Friday, 22 January 2016


Fiddlers' Bid

Shetland landscape

It was discovered in the schedule of DOCUMENTS in MS Word. This review sat neglected under the simple title of ‘Fiddler.doc’. It was a piece that had been jotted down some time ago when the Shetland group called Fiddlers’ Bid played in Brisbane for the first time. It is published here because it is an example of music that is intimately related to place. It is a circumstance that architects can learn from as they make and shape place in various regions of our world. There are many subtle matters involved in this task that is more than music and memory; but these make and shape a good example of what ‘place’ means. Feelings are involved. Our architecture needs to rediscover its roots in the integrity of emotion rather than in the self-conscious drama of things unusual, different, distorted and bespoke.

Shetland landscape (Belmont, Unst)

Shetland landscape (Baliasta, Unst)

The Shetland Islands lie well above Australia in the usual reading of the globe. Indeed, they sit above Scotland, north, beyond the Orkney Islands, but frequently suffer from the cartographer’s graphic necessities that relocate these tiny islands in their own boxed inset, like a postage stamp, anywhere within the frame of the page that might illustrate Scotland or the whole of the United Kingdom at whatever scale might be chosen. Shetland never seems to fit. Little wonder that the islands are sometimes confused with the more familiar western isles of Scotland. They are Britain’s most northerly islands. They have been treated as trinkets to form part of marriage agreements and trophies, and have been linked to Denmark, as well as Scotland and Norway. The gene pool of the people is almost an equal mix descending from the Vikings and the Picts.

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Brisbane Powerhouse (from riverfront)

Word came from above that Fiddlers’ Bid was coming to town via Tasmania. A little research indicated that Tuesday 10th at the Brisbane Powerhouse was indeed the time and place for the one and only Brisbane performance. One wondered: why Brisbane? The tickets were ordered and the weeks rolled by. How long was the band to be in sunny Brisbane? Might we meet up with the group and show it more of the city?

Brisbane Powerhouse

Word again came that the band had left Shetland and was in Melbourne on its way to Tasmania where it was to play before its two performances in Brisbane. Two? - 9th and 10th? Was this correct? We thought that we had seats in the one and only performance. On checking the web site, it became clear. Tuesday 'SOLD OUT' - 400 seats filled! The second performance was to be held on Monday. Having the second event prior to the first was unusual, but the message was clear: Shetland fiddle music was not unknown in this remote part of the world.

 Powerhouse theatre space

The evening arrived for the first performance after reports that the second had gone well - nearly sold out too! The Powerhouse is an old coal-fired powerhouse building that once generated electricity for Brisbane and showered the nearby suburbs with a fine layer of dirty dust and grunge. It is now transformed into a performing arts centre on the Brisbane River next to the New Farm Park. Such conversions are fashionable. Sydney has its Powerhouse too that was redeveloped well before Brisbane’s. The early arrival at the Powerhouse on the mild autumn evening proved futile. The theatre did not open its doors until a quarter of an hour prior to the performance, and then it was a matter of grabbing your own seat, wherever, however.

A couple of scotches filled in the time and set the scene for a Shetland evening downunder. We waited in the huge brick volumes once filled with turbines as gymnasts rehearsed behind tall, dark shrouds, appearing periodically in the gaps spinning around the floor or on trapezes in the glaring dazzle of the industrial lights above. Smarty, ‘arty’ neons winked on the walls and smiled in Skye blue and Irish green as the graffiti of old and new eras was illuminated in a quirky gleam of shadows. The shell of the building has been left in tact, complete with the original graffiti, grime and grit, with the new work separated as internal solids, just as the Burra Charter, the bible for restoration of historic buildings, proposed. Then the time came: the theatre doors opened.

After being put through the styles as sheep in a caaing, being subjected to pushing, pulling and shoving as folk fought like beasts for the opportunity to claim the best seating location, the theatre patrons settled down into their selected seats and waited.

The group Fiddlers’ Bid was announced, the lights faded into stage brilliance and the group strolled into the glow without fanfare, to their allotted spots on stage marked by the fiddles, harp, bass, piano and guitar. The surprise was the stubby of beer that each member carried. I had forgotten the need for each musician to always have a drink nearby. I was in Shetland again!

The first story was told to set the scene, the accent transforming the sense of place and releasing the tensions heightened by the lack of any allocation of seating; and the music started. The energy and intensity of the evening grew as time passed. Finesse and fury filled the theatre as one felt the seating structure swaying with he foot beats, leg movements, head nodding and hand clapping intensifying with each tune. It was enlivening and transforming. What might the structural engineers think of this? Even stayed bodies eventually swayed. Shetland’s fiddle music is after all basically dance music.

The music was punctuated with stories that were a pleasure to hear beyond their narrative. The Shetland dialect is another form of music to the ear that, in Australia, is more used to a dry, laconic drawl than the sweet, rhythmic tones of yarns, humour and irony. Some in the audience were moved to dance in the impossibly tiny spaces available. It was a rare sight for Australians who make good queues and generally do as they are told. Is this a relic of the convict past? - see:

Each member of the group was introduced with a nice subtlety that revealed the instruments and the individual characters without undue ceremony or fuss. It was a pleasure not to have to endure any hype or pretense in this performance. There was no fancy garb here!

In all, it was a wondrous evening during which one could believe one was in the Baltasound Hall again, if careful, self-conscious awareness was allowed to drift and dream. The sound of the fiddle held the landscape before the eyes too, just as the rhythms of the voices recalled the presence of friends and relatives. 'He sounds just like …' was the repeated comment; then more complex memories and associations arose.

Yet the evening was never just nostalgic. It placed tradition firmly in the present, alive with a new energy that revealed the true vitality of persons anywhere and everywhere when real music reaches more than noise and relates to places and persons beyond parochial and egocentric idiosyncrasies.

Fiddlers' Bid

Aly Bain

And why Brisbane? Fiddlers’ Bid said that Aly Bain had played here. It was an intuitive guess that the Brisbane folk included numerous homesick Shetlanders, and relatives and friends who knew the intimacy and magic of the islands, and who yearned for a good fiddle evening. They were right. We hope to see Fiddlers’ Bid again soon, either here or there - above or below.

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Time has passed quickly since this event. Thankfully we have again experienced both - Fiddlers’ Bid in the Shetlands and in Brisbane. It was their second time in Brisbane when I invited a friend who played the guitar and sang in his own 1960’s revival group to come to the show. It was with some trepidation that he agreed to attend a fiddle evening - '!' He seemed to have been exposed to some teasing by the other members of his band. He left the Powerhouse transformed. Such is the Shetland fiddle that grasps both landscape and character in its power.

For more on Fiddlers’ Bid, see

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