Music and stories have gone hand-in-hand since time immemorial. Which is why it is surprising, really, that events like today’s – “A Tune and a Story a Day”, with Aidan O’Rourke, Kit Downes and James Robertson at Edinburgh Book Festival, are relatively rare. Over the centuries, storytelling and music have become two separate arts, with common goals but rarely sharing a podium.
Robertson has been involved in efforts to re-entwine these diverging pathways before. 2016 saw an ambitious Celtic Connections show combining spoken-word and music that centred around Robertson’s complete re-writing of Joni Mitchell’s Hejira album, performed by a cast of traditional music’s finest. But interestingly, the creation of this particular relationship took an entirely different route.
In 2013 Robertson challenged himself to write a story every day, each 365 words long. 133,225 words later, the stories were published online, one by one, a year from when they were written. Finally, at the end of 2014, the stories were released in book form. And that was the end of it – so Robertson thought, although he reminds us that he hinted in the intro of the collection that he hoped they would have ‘more lives to come.’
Unbeknownst to Robertson, O’Rourke had set his own challenge. In 2016 he read 365 in its entirety, and each day he wrote a tune inspired by that day’s tale. Now, four years after Robertson first set pen to paper (or whatever medium writers prefer these days), the words and tunes are together for the first time.
They are joined on stage by jazz musician Kit Downes, seated behind none other than Ivor Cutler’s harmonium. He and O’Rourke launch straight into one of the compositions and I’m sure I’m not the only one in the audience trying desperately to guess which story the music alludes to. Seamlessly, they stop playing as Robertson begins to speak. It’s March 12th – The Skull.
And so begins a delightful hour of melody and story weaving in and out of one-another, punctuated with laughter, anecdotes and witty asides. O’Rourke’s compositions retain strong echoes of his traditional roots, but similarly to his more recent work with trio Lau, are too much of a deportation to be considered strictly ‘in the tradition’. Instead they are stand-alone pieces, with seams of inspiration from a multitude of genres running through them, but belonging no more to one than another.
Similarly, many of Robertson’s pieces take their inspiration from the folkloric, playing out a number of different tropes in a variety of new and unthought-of situations. There’s Jack, of Beanstalk fame (dim but kind, with flashes of surprise cunning), old wise women, lovers and of course, Death, work-weary and introspective. The latter makes no appearance as part of today’s experience – probably for the best.
To create something in a day is a challenge that many artists would find too daunting to undertake. To repeat that process unrelentingly for a year seems almost madness. But Robertson and O’Rourke have discovered and harnessed a well-kept secret of creativity – that sometimes the tightest parameters inspire the best work.
For more on the Edinburgh International Book Festival and it’s programme click here.