskine and was very fortunate that there was a such a dedicated and enthusiastic music department, who worked tirelessly to develop, guide and support pupils. Through school I learnt to play some clarinet and played in the school concert bands, as well as playing the piano for the school choir in fifth and sixth year. By fifth year of high school, using the piano as a traditional instrument started to become a real interest of mine. I wasn’t really aware of many others who played the piano in this way (the exception being the piano competition at the Mòd), and I didn’t know of anyone who taught in this style at that time. I somehow managed to find out about the traditional music tuition that ran at the RSAMD junior academy on Saturdays. During my sixth year of high school I attended the junior academy, and it is there that I started piano lessons for a year with the fantastic James Ross.
As I moved into sixth year I wasn’t very sure what I wanted to do after leaving school (I think a lot of people are the same really). I knew that I really enjoyed music, and with no other options really capturing my imagination, I decided that I would apply to study on the traditional music course at the RSAMD (or RCS as it is now). I was delighted to be accepted on to the course, with piano being my first study. It was there that I got to meet the inimitable Mary McCarthy, who was my principal piano tutor for all four years of the degree, along with James Ross. I mentioned earlier about how I’m not keen on music being labelled and put in a genre – my experience of studying at the RSAMD was learning that there really are no boundaries in music, and this was reflected heavily in my individual lessons and studies. I believe a large part of this ethos was fostered by Mary McCarthy, whose knowledge, energy and passion have been a major influence in my musical career. The band Barluath started at RCS when a few of us from the Scottish music degree began playing together. It was also at RCS where I started to develop and understand the piano as a ‘voice’ in traditional music, despite it perhaps not having the same historical and cultural legacy as many other instruments and traditions.
Fast forwarding a few years…
I graduated from RCS in 2013 and since then have been working full time as a freelance musician (or at least trying to!). It isn’t always easy, but as with most things, the work and opportunities come in waves. More importantly, I really enjoy being a musician. I find myself in the fortunate position to still be self-employed to this day, and over these past five years since graduating, I have been involved in many great projects across the fields of performance, teaching, composition and recording. Many of these projects have allowed me to travel across the world to various countries and places that I otherwise may never have got the opportunity to go and see. I feel that this is one very positive aspect of being a musician.
I thought I would just share with you some of the things I have been involved in recently, and projects I have coming up in the near future.
At the start of this year I was involved in a very special concert at Celtic Connections called ‘Òrain nan Gàidheal’, which was staged at Glasgow’s Royal Concert Hall. This was a collaboration between the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and a selection of some fantastic Gaelic singers. Orchestral accompaniments were arranged for each singer’s choice of Gaelic song(s), and I was lucky enough to play piano and harmonium in the house band for the night. The songs sounded stunning with full orchestral backing, and I really hope to be able to work with an orchestra again in the future.
At this year’s Celtic Connections I also performed at the launch of Patsy Reid’s latest album, ‘A Glint o’ Scottish Fiddle’ at the City Halls. I played piano on this album and it was recorded late last year in just a few days! All of the tracks on it include only fiddle and piano, and the recording features a great selection of older traditional tunes mixed in with some contemporary ones as well. I really enjoyed the pared-back, honest approach to recording these tunes, which has allowed Patsy’s playing to shine through. Here is a track from the album, a set featuring a gorgeous old fiddle strathspey and some reels:
Last month I was involved in Mischa MacPherson’s commission for the Blas Festival’s Year of the Young People, entitled ‘Bho Èirigh gu Laighe na Grèine’. This was an original work that coupled newly composed music to old Gaelic poetry, and was split into five movements – Sun, Moon, Life, Land and Sea. It was a total pleasure to be involved in this project, creating new music and getting to play alongside a fantastic group of musicians – Innes White, James Lindsay, Charlie Stewart, Signy Jakobsdottir, Ewan Robertson and Mischa herself. We toured the commission across the Highlands as part of the Blas Festival, and got to perform five concerts in some beautiful rural locations. Here is a picture of us after the final performance at Northern Meeting Park in Inverness:
Last month I also played a sold-out gig at the iconic Barrowland Ballroom in Glasgow with Skipinnish. We had played this gig last year as a band for the first time and it was great fun – this year was just as fun, if not more. The atmosphere created by the audience was phenomenal – it’s an amazing experience to be on stage performing to 2000 people singing, dancing and jumping up and down on the famous sprung dancefloor!
For the rest of this year and into the next, I’ve got quite a few exciting projects in the pipeline. I have recently been involved in composing some music for a film show called ‘Doon the Watter’, which has seen two showings so far, and there are further performances planned for the near future. Next year I will be touring and gigging with Skipinnish quite extensively as it will be their 20th anniversary since forming as a band. I am also involved in a collaborative project involving traditional Scottish and Indian musicians, as well as producing an album for the first time, which should all be fun! I began working as a piano tutor at RCS on the traditional music BMus/MMus degrees in 2016, and have recently returned to RCS as a student again. I have just started a PG Cert in Learning and Teaching in Higher Arts Education, a course that I am studying for part-time. Reflecting upon my own journey so far, I find that I have become very interested in how we learn and absorb music, particularly traditional music, and through this course I hope to gain and develop some insights into how we might pass on this tradition.
I’ll finish with a video of tune I recently composed. This is a tune I mostly wrote a few years ago, but picked up again in the past few weeks and finished it. At the time when I was originally writing it, my dad always said how much he liked the tune, and so I decided to give it to him. Back at home on Lewis he has always been known by his nickname ‘Iain Pharaoh’, or simply ‘Pharaoh’.
Music can take on new meanings at different times in your life – I’ve come to realise this a lot recently.