A duo known for their deep exploration of Scottish music is expanding overseas. Highlighting links between multiple cultures, fiddler Alasdair Fraser and cellist Natalie Haas perform tunes on their latest album, Ports of Call, that originate in Scandinavia, France, and Spain, taking their listeners on an auditory journey around the North Atlantic.
The travel imagery is an intentional nod to the time the pair spends touring and at fiddle camps, immersing themselves in myriad fiddle dialects. Haas describes the project as a split between original compositions—a new focus—and European dance tunes. (Of course, there’s still some Scottish music sprinkled in.) Fraser and Haas have been a team for 18 years, and say this album mirrors the stage they’ve entered in their musical journey.
“In the beginning I think we were just exploring what the cello can do in this music and we were playing a lot of more common session tunes and trad stuff, and just high-energy, kind of raucous tunes,” Haas says. “Now we’re getting more into the sophistication of arrangement and composition and creating larger-form pieces.” They recorded in three sessions over a year-and-three-month period, starting in Glasgow in 2015. “It’s hard to find time to be creative when you’re on the road as much as we are,” Haas adds. “It’s a very long and gradual, organic process.”
Speaking from her Boston home—she’s an associate professor at the Berklee College of Music—Haas delves into the multicultural celebration at
the heart of the album.
You cover a lot of ground in Ports of Call, but the first track acknowledges your duo’s Scottish roots. Why begin there?
The song has this amazing humanitarian message: “Freedom Come All Ye.” For people who know the song and what it’s about—and hopefully some of that comes across in the liner notes—it’s this amazing message of freedom for everyone across the planet. That’s really important, especially to Alasdair as a Scot, someone who’s struggling for independence. I also think it’s just a beautiful melody. My friends and I refer to it as one of those “triumph-of-the-human-spirit” types of melodies. Scottish music is full of that.
How did the album’s concept come together?
Well, this is kind of what we do in a way. We spend our lives traveling and are lucky to get to spend a lot of time in Europe and Australia. Unfortunately, I haven’t really been to more exotic areas of the globe yet but we know that these places share a love of the fiddle. We’ve had so many international teachers come to our fiddle camps and share their culture and musical dialects with us. This is kind of a celebration of all of that—diversity and the similarities and differences of our fiddle-loving cultures across the planet. But, we’re mostly concentrating on Europe and the North Atlantic for this one, just because that’s sort of what we’ve encountered the most in our own journey.
I still love [Scottish music] of course and we will always play that music, but we also love listening to and playing the music from these other cultures. That was really important to us, especially in these crazy political times,
to really celebrate reaching hands across the planet to our fellow humans. You know, celebrating the similarities between people.
What’s your composition process like?
I have three of my own tunes on here and I don’t actually write that many tunes. I’m usually more involved in the arrangement process and I love that. Generally, in our duo, one of us will bring a melody to the table—it can be one of our own, something from another culture, or a Scottish tune that we’ve loved for years—and then we will sort of break it apart and see what we can do with it. The person who brings it might have more- or less-shaped ideas coming into it. Or it might just be a bare melody on its own and we have to play it a lot and come up with how we can trade roles and what might work behind it. We went into the recording studio not having a clear vision for the album, but when we decided, “OK, we’ve got to make this into something,” then we knew we needed more material, so we both began at that point to write more.