Alasdair C. Whyte was performing at Edinburgh Festival Fringe when the seeds of his new cross-artform theatrical collaboration, MAIM, began to take root. The Mull-born singer and songwriter was appearing alongside Aberdeenshire born electronic composer Ross Whyte, who, as WHYTE, were presenting a cinematic audio-visual live rendering of their debut album, Fairich.
Presented as part of the 2017 Made in Scotland showcase of contemporary home-grown work, Fairich: Live was an attempt to do something different to a straightforward gig and add a more theatrical element to their performance. This was in keeping with WHYTE’s own forward-thinking fusion of melodic electronica and Gaelic song, and arguably set a rough template for MAIM, which opens at the Tron Theatre in Glasgow next week at the start of an extensive country-wide tour.
The roots of the new show began after Fairich: Live was attended by Muireann Kelly, artistic director of Glasgow-based Gaelic company, Theatre Gu Leor. WHYTE were in the midst of recording their second album, Tairm, when Whyte approached Kelly with a view to doing something similar to Fairich with some of the material he and Whyte had recorded. Whyte had already begun a Phd looking into into the place names of the Torsay region of Mull, and the causes of their disappearance at the Celtic and Gaelic Department of the University of Glasgow, and his researches were already feeding into his songs on the new WHYTE record.
The result of this in MAIM is a mash-up of contemporary and traditional Gaelic song, spoken-word, dance and state-of-art audio-visual material that in both form and content is a call to arms for future generations to hold on to both their land and their language.
“It’s about how the landscape changes and how language shifts,” says Whyte of the drive behind MAIM. “There’s an inherent connection between those two things for me, especially on Mull. Although, maybe ‘change’ and ‘shift’ aren’t the right words to use when we’re talking about that, because things don’t just change or shift by themselves. It’s actually humans who are responsible for making those changes.”
MAIM – pronounced like mime – means a state of panic, terror or alarm, and two songs from Tairm drive the show, in which WHYTE perform live. With major input from choreographer Jessica Kennedy of acclaimed company Junk Ensemble, as well as cutting edge audio visual material by Lewis Den Hertog, actress Elspeth Turner and singer, musician and dancer Evie Waddell also appear. All parties multi-task a piece they helped make under Kelly’s supervision, and which has clearly become something of a labour of love.
Growing up in the village of Salen, close to Glen Forsa, an open glen at the foot of Beinn Talaidh, Whyte wasn’t a native Gaelic speaker, but sang Gaelic songs from an early age. It was through singing that he became aware of some of the things that had happened on his doorstep.
“Little by little, I became aware of some of Mull’s stories from those songs that I learnt from my Dad. I also started noticing more and more the Gaelic inflections in my Dad’s speech. In terms of landscape, Glen Forsa is really significant, because probably as recent as the nineteenth century, that area of Mull had a huge population, but now there’s not a soul living there.
“We’re talking about the age of the Highland Clearances, with whole populations wiped out for the personal gain of land-owners. All of that inspired me to try and present the depth of those stories as best I can, and to try and do my bit to try and make sure Gaelic is a living language on Mull, and has a future.”
Twice nominated for the Hands Up for Trad Gaelic Singer of the Year award, Whyte has been singing “as long as I can remember,” and began writing in Gaelic in his late teens. His current collaboration with Ross Whyte as WHYTE is a deliberate attempt to put Gaelic at the forefront of twenty-first century culture while at the same time rooting it firmly in a tradition it can help keep alive.
“I wouldn’t have the licence to do what I do without all those songs from the eighteenth century, and I think it’s so important to use contemporary idioms alongside that. And really, if things are going to change with language, we also have to start looking at climate change as well.”
While MAIM may be billed as a call to action, Whyte isn’t interested in alienating audiences, and the show is fully accessible for non-Gaelic speakers by way of subtitles and integrated BSL.
“Hopefully the message is not too negative. I’m asking questions, and trying to use all the tools at our disposal to put the Gaelic language at the centre of things in a way that that offers opportunities for people to engage with that, and with the huge songs that exist. We’re doing that just to try and make sure that a younger generation are aware of those songs, and to do that we have to ask the right questions.”
MAIM, Tron Theatre, Glasgow, March 6-14; Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, March 17-18; Eden Court Theatre, Inverness, March 19; Lemon Tree, Aberdeen, March 20; SEALL, Sleat, Isle of Skye, March 21; An Lanntair, Stornoway, March 24; Sghoil Lionacleit, Benbecula, March 25; Castlebay School, Barra, March 26; Corran Halls Studio Theatre, Oban, March 27; Mull Theatre, Tobermory, Mull, March 28.
The Herald, February 29th 2020