2020 Hands Up For Trad Ignition Award for Innovation In Music winner, Scottish pianist Mhairi Hall has released her third album, Airs. Interweaving contemporary classical, traditional and ambient sounds, Airs has a transcendental quality as well as a strong sense of place.
Working inwards from the title, ‘Airs’ encompasses historic traditional tunes, the natural reverberations and harmonics of air passing through piano or harmonium, and the airflow of the natural world on water and land. Hall’s steady hand ensures all of these airs are held in elegant balance.
The piano not being a traditional instrument in Scottish music, classically-trained Hall has developed her own ornamentation in order to preserve an unmistakeable “Scottishness”, like the spirit of bagpipes summoned by her impressionistic use of looping harmonium drone samples, paired with the Steinway’s fleshy sustain. ’A Peak Apart’ (one of three Hall original compositions, with ‘Crear’ and ‘Lullaby For Eilidh’), sets the scene from the start, building from minimalist beginnings to an insistent motif that gradually soaks away, eased by a lulling harmonium drone.
Lonesome, windswept ‘Skye’ precedes the reedy Gaelic vocals of ‘Màiri’, whose 1965 voice recording is strikingly counterpointed by deep, rich-toned piano, before slowly melting beneath a drone echoing with distant memories of the vocal.
‘St Kilda’ is a keen distillation of place and loss, the piano washing over the central melody whilst gentle waves lap and Morse code slowly blips its distant melancholy. In contrast, ‘Lullaby For Eilidh’ is warm and tender, its hypnotic melodic curves sprinkled with delicate rills of starlight as it drifts sleepwards.
Delicate stems of melodic blooms make up ‘Crear’, Hall’s sand-dusted tribute to the album’s Argyll coast recording location. The ‘Airs’ project was conceived as a collaboration with landscape artist Beth Robertson Fiddes who attended recordings and created companion artworks, including the album’s cover. Finding common ground in their layering of traditional and contemporary elements, the pair imagined the project as a touring exhibition – but, for now, the audio recordings maintain a magnificent isolation.
A minimalist piano then heralds 87-year-old Aonghas Grant’s intensely moving fiddle part in ‘Sileas’. This vulnerable and fiercely humane performance breathes emotional honesty, even while the shape and tempo shift and the piano finally comes to rest in a pool of pure melody.
Smartly side-stepping the potential over-familiarity of final tracks, ‘Ae Fond Kiss’ and ‘The Parting Glass’, Hall instead allows each one to exhale fully into the recording space, where they emerge reinvigorated, as if refined to their core essence.
Airs is a profound and meditative affair, meticulously crafted in every detail. A thoughtful, graceful and beautiful album.
Artist website: www.mhairihall.com
‘Ae Fond Kiss’ – official video: