Tag Archives: Dartington International Summer School

The music of place, the place of nature

Great Hall - with tapestries representing the original departments hanging
The Great Hall at Dartington (image from the web site)

The Northumbrian pipes carried the melody at first but gradually this was passed to the other instruments: a harp, a cello, an accordion, creating an unexpected sound-fusion of classical and folk music. As those first few magical notes echoed around the medieval hall, I knew this would be a special evening and we were treated to a mixture of traditional reels and hornpipes, slow airs and original compositions. Each musician made her own important contribution to the overall effect but my attention was captivated by the flame-haired woman standing at the centre of the stage. She moved gracefully and sensually with the music, driving forward with her virtuoso pipe and fiddle playing and occasionally smiling with pleasure at her fellow players. This was Kathryn Tickell with her new band, The Side, and I was in the Great Hall at Dartington recently for this memorable performance.

This video shows Kathryn Tickell and her former band performing a traditional tune.

I was particularly taken by a tune she played on the fiddle, accompanied by the cello, entitled Yeavering. She explained that she had written this tune in response to Yeavering Bell, a distinctive, broad, double-peaked hill in her home county of Northumberland. Yeavering Bell was once an Iron Age hill fort and the tune was intended to convey some of her feelings about the shape of the hill, the views from the summit and the general impression of space. The video below is of a live performance of Yeavering played on two fiddles by Kathryn Tickell and her band.  There is a bit of background noise but if you want a more pristine version click here.

Everyone will have their own personal reaction to this music but as I listened I found my mind wandering to open spaces and moorland. For me the music also speaks of mysticism, of older times and of danger when the clashing chords occur. Whatever your reaction to her tune, writing a piece of music about a place you love is a wonderful way to express your respect for nature.

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Wheat field in Kent (photo by Hazel Strange)

A few days before the concert, we had returned from a week’s holiday in Kent. Coming as we do from damp Devon, the semi-drought in the south east was surprising and the look of the land was more early autumn than high summer. We stayed in a very comfortable converted barn surrounded by gently rolling countryside largely devoted to cereal growth. Fields here are big and hedges sparse and I noticed few flowers.

One of our walks took us across fields from the picture-perfect village of Appledore. Striking out from the village recreation ground we had expected to walk through wheat fields but instead we quickly came to large tracts of vines planted in neat rows and supported by perfectly parallel wire supports. Many of the vines had been planted quite recently and were far from cropping, but later we did see some maturing Chardonnay grapes. These are part of the Gusborne Estate, “England’s most prestigious boutique wine producer”, whatever that means.

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The Gusborne Vineyard (photo by Hazel Strange)

The vines looked very healthy but the whole effect felt sterile and in many parts of the vineyard very little grew between the rows of vines, just a few hardy weeds and the occasional flower, so that we saw few if any insects. At the ends of some of the rows we were surprised to see roses with red or white flowers. Roses are more susceptible to some of the diseases that infect vines and are planted to provide an early warning system for problems in the vineyard.

As I looked along the bleak rows of vines I couldn’t help remembering that a major contributor to the declining bee populations in this country has been the 97%  loss of wild flower meadows since the mid 20th century. Land clothed with a vine monoculture feels like part of this problem.

The vineyard claims, on its web site, to have a “deep respect for nature” and it wouldn’t take much land away from their vines if they planted wild flowers along the field edges. This would massively increase their green credentials, demonstrate respect for nature and it would bring back the bees and other insects. Some of these might be beneficial insects that would suppress vine pests.

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It doesn’t feel like a very good time for nature and the recent decision of the UK government to reintroduce neonicotinoid insecticides, albeit on a small number of farms, has been deeply depressing. This decision was apparently taken against the advice of their scientific advisers and with some secrecy so that the presence of the agrochemical companies at these crucial meetings might be concealed. People confident of their decisions do not take them behind closed doors so this tells us a lot about the present government.

Another decision that takes little account of nature is the recent proposal to “fast-track” planning applications involving fracking when local councils appear to be acting slowly. The energy secretary, Amber Rudd has said she will “deliver shale” and this commitment has potentially profound environmental implications.

So what do we do to increase respect for nature and to give nature its rightful place alongside humans? It’s a difficult question with no easy answers but I can think of two ways forward. First, we must celebrate nature in all its glories by writing, by photographing and by generally spreading the word wherever possible. Second, we must expose and oppose policies of governments and companies that result in a loss of nature in all its different facets: wildlife, countryside, rivers, beaches etc.

