Sølvstrøk (Silverstroke) is an ambitious album. Sarah-Jane Summers and Juhani Silvola are already a widely acclaimed duo, but Sarah-Jane has long dreamed of ‘super sizing’ their music to an orchestral level. Seeing a performance by Oslo Chamber Orchestra led to Sarah-Jane and Juhani writing for and playing with them. From there came the suggestion of forming a new chamber orchestra, including traditional as well as classical musicians. Sølvstrøk is not only the name of the album, but also of the new orchestra, consisting of six fiddles, two violas, two cellos and a double base.
Sarah-Jane is a leading Scottish fiddler, playing on the Highland style. Silvola is a Finnish/Norwegian guitarist, and a successful composer of modern electro-acoustic music. Based in Oslo, their fusion of Scottish and Norwegian music is combined here with both classical harmonies and contemporary sequences, which add an Avant Gard touch. Each of the ten tracks start with a single tune – five self-composed and five traditional – which Sarah-Jane and Juhani have recomposed and developed into complex new arrangements.
‘Song for Alastair’ was written for Sarah-Jane’s and Juhani’s son, telling of a day in the life of a lively toddler. Unsurprisingly, this makes for a complex piece, with high octane and sleepy sequences interspersing with each other. The subject of the tune requires changes in key and tempo, but these are one of the recurring features of this album. Another of these, that appears on this track, is a sequence of multiple fiddles playing together, made possible by the presence of six fiddlers as well as Sarah-Jane herself.
‘Number 81’ is so called because this tune was that number in The Patrick McDonald Collection, published in 1784. This is a quick dance tune, lead off by the fiddles before a more restrained middle section slows it down. The dance tempo returns at the end.
A slow and melancholic fiddle solo opens the next track, which is surprising for a tune called ‘Christmas Day I Da Mornin’. As the orchestra joins in a more cheerful feeling develops, but in a stately rather than jolly way. There is no hint of sleigh bells here, but that’s not such a bad thing, as this is an atmospheric and beautiful track. Another feature of the album – a sequence of plucked strings – leads into another rather sombre sequence before the mood lightens at the end. The original tune is attributed to Fredamann Stickle, a legendary Shetland fiddler who is said to have played it for the Laird of Burness and Unst every Christmas morning.
‘Owerset II’ opens with a lively sequence featuring a fiddle accompanied by Juhani’s acoustic guitar. The melody has a hint of the Medieval and is recognisably less Celtic than its predecessors. ‘Owerset II’ is, in fact, a Norwegian/Scottish pols (a traditional Norwegian dance in 4/3 time). It was composed by Sarah-Jane as part of a Celtic Connections New Voices commission in 2018. The track includes the first contemporary music sequence containing some discordant elements.
A hauntingly beautiful fiddle solo opens ‘Morning Prayer’. Plucked strings join in and supply accompaniment while the fiddle moves through some more discordant sequences, before the unmistakeably Scottish feel of the opening returns. The sleeve notes tell us that the prayer was answered.
Three shorter tacks follow, starting with ‘Donald Morrison’, a driving dance tune of the Strathspey variety. Of all the tracks on Sølvstrøk, and I found this to have the most classical and orchestral sound. ‘Owerset I’ follows. Played on three fiddles, this is another Norwegian dance tune from Sarah-Jane’s New Voices commission.
Mozart never got around to composing any Scottish dance tunes, which is a shame because the opening of ‘Miss Mary MacDonald’ is borrowed from his 25th Symphony, and fits perfectly. This is a short but complex arrangement of a dance tune taken from the Athole Collection of 1884. It opens with a lively dance rhythm, from which develops a more sombre ending, with the double bass prominent.
Recreating the Western Isles tradition of Gaelic psalm singing in an instrumental piece, might seem impossible. After all, its haunting intensity is rooted in unaccompanied singing. That though, is what Sarah-Jane attempts to do in ‘Call and Response’ = and she succeeds brilliantly. The track’s title comes from the ‘Lining Out’ singing style. The Precentor sings a line, then the congregation responds. Sarah-Jane’s arrangement recreates this with a solo fiddle acting as Precentor, and a group of fiddles as the congregation. She captures not only the cadence of psalm singing, but also the fragility of the human voice. The track moves into another contemporary sequence, which might seem incongruous, but somehow the spirit of psalm singing is never lost. Really, I think this is a hugely impressive track, and I doubt that I’ve done it justice. Well worth a listen!
Another complex arrangement closes the album. ‘In Dispraise Of Whisky’ might not sound like much fun, but it has plenty to enjoy. Guitar, cello and double bass lead off, before the fiddles strike up a lively dance tune. The middle section has a contemporary, sometimes discordant feel, with more than a hint of jazz. The dance tune returns to bring things to a close.
Sølvstrøk is a serious album. I don’t mean that it’s in any way dull – there’s plenty of life and fun here – but in the complexity of the arrangement and its ambition. Ambition requires talent to pull it off, but Sarah-Jane and Johani have plenty of that. Add a group of top class supporting musicians, and the result is a very fine album
There is a strong element of classical cross over, but it always feels fresh, original and contemporary. Sølvstrøk is an album that reveals more and more with careful repeated listening. It works fine as background while doing the house work, but to really appreciate it sit back, turn the phone off and take it all in.
‘Owerset’ – live: