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Arts Guardian - Nov 1st 1982
Northumbrian folk musician, Alistair Anderson tackles London's South Bank this week. David Ward reports
ALISTAIR Anderson, balletic concertina virtuoso, star of the Northumbrian pipes, dedicated propagandist for English traditional music, came to folk via the Rolling Stones, which comes as a shock if you had imagined him romantically inspired from birth by the musicians of rural Northumberland. He grew up in Wallsend.
Jagger and co, it seems, used to speak feelingly in radio interviews of influential blues singers. Anderson, then a grammar school boy, bought some records out of curiosity, liked what he heard, and — with a bit of help from Bob Dylan and regulars at the Bridge club in Newcastle-upon-Tyne — made the transition from blues to folk.
He took to his English concertina — an instrument that belonged to a friend's granddad, which he is still playing — with spontaneous ease and found it a natural extension of his arms. Unladen for an interview, his hands search excitedly for buttons and bellows to help punch out the words.
Anderson abandoned teaching for music in 1971 and has earned his keep since, both as a soloist and, until 1979, as a member of the High Level Ranters (www.nspipes.co.uk/hlr/), the band that has done so much for the self-respect of the music of the North-east. He has travelled . the length and breadth of Britain, of course, plus Italy, France, Germany, Denmark (the Danes made a TV documentary about him), Australia. New 'Zealand and North America: "I've done 15 trips to the US and not lost money on any of them." Wherever he goes he takes his concertina, his Northumbrian smallpipes (squeezed, not blown) acquired in 1975, and the jigs, reels, marches and airs of these islands.
He has recorded five solo LPs, but the* sixth, called Steel Skies, is different: partly because Anderson is joined by four other musicians but mainly because the music is not traditional. It is all his own work, all 52 minutes of it The instruments are traditional (concertina, pipes, fiddle, flute, mandolin) and the sounds will not be unfamiliar to anyone who has ever been in a folk club. But the form has been extended.
"I'm interested in melody and especially the personal interpretation of melody," he said. " So the idea of writing melodies of my own seemed a very natural thing. I found it a very intense experience — it's one of the few things I enjoy, more than playing, which is saying something.
"My idea was to write something specifically for people versed in traditional music, used to its phrasing, dynamic, and decoration. What I could do with that kind of group was obviously very different from what I could do with a group of orchestral musicians. A second violin in an orchestra will accept his sometimes slightly dull line as part of the total effect. But the traditional musician wants a reasonable tune, otherwise he won't remember it or get involved in it."
Steel Skies is a series of melodic mood changes where the tune is more important that the harmony, the counterpart more important than the chords. It demands and deserves concentration because it relies on subtlety - a quality few outsiders are willing to allow the folk musician.
" It's much easier if I want to hit an audience hard to play something showy. Then they'll say. Wow, he can't half play the concertina. I can play them an allegro from a Bach sonata and it's a really fiery piece. Great. Wonderful . . . But it's nothing like as hard to play as a really good slow air." We conclude that Constant Lambert, who said all those rude things about folk tunes, must have had cloth ears.
Steel Skies, says Anderson, differs from traditional music because of its length, because it is all the product of one mind, because of its harmonies and counter melodies, and because its range of influences is wider (Scots and Irish as well as Northumbrian — plus a bit of French Canadian too). But its composition does not imply dissatisfaction with or superiority to traditional music.
"What the really great traditional musicians do is a complete musical experience. It needs no allowances to be made for it. Steel Skies is my personal response to that music. It's a distillation of my feelings for the kind that I have loved for 20 years.
"Because I am of the 20 th century, , because I am a travelled person and because I listen to other kinds of music, my own music has come out quite different. I'm not Willy Taylor — I've not been a shepherd all my life; I'm not Tom Clough — I've not been down the mines all my life. I'm Alistair Anderson with a background which is quite different from those players. So the music I play is different."
Anderson was lucky that, at 16 or 17, when he had just picked up his friend's grandad's concertina, he was introduced to the late Billy Pigg, one of the greatest Northumbrian pipers (and one whose work the discriminating John Peel used to feature on Radio One).
Anderson has now quit the coaly Tyne for rural Northumberland, close to where some of the best traditional musicians still live and play. Close, too, to the Northumbrian hills, whose character he compares with the tone of the pipes: "They both have a certain edge. You could never say the hills were pretty; neither is the sound of the pipes." Some of those up-country musicians, including the milkman from Rothbury, were in the audience when Steel Skies was given its first performance at the Newcastle Festival last month.
That the piece would do well on its home ground was a foregone conclusion; but Anderson, reckless man, is bringing it to the Purcell Room on Thursday. What will the South Bank make of it? "I hope people who have not heard this sort of music before will come. Putting my head on the line, I think it will grab them," he said.