Craig Armstrong is a composer whose music is very hard to pigeon-hole, having seemingly worked in very disparate parts of the music business. Madonna and ballet seem poles apart for example, and his most visible work in recent years was on the hugely successful musical film Moulin Rouge. So the first performance of his latest concert work, commissioned by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, was met with eager anticipation. Armstrong is no stranger to this orchestra, both being based in Glasgow, and he has composed a previous commission for them called "When Morning Turns to Light". Armstrong mentions that his aunt used to take him to their concerts as a boy, and perhaps this experience has shaped his musical development. Both composer and orchestra are no stranger also to film music so it is fitting that they come together for this premier under their conductor Walter Weller.
The title of the piece "Northern Sounds...Islands" strongly suggests that it might be inspired by the islands of Scotland, and Armstrong confirms this. He describes the work in artistic terms as painting landscape scenes representing different aspects of the Western Islands. His programme notes are very visual in their imagery, talking of light, scale, proportion and movement, and referring to the musical colours used by the impressionist composers Ravel and Debussy, though elsewhere he has mentioned the influence of film composer John Barry. In composing this music, Armstrong also thought of the electronic techniques of sampling and looping and sought to apply the equivalent techniques to the acoustic phrases performed by the orchestra. This is close to the methods of the minimalists like Glass and Nyman. The result is an ambient sound, without large contrasts, but slowly evolving over time.
"Northern Sounds...Islands" is in five movements. It is not intended to be programmatic in nature, and can be interpreted in different ways by each individual listener, but the title and programme notes prepared this listener for certain musical images. The first movement is a watercolour with a wash of greys and blues, and no discernible edges or angles. This is the land of sky, haze, clouds and mist. The second movement introduces more texture and a gradual crescendo. There are now dark rain clouds moving in over the islands. The third movement leaves watercolours behind and enters the impressionist realm. There are raindrops condensing from these clouds and falling onto the islands' hills. The fourth and fifth movements of this work are played without a break. The fourth movement seems to focus on the coastline, where the tides ebb and flow, waves splash in different ways on the different coastal textures of sand, pebbles and rock, becoming more agitated. At the start of the fifth movement the tide has receded leaving behind a quiet beach and we follow a river inland where organic life is both fed by and buffeted by the elements on these remote islands.
Most performers develop a stage persona with a degree of showmanship or even flamboyance. In receiving the applause on stage Armstrong seemed a little uncomfortable with the attention. Yet his music felt very comfortable indeed in the concert hall. To our knowledge this work has not been recorded yet, but we hope that some day it might be. In the meantime you may wish to check out two existing albums of Armstrong's music: