I’ll be honest about it: the music of Duncan Chisholm (SCO) was one of my keys to the realm of Celtic folk and trad when I first got excited about this stuff . So I’ll try to avoid the trap of hero worship in these next lines 😉
Duncan’s background and education in the Scottish fiddle are a great story in themselves; luckily, he told that tale in warm and colorful detail recently in fellow fiddler Adam Sutherland’s podcast so you can listen to Duncan telling his story and sharing his thoughts on music right here.
He’s had a long and busy career as a session player, former member in Blazin Fiddles, Wolfstone and Runrig, composer and solo artist. The solo albums are now six and the number of collaborations and guest spots on leading Celtic artists’ recordings and gigs is huge. For practical reasons, I will concentrate on the solo work and his style.
If among the leading Scottish contemporary fiddlers Alasdair Fraser is the globe-hopping, genre-mixing grand master, Bruce MacGregor the fiery Highlands emissary and Adam Sutherland the guy with the jazz-funky groove, Duncan Chisholm is the elegant romantic and consummate composer, even in his more energetic moments.
That’s not to say his music is saccharine or mundane – quite the opposite, it’s most life-affirming and alive. The slow airs and his most lyrical pieces like Lady Ramsay, Rubha Nam Marbh, Night In That Land or A Precious Place are simply stunning in their deep humanity and translucent beauty. They rise from the Scottish musical landscape but bear the soul and mark of the artist.
If I had to find a reference outside Celtic music, I’d point to some of Ennio Morricone’s most heart-stopping slow pieces. The style may be a bit different but deep down I feel there’s a similar emotional current.
As for the uptempo and often also band-backed part of his output, it’s interesting to notice how many electric instruments and synths there are on his recordings – they are so cleverly integrated into the soundscape, you don’t necessarily notice them at all; it took me ages to realize how many of his recordings feature an electric guitar… The arrangements are so precise the elements fully support and enrich each other and the faster tunes usually come with a rounded, nice groove I really like.
As I’m no fiddler myself, I can’t properly describe Duncan’s fiddle style and it’s details, but the feeling I get from it is “singing” – the instrument seems to have a voice to tell stories with, and in this respect I think he and Alasdair F. resemble each other.
On earlier albums his fiddle tone was clear, warm and very finely articulated but on his so far latest album, the multi-awarded masterpiece Sandwood, the sound is just a bit rougher and I think that’s intentional; I believe the fiddle was miked very close up and you can hear every scratch and contact when the bow touches the strings. Also, the album on the whole has more punch to it than its predecessors so the grittier sound fits the tunes perfectly. It’s great studio work and brings his playing as close to the listener as possible, with his person as an artist really coming through.
To summarize: Duncan Chisholm takes his musical roots and from that landscape, creates timeless music that’s personal, compassionate, superbly performed and arranged. That’s as much as I could wish for from any musician in any genre.
Duncan Chisholm on the Web: