Interview: The Firelight Trio preview their innovative set at Dumfries & Galloway Arts Festival 2021

The Firelight Trio consist of three well established performers within the traditional music scene – Ruth Morris, Gavin Marwick and Phil Alexander.

Their new nyckelharpa, fiddle and accordion project fuses European and Scottish folk music along with original compositions. SNACK mag caught up with Ruth about musical influences, rehearsing over lockdown, and being able to perform in person at the Dumfries & Galloway Arts Festival.

How did the three of you come together to form the trio?

Well, we’ve all known each other for 20 odd years – and I live with Gavin the fiddle player, he’s my partner. We’ve been playing music together in lots of different formats for years and years. The accordion player is in a band called Moishe’s Bagel, who we’ve been hanging out with and playing tunes and jamming with for years. 

We were playing a festival, and so were they, and we all have an interest in European music – so there was a lot of very excited jamming. Gav’s got a big band called Gavin Marwick’s Journeyman project – Phil was the pianist on that quite often. So we’ve done quite a few things together, and we’re used to working together, and we’ve all got very similar approaches to creativity. We’ve also got a love of the same kind of music!

What type of music is that?

Phil is from a Jewish background, and he is actually an ethnomusicologist – with a study in Jewish Music. He’s always coming up with interesting tunes, and [he likes] delving in the archives, so it’s been nice playing some of those things. And he’s also a great composer! So he’s brought lots of nice material along. And I mean, Gav never stopped writing music – he’s got so much material that we don’t know how we’ll ever manage to record it all!

I love playing it all, the sound of the fiddle and the nyckelharpa and the accordion together are just great, because the nyckelharpa has got this full resonance. I don’t know if you know much about it?

I’d love to know more about the nyckelharpa! 

Yeah, so the nyckelharpa is the National instrument of Sweden. It’s been around since about 1400 –  it’s got a similar key system to the hurdy gurdy in France. It’s quite big, it’s much bigger than a fiddle, you sort of wear it across you with a strap around your neck.

It’s got four strings that you play on with a bow, but the way that you fret the strings, instead of using your fingers like you would on a violin, it’s got four rows of wooden keys – one for every semitone. So you’ve got all the notes and so you can play in any key.

It’s got the four playing strings, and then it’s got 12 sympathetic strings – one for every note of the scale. That means that every time you play a note on the playing strings, you get the sympathetic string playing itself as well, and so you get sort of double the effect. It sounds like you’re playing in a cathedral – it’s got this sort of huge reverb. It’s a beautiful thing to listen to and to play. 



How would you describe the sound of the nyckelharpa, fiddle, and accordion together as a trio?

The accordion’s got such a full sound and the nyckelharpa [also] has got such a full sound, and Gav’s so inventive on the fiddle. Together you would think there were a lot more than three people playing when you hear it. The sound’s really warm and vibrant. 

It’s hard to describe the music. We’ve been playing tunes from lots of different countries. Gavin grew up in Scottish music, and so there’s some Scottish style things. But then he was in a band called The Iron Horse for many, many years, and they toured all over the world – so he spent a lot of time playing music with musicians from different cultures. You can hear that in his writing – it’s really quite varied. 

Phil really tends to the sort of klezmer and Eastern European style of music. I was classically trained on the piano – that’s where I first started – but I’ve spent a lot of time in Europe, and I’ve lived in Scotland for 20 years now, so it tends to be the sort of Scottish European sort of Central French and Breton music that I come back to. Also, because my instrument is the National instrument of Sweden, when I got it I thought I really ought to learn some Scandinavian music. So I’ve actually learnt quite a lot of it now and I love playing that!

It’s a total mix of all the things that we love. This is going to be the first gig that we’ve done with this lineup, and we’re seeing this as a new project that we’re all very excited about!

How have you found rehearsing during lockdown? 

It’s been quite difficult rehearsing during this pandemic period. We’ve been rehearsing on the internet with this programme called Jamulus. It’s software that measures your delay from the server, and then it adjusts the audio accordingly – so then you can play together in real time over the internet.

It basically saved us in lockdown. It meant that we got inspired about playing music again because we’ve been rehearsing with Phil every week. As things have eased we’ve started meeting up outdoors, which has been just so nice to get together and play music again. We can’t wait to get out there and do a gig.

So I know that this is your first gig as the trio, and it’s quite an important gig for you. Would you be able to tell me more about that?

We’d actually decided in 2019 that we wanted to get a trio together with Phil. We’d got all excited about it and had a few rehearsals and we’d taken some publicity photos and bought a web domain and you know, all the things that you do when you start. But then, unfortunately, Gav got diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, which made him very ill and he had chemotherapy for six months.

It was successful, and he’s on the road to recovery, which is great. Just as he was coming out of that, the pandemic started. He had to stay at home all this time – and he had six months longer [staying home] than everybody else because when he was having treatments he also had to stay at home. So this is actually going to be the first proper indoor show that he’s done for almost two years. It’s quite a thing for him. Before that – I mean we’re professional musicians – we were playing all the time. So it’s been quite a long dry spell. 

It’s coming out the other side of it now – we’re all feeling very positive. Being able to share this music with everybody really means a lot to us. It’s going to be a very special occasion.

The Firelight Trio are performing at the Theatre Royal as part of Dumfries & Galloway Arts Festival on 25th July both in person and online.

dgartsfestival.org.uk


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