Radical Voices by Tannahill Arts and Heritage

26 Feb 2021

By Joe Smith

This online concert presented by Tannahill Arts and Heritage featured the remarkable trio of Toni James (piano), Stephanie Strachan (soprano), and Alan Fleming-Baird (composition).

The style of composition is instantly recognisable, yet not easy to categorise. Emerging from the classical Scottish ballad style known to anyone who has performed or listened to songs by Robert Burns, the music had a distinctly modern sound. Not modern in the sense of the 12 tone/serialism of the 1950s modern, but modern enough in its tonality to bring a reimagined freshness to a very traditional musical genre.

The concert opened with two traditional poems set to music by Alan Fleming Baird, the Bonnie Wood of Craigielea by Robert Tannahill and the Gallant Weaver by Robert Burns. A wonderful opening to the concert, beautifully performed by Toni and Stephanie. As well as the performance, what also struck me was the quality of the sound. For an online event it was both loud and crystal clear, praise that was widely reflected in the audience comments.

Next on the programme was a piece specially commissioned by the Paisley Book Festival which connected with the theme of Radical Futures. Composed by Alan, and performed by Toni and Stephanie, the song used the Japanese Tanka, a form of poetry which, in 31 unbroken syllables, was used to provide the lyrics. The poetry featured here reflected on the effects of the Anthropocene – the tight dialectic between humans and our environment, the COVID pandemic, and the barriers we create that do not exist in the ‘natural’ world. What a real privilege to hear original compositions, newly commissioned! Well done #PBF2021

The words for the next song were taken from the anthology Radical Renfrew, compiled by the late Tom Leonard, and the song was reminiscent of a wonderful event at last year’s Paisley Book Festival in which Alan Bissett and Professor Gerry Carruthers discussed the work of these 19th century Renfrew poets. The video accompanying this piece was another commission for the Sma Shot Day digital event of 2020. The most melodically memorable of the pieces, this wonderful song, accompanied by strings and piano, provides an uplifting soundtrack to Paisley’s commemoration of its weavers’ heritage.

Remaining on the leading edge of new music the instrumental piece, Auld Lang Mine, composed in the Iambic style of Scots ballad poetry, with interchanging tetra and tri-meter lines, was structured in a such a way that the song Auld Lang Syne could be sung over the top of the music (I urge you to try it, it really works, and provides an opportunity for melodic and harmonic experimentation of your own).

The next newly composed song, inspired by the poetry of Alexander Wilson, was an innovative sea shanty called The Fisherman’s Hymn. I think we might just be looking at the next big TikTok sensation here.

Award winning, Canadian born poet, Alycia Pirmohamed’s How To Say Dark provided the lyrics for the penultimate musical setting, before the concert concluded with an aria from the Opera, Tannahill, based on the life of the Paisley bard, and first performed in Paisley Abbey as part of the Scots Opera Project on 28th September 2019.

Whether you are a lover of music, poetry or both, this was a very special concert, full of newly commissioned compositions, inspirational lyrics, beautifully performed.

If you missed Radical Voices by Tannahill Arts and Heritage you can watch again with this link until 26th March.

There's still time to register for tickets for Paisley Book Festival events here