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Poem was a trigger for new album recorded outdoors in Ross-shire

By Margaret Chrystall

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Musician and composer Hilary de Vries literally takes those listening to her new album The Knockbain Road on a journey.

Hilary de Vries has titled her new album The Knockbain Road.
Hilary de Vries has titled her new album The Knockbain Road.

You don’t even have to shut your eyes to picture the landscape that partly inspired the music, as the birds and the wind are all part of the sound picture – not surprisingly, as the album was recorded live outside. But it was after reading an epic Gaelic poem, The Birlinn Of Clanranald, translated into English, that Hilary was “grabbed”, as she puts it, by the Gaelic words and found she was thinking of music. Hilary talks about making the instrumental album of 30 tracks which feature the unusual sound of a wire-strung harp or clarsach.

Q You seem to have had an instant response to the book by Alasdair Mac Mhaghstir Alasdair?

A I read an extract from an English language version of the poem and I immediately ordered a copy of the book by Alan Riach and when it arrived, it was the lines from the Gaelic – because I didn’t know what the words meant in Gaelic – and even the shape of them as they were written on the page that made me start writing music.

Q It seems an unusual way to be inspired, not as you might expect, that the meaning of the words themselves brought your response in music?!

A It just seemed that certain lines jumped out at me! But I was writing music not from the English translation, but the Gaelic words, though I didn’t know what they meant! But I couldn’t have written the music without them. I tried doing it with the lines in English, but nothing was happening! Maybe the best thing is not to question inspiration, you just accept it in whatever form it comes and go with it.

Q I think you let the titles of each track come to you after listening to the music – you let the sound suggest what it was ‘about’?

A I just let myself see what images or feelings the music made me think of, and it was the land and particularly the area where I live which has farmland and forests and water – the coast and streams. The weather was also part of it.

The Knockbain Road is out now.
The Knockbain Road is out now.

Q But you took it one step farther when it came to recording the tracks which are called things like Golden Birches, A Mass Of Geese, Low Over The Bay, The Silver Trout, The Berry Picker?

A I wanted to try and record the album in nature because that was partly what had helped me create the music.

Q Was it difficult to achieve – the tracks sound very natural with the birds heard quite close to you and your harp and the wind blowing too?

A I was using a recorder with built-in mics and just recorded the music and the birds at the same time – it was incredibly simple. I had to tell the sparrows to shut up, but they don’t calm it down for long! The only thing I had to watch for was that being outside made the wire strings go out of tune quite easily when the wind got up or the sun came out and the temperature would change and the strings could contract. But having the other sounds around, it was a bit like playing with an orchestra!

Q Are you working on a follow-up – your debut was Cherry Blossom After Rain?

A Yes! But the next one won’t be recorded outside – this album needed to be.

Q Why is your “Rosemarkie harp” called that?

A It’s made by Ardival Harps [based near Strathpeffer] and all their designs are based on old harps, this one on a Pictish design. They are made of local wood from the Castle Leod estate, so the harps haven’t travelled far!

The Knockbain Road is available via Bandcamp as a CD for £12 plus p&p and as a digital download for £7.50

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