Six questions with… Ross Whyte & Alasdair Whyte

Gaelic singer Alasdair Whyte and electronic musician Ross Whyte join forces for a selection of new arrangements of traditional Gaelic songs and original compositions, accompanied by projected images. Performing at the Scottish Storytelling Centre on Thu 5 May, their combination of ambient soundscape, abstract visuals and traditional vocals promises a unique aural and visual experience. Here, we ask the duo about their collaboration and what inspires them as musicians. 

Tell us about your latest album.

Ross Whyte: My debut album, Kaidan, was released in October last year by Comprende Records.  The album features a mix of styles, including ambient, electronic and acoustic.  So far, it’s been well-received and has been entered into the “eligible albums” list for this year’s Scottish Album of the Year Award.

I was introduced to Gaelic singer-songwriter Alasdair Whyte by Ceòl‘s Craic who commissioned us to collaborate for their “Gaelictronica” showcase at Glasgow’s CCA on 13 February. Creatively, it’s been an extremely fruitful partnership and we’re both looking forward to performing some new material at TradFest. So far, the material we’ve produced consists of new arrangements of some rarely-heard 17th– and 18th– century Gaelic songs.  We’ve also been working on original compositions. The arrangements have a strong ambient/electronic component and we’ve experimented a bit with digitally processing Alasdair’s vocals. There’s also a visual element in the form of accompanying video projection – some of which is quite abstract, but is all related to the narrative or themes of the songs.

Alasdair Whyte: My debut solo album is Las, released in 2012 with Watercolour Music. I have recently recorded with Struileag/Shore to Shoreon the album Children of the Smoke (2014), and with Niteworks, on the album NW (2015).

For me, a particularly exciting aspect of my collaboration with Ross has been the opportunity to explore new ways of presenting the poetry of these songs to Gaels and to non-Gaelic-speaking audiences.  My doctoral research at the University of Glasgow has allowed me to build up a familiarity with songs of this period and the video projection which accompanies our musical performances incorporates some of the key motifs of the songs.

Which other musicians have been your main influences? 

RW: Stylistically, my musical influences have been fairly varied.  Bands like Radiohead and R.E.M. have always inspired me. Tori Amos’ piano style is a big influence on how I approach the instrument.  Electronic artists like Aphex Twin and Autechre have also been influential.

A couple of years ago, I was fortunate enough to collaborate with Alasdair Roberts over the course of several residencies in Braemar.  This was a hugely inspiring experience for me. Alasdair introduced me to a great wealth of traditional music, and his overall approach to arranging and songwriting has left a lasting impact on my own compositional approach, particularly in terms of melodies and structure.

AW: I have been and continue to be influenced by new music of various genres and through collaboration with other musicians. Growing up, my mother, Riona Whyte, was a huge influence.  I would also cite traditional singers from my native area of Mull and Morvern as major influences.

What inspires you when writing music?

AW: Language, love and landscape inspire me to compose new Gaelic songs and new music.

RW: Most of my influences when writing music tend to be visual, e.g. a film or painting I’ve seen.  I love surrealist art, so anything by David Lynch or Rene Magritte can trigger a million ideas for me.

I also compose quite regularly for dance. It’s one of the best things in the world – to respond to movement and have movement occur in response to your music. I’ve been lucky enough to collaborate with a lot of really great choreographers. No two projects are ever the same, so compositionally, the approach always has to be different.  A choreographer that I’ve worked with several times, Thania Acarón, and I set up an interdisciplinary arts group (Orphaned Limbs Collective) and currently have four productions in our repertoire.

Which bands/artists from the contemporary Trad scene, in Scotland or elsewhere, do you rate most?

RW: Alasdair and I had the pleasure of playing on the same bill as the League of Highland Gentlemen.  They really impressed me. They have a lot of energy and humour, and they’re great musicians too.

AW: Niteworks – I have enjoyed collaborating with the boys and performing live with them over the past few months. I also enjoy working with Ross and observing his approach to composition.

Have you played TradFest before? Are there any other acts on the programme you’d recommend seeing?

RW: This is the first time that either of us has performed at TradFest. I’m looking forward to it!

I’d really like to see Clype. I’ve been following them online, so it’d be good to catch them live. Plus, I feel an obligation to support fellow Aberdonians!

What does Tradition mean to you?

RW: In musical performance, tradition for me is all about sharing.  So much great music endures because of inclusive community experiences. 

When composing, I find it really exciting to draw from multiple traditions and cultures and experiment with different combinations.  There are infinite possibilities. 

AW: For me, tradition involves preserving, interpreting, imparting and transmitting the beliefs, songs and music of those singers and musicians who have composed and performed before us.

Ross Whyte and Alasdair Whyte play the Scottish Storytelling Centre on Thu 5 May. Book tickets.