Alasdair Fraser: Playing, Promoting and Exploring the Music of Scotland and Beyond
Alasdair Fraser is widely acclaimed as the top Scottish fiddler on the scene today. Alasdair began fiddling as a young boy, learning classical violin in school and traditional fiddle at home. He continues to study, and cherish, the traditional fiddle music of his native Scotland. A wearer of many hats, Alasdair the teacher runs two successful fiddle camps, one on the Isle of Skye, Scotland, and one in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California. Alasdair the performer is constantly touring, both with his latest band, and solo, where he plays everywhere from the local dance to Lincoln Center. And Alasdair the scholar and explorer is ever discovering new ways to express himself musically. Whether he is playing classic Scottish strathspeys and reels or experimenting with rock and roll, medieval, or Baroque music, Alasdair is a true artist on the fiddle, and ever willing to share his gifts and discoveries.
This interview took place at Alasdair's Valley of the Moon Scottish Fiddling School in Boulder Creek, California, in September 1995, during a break from his teaching.
I'd like to start with your background -- where were you from in Scotland, how did you get into fiddling...
Oh, no, not that!
Okay. I started when I was eight years old. There was a fiddle under the sideboard that belonged to my grandfather. He was a fiddler. He was a founding member of the Strathspey and Reel Society in Stirling. My family was actively involved in music. My dad's a piper. So this fiddle was lying there, not being used. I had the chance to get lessons at school. This great teacher was going around to schools at that time. He didn't teach me Scottish, he taught me classical violin, I suppose, although I don't like the term "classical violin." He gave me technique on the violin. So I did violin at school, and then I'd come home and play Scottish fiddle at home. It was kind of a two-pronged attack on the violin.
Who were some of your favorite Scottish players?
There were very few. Scottish fiddle music, even now, is reconstructing itself, because it was so devastated. The Scottish culture, not just the fiddle -- the language, song, music, everything was devastated by the Church and the British government basically. So there weren't many heroes for me to copy. But I guess, ultimately, in my late teens I was listening a lot to Hector McAndrew, Angus Grant, Farquhar MacRae, west Highland fiddle player. Of course, I was listening to anyone I could get my ears on. In terms of trying to work out what Scottish fiddle actually is, there were very few role models.
What happened to Scottish music is that it got "cleaned up," in the same way that the Scottish accent was cleaned up -- people were told to speak "properly," and they were taught to play their fiddle tunes "properly." Instead of speaking in a Scottish accent, you were taught to speak standard English, BBC English, in the classroom. So the same happened on the fiddle. People would play in a very cleaned up way, almost like a classical version of the original fiddle tunes. The ornaments were taken out, and they were taught a nice vibrato and a warm tone and all this stuff. So I started thinking, "There's something missing here. Scottish fiddle music is not really alive and well in Scotland." So I had to look elsewhere for my heroes. I started turning over stones and seeing what would crawl out. That's how I got into the Cape Breton thing, a long time ago. I needed to find Cape Breton to fill in the missing links back home. Because there was a whole area of Highland fiddle music that was gone. So you have to go to Canada for it. And then you have to look to the Appalachians to find out how dance fiddlers would have played, using double stops and things. And then Donegal for older ideas on strathspeys and highlands. So from Scotland I started looking out around Scotland, where the emigrants went, to try and find out where my music went. Because I couldn't find it at home. What I was finding was a cleaned up version. So that's basically my journey. It's still going on.
I also like to listen to singers a lot. I grew up with Gaelic singing, my grandfather was a Gaelic speaker, my folks were from the Inverness area in the north of Scotland. So I grew up with the Gaelic sounds in my head, and you can translate the Gaelic sounds to the fiddle. There's a great correlation between fiddle and language. You could stop the fiddle style and go check out the language of the area where it came from, like in Aberdeenshire, they speak in a very spikey way, clip their words, and the fiddling is all very clipped, very snappy, unlike Gaelic speaking areas. So these are all things I get my head into.
How did you start the Valley of the Moon fiddling school?
Well, I'd always been playing, and I came over here. I was determined to be a good traveler, you know, I was going to go and learn American fiddle tunes, which I did do. I used to go and hang out with bluegrass or old-timey circles, and all that. And people were interested in what I was doing. And one thing I love about the American approach is that it's not superficial. When people get interested in something, they really want to know. They want to get down to details and work out what's going on in someone's playing. So I was being asked all these questions about strathspeys and Scottish jigs and things that made me really look at my own tradition, in a big way, and I love that. So when I gathered how much interest there was, with a few friends, we started this Valley of the Moon school. Basically we rented a camp for the week, put a table out in the middle of the woods, put some fliers up that said "Scottish Fiddle Camp: Come and learn how to play Scottish fiddle music." And we asked Tom Anderson, from the Shetland school that year, but he couldn't come. So we had Alasdair Hardie... I wasn't even teaching then. I taught privately, but I was still too busy checking out my own stuff. We had thirty-five people the first year, and then it doubled every year. Now it's a waiting list situation.
What about your school in Skye [The Alasdair Fraser Fiddle Course, at the Gaelic College in Skye]?
It's a similar thing. It's very much the same philosophy. There's a philosophy through all these camps that I do, which is, "find your own music on the fiddle." It doesn't have to be Scottish. Find out what the idiom is, and speak in that idiom on the fiddle. Make the fiddle speak with an accent. Or with a bunch of different accents. And it's okay to be creative on your instrument. You don't have to be scared that you're not playing the tune right, or anything like that. You have to do your homework and know where the music has been. If you're studying Irish music, if you've listened to a lot of Irish music, and you've got a sense of what the idiom is about, and you've copied your heroes, then at some point, you say, "Well, I play this music." And then you make it your own and you make statements from yourself, but using that idiom. So that's what these [schools] are about. We declare it as a safe environment to find your own self expression. People come here and they feel okay, they know no one is going to laugh at them and say, "No, that's the wrong way to play that." They try things, and that leads to quick growth. They just get positive reinforcement. So it's that, it's finding your own voice on an instrument and expressing yourself, getting in touch with the emotionality of that music, and relating the fiddle to the dance. That's a huge thing that I really believe in. I love to play for dances, always have. So playing for dances teaches you a lot about how you bow tunes. Tunes and dance evolved together. So if you want to learn something about one, you look at the other. So you watch the dancer's feet, an old highland strathspey step in Cape Breton teaches you how to bow.
[This article is from the (out of print) Spring 1996 issue of Fiddler Magazine.]