As the seeds of his latest MAIM cross-arts theater partnership began to sprout, Alasdair C. Whyte performed at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Together with Aberdeenshire-born electronic composer Ross Whyte, who as WHYTE delivered a live cinematic audio-visual rendition of his debut album Fairich, the Mull-born singer-songwriter performed.
Just Fairich. Live was introduced as part of an exhibition of contemporary indigenous works, Produced in Scotland 2017. Live was an effort to do something more than a mere concert and add to their performance a more dramatic aspect. This was in line with WHYTE’s own forward-thinking fusion of melodic electronica and Gaelic music, and possibly provided MAIM with a rough blueprint, which will be introduced at the Tron Theatre in Glasgow next week at the beginning of an extensive nationwide tour.
Following Fairich, the origins of the new show began: Muireann Kelly, artistic director of the Glasgow-based Gaelic group Theatre Gu Leor, visited Live. When Whyte approached Kelly about doing something analogous to Fairich with some of the material he and Whyte had recorded, WHYTE was in the process of recording their second album, Tairm. Whyte had already started a doctoral dissertation at the Celtic and Gaelic Department of Glasgow University on the place names of the Torsay area on Mull and the causes of their disappearance, and his thesis had already told his songs about the new WHYTE record.
The outcome of MAIM is a fusion of contemporary and traditional Gaelic music, spoken word, dance, and cutting-edge audiovisual material, a call to future generations to preserve their land and language, both in form and content.
Whyte says of the push behind MAIM, ‘It’s about how the world is changing and how the language is changing.’ “For me, there’s an inherent connection between those two things, especially on Mull. Although ‘change’ and ‘shift’ might not be the right words when we talk about it, because things don’t just change or shift on their own. It’s actually the people who are responsible for those changes.”
MAIM – pronounced like a mime – means a state of fear, terror or warning, and the show WHYTE performs live with two songs from Tairm. Choreographer Jessica Kennedy of the acclaimed Junk Ensemble company and groundbreaking audiovisual content by Lewis Den Hertog are significant contributors. Actress Elspeth Turner and guitarist, musician and dancer Evie Waddell will perform as well. Everyone involved collaborates on a piece under the direction of Kelly, which has obviously been a labor of love.
Raised at the foot of Beinn Talaidh in the village of Salen, near Glen Forsa, an open glen, Whyte was not a native Gaelic speaker but sang Gaelic songs from a young age. Singing made him think of some of the stuff on his doorstep that had happened.
I became aware of some of Mull’s stories progressively through the songs I learned from my father. I also started to note the Gaelic inflections in the language of my father more and more. Scenically, Glen Forsa is very important because this region of Mull had a large population perhaps as recently as the 19th century, but now there is no soul living there.
We are talking about the era of the Highland Clearances, when, for the personal benefit of landlords, entire communities were wiped out. All this has encouraged me to try to convey as best I can the complexity of these stories and do my part to ensure that Gaelic on Mull is a living language and has a future.
Whyte has been singing “as long as I can remember” twice nominated for the Hands Up for the Trad Gaelic Singer of the Year award and started writing in his late teens in Gaelic. His new partnership with Ross Whyte as WHYTE is a deliberate attempt to put Gaelic at the forefront of culture of the twenty-first century while firmly rooting it in a tradition that can keep it alive.
“Without all these eighteenth-century songs, I wouldn’t have the license to do what I do, and I think it’s so important to use contemporary idioms alongside that. And truly, when things change in language, we will need to start coping with climate change.
Although MAIM can be seen as a call to action, Whyte is not interested in alienating viewers, and the show is accessible through subtitles and integrated BSLL for non-Gaelic speakers.