Hollywood musician and composer Craig Armstrong has spoken of his involvement in the Ballantyne Gaelic Psalm singing project, calling it “one of the most surprising and beautiful forms of music to be created in Scotland”. He said: “It’s also music that seems to be so much part of the landscape of the Highlands and Islands.”
Ballantyne will receive its world premiere on the Isle of Lewis on Saturday night (August 27) and tickets are still available for the event, taking place in An Lanntair - http://lanntair.com/events/event/ballantyne-gaelic-psalm-composition-performance/
It is the result of a collaboration between multi-award winner Craig, who wrote the scores for films such as Moulin Rouge and The Great Gatsby, and Lewis musician, composer and tradition bearer Calum Martin, who is also an elder in the Free Church.
Craig, who is currently working on Oliver Stone’s new film Snowden, will be in Stornoway for the première and is understood to be taking members of his family with him to experience it.
Originally from Glasgow, he said it was “part of your job, as a composer living in Scotland, to be aware of the traditional music of your own country as well as seeing what international music interests you”.
He recalled becoming interested in Gaelic Psalm singing in the 1980s and going to the Scottish Music Studies Centre in Edinburgh University to buy vinyl copies of Psalm singing from Lewis. There is a personal connection too, as relatives on his mother’s side would attend church in Hilton, on the Moray Firth seaboard, where Psalm singing was part of their service.
Ballantyne is the second time Craig and Calum have collaborated on Gaelic Psalm singing and musicians from the Scottish Ensemble have been involved on both occasions. The first project was a composition called the Martyrdom Variations, which was played exclusively for guests at the Ryder Cup in 2014 and commissioned by Diageo.
As well as strings musicians from the Ensemble, Ballantyne will also feature cellist Neil Johnstone, Highland fiddle player Duncan Chisholm and 13 Psalm singers, including Calum’s daughter Isobel Ann and two Free Church ministers – Calum Iain Macleod and Iain D Campbell. It features a completely new Psalm tune, written by Calum and based on the theme of the Resurrection, with lyrics from Psalm 68.
Ballantyne will be the final piece in an evening of spiritual music from the islands, also involving other musicians and singers including Willie Campbell. A number of Psalms will be precented acapella, as they would be in church, but the strings will work with the singing in Ballantyne.
Craig admitted that, musically, “the biggest challenge was to incorporate instrumental players within a tradition that is purely vocal” — and to do so in a way “that hopefully doesn’t compromise either but creates something new”.
Having been to Lewis previously, and gone to a prayer meeting in Back where he experienced Gaelic Psalm singing in its truest setting, he added: “Meeting Calum and having personal contact with the congregation has been a wonderful and valuable experience.
“For me the Gaelic Psalm singing is without doubt one of the most interesting types of music to come out of Scotland. I think the first time anyone comes into contact with it (they are) usually very moved by its beauty and spirituality.
“It’s positive to be part of a project that helps make Gaelic Psalm singing more widely known among the general public as it’s such a special tradition.”
He added: “I feel very lucky to have met Calum and had access to his extensive knowledge on this subject. As well as working together on these projects we have become friends and I feel it’s been very special to be invited up to Lewis to be part of this ongoing process. Calum’s knowledge and enthusiasm and his ability to get the Gaelic Psalm singing heard within a wider audience throughout Scotland and the world is very, very important for the tradition to continue.”
Calum said he was “excited” about the project. “It’s a dream that I’ve had pretty much all my life. Hopefully it will raise awareness among people and hopefully they will be impressed by it. The more I listen to it, the more I love it.”