Trad/roots: Why music's a 365-day preoccupation for Aidan O'Rourke

West-of-Scotland musician Aidan O'Rourke, founder member of folk group Lau among others, wrote and recorded a piece of music for every day of the year and now he's doing a PhD in Derry

Aidan O'Rourke – the powerful essence of James Robertson's stories stayed with me...
Robert McMillen

IT MIGHT be misplaced but despite being in a third lockdown there seems to be a fair bit of optimism going around that this year, 2021, could see the coronavirus dragon decapitated by the St George of science.

With spring just over three weeks away (if you abide by the ancient Irish calendar), the green shoots of musical recovery are already popping up above the surface.

Of course, it’s not as if music died during the pandemic – indeed many of us were kept in good spirits because of the artists who struggled on, despite how they might have been feeling inside, to share their tunes and their songs with us online. It might have lacked the intimacy of a live gig but there was still a sense of a cyberspace community among those who shared their art forms on line and those who pressed 'play' on their computer screens.

When I spoke to Aidan before Christmas he told me he was “in the process of emerging back to some kind of existence”.

“I felt fairly redundant for a few months there,” he said, something which will come as a surprise to many as his latest offering is called The Best of 365. The story behind it is this:

In 2013, Scottish author James Robertson wrote a short story every day for a year. What began as a personal writing exercise (each story was to contain exactly 365 words) became a boundless collection of fabulous stories.

A couple of years later, O’Rourke matched the endeavour by composing a fiddle tune every day in response to Robertson’s stories, and the result is a vast new body of tunes – a major addition to the Scottish traditional music repertoire.

“James’s stories are meditations on life and politics and folklore as well as the minutiae of everyday life,” says the Argyll man.

“When I met him, he told me he was a big fan of Lau and I told him I thought his short stories were like short-form traditional music pieces. I found I was getting this immediate emotional response to each of the stories, that the powerful essence of the stories stayed with me for quite a while after reading them and I wondered if I could harness that feeling.

“James was dubious but suggested I try a month so I started in March and just kept going. I teamed up with Kit Downes, who is a jazz pianist/harmonium player and we finished recording it back in pre-Covid 2018.”

Having listened to some of the tunes as they appeared on Spotify (I know, I know!) I could only marvel at the creative process that was at work in Aidan’s head, when man and instrument seemingly became one, flesh and blood, wood and string coming together to create something beyond the earthly.

Passion is a word often used about the man who grew up on a council estate on the outskirts of Oban on Scotland’s west coast. He puts it down to his early exposure to folk music.

“My very first teacher was an old guy called George McHardy who was a great communicator when it came to his passion for the music,” recalls Aidan.

“As an eight-year old, it was that that I picked up on and then there was the passion of my father because I was brought up listening to Irish trad – Planxty, Dé Danann, The Bothy Band and The Dubliners – so my earliest musical memories would have been being surrounded by this really exciting music as well as the master/apprentice relationship I had with George, who really became a hero of mine.”

That combination created a momentum which Aidan still has to this day.

“Growing up in Oban, we’d go on holidays to other islands like Colonsay and Oransay which have connections with Ireland and you can actually see Ireland from Colonsay which was important as my mum was from Donegal and my father’s grandfather was from Tyrone,” he recalls.

"We are very much the one people if you look at the sharing of produce and animals and music and language going back over a thousand years and you can sense that not just in the place names but in the music and in the Gàidhlig – and also in the fiddle styles,” he adds.

For Aidan, the connection is based on landscape and topography and the wildness of the sea but also even in the way English is spoken on the west coast of Scotland, something which reminded me of what another fiddler, Ultan O’Brien, explained to me about how spoken language influences music.

O’Rourke never wanted to get involved in the music that was being played around him – there were lots of accordions and a lot of it was directed at tourists, he recalls – although he did play in some summer shows which paid him some money and showed him the possibility that music could actually be a career.

What really got him caught up in the musical web was a trip to America with

Ian Stewart from the famous Stewart family from Blairgowrie, who was looking for a fiddler and Aidan fitted the bill. His mother’s only condition in letting him go was that he attend Mass every Sunday!

Aidan celebrated his 16th birthday in the US and the rest, as they say… involves his being a founder member of such fabulously creative bands such as Lau and Kan (with Brian Finnegan) and his own solo work, although he says there is a direct line between all he does and traditional music he learned from George McHardy.

“Music is often an amalgam and mine came together when I took my music to Edinburgh and got involved in an avant garde scene with jazz musicians and electronic musicians and people working in contemporary classical music – including sharing a flat with composer Brian Irvine from Belfast – and all that seeped in to my musicality and gave me the will to do something new while still trying to find the pure essence of the music that I wanted to make,” he explains.

Aidan is now working on a PhD in the University of Ulster in Derry, entitled A Portfolio of New Scottish Music: Expanding the language, form, diversity and relevance of traditional music in Scotland.

The gig scheduled for later this month in Belfast featuring Aidan and piper Brìghde Chaimbeul, one of Scotland’s fastest rising stars, has been postponed until later in the year due to Covid restrictions. Watch this space for updates.

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