Stuart Macpherson is a freelance bassist and composer based in rural Dumfries and Galloway. He came to Træna as an Artist in Residence and stayed in Selvær one month in April-May. His project was to captured the barnacle gees on their journey from Scotland to Svalbard. Read the interview we made with Stuart here:
‘Solway to Svalbard’ is the project title. Could you describe your project, and how Selvær in Træna became a part of it?
‘Solway to Svalbard’ is a new body of audio/visual work currently in development by myself in collaboration with Film Maker Emma Dove and Sound Recordist Pete Smith. It is a creative response to the spring migration of the Barnacle Goose from the wetlands of the Solway Firth in South West Scotland to the Islands of Svalbard in the Arctic Circle.
The project explores the different environments and communities that are encountered by the geese on their unique journey and how, despite the distance and stark contrast in landscape, we are intrinsically linked to the polar regions. Work is created from time spent in communities /environments along the spring migration route. During the migration the Geese spring stage along the northwest coast of Norway in parts of Helgeland and Vesterålen. While researching for the project I came across the Træna artist residency and conveniently Selvær had come up in some of the papers I was reading as an area where a good number of Barnacle Geese stopped on their journey north. It felt like a good fit.
For those of us who don’t have a passionate relation (yet) to the barnacle geese, how come this bird is interesting to follow? What made you become a barnie geek?
I suppose I am a bit of a Barnie geek now, it kind of happened accidentally though, through a project I was working on. I had been commissioned by The Stove Network to write a piece of music/sound work around the theme of migration that tied in with our local town. There is a national nature reserve and wetland and wildfowl centre nearby where birds from all over come every year, and I started looking into migrations that were specific to the area. When we lived nearer the coast I’d often see the Barnacle Geese (Hvitkinngås) flying over head in their long skeins but beyond enjoying them in the moment I had never really thought about where they came from or what their story was. Once I started reading up on the geese though I became more and more fascinated with them, every year the Solway Firth becomes the winter home to pretty much the entire Svalbard population of Barnacle Geese, they arrive in the autumn and leave in the spring, heading back to their summer breeding grounds on Spitsbergen via northern Norway. When you actually think about it it’s a pretty remarkable journey they make each year, especially considering the goslings that have hatched in the summer (and managed to survive the polar bears and cliff top falls) are ready to make the 2000mile journey from Svalbard to Scotland before they’re even 2 months old! Some can make this journey in as little as 60 hours (there was even one that was GPS tagged recorded making the journey in 48hours!). They’re pretty resilient creatures and I admire that. There’s also a lot of brilliant folklore around the origins of the Barnies, back in the 12th Century it was commonly believed that they hatched from barnacles growing on bits of drift wood, I love that kind of stuff.
So you are composer, but also engaged in community developing, festivals and shaping the future of your local town. Do you see any similarities between your town in Scotland and Træna or Norway?
I live outside a small village in the countyside called Moniaive, and although it isn’t surrounded by water it does feel a bit like an island at times as we are out on our own. I see a lot of similarities between the people and pace of life, there is a strong sense of community and there is a positive energy about the place. The challenges that communities face particularly in rural areas of Scotland are very similar to those on Træna and other remote communities in Nordland. Traditional industries and economies have changed and with that communities are trying to find new ways in which they can adapt and create more sustainable models. Festivals and other collaborative projects and events programmed throughout the year are a great way to help boost the local economy and to strengthen community spirit. The main town in our region is Dumfries, it used to be a bustling market town with lots of small businesses in the high street but over the years it has lost its role, it’s identity. Online shopping and supermarkets on the edge of town have drawn business away from the centre, small businesses have shut and residents have moved as a result. Buildings remain empty as absentee landlords charge high rates, with that there is no life. The Stove Network is a member led arts organisation that is trying to reimagine our town, using the arts and creative thinking to find ways in which to engage with the community and empower them to take ownership of their town and breathe new life into it.
