Andy Sheppard & Kathryn Tickell, Music for a New Crossing (Provocateur Records, 2001)
Kevin MacLeod & Alec Finn, Polbain to Oranmore (Greentrax, 2003)
Robin Huw Bowen, Old Hearth (EMI, 2000)

To me instrumental music places a higher demand on the listener than songs. With the songs you get words to use as hooks for remembering the pieces. The words also help you access the tunes. With instrumental music you have to make a bigger effort to get inside it. This is of course unless you just use it as a sound wallpaper to accompany your doings, in which case instrumental music often is less intrusive than songs. All three of these albums are instrumental. They all have the same starting point, Celtic music, but both content and performances differ very much amongst them.

The Tickell and Sheppard collaboration is a piece in three parts, named “Part 1”, “Part 2” and “Part 3”, commissioned for the opening of a new bridge in Gateshead, UK. It is a short CD with about 22 minutes of music. Tickell plays Northumbrian pipes, Sheppard saxophones, guitar and keyboards, and Chris Wells adds some percussion. The formula is interplay between pipes and saxophone over a drone background with some added percussion. In the two first parts Tickell and Sheppard take turns with their phrases; in the third the instruments are more intertwining, with one playing the tune and the other circling around it. It is a record with many influences. The folk tradition is there of course, as is the jazz background. Some lines remind me of Ravel’s Bolero. Nice atmospheric music, good to have in the background while you are working, but nothing that really hooks you.

MacLeod and Finn use their record as a showcase for various fretted instruments, mostly different kinds of mandolins and bouzoukis with some guitars as well. They are both virtuosos on the instruments they use and with double tracking they create a lot of exciting sounds. Most of the tunes are traditional ones, but the duo takes great liberties with them. Sometimes they sound almost classical with a clear feeling for counterpoint, at other times they create what you could call acoustic heavy rock. But mostly there is a feeling of jazzy rhythms in the music. The album as a whole is much more intense than Tickell and Sheppard’s CD and demands a little more of the listener. It is difficult just to let it run in the background. All music on the album is Scottish. Titles include “Slieve Gallen Braes” and “Miss Hamilton”. There are also sets of jigs and reels, a few marches and a set of Neil Gow tunes included. A nice record for those who like fretted instruments; enjoy the tunes or just marvel at how fast they can play.

If MacLeod and Finn’s music could be labelled as fast and furious, Robin Huw Bowen’s CD is the complete opposite. It has one of the most appropriate extra titles I have ever come across: “Welsh music on the Triple Harp to warm the heart.” Do not ask me to explain what divides a triple harp from other harps, I honestly could not tell; but I can tell that Old Hearth is an album to soothe the most worked-up among us. It not only warms the heart, it warms the soul as well. Gentle is the best word I canfind to describe it. Alone on his harp, Bowen performs traditional airs, his own pieces, and some contemporary tunes written by others. He often lets himself deliver the actual tune first, then playing variations on that theme. And he lets the music take its time. The longest track here is more than eight minutes, the last one titled “Farewell to the Days of my Youth”. I must say that in its simplicity and directness this is the album out of these three I like the most. It does not try to impress you in any way, it is just there to be found and enjoyed.

[Lars Nilsson]

You can find more about these artists and CDs here, here, and here