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Solway to Svalbard: In Conversation with Stuart Macpherson

Coming up this Friday, 28th February as part of National Theatre Scotland’s Just Start Here festival in Dumfries will be the next development of Solway to Svalbard, an creative project led by composer and musician Stuart Macpherson, in collaboration with filmmaker Emma Dove and sound recordist Pete Smith.

Following a successful starter residency supported by NTS, and a recent trip to Svalbard on the trail of the barnacle geese – the project has continued to grow and develop, so we are so excited to find out more about how the work has been developing! Ahead of Friday, Stuart tells us more about the project:

How did it all begin?

Well… funnily enough it all started off with a commissioning opportunity through the Stove Network for one of their members to create a piece of work responding to the brief of Migrating Birds, to coincide with the opening of Kathy Hinde’s Luminous Birds installation that was coming to Dumfries.
At the time there was another Stove project exploring Dumfries’ ties to Norway and I thought I’d explore the avian link between Norway and Scotland.  I knew the barnacle geese that came to the Solway each year had something to do with Norway but didn’t realise that was just their spring staging point and they in fact came from Svalbard. Pretty impressive… there’s also loads of really cool mythology surrounding the geese which is fascinating.
Anyway, the resulting piece that I created was “Flight” – a migratory soundscape incorporating field recordings and free triggered samples.  Pretty early on in the process of making that piece I started to think about where they stop on their journey and the idea of exploring those environments.  I really liked the idea of incorporating visuals and some proper field recordings.  Also, I guess I had grown a bit of a fondness for the geese through working on “Flight” and felt that I wasn’t quite finished with them yet!

Its important to me that I make work that has a relevance to where I am and with what is around me.

I also wanted to work on this project with other artists that have ties to the region, Emma and Pete were an obvious choice, I love both their work, they’re really good at what they do and in fact both had been involved in some level with “Flight” too.

What about geese particularly sparked your inspiration?

Initially the folklore surrounding the barnacle geese was the bit that got me hooked, the idea that folk actually thought they hatched from barnacles on bits of driftwood… totally brilliant!  But I guess very quickly there was an admiration that grew for them, it is amazing what they do – the distances they travel each year.  They evoke a lot and represent all sorts of different things to different folk, all the while they’re just being a cool wee goose flying between here and the high arctic trying to eat the best grass when it grows and raise a family… I like that.

I believe you’ve visited Svalbard twice now, along with your key collaborator Emma Dove to record the geese as well as the natural surroundings. How has this affected the work?

I’ve actually only visited Svalbard once… and that was with key collaborators Emma Dove and Pete Smith.  We also have spent a fair amount of time at Caerlaverock filming and recording the geese and last April/May I spent a month on a wee island in Northern Norway (just in the arctic circle) where the geese spring stage on their way north.
So yeah, a lot of this project has been about filming and recording the environments that the geese pass but also about talking to people and what place means to them.  It was particularly important for the three of us to make it to Svalbard as that has really put things into context, to be able to explore the furthest extents of the flyway and get a perspective from both ends.

Its been an interesting one as a project that started off with the geese has ended up with lots of chat about people, its been a very organic process.  We’ve learnt a lot from each other.

How’s it been working with the National Theatre of Scotland?

I’ve been really enjoying working with NTS on the project, they’ve been incredibly supportive, not just with the narrative development of the work but also with the technical/practical side of things and being able to help hold the production elements of the project… something that I personally find pretty overwhelming.
They’ve got a huge amount of experience and all this resource that we have been able to access, so its been a really great process for us.
We’ve been working closely with director/playwright Davie Anderson and he feels very much like part of the Solway to Svalbard team now, having that outside lens to look at a project has been a really helpful.  He’s been encouraging and supporting us to explore different ways of presenting the work… its definitely been a change from what we are used to within our own practices and at times a little daunting but actually it has been really refreshing and enjoyable and genuinely feel the work will be the better for it.
Its also been great to work up at Rockvilla, to have a bit of separation to properly focus on a project has been super helpful, not to mention that it’s a really cool space to work in.

What should we expect?

That’s a hard one as we’re still working that one out ourselves… I guess showing the work through Just Start Here allows us to properly test for the first time all the different elements of the work, that up until now we have been unable to.  As well as figuring out how to actually make this work we’ve been focusing a lot on the narrative of the project, and feel we’ve got to a really strong place with that.  There’s obviously elements that will be missing for this showing, but we’re hoping that folk will be able to get a good idea of what the finished work might be like.
For lots of different reasons this is a pretty complicated show, we’re combining multiple screens with surround sound design and live musicians as well as dialogue and other more theatrical elements.  So on that side of things it looks and sounds pretty cool… not the kind of thing you see very often… especially in a social club.

What are the future plans for the work?

What is great about Just Start Here is that it is an opportunity to test ideas and to see how folk respond to those ideas.  There will no doubt be things that need tweaked afterwards as well as other elements that we simply have not had time to get to yet.  We have a rough diamond here.

As I’ve said previously I’m really enjoying working with NTS on the project, so would like to continue that journey and see where we end up.  But the idea would be to create a touring work… it makes perfect sense to me that a work based on migration should travel itself.

