Over the next year, National Collective Tradyes will feature traditional artists to highlight and showcase the creativity and talent in the world of trad arts in Scotland today. Our first featured member is composer Mike Vass, currently on tour with his festive and timely ‘DecemberWell’ project.
Mike is a talented multi-instrumentalist and performer, regarded as one of Scotland’s finest fiddle players. Not only recognised as a celebrated performer, his adventures in composing have gained him a fast-growing reputation as one of Scotland’s foremost tunesmiths. Very recently, Mike wrote and performed the soundtrack for Gavin Robinson’s ‘Hart’s Desire’ animation, which received a Scottish Bafta in November this year.
Mike is also in demand as an experienced tutor and teacher, much loved by an ever-growing generation of younger trad players in Scotland. For Mike, education is absolutely vital to the growing confidence and flourishing of society. He talks to us here about his vision for Scotland’s future and his reasons for joining National Collective.
I support independence for many reasons. A smaller, more focused government will be far better placed to transform education. I believe education to be at the very heart of a successful and thriving country and I feel our current system lets a huge proportion of our citizens down badly. While education is a devolved issue, our inability to raise taxes or change fiscal policy means we don’t have the power we need to invest in education or to address issues of inequality or access. For example, we should be able to provide free music tuition for every single child, or grown-up! We must nourish creativity and feed imaginations.
“The ethos of National Collective is very appealing to me. Their detachment from party politics means they speak for a much broader community than those currently holding the reins of power. The simple invitation to ‘imagine a better future’ is a powerful call, and very human. As human beings we must strive to imagine better, to make things better. Imagination is a thing inherent in childhood but tends to fade as we age. In order to create, we have to try and keep the spark of imagination alive. Because the future is always uncertain, why not approach it with a positive optimism? That is why I support National Collective: their positive and inspiring contribution to the pro-independence campaign is invaluable.”
“As a composer and musician, I am constantly striving for self-improvement. I practice all the time. Even if progress is incremental, I still find getting that bit more out of my instrument – or myself – very satisfying. I consider myself a life-long learner, always searching for new ideas. I draw a huge amount of inspiration from literature and find that new books (well, new to me!) directly inspire and inform my musical output. Perhaps this is just a good excuse to count reading for pleasure as part of my working life!”
One of Mike’s finest and celebrated compositions is a haunting, moving piece inspired by the psychiatrist Viktor Frankl’s acclaimed book, Man’s Search for Meaning, which was played at the Frankl’s commemorative birthday service at the Frankl Institute in Vienna. The book itself chronicles Frankl’s experiences as an Auschwitz concentration camp inmate during World War II. “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” Frankl’s method for survival and philosophy for living was to identify a purpose in life to feel positively about, and then to immersively imagine that outcome. Powerful stuff.
From the microcosm of human experience to the truly universal, Mike’s album String Theory was inspired by the search for an all-encompassing ‘super string theory,’ according to which elementary particles are likened to the notes sounded by a violin string under varying tension. The poetic imagination in Vass united the elements of his own creative universe for his 2010 Celtic Connections ‘New Voices’ commission. The result was an ambitious collaborative performance and one of the most thoughtful and thought-provoking commissions Celtic Connections has seen to date.
Mike’s most recent solo composition effort is the wonderfully wintery DecemberWell album. Inspired by the Scottish winter, this is a kaleidoscopic and experimental instrumental journey to the cold North. The music, both cheerful and melancholic, evokes ice, hail and snow; twinkly frost, long dark nights, ancient burial sites, magical Christmas fairy lights and hot mince pies. Released last year to rave reviews, his innovative craftsmanship won Mike the prestigious ‘Composer of the Year’ accolade at the MG Alba Scots Trad Music Awards in 2012.
The DecemberWell project was a challenge I set myself, all written and recorded over the month of December 2011. Between October and December, I built up a small yet robust mobile recording studio. While my last album ‘String Theory’ was very much a collaborative effort, this was a truly solitary process. Each sound on the recording is either an acoustic instrument (fiddle, piano, melodica to glockenspiel, acoustic and tenor guitars), or an original sound sample captured during December. I invented a new guitar tuning, DECEBE, which I use on several tracks. I documented the compositional process by way of a daily video log. I had a daily deadline for a month, and it really made me work – I wrote and recorded bits of music each day and somehow pulled it altogether!”
December has always held a great fascination for me. It’s amazing that in such a dark, cold and often bleak month, we celebrate with some of our warmest, light-filled festivals. The simple beauty of winter is the backdrop for cherished reunions with family and old friends and the celebration of our shared history and culture. In this album I wanted to explore these ideas instrumentally and tried to capture the widely differing, magical, aspects of December.”
Mike takes his sounds of the Scottish winter on tour throughout Scotland this December, along with younger sister Fi Vass and fellow previous Composer of the Year Award winner Mairearad Green
Thursday 12th December – The Acoustic Music Club – Kirkcaldy – 7.30pm
Friday 13th December – The Ceilidh Place – Ullapool – 9pm
Saturday 14th December – The Sailing Club – Nairn – 7.30pm
Wednesday 18th December – Folklub – Glasgow – 8.00pm
Friday 20th December – Concert window live web stream – 8.00pm
Mike has also turned his hand at producing and in 2014 he will be launching his new record label and live arts production company, Unroofed Records.