A hand in remembering

I first saw Scots fiddler Alasdair Fraser play 14 years ago in a tiny town hall. At one point in the performance, he began playing an ancient Celtic tune from somewhere in Europe (Normandy maybe), and by changing his bowing technique and rhythmic emphasis subtly, he traced the tune’s migration route across the channel to the British Isles, then up to the Highlands of Scotland, on to Ireland, and then across the Atlantic.

After taking a side trip down the Mississippi, where it became a re-Frenchified Cajun melody, he then escorted it south through New England, finally arriving in the Southern Appalachians, where the tune became “Lost Indian,” a song folks around here still play at dances, festivals and on front porches.

This was more than a stunning display of stylistic virtuosity, and it was more than a lesson in musical anthropology. Mostly, while narrating, joking and fiddling with precision, grace and power, Fraser shared his delight in the minutiae, exemplified by those tiny inflections in bowing and rhythm that define culture.

These delicate differences make us what we are, and it’s good to pay a little attention to them. That night, Fraser’s fiddling made doing so a joy.

In addition to his 10 or so album releases on his own Culburnie label, an equal number of guest appearances, and numerous contributions to compilation discs, Fraser has played on several blockbuster-film soundtracks, including The Last of the Mohicans and Titanic, and he’s shared the stage with such diverse artists and groups as Itzhak Perlman, the Los Angeles Master Chorale and The Waterboys.

Born and raised in Scotland, Fraser now lives in California, which is where he happened to be when he decided, as a young adult, to commit to playing music. I caught up with him on the phone at his in-laws’ house in Montana, and asked him how living on America’s west coast affected his musical and cultural identity.

“I was very impressed by the genuine interest [in traditional music] that I found in this country,” he said. “It was not faddish or superficial, and there was a lot of follow-through. So I started a fiddle camp in California, and it’s gone from strength to strength throughout the years. I’m back in Scotland a lot, though, five or six times a year [where, among other things, he runs another fiddle camp on the Isle of Skye], and I’m still under the skin of what’s going on there, I’m still very involved in a lot of the cultural events there. … All this adds up to a big picture that feels pretty good at the moment.”

During the last millennium, imperial Britain treated Scotland’s people badly, driving them off ancestral lands and culturally repressing them to the point where, during the time Fraser was growing up, it was difficult to find authentic Scottish music and dance in Scotland. Since he’s one of the chief instigators of the current renaissance of Scots culture, I wondered how much of his dedication to his homeland’s indigenous music was motivated by a desire to redress some of the insults of history.

“First and foremost,” Fraser says, “I have a lot of fun doing what I do, and I feel very lucky that I get to explore this rich vein of music. … But as a kid growing up in Scotland, I got to wondering why I wasn’t hearing that [music], and that takes you back to Scotland’s history, when even ways of speaking were repressed, for reasons of political and religious control. … I was continually being taught to speak ‘properly,’ which meant not speaking in the accent of the place I lived in, but speaking some sort of standard English. “You couldn’t even hear the news being read in Scotland in a Scottish accent — that was BBC policy,” he explains. “That bothered me, because you have tongue-tied young Scots who had been told for years that their way of speaking was wrong. … There’s a certain sense of setting some words and tunes back on the road again, to give them a fair chance. This way, if they are to become buried and gone, at least it will be for reasons of merit.

“A lot of this,” Fraser continues, “applies to the [American] South, where there’s a tongue, a way of playing tunes, that’s constantly under threat. I’m not saying that old is better, necessarily, but we should cherish the good stuff, and let it go gradually if it has to go.”

Many of his recordings include original compositions that have a contemplative “New Age” feel, in apparent conflict with his role as standard-bearer of bouncier traditional forms often associated with dance.

“I like to try things out,” Fraser says. “[And] the more you do that, the more you realize that’s always been done … traditional music was not just for dance. Pibroch [a form of pipe music] in 17th-century Scotland produced very long pieces of listening music, created to commemorate a battle, or a funeral, or some great catastrophe in the community. These tunes required a long attention span, and they were meant to be listened to and enjoyed in an active way. So there’s a precedent for longer, more thoughtful pieces of music. This can be confused with ambient [or background] sound, because people aren’t listening. … The music I get involved in, I get involved in it because I follow the fiddle, and it weaves me in and out again. I feel like I’m just hanging on for the ride.”

So what can we expect on July 6? “I have an unconscious cycle,” he says. “I create new music, push my own mind compositionally, and when I’ve had enough of that, I go back to the well, and revel in all those great 18th-century tunes again. Right now I’m at the drinking-from-the-well stage again. … [Cellist] Natalie Haas will be with me in North Carolina. I first met her coming through my fiddle camp when she was 12. I’ve been trying to rekindle interest in the fiddle and bowed-bass sound, which was very common back then. … The cello doesn’t have to be that sort of mellow instrument in the orchestra. It has the capacity to be very beautiful, but also very rhythmic and very provocative. It’s a great rhythm instrument. And Natalie has really taken the bull by the horns. It’s one of the most exciting things I’ve done in years.”

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