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Live seaside performance of music and poetry inspired by whale song ‘with seagulls and wind as additional soundtrack’

Poet Lesley Harrison has worked with musicians to create Whale Song, which premieres at Arbroath fish market on August 8.
Poet Lesley Harrison has worked with musicians to create Whale Song, which premieres at Arbroath fish market on August 8.

A unique live performance of music and poetry inspired by whale song premieres at Arbroath fish market on Sunday August 8. Gayle Ritchie finds out more.

It’s a bold project that has grown out of poet Lesley Harrison’s obsession with whales and the sea.

So it’s fitting that Whale Song, a new collaborative performance of live music and poetry inspired by the marine mammals, will have its first show in Arbroath’s fish market.

“It’ll be a real thrill to be performing ‘in situ’ – right at the edge of the ocean,” enthuses Auchmithie-based Lesley.

“We’ll be surrounded by the sea on three sides and have seagulls and wind as an additional soundtrack.”

The performance is the culmination of many months of virtual meet-ups and rehearsals between Lesley, Katherine Wren, a viola player with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, and Alex South, a clarinettist and composer with the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.

Viola player Katherine Wren.

The concept of Whale Song first started to take shape two years ago, after Lesley watched Katherine perform at a Nordic Viola event in Shetland.

“Her set was a series of traditional and modern pieces, exploring the culture and soundscapes of the North Atlantic,” recalls Lesley.

“She was performing with Gemma MacGregor, an Orkney musician and composer. The music was incredibly evocative, and so beautiful.

“One of the pieces was Emily Doolittle’s ‘Social Sounds from Whales at Night’. I just had to speak to Katherine after the set. I couldn’t believe how closely our interests – obsessions! – overlapped.”


Dunblane-based Katherine, who founded the ensemble Nordic Viola in 2016 as a vehicle to explore the music and soundscapes of the coastlines and archipelagos of the North Atlantic – had already been contacted by Alex who lives in Glasgow.

His PhD research and compositions focused on the ethnomusicology of humpback whale song and, having heard Katherine’s music, he was desperately keen to work with her.

It was as if the stars had aligned and the trio agreed to get together to create something special.

Alex South, clarinettist and zoomusicologist.

As a starting point, Lesley sent Katherine and Alex copies of her poetry collection, Disappearance.

It’s set around the North Atlantic rim and is about the proximity of the horizon beyond which we vanish.

She then sent them an earlier collection, Beyond the Map, which follows the route of the east coast whalers up to the Northern Isles and into the polar seas.

“This was just to see where our common interests might lie, but straight away Katherine and Alex started to compose and improvise around some of the poems,” says Lesley.

“We had such strong shared thematic interests and it was great to see how we developed these within our own specialisms.

“For me as a non-musician, it was so interesting to listen to their discussions – and such a privilege to be part of their creative process. A real gift.

“Quite quickly, it became apparent that we would be able to produce something that could be shared with the world! So we decided, as our first ‘gig’, to apply to be part of the Arbroath 2020 cultural festival, marking the 700th anniversary of the Declaration of Arbroath.”

This is now Arbroath 2020+1 – all events were postponed for a year due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The delay hasn’t been a problem for the trio – far from it.

“The music and poetry have evolved over this time, so it’s quite a different set to the one we would have performed in August 2020,” says Lesley.

Spectogram of humpack song – beginning of score by Alex South.

During lockdown, Alex and Katherine exchanged recordings and improvisations through software platforms and had regular Zoom catch-ups to discuss how these could be developed.

Lesley joined in to suggest how to integrate her poetry and spoken voice. More recently they had a couple of “very careful” socially distanced rehearsals.

Music and poetry interwoven

“The programme is a blend of some of my poems from Disappearance, and traditional and newly composed music performed by Alex and Katherine,” explains Lesley.

“The music will weave through the spoken word. Alex and Katherine improvised and composed a musical response to a poem about a whale’s singing, and a longer poem based on John McClintock’s journal of the hunt for the missing Franklin expedition.” (In 1848, the Franklin expedition’s two ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, disappeared with all their crew while searching for the Northwest Passage.)

The music includes sounds recorded on location in Greenland and Iceland melded with improvisations and live electronics.

The set will be followed by a screening of the film CETACEA which boasts stunning footage of whale pods.

It was created by Alex and Katherine in response to a poem Lesley wrote after a visit to the Husavik Whale Museum while on a writing residency at Skagastrond, Iceland.

The performance will accommodate up to 60 people with audience members sitting one metre apart in the fish shed.

“It will be very well ventilated, possibly very, very well ventilated, depending on the wind!” laughs Lesley.

“The audience will, I imagine, be mostly local people, and we hope that it will prompt them to rethink where they live, as being on the very edge of these northern trading routes; and also to share the incredible intelligence and fragility of these ocean mammals that we occasionally glimpse from boats or from the cliffs.

“It will be fantastic to perform this right on the edge of the sea.

“Alex and Katherine have been talking about how the sounds of the gulls and the wind can become woven into the music and I think this is also giving the words of the poems a real depth of meaning.

“I like to write about real people and real places, and I found it really moving to hear my words out loud in exactly the place they were written for. One of these ‘shock’ moments when your hair stands on end.”

A still from the film CETACEA by Alex South.

Living by the seaside

Growing up in Dundee, Lesley has always lived in sight of the sea.

“I get claustrophobic when I go inland for any length of time,” she says.

“I think it is so interesting how we instinctively orientate ourselves towards the coast.

“When I am out with the dogs down the beach or along the cliffs and I meet our neighbours, instinctively we turn our backs to the land and stand looking out to sea while we chat.

“I think there is a really strong sense of place in these areas that have been occupied for thousands of years – sites where fresh water runs down to a beach, where the hunter gatherers could settle, and where people could protect themselves while living off the land and the sea.

Dundee was for many years a major whaling city, and I think there is an aftermath of this in the way that people retain an awe of the deeper water, and in our sense of proximity of the polar waters.

“Where I live just now in Auchmithie, you would have been able to watch these ships put out from Dundee and Leith, and disappear over the northern horizon to this terrible cold place, maybe never to return – or to return totally changed, through frostbite or scurvy, or fabulously wealthy if you had hunted and killed these incredible creatures.”

Lesley Harrison in Arbroath’s fish shed, where Whale Song will be performed.

As a child, Lesley often visited the museum at Broughty Castle, and the displays of whaling irons, often totally twisted out of shape because of the struggle the whales put up, terrified and horrified her.

The experience of seeing these weapons has remained indelibly etched in her mind; she has never forgotten.

And she has been obsessed by whales ever since – forever keen to learn more about the creatures.

During the creative process of Whale Song, she learned a lot about zoomusicology – the study of the music, or musical sounds, of animals, and has started to write more about this in her poetry, “as a deep layer in our subconscious, in the ‘feel’ of where we live”.

The trio hope to put on other performances and had started to make plans with some interesting venues.

“Hopefully, once lockdown restrictions are eased further, this will become possible soon,” says Lesley.

“We’re becoming more cautiously optimistic about live performances, so this is our first outing, as it were.

“If all goes well we’ll start to book other live dates.”

  • Whale Song takes place in Arbroath Fish Market, Ladybridge Street, on Sunday August 8 at 12 noon. Spaces are limited and booking is essential.
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  • The event is part of the cultural festival Arbroath 2020, which was postponed as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Organisers worked together to put on an exciting re-shaped festival programme – Arbroath 2020+1 – running from July to September.