Mr McFall's Chamber Launch Birds and Beasts in Edinburgh

Birds and Beasts


Mr McFall's Chamber is a bit like Dr Who's Tardis. You never know quite where it is going to land next, and you don’t know quite who is going to step out. However, you can be pretty sure that some kind of diverting adventure is likely to hold your attention for an hour or two. To complete the analogy, some kind of technological wizardry is likely to be involved too.

Back in 1995 or so, Robert McFall set out to take a small, flexible ensemble—at its core, a string quartet drawn from the Scottish Chamber Orchestra— to perform in unlikely spaces such as nightclubs. While other, overtly 'classical' ventures of this kind have sought to sell the 'crossover' without really wanting to compromise on repertoire, Mr McFall's Chamber has consistently taken a different approach, taking a particular, rich skill-set that allows the context to drive content. The result is always of its time, always interesting; sometimes provocative.

More often than not, projects involve collaboration with musicians from complementary traditions. Recently they worked with Gavin Bryars; shortly they will perform with songwriter Michael Marra, and (separately) a tango night with Victor Villena, Cyril Garac and Valentina Montoya Martinez. Tonight, they landed among Edinburgh's Ceilidh Culture—a grassroots festival that continues the traditions of the early fringe, and more recently the Folk Festival. The occasion marked the launch of a new CD, Birds and Beasts, celebrating the legacy of Martyn Bennett.

For those who haven't come across him, there is a point to thinking of him as 'Scotland's Mozart', even though the comparison is in some respects extravagant. He was steeped in the oral tradition and schooled in the classical tradition, but also grounded in contemporary urban culture. He had a voracious—and tremendously intelligent—appetite for musical experience, which found him in turn performing brilliantly on the pipes and fiddle, composing work for others to share, and pioneering the integration of studio technology and technique with live performance. He was only 34 when illness got the better of him, leaving a deep fund of respect and affection.

The Bevvy Sisters opened the show with 'What a voice', a stunning version of 'Blackbird' from Bennett’s last album, Grit, which incorporated the voice of Lizzie Higgins. To a number already rich in tradition, the sisters brought a moving evocation of Gaelic psalm, adding, with two basses and softly throbbing tom-toms, something else entirely—an echo of the distinctive American band Hugo Largo. The rest of their set was a lively and pleasant mix of self-penned numbers with familiar roots standards (including a particularly lovely 'Mary Don’t Weep'), the sweetness of the close harmonies playing nicely against the Sisters' sassy presence.

Somewhere along the line, Mr McFall's Chamber has been likened to the Penguin Cafe Orchestra. There is a certain, minimal resemblance, particularly with the Queen's Hall stalls replaced by cabaret-style tables, beverages and bonhomie. All the same, the 'beast' in the title of the new CD reflects an edge of raw passion co-existing with skill and refinement. Onstage, the marriage between string quartet and rock band (as one might describe it) is negotiated—precariously at times—via PA. Some of Fraser Fifield's contributions got a bit stranded in the mix, the softer sounds of the whistle and lowland pipes proving hard to capture.

Fifield is a musician from a similar traditional background to Martyn Bennett, and extravagantly talented in his own right. It's intriguing to note the different paths the two were taken on by their chosen 'second' instruments—fiddle, in Bennett's case; saxophone in Fifield's. Fifield's course has taken him more towards a jazz-inflected fusion. This is gloriously on display in one of his contributions to the album, 'the beast', in which he takes up the highland pipes for a dauntingly formidable display of fierce dynamism. No amplification problems here!

As the previous remark about softer sounds implies, neither Bennett nor Fifield are just about lots of fast notes; both have a contemplative, poetic side too. What's particularly attractive about Bennett's work is his ability to draw on his classical discipline to extend and intensify his innate oral lyricism. A piece of good fortune enabled McFall's to showcase this in Bennett's 'Piece for small pipes, string quartet & percussion'. It was composed for the Edinburgh Quartet in the mid-90s, and lost shortly thereafter, but—hat-tip to bureaucracy—a photocopy turned up in the Scottish Arts Council's archive, enabling the ensemble to introduce the work to new audiences.

The rest of the programme threads together the 'birds and beasts' theme from Bennett's CDs and, with pawky irony, his incidental music for David Harrower's celebrated play Knives in Hens. Not only is this skilfully done, but Robert McFall's energy in creating the arrangements (both onstage and offstage) draws attention to his own considerable gifts as an impresario. As Auden says, 'The words of a dead man/ Are modified in the guts of the living'. That's how the tradition works.

By Peter Cudmore