By Cristina Schreil
A duo known for their deep exploration of Scottish music is expanding overseas. Highlighting links between multiple cultures, fiddler Alasdair Fraser and cellist Natalie Haas perform tunes on their latest album, Ports of Call, that originate in Scandinavia, France, and Spain, taking their listeners on an auditory journey around the North Atlantic.
The travel imagery is an intentional nod to the time the pair spends touring and at fiddle camps, immersing themselves in myriad fiddle dialects. Haas describes the project as a split between original compositions—a new focus—and European dance tunes. (Of course, there’s still some Scottish music sprinkled in.) Fraser and Haas have been a team for 18 years, and say this album mirrors the stage they’ve entered in their musical journey.
“In the beginning I think we were just exploring what the cello can do in this music and we were playing a lot of more common session tunes and trad stuff, and just high-energy, kind of raucous tunes,” Haas says. “Now we’re getting more into the sophistication of arrangement and composition and creating larger-form pieces.” They recorded in three sessions over a year-and-three-month period, starting in Glasgow in 2015. “It’s hard to find time to be creative when you’re on the road as much as we are,” Haas adds. “It’s a very long and gradual, organic process.”
Speaking from her Boston home—she’s an associate professor at the Berklee College of Music—Haas delves into the multicultural celebration at
the heart of the album.
You cover a lot of ground in Ports of Call, but the first track acknowledges your duo’s Scottish roots. Why begin there?
The song has this amazing humanitarian message: “Freedom Come All Ye.” For people who know the song and what it’s about—and hopefully some of that comes across in the liner notes—it’s this amazing message of freedom for everyone across the planet. That’s really important, especially to Alasdair as a Scot, someone who’s struggling for independence. I also think it’s just a beautiful melody. My friends and I refer to it as one of those “triumph-of-the-human-spirit” types of melodies. Scottish music is full of that.
How did the album’s concept come together?
Well, this is kind of what we do in a way. We spend our lives traveling and are lucky to get to spend a lot of time in Europe and Australia. Unfortunately, I haven’t really been to more exotic areas of the globe yet but we know that these places share a love of the fiddle. We’ve had so many international teachers come to our fiddle camps and share their culture and musical dialects with us. This is kind of a celebration of all of that—diversity and the similarities and differences of our fiddle-loving cultures across the planet. But, we’re mostly concentrating on Europe and the North Atlantic for this one, just because that’s sort of what we’ve encountered the most in our own journey.
I still love [Scottish music] of course and we will always play that music, but we also love listening to and playing the music from these other cultures. That was really important to us, especially in these crazy political times,
to really celebrate reaching hands across the planet to our fellow humans. You know, celebrating the similarities between people.
What’s your composition process like?
I have three of my own tunes on here and I don’t actually write that many tunes. I’m usually more involved in the arrangement process and I love that. Generally, in our duo, one of us will bring a melody to the table—it can be one of our own, something from another culture, or a Scottish tune that we’ve loved for years—and then we will sort of break it apart and see what we can do with it. The person who brings it might have more- or less-shaped ideas coming into it. Or it might just be a bare melody on its own and we have to play it a lot and come up with how we can trade roles and what might work behind it. We went into the recording studio not having a clear vision for the album, but when we decided, “OK, we’ve got to make this into something,” then we knew we needed more material, so we both began at that point to write more.
Do some tracks travel to several places within themselves?
Alasdair has one—I wouldn’t call it a fiddle tune because it’s kind of all over the place—called “Keeping Up with Christine,” which he wrote for his sister. It has melodic elements in it but it travels to all these different places. It starts out in sort of a swingy place and then it goes to sort of a Middle Eastern kind of place and then maybe an Indian, almost Bollywood, kind of groovy thing. We’re really trying to push the limits and see what we can do, see where we can go, and not stay in the traditional AABB, twice-through, three-times-through fiddle tunes.
What’s your favorite track?
I think actually for both of us our favorite track turned out to be one of mine, [“Waltska for Su-a”] which I wrote for one of my friends, Su-a Lee, who is a fantastic cellist. She lives in Scotland and plays classical music but is a great friend to a lot of people in the trad-music scene. She wanted to get more into the kind of playing that I do, so she came and lived with me and my husband for two weeks in Montreal (where I used to live), and I wrote that tune while she was there. I was sort of sequestered off in my room while she was practicing, feeling guilty that I wasn’t practicing myself [laughs] so I gave myself a task to write something. And that piece came out—the first of its kind I know of: the “Waltska.”
I don’t know if that’s been done before but I really enjoyed writing it and I love the key of C minor. It works so well on the cello. And I love Swedish music and waltzes so it’s all the things I love in one place, in one package.
Speaking of Swedish music—how do you go about transitioning into that dialect from Scottish idioms?
It’s similar in the fact that it’s dance music. They play a lot more in three there, a lot of polskas. Scottish music tends to be more 2/4 and 6/8—reels and jigs and strathspeys—so just getting your head around that as somebody who’s grown up in the common time takes getting used to. But I love it. It’s got this amazing, beautiful flow and a darkness that you don’t find so much in Scottish music. It’s hard to verbalize what it is that attracts me to it, but that’s probably what I listen to the most: Swedish, Norwegian, and Finnish music. We play some of each of those cultures on this album. They’re close in a lot of ways; they all play polskas and marches and waltzes. Norwegians have the Halling dance. Some of the dances will be different from country to country.
The ornamentation is kind of a funny thing because we’re both coming at it as people who are very grounded in the Scottish tradition. We’re playing these tunes with our own accent, so it might not be 100 percent accurate—I hate to use that word. We’re coming at it as people who have spent a lot of time with musicians from that culture and have also done a lot of listening. We have absorbed a lot of their dialects via osmosis but we’re probably still sounding like ourselves. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that necessarily.
In post-production, is it harder to say that a track is done when it’s your composition?
Harder definitely. [Laughs.] That whole process can drag on and on and on, and I am particularly picky and a perfectionist. Alasdair had to pull the plug on me at some point and say, “Enough is enough, it could be better, but this is a representation of who we are and we don’t want it to be 100 percent perfect.” Those kinds of albums are not the ones that stick with you, I think. I care a lot about things like intonation and stuff and he’s more interested in the larger picture so we’re a good foil for one another in terms of the post-production process. We agonized over all of that for a while, but at some point, you just have to cut yourselves off and birth it out into the world.
Any goals to expand beyond the North Atlantic and explore other world music in the future?
Absolutely, yeah! We’re loving this direction and want to explore more for sure. It’ll kind of depend on who we meet in our travels and what we get exposed to, so we’ll see.