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Connections to The North

In conversation with Lillie Harris


It all started in 2015.

The Royal Scottish National Orchestra had just launched a new scheme for young composers, called the Composers Hub. It was a wonderful opportunity for young composers like me, and when I heard I’d been selected, I was absolutely over the moon.

In addition to getting to work with such a prestigious orchestra and write a new orchestral piece, a big part of the draw was the location in Glasgow. The train journey up the west coast from London charmed me from the start, and travelling “Up North” became its own delight during the year. It brought back childhood memories of long car journeys to visit friends and family, waiting for the headlights to land on the road sign that read simply, “THE NORTH”. And here I was again, venturing northwards, but independently and for musical reasons this time.

As part of our time on the Composers Hub, we spent a week working with RSNO Alchemy, a contemporary ensemble of approximately sinfonietta-size, who included improvisatory styles in their practice and performance.

The extended duration of the workshops and rehearsals we spent with them that week brought the feeling of a residential course, and with fewer players than a full orchestra, it was easier to get to know each other. We also travelled a bit, including a session in Stirling – which in early January was dusted with snow, and with its scenic mountain views, made quite an impression on me.

Katherine was one of the viola players in the ensemble. Most detailed memories have been sadly lost to the mists of time now, but I remember thinking she was really nice, and being impressed by her gung-ho attitude to experimenting with sound and how musically expressive and sensitive her contributions to the ensemble were. She also chatted easily with us composers and made us feel welcome.

Then Katherine told me about the beginnings of the Nordic Viola project, and that she was planning a trip to the Shetland Islands in November: would I like to write her a piece and also come along, because I played flute and piano right? Very easy “yes” to that proposition!

Only Katherine can make these things work the way they do, I’ve ultimately concluded. She gets an idea, and makes it happen. On our Shetland trip, I was quickly struck by her hardiness, her practicality, and her ability to make friends wherever she goes: building connections and, as a result, drawing out people’s fascinating stories.

'In Conversation' - Still by Craig Sinclair

By comparison, and as a Southern lass, I had a lot to learn. But when you’re with Katherine, it all makes sense. And I learned as we went: about the place and the people, about the ferries that take people and cars the short hops between islands, about the unique character of each island; all the time doing my best to absorb the spirit of whatever was happening around me, and return it back.

Having been promised gales and rain by the poem “Blashey-wadder” by Jen Hadfield that was the inspiration for “AND”, my solo viola piece for Katherine and Nordic Viola’s first commission, we were ultimately treated to very mild weather. I was however struck by the light: how even at midday, the low angle of the sun felt like the late afternoon. It created a sense of misplaced time that added to the distinctive, sparse landscape. Much of the time, it felt like it was just me and Katherine alone with the hills.

Well, me, Katherine, and the new piece “AND”. Listening to Katherine practice it in the build up to our concerts was a compositional education. I think it’s fair to say that “AND” is not the most idiomatic work for the viola, and hearing the practice pinch points (which Katherine had already highlighted as being difficult, of course) gave me a really clear insight into the challenges posed by certain composition decisions. (Such as, violas don’t play as high as violins. Stop press!) And it was just interesting in general to hear so much of a piece I’d written in non-performance contexts, and in snippets – that’s not often how composers hear our work.

I left our Shetland trip with a milder version of the Northern Bug that had caught Katherine, and firmly of the opinion that Katherine was amazing and a wonderful friend to have.

Filming the Creation of 'Elsewhen'

The following year, 2017, I attended the St Magnus Composers Course in Orkney. Having heard good things before, I was now even more drawn by the location after my experience in Shetland. As I like composing to specific briefs anyway, it made sense to research Orkney for inspiration for my main piece on the course.

What struck me (although I’m far from alone) was the sheer weight of history: all manner of people leaving distinctive and sophisticated marks on the landscape over thousands of years. I was drawn to the image of people deliberately making these circles and monuments – using human skills, co-operation, and creativity – but we can possibly never be sure why.

So I wrote “Elsewhen” to express these ideas and feelings: the gulf of time that is tangible when you are faced with a man-made object or building that’s older than you can really comprehend, and yet still utterly recognisably human. The sense that these ancient people could be us, just else-when.

In the piece, eery melodic phrases gradually emerge from tiny snippets into longer and more solidly-formed patterns. I wanted this to feel like whispers growing into clear speech, or the general sense of clarity you can get from really looking at something for a long time. But the more dramatic moment near the end, with block chords getting faster and faster, suggests that there might well be darker, frightening sides to the past.

Katherine came to the St Magnus festival that year and to our concert. Not that she ever really needs much excuse to come northwards! And she liked “Elsewhen” from then, and has kept the idea in mind to do a Nordic Viola version – for which I’m incredibly grateful and touched. It also happily makes thematic sense for much of her programming interests!

Katherine at the Stones of Stenness

When the time came to record “Elsewhen” for Sagas and Seascapes, unfortunately the Covid situation meant I wasn’t able to attend in person, but I wasn’t concerned really: I knew Katherine understood the piece and was working with sensitive and capable players. The resulting recording proved that faith well-founded! It’s an amazing performance, evoking everything I’d hoped for.

And then the icing, cherry, and also sprinkles on the cake was our trip to Orkney all together as the Sagas and Seascapes team in July 2021 – a whole year ago already! Thanks to Katherine’s dedication and planning, we were all able to travel to Orkney to do on-site filming at important sites for all of our pieces, and after lockdown this was a real treat. It included walking around Maeshowe, which was amazing to have permission to do. I’d not heard of Maeshowe before first visting Orkney, but it really stands out as capturing in one place all the things I find so interesting about Orkney’s historical sites: the entrance way lines up with the winter solstice sun, so that it lights up the burial chamber; layered stones make up the walls, to an unusually great height; and Viking graffiti etched into the stones gives us an insight into the minds of young lads, bored whilst waiting for a storm to pass.

Maybe we’re not so different after all…

Spot Gemma McGregor at Maes Howe

To View Lillie's full folio please visit:

We are so excited to screen the film with live music for the first time in Edinburgh and hope to welcome you there from 15th-17th August at 8:30pm.

You can book tickets here.

There will be a relaxed performance on 17th August which also has audio description and social distancing. If you can’t make it to Edinburgh, then the original digital show will screen from the Scottish Storytelling Centre’s website at 7pm on 18th August, followed by a zoom Q & A with the creators at 8:30pm.

Lillie Harris, composer of Elsewhen


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