A Great Disordered Heart is a trilogy of interlinked concerts for the Edinburgh International Festival over three consecutive nights, exploring the roots of traditional Irish and Scottish music and celebrating the connections between the two cultures. It’s curated and led by the multi-award-winning Aidan O’Rourke, composer, producer and fiddle player, one of Scotland’s greatest contemporary talents in traditional music. He featured in last year’s EIF online offering with the inspiring My Light Shines On, which is well worth revisiting. Also, check out the 365 stories and music project and 2019 album The Reeling with fellow Scot Brìghde Chaimbeul.
Originally from Oban from a Scots-Irish family, Edinburgh-based Aidan O’Rourke is an accomplished fiddle player in the West Highland style. During lockdown, he discovered the history of his own neighbourhood in Edinburgh’s Cowgate – once known as Little Ireland. Many Irish immigrants had made their home in the Cowgate, which became, literally, an underworld that visitors now explore through historic tours of the vaults and Old Town Closes. This discovery inspired O’Rourke to curate this trilogy of concerts for the Edinburgh International Festival and also a film of the same name. The film – due for release later this year – was made in collaboration with Mark Cousins, the inspiring Irish filmmaker whose home is also Edinburgh.
A Great Disordered Heart title comes from a Robert Louis Stevenson quote about Little Ireland:
‘And thus, as I fancied, the dense life within made itself faintly audible in my ears, family after family contributing its quota to the general hum, and the whole pile beating in tune to its timepieces, like a great disordered heart.’ – Robert Louis Stevenson on Edinburgh’s Cowgate, 1873.
All three concerts took place at the Old College Quad just a stone’s throw from the Cowgate, set within a Covid-safe outdoor venue of physically distanced ‘bubble’ seating clusters, under cover of a structure that feels like a vast greenhouse with open sides. A transparent roof allows for the changing weather and dusky light to add extra shifting tones to the mood.
A Great Disordered Heart: Shared Melodies Fri 13 Aug
Aidan O’Rourke is joined on stage by Brìghde Chaimbeul on the small pipes, concertina player Cormac Begley from Kerry and Dubliner Aoife Ní Bhriain on fiddle. It’s a minimal set with simple lighting to match the stripped set list of tunes.
These world-class traditional instrumentalists take us on a musical tour weaving through melodies of Irish and Scottish music. Each conjures a mood that transcends time, whether it is an Irish air to voice a broken heart, a Scottish strathspey to get the joints limber or a reel to get the feet tapping.
We start with a set from Aidan O’Rourke and Brìghde Chaimbeul, which feels like a musical conversation between the two instrumentalists. We are then introduced to Cormac Begley and Aoife Ní Bhriain, two Irish musicians with impressive musical family heritage and some stories to tell about each melody they go on to play.
The Dawning of the Day is a special version of a lost Irish air transcribed by 19th-century music collector, Canon James Goodman, from the Munster Pipers collection. The collection had been missing for centuries and was found in the 1980s at Trinity College where Goodman taught. Cormac Begley demonstrates the impressive range of his base concertina compared to the previous piccolo concertina. His Scottish ancestry adds to the blend of the Scottish-Irish theme. We are treated to a version of O’Neill’s Cavalcade – a march dating back to the mid-1600s.
Aoife Ní Bhriain plays the slow, sad air, Anach Chuain, inspired by the poem and the story of the tragic boat accident near Galway in 1828. We then pick up the musical pace with a couple of polkas that take all my might not to get up and dance around. The finale brings all four on stage together for an ensemble set of rousing melodies from both sides of the Irish Sea. A hypnotic performance in all, which draws you right into the heart of traditional music, the cadence, the rhythm, the melody.
