CD Review: King of the strings
SCOTLAND has never been short of gifted fiddlers, and arguably never less so than right now, but even in this crowded field Aidan O'Rourke stands out as a singular talent. Currently best known as a founding member of both Blazin' Fiddles and Lau, two of today's most successful Scottish folk acts, he has also emerged in recent years as an increasingly important composer, using his traditional roots and diverse performing experience as a springboard for transcending conventional genre divisions. Again, he's hardly alone, but few contemporary musicians in any category can match the extent of either his artistic ambitions or his achievements in bringing them to fruition.
Born in Oban, of Scottish/Irish parentage, O'Rourke grew up surrounded by traditional tunes and songs from both countries, his father in particular being an enthusiastic amateur musician. He began learning fiddle aged eight, schooled in the richly lyrical idioms of the West Coast style, with its intimate ancestral kinship to Gaelic song and bagpipe music. This early grounding – nowadays most obviously to the fore in his work with the traditionally-oriented Blazin' Fiddles – still forms the bedrock of his playing and composing. No matter how far he pushes whichever envelope he's working with, he never loses sight of the music's heart, lending his work an immediacy and accessibility through which listeners can connect with its more challenging aspects.
Having honed his craft via the junior Mod and fiddle-competition circuit (while listening to such seminal 1970s/1980s folk acts as De Dannan and Silly Wizard), O'Rourke was spotted aged 14 playing at a charity ceilidh in Fort William and invited to join the Caledonia Ramblers band. Tours of England and the US gave the teenage O'Rourke an early taste for the travelling musician's life, and though he studied civil engineering at Strathclyde University, his future career path was never really in doubt.
O'Rourke's other former band line-ups include Tabache, with singer and flute player Claire Mann, and the folk/fusion outfit Sunhoney, while to date he has guested on more than 80 albums by other artists. His skill as a composer has not only seen his work widely covered across the contemporary Celtic scene, but led to an ever-lengthening list of larger-scale commissions, including Mantra Alba, penned to welcome the Dalai Lama to Scotland in 2004, and two new works written while Composer in Residence at the Tolbooth venue in Stirling.
His greatest previous achievement undoubtedly is Sirius, originally premiered as a New Voices commission at Celtic Connections in 2003, and released as O'Rourke's first solo album a couple of years later. Featuring a 13-piece ensemble of folk and jazz musicians, it seamlessly merges both these elements with the elegance, finesse and boldness of contemporary chamber music.
An Tobar, originally commissioned to celebrate the tenth anniversary of Mull's arts centre, proves a more than worthy successor, displaying the same assured command in uniting its disparate components while stretching O'Rourke's creativity. His own sublime playing – by turns intensely soulful, feverishly athletic and audaciously dissonant – is complemented by the like-minded talents of Lau bandmate Martin Green (accordion), Catriona Mackay (harp), Phil Bancroft (saxophones), Martin O'Neill (percussion) and Kirsty MacKinnon (vocals).
MacKinnon features on Tobar Nan Ealain, the third and perhaps the most striking of An Tobar's five tracks – most are eight or nine minutes long – which incorporates specially-written Gaelic poetry by Aonghas MacNeacail, himself initially heard intoning the verses over a hypnotic bodhrn pulse and otherworldly electronic effects. A snippet of MacNeacail's voice is then deployed as a resonant, rhythmic loop above which MacKinnon's sweet yet piquant singing unfolds, intertwined with a slow fiddle air, as the melody shifts from lament-like poignancy to its subtly affirmative conclusion.
Another standout is One For Martyn, composed in honour of the late Martyn Bennett, who worked from a studio at An Tobar for several years. Opening with the gentle, sensuous croon of Bancroft's sax, then joined by O'Rourke's resonantly textured fiddle, it is at once an achingly mournful elegy and a vibrant tribute, picking up a march-like pace towards a dazzling, kora-like improvised passage from Mackay, anchored by a hefty walking bass-line.
O'Rourke's main musical method elsewhere on this album is to introduce a melodic phrase and/or rhythmic groove, then develop a succession of variations, elaborating on or deconstructing these central motifs amid layers of harmony, counterpoint and cross-rhythm. The overall effect is a compellingly dynamic equilibrium between the sum and its parts.
At the core, as ever, is O'Rourke's marvellous gift for melody and mood, together with his restless spirit of adventure, resulting in an album as abundantly rewarding as it is resolutely unclassifiable.
Fiona Shepherd is away.