Hello! My name is Chris Gray and I’m a Scottish piper, whistle player, pianist and composer, originally from Lockerbie in the South West of Scotland.
This past year, during the pandemic, has highlighted even more to me the intense pleasure of having the freedom to travel, and experience new places and opportunities. It is something that I have thrived on and has very much shaped my life the last couple of years. Equally, the essential halting of all of this, and the need for contentment at home, has brought different challenges and inspiration. I would like to share some of my experiences of both over the last few years, as well as what I’ve been up to over lockdown.
I have always loved being creative, collaborating, making new music and the journeys this has taken me on. From a young age, when not at school, I would always be spending the majority of my time either playing, composing or trying out a new idea on my instruments. I have always felt incredibly content and at ease creating music. There are so many places this has taken me to and also incredible people, I wouldn’t have met otherwise. I really love it!
Back in 2018 I spent five months living in Stockholm, Sweden as I studied at Kungliga Musikhögskolan (The Royal College of Music). This was an Erasmus Exchange, as part of my Master’s degree in Traditional Music at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. This opportunity opened up a whole new world to my music, as well as learning a lot about living in a different country and embracing a different music scene. I really hope that an equally successful and accessible programme becomes available again post-Brexit. The value of this opportunity cannot be overstated! Living in another country opened my eyes to a lot of things being done very differently, in a positive way. New ideas, insights, culture – I found it all very stimulating for creativity and motivation. One of the results of my time there and playing lots of music, was the release of an EP with Swedish fiddler and singer Kristina Leesik. We actually first met in Glasgow when Kristina studied on her Erasmus exchange at the Conservatoire. It really is incredible sometimes how connected the world of folk music is and where things go!
After coming back from Sweden, I finished my Master’s degree in Glasgow before heading out to Sydney, Australia. An opportunity had arisen to work as a piping instructor at the Scots College, in a maternity-cover role. Being keen to experience new things and an enthusiasm for travel, I was extremely excited about this. While I was there I had many chances to play traditional music but I also wanted to get more of a flavour of other music that was popular there, so I focused primarily on playing jazz. I have always enjoyed playing and listening to this genre very much. Jazz harmony is undoubtedly an influence on my own music, when playing, composing and arranging.
I’m very lucky that my joy for music – performing, composing, arranging, collaborating and teaching has turned into a career for me. I was in Australia for five months and shortly after arriving back in Scotland, I released my debut self-titled album of original compositions at Celtic Connections 2020. I was joined by an incredible team of musicians for the launch: Graham Mackenzie (fiddle), Innes Watson (Guitar), Michael Biggins (Keys), Duncan Lyall (Bass), Mark Scobbie (Drums), Ewan Macpherson (Mandolin), Mohsen Amini (Concertina), Calum MacCrimmon (Whistle), Patsy Reid (Violin), Seonaid Aitken (Violin), Sarah Leonard (Viola), and Alice Allen (Cello). It was mega fun!!
This is a key milestone in my career so far, and the culmination of years of composing new music. This music is inspired by experiences meeting new people, travelling, and playing music in different places, which is really such a privilege. I have always been extremely grateful for these opportunities, and they have became even more precious now.
Three self-penned polkas by Chris at Celtic Conncetions 2020
With the release of the album I was excited to share this new music and I was very much looking forward to performing live as much as possible! This was January, 2020, completely unaware of what was to come. As the situation with Covid-19 escalated in the world, the realisation that this would not be possible was initially a hard thing to accept, but of course a small issue in the scale of the problems we are all facing.
Ever since the start of the pandemic, I have always endeavoured to be as positive as possible and so I have looked at what I could do from home to keep busy and the mind active! This has opened up new ventures and different experiences. Since March 2020 I have carried out much more online teaching than before, although I was doing this previously in a capacity. This has been a real positive and the engagement with students online has been such a great thing. A highlight of last year, for me, has been the influx of online collaborations and videos/music. Seeing lots of music flood the internet has been brilliant. I continue to be inspired by the amazing music that people are creating and also how varied the content is – collaborations all across the world with literally anyone – the possibilities are wide open!
Over the course of the online 2021 Celtic Connections Festival I did a tune a day series, recording and filming from home. There were many split-screen videos, with lots of fun collaborations along the way. There was music and musicians from lots of different countries including Scotland, Ireland, Sweden, Finland, France, Spain, Australia, America and Canada. I found this to be a great way to keep busy and creative, learning new skills along the way including video editing, audio recording and mixing. There was very little time to dwell on the current situation knowing a new video was out each day! 🙂 The connection to different parts of the world and creating music, gave a focus and familiar feeling of what I’d normally be up to! A huge thanks to all the musicians who joined for a tune, it was great fun and meant a lot to connect during this time. Hopefully not too far away we can play in person again.
Back in September 2020 I was honoured to be a part of the Fraser Shaw Trust remix project. The opportunity to delve further into Fraser’s music in this way was a great, creative focus and such a pleasure to be a part of. There have been other moments of great positivity during the past year, including studio recording for the National Youth Pipe Band of Scotland, recording for online shows including with Canadian fiddler and step-dancer Jocelyn Pettit, as well as playing for Steven Blake’s New Voices show at Celtic Connections 2021. Having not played with other people in person very often over the last year due to the Pandemic and restrictions, these opportunities were incredibly special to be a part of.
Fraser Shaw Trust Remix Project
Strings & Blowy Things (Fraser Shaw) arr. Chris Gray
I look forward to when live music can return to full capacity safely. This will be an unbelievably powerful and humbling time. My experiences over lockdown and the pandemic have given me time to reflect and provide perspective on both the pleasures and inspiration to be found from travel and being at home. Nothing is to be assumed, and so many moments of life are special because very often they can’t be relived. One of the biggest outcomes of this time I take forward is to cherish every special interaction and moment, they are so precious!
Thanks very much to the Traditional Music Forum for asking me to write this blog.