The Spirit of Scotland

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The sounds of Scotland – high energy reels and soulful ballads – will be captured expertly by Catherine Strutt (piano) and Chris Duncan (fiddle) at the Glasshouse this month. Think heather, misty moors, peaty fires, the Scots’ fighting spirit – and you have pictured the essence of this show …

Hi guys. You’ve both come from an exceptionally musical background … How old were you when you started to play, and who were your biggest musical influences growing up? 

We both learnt to play instruments from age 11 and started playing in dance bands from around 15, Chris in a Scottish Dance Band “Harp and Claymore” and me (Catherine) in my parents’ bush band, “Coalbrook Ceilidh”. Both were Newcastle based bands and played all over the Hunter Valley for 21 years or more, before they folded.

We’ve both had an almost identical musical start to our lives as musicians. For me, probably my first musical influences were my parents. They started their bush band when my twin sister, Jennifer, and I were three years old, so we’ve always had live music and musicians in our lives.

Later on, I was influenced by various Celtic traditional folk music bands from around the world. I honed in on particular Scottish traditional piano players and listened to all of them very closely.

Chris didn’t have musician parents to influence him, so he’s a bit of a black sheep in his family, but he also was influenced by traditional Celtic music from around the world, along with local fiddle playing legends we have here in Australia. It’s come full circle, and now most younger fiddle players in Australia have been taught and influenced by Chris. It’s well known in the traditional music scene in Australia that Chris is one of the two world’s best Scottish fiddlers.

How would you say playing piano and fiddle – Scottish style – differs from other styles of music?

A great question, although much easier to describe aurally than by words! Number one is that we play Strathspeys. Strathspeys are endemic to Scotland, and the particular rhythm of a Strathspey is only in Scottish music. They’re essentially a 4/4 rhythm and can be fast and grooving, or can be slow and beautiful, like a grand old Scottish lady sitting by a peat fire up in the highlands of Scotland.

In a sweeping generalisation of fiddle and piano duos around the world, in a Scottish fiddle and piano duo the fiddle takes the melody and the piano provides a rhythmic accompaniment. It isn’t the job of the piano, however, to provide the rhythm for the fiddle player – more so to enhance what the fiddle is doing. Fundamentally, the fiddle player should play with rhythm, therefore allowing the piano player to elaborate on the story the fiddle player is telling.

Fiddle and piano should tell the same story – not fiddle tells the story and piano is just “backing up” the fiddle by musically saying, “Yeah … yep … see, I told you so. Yeah, what he said”.  The piano and fiddle should talk together – tell the same story. This is essentially the way all fiddle and piano duos of all traditional music works. It’s different to a classical fiddle and piano duo, because mostly the violin is the main melody lead instrument, and the piano is there to provide a backing, or depth, or change of sound while the violin takes a break.

This is certainly not how it works in our duo, where we take turns to be the lead melody player. Both of us play with rhythm, an essential ingredient of traditional music, and both of us tell the story. After so many years playing closely together, we have morphed into one big instrument.

With three albums under your belt together, an ARIA Award for best World Music Album for Fyvie’s Embrace, numerous other awards and recognition, your musical careers have spanned some amazing highs. What future plans are in the pipeline?

We’ve been invited to play at a highly respected Scottish dance weekend in California next year …

We’re excited to be heading to the National Folk Festival in Canberra over Easter next year, our favourite festival. We’ll be travelling around the states for various other festivals, concerts and dances. Hopefully we’ll help celebrate a few weddings around the country too!

I’m (Catherine) currently working on an exciting new solo piano recording project that I can’t say too much about, again for ABC Classics, and this will continue into next year. Keep an eye out around late 2018 or early 2019 for something new!

What are some of the musical numbers you’ll be performing at the Glasshouse? 

We play music that is derived from Scottish culture and spans the 1700s to the late 1990s. Primarily the tunes are from the Scottish fiddle tradition, which means grooving jigs, some great funky reels and some of the most beautiful slow tunes that a musical culture could produce, along with a healthy peppering of powerful Strathspeys!

Our audiences are transported back in time, back up into the misty, heathery highlands.

Catherine, you’re no stranger to Port Macquarie … we’ve seen your visual artistry during the joint exhibition with your sister, Jennifer – Let The Chips Fall Where They May– last year at the Glasshouse …

Yes, and we both loved our time at Glasshouse, working with the amazing staff! We’re very much looking forward to our Quirky Collage workshops coming up in January as part of the Neon Summer programme. These are open to creatives of all levels. Come and have some fun with The Strutt Sisters!

Chris, have you been to Port Mac before?

No, I don’t think I have been to Port Macquarie before. Catherine has told me all about the beautiful beaches, town and friendly people, and she has endless praise for the Glasshouse gallery and venue.

I’m looking forward to visiting, and I’m especially looking forward to the small intimate venue of the studio at Glasshouse with its grand piano – our favourite kind of venue and very rare! The more acoustic our gigs, the better!

I’m also looking forward to exploring some of the historical parts of the town, which I should manage to do while Catherine and Jennifer are busy with their collage workshop at the gallery before our concert.

Where can we find out more info? 

We have a website and Facebook and Instagram. Follow us to keep in touch! Our Facebook and Instagram handle is: @duncanandstrutt       Find us on Youtube too at DuncanStrutt.

Thanks guys. Interview by Jo Robinson.

See The Spirit of Scotland at the Glasshouse on 27th January at 8pm.

Quirky Collage Workshop with The Strutt Sisters: 27th January, 10am.

Visit for details.

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