Solway to Svalbard will be a part of Friday evenings Just Start Here festival, in Dumfries on Friday 28th February. Limited tickets are still available for the evening are £5 per person, and available online here

News Project Updates

HAME. 2nd-16th May 2015


By Gerard McKeever

It’s easy to forget just how extraordinarily important the places where we live are. They are our frame, our point of reference, a huge portion of the real detail of life. This capacity of the land to shape us takes on a special dimension when we have either lived somewhere for a very long time, or spent the early years of our life there. I was born in Upper Nithsdale and spent the best part of two decades in the area before leaving for the city. It is a familiar narrative: the draw of study, work and a faster pace of life. Yet as a creative person I am increasingly aware of the consequence of D&G in my thought processes, a language of place through which much of my work is communicated. Because of this, and because of a longstanding ambition to return to the region, Mark Lyken and Emma Dove’s recent Hame installation for The Stove Network resonated for me.

Perhaps one reasonable working definition of Art could be: a community talking to itself about itself. This was a fascinatingly literal instance of that process, with audio clips of people discussing their relationships contextualised against meditative imagery of the area. Seeing the places we know celebrated and examined in this fashion makes them more real and more vital. It is a process of validation through which both the bonds and the divides in our community are exposed. The installation made us question which voices were included and which were not – whose particular home was being offered a platform?


On a formal level, the piece made use of the suggestive space of 100 High St., succeeding in creating a feeling of audience participation through its non-linear looseness. At the risk of straining the point, wandering around the multiple levels of the installation captured something of the jagged, contingent nature of our existence in place. If and when the piece is transposed into a linear production it will be no doubt engaging but very different, precisely calibrated as it was to radiate from the town centre. Lyken and Dove took us through a mixture of voices that spoke with the random authority of community. From recollections of a previous era to the impressions of youth, for two weeks the Stove became an open archive of shared experience. Just as ‘hame’ doesn’t quite mean the same as ‘home’ to me, all the little details and nuances of life in D&G have a particular shading. It was this odd quality of rootedness that the installation did so well to elaborate. Fortunately, Hame was also too stylish to fall into the tourist information or museum exhibit traps which a piece of its nature must face.

The Stove is a commendable effort to further invigorate a growing community of creative people in and around Dumfries, and in doing so contribute to the salvage of the town centre. As one of the many young locals living elsewhere but with half an eye on home, I find projects like this encouraging. Alongside the growing number of music festivals in the region, the successes of Spring Fling and other arts events, D&G seems to be building towards a creative critical mass, a blossoming that is being noticed on a national level. Perhaps we don’t need to look so far away after all, if we have these things at hame.


Images © Colin Tennant

News Project Updates

Taxi to Dumfries?

Guest blog post from Emma Dove.

Mark and I are about five weeks in to our residency with The Stove. One London taxicab and twenty-four conversations in said taxicab later, and we’re starting to get a feel for the place…

A little bit of background on that. We had heard that The Stove was planning to hold their AGM in an underground car park… Ok then. But not just an AGM, in fact this usually empty car park will be filled with games, projections, skateboarders, a cinema… Ok then…

These are the sort of wild off-hand statements that we have become accustomed to expect at Stove meetings, in amongst chat of salty coos and wooden-spoon themed offerings to gypsy kings. Hang on a minute; what’s a salty coo? Well, after a little more explanation, we are beginning to grasp the nuances of the rich, diverse and genius ways that The Stove Network is engaging with a town in flux and a wide geographical area with a rich and beguiling history.

We came away thinking, firstly, “These guys are bloody brilliant” and, secondly, “What can we do in an underground car park in 2 weeks time?”. As mentioned in the last blog, we wanted to find a way to start exploring the theme of human migrations and find a way to get people chatting about home – the good bits and the not so good bits.

What sort of warm, friendly and familiar space could we create within an underground car park? The sort of space where people feel happy to open up and chat? The sort of space where we can set up all of our kit and record these conversations in an unobtrusive way? The sort of space that somehow keys in with the themes of “home” and of “travel”…?

A mad week of logistical grafting later and the taxicab arrived, driven all the way up from Chingford in Essex by a lovely chap called Wullie J, and was given a whirlwind makeover in time for its Parking Space debut.

taxi install montage

We weren’t sure what to expect, both of the wider Parking Space event and our small part within it. We agreed we would be happy if 5 or 6 people came in for a chat and so were absolutely delighted to have a total of 24 folks through the shiny black doors within 2 days, each with their own different story to tell. Each visitor marked the places that they spoke about on a map of D&G and we plan to follow up some of these places to film during our residency.

In terms of the wider event, the space was bubbling with activity as curious visitors slowly made their way down through each level of the car park, lured by the unusual sounds that ricocheted and tumbled together through the space, invitations to street games, dancing lights and projections upon pillars and walls, not to mention the people hurling themselves in to the air mounted upon small wooden chariots [skateboards]. A feast for the senses.

Gab Cab visitors
A few of our visitors in the Gab Cab

To be privy to the AGM side of things was also fantastic for us. The personal value upon which everyone present felt for the organisation (and for each other’s work) was palpable, much of which was expressed through talks and images and emerged further through the Public Art discussion facilitated by Dot to Dot Active Arts and The Open Jar Collective, fittingly chatted over a plate of hot stovies and a glass of wine. A really valuable evening to be a part of.

We’ve lots of ideas and inspiration to explore over the next few months and we are planning an Artist Talk in December to share some of these. We will also be talking about some our work to date, sharing some of our “Hame” work in progress (including some Parking Space rushes…) and screening our previous film, Mirror Lands.

Details to follow shortly.

Gab Cab photo © Galina Walls

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