They dance more wildly

A few weeks ago I attended a course at the Dartington International Summer School. Here are some thoughts on the week.

Main Hall entrance Dartington
The Great Hall at Dartington
It’s about nine thirty on a warm mid August evening and I am standing outside the Great Hall at Dartington in South Devon with two friends, Monica and Ruth. The music of Elgar floods through the Hall’s open windows and we are transfixed. The Dartington String Orchestra under Sir Neville Marriner is playing the Introduction and Allegro. The String Orchestra comes together for five days during the Summer School to rehearse and perform a major piece of music. The opportunity of performing with Neville Marriner has been a big draw – there are about a hundred players and the sound is strong and clear. When the music draws to a close, there is a noticeable pause. Then the applause rises and we head to the bar, it is now our turn to play.

We are part of the next event on the programme, the English Roots Gig, the culmination of another week’s course in the Dartington International Summer School. A group of about twenty of us have been learning and playing folk tunes, mostly from the UK. There were twelve fiddlers (myself included), six cellos, four guitars and a mandolin. Some were also in the String Orchestra; others like myself were of lower standard but with some folk experience. The course was lead by fiddler Pete Cooper and cellist Richard Bolton, two highly respected folk musicians. We spent 90 minutes each day on the formal part of the course and learnt half a dozen tunes. We learnt by ear; no printed music was allowed!

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In the bar, chairs have been arranged in a circle so that the musicians will have a better chance to see and hear one another. As the Great Hall empties, the bar fills up and, by the time we start, it’s pretty full and quite noisy. I wonder what those who were at the classical concert will make of our music.

Pete leads and we begin with “Wednesday Night”, a tune found in the books of 19th century Shropshire fiddler John Moore. It’s quite a simple tune even when played at speed, as we do now. It goes well; the sound is good, we seem to be playing together and there is a good response from the audience. Next we play a pair of tunes, “Dribbles of Brandy” and “Bang up”; “Dribbles” comes from the manuscripts of Thomas Hardy and “Bang Up” from the manuscripts of John Clare. The pace gets up a bit. “Dribbles” is fine at this speed but “Bang up” is a bit of a challenge for me but we are a big band and if I miss a few notes it doesn’t matter. Again, the response is good and I notice a group, mainly young women, by the bar who are beginning to move with the music which is accented and very dancy. We continue with a mixture of slower and faster tunes, some played by the band and some by Pete and Richard and the would-be dancers are hooked.

They move in to the space in the middle of our circle and begin to dance. On this small, makeshift dance-floor they are close together. Despite this, they manage to move about with accentuated footwork, sometimes waving their hands in the air and sometimes clapping in time to the music. The one male in the group dances rather like a matador facing the bull; one young woman picks up her skirts as if this was Irish step dancing.

They are also dancing close to us and we sense their energy, excitement and bravado – they dance for themselves but they know they are also putting on a show. The music and the dancing feed off one another and I find myself moving with the rhythm even as I play.

We continue with two Polish Tunes we learnt during the week. These are “Brigands Dances” and sound very different compared to the English tunes, but they go down very well, especially as some of the women are from Eastern Europe. The atmosphere is now electric. The unexpected arrival of the dancers has turned this from a performance in to an exciting event.

After one or two more English tunes including “Jacob”, one of Thomas Hardy’s favourites, we attempt to finish. The dancers demand more and, as an encore, we play the two “Brigands Dances” again. We start fast and at this pace the dancing is frenetic – they do, indeed, “dance more wildly”. Occasional shrieks of delight come from the group and Pete responds by playing faster still – more shrieks, higher pace, it’s difficult to keep up. And then suddenly, it’s all over; the dancers limp off and the musicians pack their instruments away.

For me, playing tonight has been an amazing experience which I enjoyed greatly. When I try to leave, it’s difficult to navigate out of the crowed bar but a woman sees me struggling with my fiddle and bow and beckons to show me a way through. As I thank her, she says to me “I enjoyed that more than I expected”.

The title is taken from a Chapter heading in Thomas Hardy’s “Under the Greenwood Tree” where he describes a Christmas dance in the fictional village of Mellstock in the early 19th century.