English Filmmaker, Gaelic Themes: Daniel Warren and Air Falbh Leis na h-Eòin

Rehearsals are very much in progress as I walk into the darkened Tramway 1. Sound fills the vast room. Intriguing snatches of Gaelic song, mesmeric drone and chirruping, keening avian noises are swirling and coalescing into a somehow cohesive whole. It is being performed by a small, all-female choir of singers. They are clad in black but for boldly red tights which render them appropriately birdlike. They stand at individual microphones, occasionally stock still, occasionally spreading their arms wide, and finally moving in circles as they vocalise.  And projected behind them is footage of the calm sea, seemingly from an archive, the undulating waves providing an equally mesmerising, hypnotic backdrop for this collage of sound and choreography. Then a blackout. Everything stops and the lights slowly come up. The rehearsal for that night’s performance of Air Falbh Leis na h-Eòin is over for now and I have a chance to sit down and talk to one of the collaborators on this project.

Filmmaker Daniel Warren has been, for the past fourteen years, at the helm of groundbreaking works such as Mercury (2009), an exploration of the creation of movement featuring highly kinetic slow-motion footage of dancers from the Scottish Ballet, and Whatever Gets You Through The Night (2012), made as part of a large cross-genre event celebrating Scottish musicians, songwriters, playwrights, authors and poets, and featuring such artists as Rachel Sermanni , Errors and Ricky Ross. These stylish, immersive and ambitious films, exploring the effect of environment on art and the physicality of dance and music, chime perfectly with the central theme of Air Falbh Leis na h-Eòin. It is  part of the 2013 RIP IT UP season at Tramway and an ongoing collaborative project between Warren, choreographer Rosalind Masson and musician and artist Hanna Tuulikki, who conceived the work. Air Falbh Leis na h-Eòin is a work-in-progress exploring the mimetic links between Gaelic song and birdsong, fragmenting and reshaping extracts from Gaelic songs into a soundscape that shifts and adjusts to its landscapes, plotting a connection between the Gaelic tradition and bird communities. I wanted to find out more about Warren’s take on the project and his reasons for exploring Scottish and, with this current project, Gaelic themes in his work.

 

Warren’s involvement in the project began when he embarked on an excursion to the Isle of Canna (Eilean Channaigh in Gàidhlig), in the Inner Hebrides with Tuulikki and several others. During this trip, Warren recorded a “super-8 diary” of the experience, which included a visit to the fascinating and extensive Archive of Gaelic Language, a Study Centre located in the converted old church on the island created by the island’s owner and renowned archivist, the late John Lorne Campbell. During the trip, as creative conversations, performances, choreography rehearsals and vigorous singing practise took place, Warren filmed hand-held in order to gain close, intimate access to the movements of his subjects. While there, he also worked extensively with sound recordist Geoff Sample, who recorded everything from the noise of the ferry transporting passengers to and from the island to, of course, the plethora of bird species prevalent on Canna, from gulls to oystercatchers, swallows to a lone cuckoo signalling the coming of Spring. He explained that he felt shooting on film worked better than it would have had he used digital equipment, and looking at the diary, the scratchy super-8 quality lends it a timelessness and, there’s that word again, mesmerising quality. As the singers engage in a rehearsal, their staccatto vocables combine with stunning footage of the island at dusk, the clouds violet and blue in the fading light, the moon a faint crescent. The singers stand in a circle, throwing short, keening notes at each other, with Warren’s camera constantly alert and on the move. It is a highly evocative glimpse into not only the formative creative process but how the enchanting surrounding environment helps these ideas to flower and take shape.

Air Falbh Leis na h-Eòin began, says Warren, with a strong, solid concept and idea, which he says is vital when you’re working exponentially and in a very elastic way, where fresh ideas and suggestions are constantly being explored. To this end, Warren was initially editing his footage for the Tramway performance as the singing and choreography rehearsals were taking place, his edit suite with him in the theatre. This close proximity to the music and movement of the performers helped him judge what sort of footage to use to accompany certain sections of the music and dance.

Warren’s diary and the Tramway performance are just two steps in the continuing progress of Air Falbh Leis na h-Eòin. There are at least two more trips to Canna planned, while a nine-vocalist version of “Guth an Eòin,” the central musical piece, will be debuted at Tectonics at the Old Fruitmarket on the 11th of May. Warren is also about to undertake The Nation Live, a major project for the Scottish National Portrait Gallery exhibiting not only artworks from many and varied participants on key historical moments in the nation’s history, but five short pieces of video artwork directed by Warren and focusing on the themes of “Civil War,” “Faith,” “Union,” “Roots” and “Work.”

Warren’s explanation as to why, as an English filmmaker, he feels drawn to Scottish themes in his work is straightforward. He has been living in Scotland since 1994, loves being here and will always be here. His enthusiasm for the landscape and islands of Scotland is clear, as he relates how he first became aware of them by sifting through his grandfather’s Readers Digests, and how he likens his travelling to and “collecting” islands to a climber collecting Munros.

And what of the Gaelic tradition? What has he discovered about it during his work on Air Falbh Leis na h-Eòin? He explains that one of the most thrilling moments on Canna came when he witnessed the singers rehearsing Gaelic songs with the revered Gaelic singer Mary Smith, paying attention to the enthusiasm, persistence and dedication of the singers to ensure correct phrasing and pronounciation of the words, something which as a first-language Gaelic speaker I can relate to. The Gaelic oral tradition is brought to mind not only by the manner in which the singers worked on their songs, but by the piece’s score, which Warren shows me. It is written in vocalisations rather than music.

Warren explains to me that in undertaking projects such as Air Falbh Leis na h-Eòin, he is hoping to explore notions of identity, whether in Gaelic culture or in the bird community. His work aims, in its immersive style, to passionately, responsibly and innovatively explore the myriad of factors which add up to a nation’s identity. There is no trace of cynicism or any sheen of distance in Warren’s footage. Both in his evocative video diary and accompanying footage to the Tramway performance of Air Falbh Leis na h-Eòin, Warren attempts to show that song, oral communication and physical movement, whether in the Gaelic or bird communities, are as central to the identity of the islands as the surging ocean waves, and are as woven into the fabric of the landscape as the magnificent crags and sea cliffs.

Seoras Campbell

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