Five years ago a special commission from the Celtic Connections Festival in Glasgow gave Shetland’s “fiddle queen” Catriona MacDonald the opportunity to realize a dream: To assemble some of the world’s leading female fiddlers and create a powerhouse performance of world music aimed at showcasing the enchantment and vitality of this music – while sweeping the audience off their feet.
Thus String Sisters saw the light of day, and those fortunate enough to witness their premiere performance were introduced to a whole new dimension of live fiddle music and artistry.
The six sisters are all among the absolute leading proponents of their traditions and styles, each enjoying the highest acclaim in their respective homelands, as well as by the international world music audience. Therefore, it was no less then a female all-star group that was established.
The Glasgow concert was a great success and the project was rebooked for the following year. However, despite the repeated success, the Sisters have not since been able to reunite prior to undertaking a grand tour of Norway in February this year.
In relation to this tour and the renewed activity in its wake – including a live record as well as more tours planned – we spoke with String Sisters’ Norwegian member, the fiddler, “string magician” and world musician Annbjørg Lien.
“I was deeply honoured when I was invited to join the project back in 2000,” Lien says. “Because I knew all of the other members from before, I knew what they stood for, their level of musicianship, the status each enjoyed, and therefore that it really was a very special and unprecedented constellation of musicians that was being put together. But the true thrill of it, and the deepest value for me personally, was not the partaking of something remarkable happening on stage, but the great privilege it was to be initiated into different traditions and cultures through some of these traditions’ absolute leading voices.”
Lien continues, saying, “I think that String Sisters in reality is a meeting of cultures, as the musical interplay is in fact a manifestation of both a wider and deeper cultural dynamic: The meeting of languages, values and worldviews, and not least of individuals. With the Sisters, this dynamic takes place between personalities – strong and immensely vital representatives of different traditions and cultures, and for me this personal dynamic is an enduring source of great inspiration and insight.”
The traditions in question are the ones belonging to Shetland/Scotland, Ireland, Ireland/America and Scandinavia. Lien belongs, of course, to the latter, while the other sisters, in addition to Catriona MacDonald from Shetland, include Liz Carroll and Liz Knowles from America, Mairead ni Mhaonaigh (from the acclaimed Irish folk-band Altan) and Emma Härdelin from Sweden. Härdelin has taken the place of original member Natalie MacMaster from Canada.
As many people are aware, these traditions share traits both musically and otherwise due to geographical nearness, common history and political/commercial interaction. They are far from alien to one another, yet with sufficient differences to make their coming together a true meeting, with the unpredictability such a meeting presents.
Lien comments, saying, “We all knew each other and each other’s tradition beforehand, something that in a way was a condition for the project because a prolonged period of ‘exploration’ was never an alternative. Working with top musicians from styles that you are acquainted with gives everyone a feeling of security and ease – this also limits the time needed for rehearsal and pre-production.”
But how do the String Sisters chose what songs to do? “With such a shared foundation of familiarity, the challenge is to introduce tunes that stand out, and this is indeed how we decide the repertoire. We operate with a ‘flat structure’ where everyone contributes equally,” Lien explains. “Thanks to the professionalism of the group, we don’t need much time to realize what is going to work and what isn’t. And much of the material is the same anyway, because this is a project aimed at maximising the audience’s experience of an easily accessible, energetic and fun concert. String Sisters do not come together to explore new expressions and pursue onstage innovation. On the contrary, our act is carefully planned, and its aim is to share with our audience the synergy of both our personalities and traditions. This works especially when select tunes stand out with a uniqueness that our common background allows. We choose the tunes based on what we know works; i.e., a core repertoire, but also in accordance with where we are playing.”
This entailed that for last winter’s tour of Norway the Scandinavian aspect was somewhat ”beefed up.” The tour of Norway was in cooperation with the Norwegian National Concerts (a governmental culture institution) and the record company Grappa and comprised of seven shows across the country, including a special concert in the newly rebuilt (after a fire) Drammen theatre. This concert had been pre-selected to be recorded and filmed. The tour was Annbjørg Lien’s initiative.
“Bringing the String Sisters together for a tour of my home country naturally made me a host of sorts; to the members of the group, but also in relation to the audiences, in that we were presenting the project for the first time to all those interested in this kind of music in Norway,” she says. “As a function of the latter, the Scandinavian element was a bit more prominent than usual, both in the choice of tunes and in bringing along Emma Härdelin, who also sings and is a great representative of Swedish and Scandinavian folk music.”
“Since all the members of the ensemble are major musicians in their homelands and on their respective domestic scenes, they are all used to capacity crowds at their concerts. So I was pretty nervous regarding the turnout and reception in Norway and the whole ‘Norwegian experience,’ as such,” Lien admits. “Luckily the weather was on its best behaviour and we had two weeks of blue skies, even in the far north. I have never before experienced such sparkly winter weather, and the members of the band were absolutely thrilled. All the shows were sold out and the response was simply overwhelming, so I was relieved and very, very happy. Not least for the concert in Drammen, which was just as good as we had dared hope in advance, as it was being recorded and also filmed in a six-camera DVD production. And I have just finished the mixing and post production of the record, and I’m happy to say that the result is superb.”
There is still some uncertainty regarding the material’s release since there are plans for both an EP and an LP. In addition, there is the issue of releasing music in several different countries, namely the home markets of each of the Sisters.
Lien explains, saying, “The Norwegian tour and the live recordings mark the start of a whole new level of activity for the Sisters. The plan now is to tour each of our home countries and release the record in relation to each tour. This entails a prolonged schedule that extends several years into the future. It might also be an option to customize the record to the market in question. These are matters that have yet to be resolved. However, now that we have made a decision to intensify our level of activity, it does not really worry us too much exactly when things will happen. All of us feel very confident in the project and are set on gradually realizing the huge potential in our kind of music and our special constellation.”
Lien has very specific ideas about world music in general, saying, “I’d like to make a point of the amount of attention that is given to world music internationally, because in Norway it is still somewhat neglected. The idea of world music is the essence of what we are doing in String Sisters; i.e., deeply rooted and geographically distinct folk music brought to an international stage and there blended and contrasted with equal expression from other traditions. The magnitude of this phenomenon and the size of the international market is something I’m afraid a lot of Norwegian folk musicians are oblivious to. This must be remedied because the well being of world music as an international dynamic depends on the vitality of folk music in the homelands and home markets – on the number of new musicians appearing on the scene, their level of musicianship and most of all, their desire and ability to go beyond the traditional musical context and bring their distinct heritage and tradition out, in interaction with the world.” She continues, saying, “I think recognizing international potential is instrumental in making musicians stick with traditional expressions. I see signs of very positive developments in Norway with a lot of new, highly professional musicians entering the scene. And I feel certain that String Sisters will continue to be at the forefront of world music in its north Atlantic version, giving audiences injections of musical energy and entertainment, and hopefully helping folk musicians to see the potential in their traditional expressions.”
Annbjørg Lien, Follk musician, Violinist