I am an unaccompanied singer based in Glasgow, Scotland. I sing primarily in Scots, influenced by a range of song traditions including those of Scottish Gypsy Traveller singers. My vocal style is informed by the singing of Scottish traveller Lizzie Higgins (1929-1993) in particular.
I am so excited to have been offered the commission and being supported by Counterflows to develop a new body of work. To have the enthusiasm and support of the festival behind me, and the prospect of an audience who will be up for pretty much whatever I can throw at them, is a pretty good place to start. In this blog and over the next few months I will be sharing my process and research with you to give you a sense of how and why I am playing with this traditional material.
Towards the beginning of the residency, I was invited to perform at the DCA for Seized by the Left Hand. This multifaceted project, curated by Eoin Dara and Kim McAleese (Programme Director of Grand Union, Birmingham), brought together artforms such as painting, drawing, sculpture, installation and film, with performance, poetry and writing. The exhibition at DCA also includes a curated display of artefacts from the D’Arcy Thompson Zoology Museum housed within the University of Dundee, highlighting specimens from the animal kingdom that beautifully resist normative categorisation when it comes to gender, sexuality, bonding and kinship. Seized by the Left Hand set out to champion artists, performers and writers who, much like Le Guin was, are engaged in the vital act of radical imagining: crafting alternative spaces and worlds that hint at ways in which we all might better live, love and care for one another.
Opening this show really illuminated my own process to me. The curators explored aspects of Le Guins approach which influenced the show and their thinking, and discussed her 1986 essay “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction” from the book “Dancing at the Edge of the World” (Grove Press, 1989). In “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction”, Ursula Le Guin reiterates the idea that the first tool, rather than being a weapon, was probably a vessel or bag for gathering. This “carrier bag theory” has two key hypothesis: it positions women as the earliest creators of tools, and the novel as a vessel for stories which can move beyond a hero narrative.
My process for creating new work tends to begin with gathering a whole range of material- poems, archive recordings, images, sounds, instruments, children’s rhymes, melodies and pieces of the landscape itself. Shells, bones, plants, ceramics. This is not so much a considered process but a kind of crashing through my natural encounters with the folk tradition and the context it sits in, and seeing what sticks. Le Guins essay helped me see this in the context of a wider approach to creating narratives and stories.
“If it is a human thing to do to put something you want, because it’s useful, edible, or beautiful, into a bag, or a basket, or a bit of rolled bark or leaf, or a net woven of your own hair, or what have you, and then take it home with you, home being another, larger kind of pouch or bag, a container for people, and then later on you take it out and eat it or share it or store it up for winter in a solider container or put it in the medicine bundle or the shrine or the museum, the holy place, the area that contains what is sacred, and then the next day you probably do much the same again—if to do that is human, if that’s what it takes, then I am a human being after all. Fully, freely, gladly, for the first time….”
Does it not describe perfectly the process of gathering, creating, recording, performing, sharing and saving that is inherent to the development of a repertoire of song? Hearing, hearing again,, finding, practising, reiterating, choosing the colours, shifting, recombining but ultimately bringing together.
Before setting out to achieve anything in particular, before i was performing, I developed a repertoire of stories sung from women’s perspectives. Once I started sharing this work the focus became the foundational space that women occupy in the Scots song tradition. Quinie is NE scots word meaning a quine-stane, is a cornerstone- a foundational stone of a building, as well as a woman. Le Guins essay articulates why I was drawn to song to do this – how the singers process of gathering and holding creates a net where different kinds of narratives can be.
“It’s clear that the Hero does not look well in this bag. He needs a stage or a pedestal, or a pinnacle. You put him in a bag and he looks like a rabbit, like a potato.”
Performing at DCA, December 2019. Photo by Erika Stevenson
“Like a potato”