Claire Sawers

Freelance Writer

Month: May 2016

Feature: Film sheds light on the many facets of poet Hamish Henderson

The Times
24 May 2016

Hamish Henderson with a dog outside the School of Scottish Studies

Hamish Henderson outside the School of Scottish Studies

The poet and music archivist Hamish Henderson was well known in Edinburgh bars and academic circles, but a documentary sheds new light on the unusually rich life of a talented, very fondly remembered polymath.

Glasgow-based film maker Robbie Fraser was hired by producer Alasdair MacCuish, and together they assembled friends, family and colleagues of Henderson to share memories of the man who created a folk revival in Scotland. Their documentary Hamish premiered at the Glasgow Film Festival in February, and will be screened across Scotland from 3rd June.

“When pitching a film, you have to boil it down into one logline,” says Fraser. “It was a real challenge for Hamish because his life had so many strands, and he meant so many things to so many people. We settled on seven incarnations of Hamish Henderson in the end – the orphan, soldier, politician, poet, drinker, lover and ‘remembrancer’.”

Born an illegitimate child in Blairgowrie, Perthshire in 1919, Henderson’s mother died when he was young. As a scholarship pupil at at the prestigious Dulwich College in London, he quickly learned how to make himself belong in many different situations, a skill that served him equally well interrogating POWs as Captain of the Intelligence Corps during World War II, as gathering folk song recordings from shepherds, “tinkers” and musicians around Scotland.

Henderson died in 2002, aged 82. “I’m one of the few people in Scotland it seems who never met him,” jokes Fraser. “And I really wish I had.”

“Making the film, I was careful only to speak with people who knew him personally. What comes across again and again was this tremendously open-hearted, magnetic man. He liked recognising talent in people, enabling them, giving a voice to the voiceless. Hamish believed in love as this primal force in the universe. That doesn’t mean he was weak or hippy dippy though; whatever he did, he went at it with vigour, with everything he had.”

As a pacifist witnessing the rise of fascism in Germany during the 30s, Henderson decided to become a fighter, and used the six European languages he spoke to gain information as a military interrogator.

“He was fluent in German and would figure out which part of Germany or Austria the prisoners were from, then often sing to them in German to get them onside,’ explains Fraser.

“He treated them very well, and found music very disarming. There are so many echoes with what he did during the War and the techniques he used later on, to gain people’s trust when collecting ballads from travellers.”

Poet Alec Finlay, who describes Henderson as his mentor, is one of several talking heads in the documentary. Finlay was Henderson’s neighbour when he lived near the Meadows in Edinburgh, and began doing odd jobs for him. Their friendship, in the last decade of Henderson’s life, led to Finlay editing and publishing Henderson’s essays and letters which at the time were, “a bunch of photocopies piled in the corner of his kitchen.”

“I was in awe of him, and felt privileged to see that quiet side of Hamish. Lots of people knew ‘Sandy Bells Hamish’; his whisky drinking, ceilidh loving, Rabelaisian side,” says Finlay, namechecking the Edinburgh pub that became a favourite of Henderson and colleagues from the nearby School of Scottish Studies.

“Most people would come to his house with a bottle, but we never drank together, I went round to listen and learn. He was giving me an education, I was helping shape his life into retrospective order.”

Finlay remembers one occasion when he helped Henderson and his “gammy hips” into the bath, then listened as he recited one of Rainer Maria Rilke’s Duino Elegies in perfect German.

Although famously passionate about Scottish traditional and working class culture, and an outspoken advocate for Scottish home rule, Henderson was a fervent internationalist, who befriended Communist Italian partisans during the War and adapted folk songs in solidarity for South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement. He was also an early campaigner for gay rights, CND and the opening of a Scottish parliament.

“Hamish would have loved 2014,” says Finlay. “He always saw Scotland as a rich, diverse country that mixes art, music, intelligence and debate – he was a foundational figure in that respect. He recognised that confidence and change in Scotland is primarily led by culture, and was a key figure in that. He loved young people, celebratory people, people with energy, and watching Scotland reach a higher level of conversation and intelligence, that’s something he’d have really enjoyed.”

Although Henderson’s life was up made of several very diverse phases, Finlay believes he made something exciting happen in all of them.

“This amazing thread ran through his life; war poet, heroic leader, folk revivalist, mentor – he somehow fulfilled an incredible potential in each of those eras. What he’s left behind now is ‘the Hamish effect’. You meet hundreds of people who were changed by him.”

Read the article online at The Times here (subscription needed.)


Review: Counterflows Festival, The Wire

The Wire
June 2016

American harpist and improviser Zeena Parkins with Danish saxophonist Mette Rasmussen

American harpist and improviser Zeena Parkins with Danish saxophonist Mette Rasmussen

Various venues, Glasgow
7-10 April 2016

Before the fifth Counterflows festival happened in Glasgow, its co-curators Alasdair Campbell and Fielding Hope presented a preview podcast on Resonance FM, where Hope joked that they were going “a bit trad” this time. There was never any danger of that, not in a beige and safe sense of the word anyway. Counterflows is an annual celebration of “the adventurous and the underground”, where dystopian techno sets and solo harp reveries sit quite comfortably alongside surrealist noise skits and free jazz face-offs. But the string music theme running through this year’s programme made for a weekend as obsessed with subverting the traditional as it was with pursuing the new.

The first night saw Áine O’Dwyer boom her Music for Church Cleaners eerily out of a giant church organ into the shadows of the cavernous Glasgow University Chapel. Two days later, in a discussion with Frances Morgan, she spoke about the pipe organ’s role as ‘manipulative machine’, designed to make people feel in awe of god. O’Dwyer’s daunting exploration of the organ’s low sounds, shrill shrieks and silences was a foreboding, formidable opener, followed by Laura Cannell and Angharad Davies’ Counterflows commission, Mythos of Violins, a haunting meditation for three violins, performed with Aiden O’Rourke.

Graham Lambkin, the solo artist who used to make curious, minimal, commentary-rock in the superbly odd duo The Shadow Ring paired up with Penultimate Press label boss, Mark Harwood, aka Astor, to bring a wonky, menacing set on Friday, using an Audubon bird whistle, bells, beer bottles and tape hiss to act out a dysfunctional male bonding session, with Garnethill Multicultural Centre acting as the garden shed for their performance art pathos. Later, Inga Copeland played with the tensions between soft and hard sounds that she first experimented with as half of Hype Williams, this time morphing melodic, pretty loops into dark, insistent beats from her Live in Paris album, as wobbly Handycam footage of Glasgow blurred with strobes and spoken London street names.

Counterflows’ featured artist, the American harpist and improviser Zeena Parkins delivered several equally mind-bending performances across the weekend, including a skronky, cartoony and violent attack on a harp, accompanied by Glasgow’s One Ensemble, and a furious, virtuosic duet with Danish saxophonist Mette Rasmussen, showing off the intoxicating spectrum of noises that her homemade electric harp can make. Small busloads were also driven to a secret location, a sleek Kelvinside home, for intimate and mesmerising performances by Parkins. She confounded her tiny crowd when she passed round champagne and canapés, disarming them, before inviting listeners to stick their heads in the grand piano she’d set up with a few dozen E-Bows.

Alongside Brazilian anarchic, middle-aged disco-metal-noise trio, Chelpa Ferra, and Black Top, a British free jazz duo splicing xylo-synth odysseys with iPad meanderings, Jamaican dub and live drums, there was room in the programme for workshops in ‘Motherese’ from local music therapist Aby Vulliamy for pre-verbal babies and parents, and a last minute gig in a charity shop in Shawlands Arcade, where likeable New York bampot rapper Sensational and Newcastle father/ daughter screamo-pop duo Yeah You (they released their Air Headz tape on Psykick Dancehall Recordings last year) gave Sunday afternoon shoppers something to gawp at.

South India’s Carnatic Music Ensemble sent things off the charts for the Sunday night finale. If all the hedonism and experimentalism of the weekend still hadn’t quite sold the festival as the rare gem that it is, then the trance-inducing drones of their raga and tala-based classical, devotional music in a church hall was the last shove needed to achieve full transcendence. Sublime.

Counterflows review in the June issue of The Wire magazine

June issue of The Wire


Review: Tectonics Festival, day two

The Herald
9 May 2016

Sami Yoiker Tectonics Festival

A Sami Yoiker


Tectonics Festival 2016

City Halls and Fruitmarket, Glasgow

Four stars

Day two of Tectonics ended on a big scale, with loud bangs, a few whimpers and plenty memorable oddities. The largest, in ambition and scale, was Alvin Curran’s world premiere of Musique Sans Frontières, where bagpipers and saxophonists led the audience up the City Halls’ staircase, down to the cavernous Fruitmarket, then into the Grand Hall for a cacophonous riot of foghorns, the Kirkintilloch brass band, BBC SSO musicians and ambient crowd performances from the Glasgow Chamber Choir. In the Ben Frost vein of visceral, foreboding compositions to jolt and batter the senses, Curran’s free jazz-classical-promenade-epic was arresting and fresh, if not always cohesive. But then a blend of Scottish folk fiddle, dropped kitchen utensils, symphony strings and chairs scraped across the floor was never going to be.

Smaller scale thrills were available too, from extraordinary solo violinist John Rose, continuing to hone his radical, playful style, showing off a bottomless curiosity for sounds he can make from string, air, electricity and skin, and the incredible Ánde Somby, looking like a court jester in leather fetish gear, but actually a gatekeeper to the ancient world of Sami shamanistic music. His animal yoiks of salmon, mosquitoes and a wolf were an otherworldly wonder, and captured the attention of wildlife sound recordist Chris Watson a couple of years ago.

Labyrinthine was an evocative experiment in operatics meets aerobics, where former Conquering Animal Sound member Anneke Kampman explored breath, body and female identity with singer Lucy Duncombe, and Annea Lockwood’s Sound Map of the Housatonic River was a blissful bath of water noise. A satisfying weekend of cerebral fun came to a close with Nate Young of Wolf Eyes’ dread-drenched work for orchestra and DIY electronics, sounding like a VHS video nasty, soundtracked by Morricone at his most sinister. With it, the seismic plates between the underground and overground closed up again for another year.

Read online at The Herald here


Review: Tectonics Festival, day one

The Herald
8 May 2016


Ilan Volkov conducting the BBC SSO in the premiere of Fruitmarket. Photo: Alex Woodward

Tectonics festival 2016
Sat 7 May, City Halls and Fruitmarket, Glasgow
Four stars

‘Make some noise’, read the acid yellow tote bags spotted around the Merchant City this weekend. It’s the mission statement for the fourth Tectonics Glasgow, an unstuffy and audacious, multipolar festival of experimental music, bringing together the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and sound artists, for avant-garde adventures in noise.
Saturday’s opening concert, Jitterbug, originally written for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company by Annea Lockwood, dripped, chimed and bubbled through the auditorium, as field recordings played through suspended microphones and speakers. Lockwood’s ‘interpretation of geological time’, with its digitised cicadas and jungle exhales, saw musicians take cues from images of patterned rocks, rather than sheet music. It was a less dystopian wander around Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 wasteland in Stalker; a meditative, pindrop piece introducing a big festival theme, the soft melting of musical boundaries, and an invitation for composers, artists and the audience to play around with conventions.

Elsewhere audiences were immersed in noise, with in-the-round performances and surround sound acoustics in the Fruitmarket and City Hall, both balconies spilling out celestial choir song, booming orchestral bass drums and thunderclap percussion. Catherine Kontz’s multi-textured, surprise-loaded Fruitmarket mimicked market vendors’ calls while Laurence Crane’s Cobbled Section After Section was deceptively sparse, a beautifully ebbing ambient work, before Concealed Unity, climaxing with the astonishing, experimental vocal of Jessika Kenney, drifting down from somewhere near the Grand Hall’s ceiling.
Ethereal reveries conjured upstairs were then expertly smashed downstairs by underground guitar hero, Andy Moor of the Ex, building a muscular wall of squall behind Anne-Marie Chaton’s mesmerising monotone, reading aloud in deadpan French. Finally, the wild, joyful polyrhythms of Ollie and Laurie Pitt of Golden Teacher induced a multi-coloured high for the Saturday-night closer, using congos, deconstructed clarinets, loops and morphing beats to batter the crowd into a euphoric pulp.

Read online at The Herald here.

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