Tag Archives: Wigtown Book Festival

Songs from the Last Page

Wigtown Book Festival

Although not quite to the dispiriting extent that afflicted some fine work in the rebranded Festival of Brexit, “Unboxed”, Scotland’s Year of Stories 2022 has been one of those arts initiatives that has never really grabbed the public imagination, however fine its aims. It has, admittedly, been a tricky year in which to make an impact.

Some projects look to have legs though, and Scotland-domiciled Irish composer Gareth Williams’s Songs From the Last Page is one – a constantly evolving song cycle that has been bringing musical performance to book festivals across the country throughout the year.

He’s a most engaging raconteur, and Williams has honed the explanation of his music winningly. He sings and plays the (electric) piano, with SCO violinist Aisling O’Dea and cellist Justyna Jablonska completing his trio. The concept is self-explanatory: he sets words from the last page of books, mostly novels and mostly Scottish.

He began with Andrew Greig’s At the Loch of the Green Corrie and – after checking in with that author for permission (about which he has an amusing story in itself) – ran with the idea from there. With support from Chamber Music Scotland, Williams’s song-writing has become a literary journey that takes in contemporary fiction as well as the classics, the texts often remarkable for the allusions and references to other works in the Scottish literary canon.

Truth to tell, he often plays fast and loose with the words on the pages in pursuit of the structure of the song. More precious writers might bridle at his repetitions and re-ordering of their carefully-crafted sentences. Most, however, will be flattered by his attentions, resulting in a form he describes as “literary chamber pop” and which has echoes of the work of Randy Newman at times, while the string arrangements do a lot of the work in taking his melodies towards the classical side of things.

There is a continuity of style throughout the set, and although the set-list is revised for each performance, certain songs have become staples by virtue of their transparent success. Those include Ali Smith’s How To Be Both (although whether he has set your last page of that book depends on whether you read it the same way he did), and the end of Alasdair Gray’s Lanark, which seems to have set a template for some other pieces.

There are less obvious choices in there too – although all are served with a tasty explanation for their presence – including Ely Percy’s Duck Feet and Ross Sayers’ Sonny and Me, and the composer’s challenge to himself to write an appropriate song for each recital produced an excellent addition for Wigtown, using the latest book by local bookseller-memoirist Shaun Bythell, Remainders of the Day.

In this session, however, it was the classics that impressed most: Sunset Song, with its quote from Flowers o’ the Forest in the strings, Treasure Island and its “Pieces of Eight” refrain, and the Tinkerbell-evoking pizzicato arrangement for a very selective choice of last paragraph from Peter Pan.

Keith Bruce

Songs from the Last Page are next heard at Portobello Book Festival on Friday, September 30 and Findhorn Bay Arts Festival on Sunday, October 2.

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