Feature | An Interview with Duncan Chisholm

Duncan Chisholm

Duncan Chisholm will be at this year’s Songlines Encounters Festival on June 5 along with Iranian sisters Mahsa & Marjan Vahdat

Scottish fiddle player and composer Duncan Chisholm speaks to Tim Woodall about the importance of his heritage and how the Highlands have inspired his music

Duncan Chisholm has had a momentous – and creatively prolific – few years. In the studio, the Scottish violinist had success with his highly personal Strathglass Trilogy of albums, inspired by and depicting the natural beauty of his clan home region near Inverness. This defining statement of musical and personal identity was followed by an epic, orchestral Celtic Connections gig and live album released at the end of 2013, arranged from the same material. The music is presented in yet another incarnation as part of a second live project this February, with Chisholm’s regular trio with Matheu Watson (guitar) and Jarlath Henderson (uilleann pipes and whistles) boosted by a string trio and piano for three dates. The Strathglass Trilogy, it seems, is the gift that keeps on giving. “It has been such a major part of my life for six years,” says Chisholm. “The live album gave the music the sort of cinematic widescreen sound I love so much, but here we are trying to give a flavour of what happened at Celtic Connections, but on a smaller scale.”

The tour is titled The Gathering, which, in its allusion to both Highland culture and a “group of like-minded musicians coming together,” is a neat tag for a project led by Chisholm. Few artists can have such deep, rich connections to the landscape and culture of their home. The Chisholm clan has origins dating back a millennium: “I feel very privileged to be in a position to express myself and my own feelings through my music, but also be part of a thousand years of culture, to be able to convey to people around the world not only who I am, but also where I come from and, to a great degree, the history of my people and my country.” It was this heritage that Chisholm celebrated with the Strathglass albums, for which he found inspiration from soundtracks. “I love the way film music manipulates our senses. Painting pictures through music lies at the heart of what I want to achieve as a musician. If I can move myself with what I’m doing, my hope is that it will follow on with the listener – that they will get a sense of the atmosphere of the scene I am trying to portray.”

This effect was achieved in part by the emotionally direct melodies delivered by Chisholm’s warm, focused fiddle playing. “When I am learning a tune, I imagine singing it,” he says. “The sense of breath needs to be there, as well as the frailties that I love – and the rich, confident tone – of the human voice.” Also important is the evocative, layered instrumental soundscape of Chisholm’s records, which give them a distinctive, timeless quality. This blend of old music and new ideas is important to Chisholm’s outlook for Scottish music.

He learned the fiddle in the 70s, when Scottish players were defined to a large extent by where they came from. “I still have a sound you would very much associate with the Highlands, but I’ve spent the whole of my professional life creating a sound that people would immediately associate with me.” He continues: “There is, I would say, two parallel paths in Scottish music. One maintains the tradition and keeps us all grounded. The other path is constantly changing with experimentation and collaboration, and that has taken our music to myriad new places in the past ten to 15 years, with musicians listening to music from places like India and America, and being influenced by it. This melting pot is incredibly good for not only the individuals involved, but for the country. We all feed from it.”

Like many artists, Chisholm straddles these traditional and experimental music worlds, which will be demonstrated during his February tour and also his gig as part of the Songlines Encounters Festival in June. As well as pieces with his regular trio, Chisholm will perform with Iranian vocalists and sisters Mahsa and Marjan Vahdat. He is looking forward to a spontaneous, onstage collaboration: “A lot of the timbres and the nuances of their music sound almost Gaelic,” he says. “Music has the ability to bring people really close, without anyone realising that you’re not conversing in the same language. It’s about picking up bits of melody and building on an idea that someone has given – finding something in your own tradition that fits the rhythm and chords of what’s being played.”


Among all these vibrant musical projects, there have been other important events in Chisholm’s life, both professionally and personally. Scotland has had a historic 12 months. Both the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow and the independence referendum brought international attention to Scotland and an unprecedented political and cultural debate about Scottish identity, something Chisholm has been doing with his music throughout his playing life. “People were incredibly inspired by what happened this year,” says Chisholm,  a supporter of an independent Scotland. “Glasgow benefitted hugely from the Commonwealth Games; it gave the world a view of how great a city Glasgow is.” He was not just a spectator at the Games either, performing in the opening ceremony as part of a group led by Scottish classical violinist Nicola Benedetti. “It was a wonderful experience – not like anything else I’ve done.”

More personally, later in 2014 Chisholm underwent life-saving surgery after being diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease, an inflammatory bowel complaint. He was due to tour the US with Julie Fowlis, with whom he has performed for years, but became very ill and had to turn back. The experience has re-emphasised to Chisholm what music means to him. “I am very much recovered now, but for a while I didn’t play much music because of the illness. Picking up that fiddle again – after six weeks, the longest I’ve been without playing in my adult life – and just playing for the enjoyment of making music was the biggest boost I could have ever received. Looking back, at times I maybe took for granted what I did – not only making a living out of it, but just playing music. I can guarantee that I will never take it for granted again.”