A Great Disordered Heart: Shared Songs Sat 14 Aug
In Shared Songs we are treated to a set of traditional Celtic songs from an ensemble cast of Scots and Irish singer musicians, bringing the spirit of community singing onto the stage. They are Irish singer, musician and frontman of Hothouse Flowers, Liam Ó Maonlaí, Scottish singer, composer, Gaelic music expert and piper Allan Macdonald, traditional musicians and singers Róisín Chambers from Ireland and Sam Amidon from Vermont. Completing the ensemble are celebrated Scottish trio Sian (Ceitlin Lilidh, Eilidh Cormack and Ellen MacDonald). The trio got together when they were involved in a project to uncover Gaelic songs written by women, ensuring that their typical repertoire has a strong female voice and perspective.
Here we explore the connections and shared experiences of traditional songs from both Scotland and Ireland. Liam Ó Maonlaí talks of his sense of kinship between the melodies and languages of both Ireland and Scotland but that there are also nuanced differences in the music and culture. He moves naturally from keyboard and vocal to traditional instruments the clàrsach and bodhrán, popular in both Irish and Scottish traditional music-making. Allan Macdonald is renowned for his research into the pibroch in Gaelic songs. As well as his expert vocals, he plays the pibroch and the mouth harp on a few songs.
There follows a selection of Gaelic Scottish and Irish songs ranging from personal tales with pining melodies to portraits of long lost communities that don’t feel so distant after all. We then move towards some toe-tappers and the fiddles come out for an ensemble rendition of a popular Scots Gaelic song with an added Irish verse. As all the songs are sung in the native tongue, the stories that come with each song are welcome and engaging. Universal themes of love, war, heartbreak and death resonate – some even feel like deep-felt wounds passed down through generations. Storytelling through song is as ancient an art as navigating the night sky. Given the location of this historic Edinburgh venue at the Old Quad, you could almost feel the bones from centuries before us stirring up the ground with their own similar songs.
A Great Disordered Heart: Shared Futures Sun 15 Aug
Shared Futures features Edinburgh’s celebrated folk trio Lau and, opening the set, Áine O’Dwyer, a London-based experimental musician and composer from Ireland. She makes sound recordings and live performances exploring the aesthetics of sound. O’Dwyer seems to embody a mix of the playful anarchy of Dada with the aural aesthetic of Laurie Anderson. With her piece Ancestral Seeds, she layers recordings of accordion tones in a time-travelling homage to her family’s musical roots.
It seems quite obvious though that the crowd is here to see Lau, the trio of Aidan O’Rouke on fiddle, Martin Green on button accordion and Kris Drever on guitar and vocals. They work their alchemy on stage to transform traditional music into a modern setting without losing respect for the roots of the music. With their homemade banner declaring ‘we love the NHS’ behind them, they start off huddled around what looks like a vintage radio microphone to play a timely Kris Drever-penned song It’s hard to seem to be ok when you’re not and then sit down for Dark Secret with a metronome for percussive company.
Lau creates a feeling that they are improvising, journeying through the music and feeling the nuances and ambient sounds of each instrument. Introducing sampled sounds feels part of that subtlety. At one point, the sound from an electronic stethoscope heartbeat seems woven into the end of the traditional folk ballad The Banks of Red Roses (from their recent EP).
The trio moves through soundscapes, interwoven with songs and instrumentals rooted in traditional music idioms. This is close to a live jazz feel, enjoying the physicality of playing, an improvisatory style that feels laid back and yet has a sharp focus. Individually, these are accomplished and gifted musicians, but as a trio, Lau is a force of nature. As multiple winners of Best Group at Radio 2 Folk Awards, they are rightly celebrated for pushing the creative boundaries of the genre rather than just simply adding a modern twist to the sound. The name Lau itself comes from the Orcadian word ‘lowe’, meaning ‘natural light’. Lau ends this early evening session in natural light with one of their classics, Ghosts, a song reflecting on generations of migration.
This celebratory and exploratory trilogy of concerts immerses us in close listening to the nuances of live music. As most of the musicians had not performed live since March 2020, this must have an added intensity and willingness to deep dive into the experience. In a world where discussion seems to be heading towards the less nuanced and more polarised, finding deep connection and kinship through culture whilst also celebrating the differences is a welcome way to spend a festival weekend.
Presented in association with the National Concert Hall of Ireland and The Soundhouse Organisation. With big thanks to Julie Boyne for this review.