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Hanna Tuulikki – Women of the Hill

In the corridor of Edinburgh Sculpture Workshop, Hanna Tuulikki is spinning what looks like a wooden carving of a bird-feather on the end of a rope above her head. Standing outside her studio, with the aid of what she calls a thunder-speller, the Anglo-Finnish artist, singer and performer is making a noise that sounds like a low whoosh of industrial thunder. The last time she used the ancient instrument more commonly known as a bull roarer in such a fashion was in 2015 on Skye, when the thunder speller heralded in the open-air performance of Tuulikki's three-act ritualistic song-cycle, Women of the Hill.

More than two years on, Tuulikki and her thunder-speller revisit Women of the Hill by moving indoors for a one-off performance at the Centre of Contemporary Arts in Glasgow. Re-imagined for a theatrical context, this showing of a work devised for three female performers is a long way from the outdoor hollow close to the hidden entrance of High Pasture Cave, the iron-age sacred site dedicated to a matriarchal culture where it was first presented.

“I'd heard about the cave before visiting,” says Tuulikki, “but I had no idea I was going to compose anything before I went there. I knew there had been a recent excavation of the site several years ago, and archaeologists found evidence of a matriarchal culture that was in use from the Bronze to the Iron age. At some point the cave had been sealed up, and at the threshold of the cave, the archaeologists found the remains of a woman, who had possibly been sacrificed. Further analysis found that her body was covered in plants, and that she was a woman of great significance.”

Local legends suggest this may have been some kind of homage to Bride, the pagan goddess of summer and fertility, who twice a year fought with Cailleach, the goddess of winter. This battle forms the first part of Women of the Hill, set in what Tuulikki calls the Other World. The second act is a reimagining of the funeral of the unknown woman, with the third bringing things up to the present day.

Following Tuulikki's visit to High Pasture Cave, the intensity of the experience provoked a dream in which she was in a stone-shelved library, flying upwards until the library opened out onto a forest, where she carried on flying above the trees. If the library was representing the cave, Tuulikki saw it as an invitation to use the history buried within it to bring it to some kind of creative life.

“It was almost like the site kept choosing me,” she says.

This eventually led to a commission from the Skye-based ATLAS Arts organisation to create what would become Women of the Hill, which was performed beside High Pasture Cave on October 31 to celebrate that year's Samhain festival. Tuulikki performed alongside fellow singers and regular collaborators Nerea Bello and Lucy Duncombe, with the trio wearing bespoke costumes created by Skye-based artist Caroline Dear, who incorporated plant materials into their design. Bello, Duncombe and Tuulikki will don Dear's costumes for what promises to be a very different experience at the CCA.

“I'm interested in how you can bring a site-specific performance into a theatre space,” Tuulikki says. “I've been thinking about it for a while in relation to several pieces. The biggest challenge here is how we can bring the acoustics of the land into the theatre. The first act is going to be particularly challenging, as that's the point in the vocal composition that used the echo of the landscape.”

Tuulikki is planning to simulate this using the CCA's PA system.

“I don't know how yet,” she says, “but it will be an experiment.”

Women of the Hill is being performed at the CCA during the run of Lilt, Twang, Tremor, an exhibition shared between Sarah Rose, Susannah Stark and Tuulikki, and which puts the female voice at its heart. Tuulikki has three works on show. Away with the birds / Air falbh leisna he-eoin is a body of work developed over four years that explores the mimesis of birds in Gaelic song. The score at the centre of the piece has been performed by a female ensemble at various places, including the Isle of Canna, and the visual score and a recording of the composition can be seen and heard in the exhibition.

cloud-cuckoo island is a film of Tuulikki sporting a seaweed beard on Eigg, where she performed as Irish king 'Mad Sweeney', who communed with cuckoos. SING SIGN is another film, in which Tuulikki and composer Daniel Padden use British Sign language alongside a series of vocal exchanges in various Edinburgh closes.

“All of the pieces are about a kind of archaeology of the voice in a sense,” says Tuulikki, “and that's also about a sense of place and community. When we did Women of the Hill on Skye, it was as much of a celebration as a performance, and became about making visible what had been hidden, and making audible what had been forgotten. There was a sense of pilgrimage there as well, with the audience travelling to the space, and afterwards it became more like a ritual sharing.”

Over the last decade, Tuulikki has been instrumental in fostering the connections between visual art, performance and voice-based work. This is a furrow she has ploughed ever since she left Brighton to study environmental art at Glasgow School of Art, and has focused increasingly on ambitious voice-based performance pieces. As with Women of the Hill, these have often been in collaboration with other female artists. Tuulikki has also combined her singular artistic practice with singing in the bands Nalle, and Two Wings. After releasing three albums with Nalle and two with Two Wings, however, Tuulikki has grown tired of the music scene treadmill.

“What you have to do when you release a record in terms of having to tour is just really boring,” she says. “The way the music industry works is just dull.”

While performance has become increasingly central to Tuulikki's work, the voice is everything.

“I have a love/hate relationship with performance,” she says. “The voice is always the starting point, but I've begun to use costume more, and I'm excited by the possibility of being able to create a whole world in a theatre space. I'm also becoming more interested in dance. I loved dance when I was a kid, and wanted to be a dancer, so now I'm looking at the relationship between the body and the voice, and all the connections between rhythm, movement and breath. I feel more comfortable existing between different artforms in that way.”

Beyond this one-off reimagining of Women of the Hill, Tuulikki has a busy year ahead. She is currently in the middle of composing a new vocal work for five voices that came out of a year-long residency at the University of Edinburgh's Centre of Language Evolution. She is also developing a new work with the Magnetic North theatre company, led by director Nicholas Bone, whose own cross-artform explorations have previously seen the company collaborate with the likes of David Shrigley. This new work by Tuulikki will look in part at the nature of masculinity drawn from traditional dances. If all goes well at the CCA as well, Women of the Hill may yet have another life.

“There's something about working in a theatre space that can offer as a controlled environment in a way that working outside doesn't,” says Tuulikki. “It's quite exciting to work within a space where we can explore the subtleties of the voice, and try to bring the spirit of the outdoors indoors.”

Women of the Hill, CCA, Glasgow, January 12. Lilt, Twang, Tremor runs at CCA, Glasgow until January 14.

The Herald, January 5th 2018



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