Ninian’s Gift

Wigtown Book Festival

The opening night of this year’s virtual Wigtown Book Festival was delivered in song. In a nod to Galloway’s very own Saint Ninian, author and poet Alexander McCall Smith penned a characteristically pithy text inspired by the 4th century saint and other Scots saints, some of it based on fact, some of it the product of McCall Smith’s infinitely colourful inventiveness. We even experienced an encounter with the Loch Ness monster.

The musical dimension by Edinburgh composer Tom Cunningham, cast in the block fashion of a song cycle, featured a beautifully homogenous a cappella vocal quartet, Zoom-style, from Napier University under the musical direction of Michael Harris. A backdrop narrative, scenic filmscapes, lent depth to the visual experience. The work is called Ninian’s Gift.

It was in Cunningham’s gift to provide simple, unfussy settings, which he has done with honesty, complete lack of pretension, though perhaps a little too much repetition. In a contemporary modal style initiated by simple plainsong – where better to start with this subject matter? – and with the ensuing sequence of short, sharp choral commentaries, much in the vein of ecclesiastical responses, their dramatic impact lies somewhere between those German Passions of Schutz or Bach and the Greek chorus style of, say, Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex.

What its creators now need to do, when permitted, is transfer this to a live scenario, with the spoken links more engagingly articulated (maybe by a separate actor rather than the singers who were visibly reading their script), and the music better integrated in the produced visual sense. That way, Ninian’s Gift can be fully appreciated.
Ken Walton