What did you experience on Træna / Selvær? Was it as expected or did you experience something surprising or unexpected? What was positive, and was something problematic or negative?
It’s quite hard to describe, I guess it’s a feeling more than anything else. I was there primarily because of the Barnies and because of that a lot of my experience of the place was dictated by their movements and behaviour, I was very much in tune with their rhythm and the rhythm of Selvær. When you’re spending so much time observing and listening, you view things differently and I guess appreciate things that others would maybe not find so interesting. I really enjoyed the pace of the island, for me it was ideal as it allowed me to get into a really good head space to focus on my project. I’d like to work on my Norwegian though as it would have been nice to have been able to speak more with the older folks on the island.
A lot of people had seen you around with microphones and camera, running after the birds or sitting still waiting for hours…what was the main work you did in Træna?
My aim was primarily to gather raw material to work with. Most of my time was spent on Selvær as that’s where the geese were, they arrive late April/May and stay for a for a few weeks on their way North so I had planned the residency to coincide with that. My aim was to film and record the geese in various settings around the island, this was primarily done with three small cameras set up in a panoramic fashion with audio recorded in a quadrophonic microphone set up. The idea being to capture a real sense of the environment and the space. Barnacle Geese get spooked quite easily so getting close can be difficult. I would set microphones and cameras in various locations and hope that the geese would land in or fly over them, it can be a frustrating wait, the geese can be pretty contrary and often don’t do what they are supposed to. Sometimes you only capture a very little amount or don’t get anything at all, or it gets too windy for the microphones or the cameras run out of batteries/storage, you need a lot of patience. It makes it all the more satisfying when you do finally get the shot or recording you’re after though.
As well as filming the geese I was trying to capture other elements that added to the ‘feel’ of the island, I love the sheds and barns with their weathered paint and rust. I interviewed a few locals too as I was keen to hear a bit of what they thought of the geese and the island, these will be combined with interviews of others in Scotland. I did a bit of recording elsewhere on Træna too, I captured the scene by the Nordland sculpture and like the idea of trying to work a piece around the song. I also sampled the piano in the Church on Husøya. These samples were manipulated and used for a piece that I then recorded in Kirkehelleren on Sanna, with the help of some lovely volunteers too.
So what happens now? Will there be some kind of performance, are you coming back, what would you like to happen as the next step? Or are you tired of geese (and Træna) now?
I plan to spend some time in Svalbard with the larger team (Emma and Pete) carrying out the same processes there. Originally this was meant to be this summer, however it’s looking more likely that it will be next summer now as a trip like that takes a lot of organising. I may be able to tie this in with another trip to Helgeland or Vesterålen, we’ll see. It feels like there are lots of possibilities. In terms of the work created, the main piece will be an immersive audio/visual installation with live performance. This will comprise of 3 large screens and a quad speaker set up that will surround the audience. Live musicians will perform compositions that have been written for different scenes along the migration route. I would love to come back and perform the work in Træna, it makes absolute sense to present the work along the migration route.
About AIR Træna. Do you think that this kind of program is important, and in what way? For you as an artist? For the community? What effects and values do you see from your perspective?
I think these kind of programmes are important, they are a way to spark discussion and awareness and create connections between people and place. Programmes like this create lots of ripples, and what maybe started off as one thing can develop into many other things, it’s exciting. From a personal point of view, the residency was exactly what I was looking for in my project and it’s really added to it. Being able to spend an extended period of time here allowed me to get a proper feel for the place.
Ok last question – if you could send one person to Træna/Selvær, who would it be and why?
I would probably send a friend of mine from back here in Galloway called Dr David Borthwick, he is a writer and massive Barnie enthusiast. Right from the beginning of this project David has been incredibly supportive and was hugely envious when he heard where I was going. I would love to read some Barnie inspired writing from Selvær, I think he would be in his element there.
Read more about Stuart Macpherson here and