on 10 December 2000
Kathryn Tickell has a reputation for authenticity. Her previous albums are rooted with pride in the traditional repertoire of the Northumbrian pipes and fiddle. She does not flirt with commercialism or outside influences. She definitely does not sing.
So, with her new CD, "Kathryn Tickell and Ensemble Mystical", what is going on? Julian Sutton is present on melodeon, as usual. But what is John Kenny up to, on idiosyncratic trombone, plus an esoteric list of blown instruments? What are Ron Shaw's severe cello and Mary Macmaster's Scottish vocals and harp doing here? Why do we find a credit for "Kathryn Tickell: voice"? Record company pressure? Jaded folkie searches for novelty? It is, after all, a long time since 1984, when the prizewinning young daughter of Mike Tickell, traditional singer, became the Lord Mayor of Newcastle-upon-Tyne's official piper and made a purist's treasure of a CD for Saydisc.
"Thank-you for coming out in the rain tonight", Tickell says to the audience at a recent gig, "especially as you didn't really know what you were going to hear". You could say the same after picking up the new CD. But her new music has integrity and authority. In "Sevens", the first track, Tickell's pipes bubble and burble out of the drone of Kenny's alpine horn like a stream out of a Northumbrian hillside. The unusual instrumentation goes on to ground track after track, not only in Tickell's personal roots, but the rhythms of wind and waves on a Shetland shore, the sun rising on Christmas morning, the wonder of childbirth, the tread of a farmer contemplating life and death as he sows a cornfield, the rapacity of kings and bosses, the grief of a dead warrior's wife.
Intelligent, creative arrangements make even the most bizarre instrumentation convincing. On "The Burning Babe", for example, Kenny plays carnyx. The carnyx is a 2,000 year old Celtic war trumpet, made of bronze. Surmounted by a boar's head, it doubles the height of a man. A Roman account says that, at the Battle of Mons Grampius, the Picts advanced out of the morning mist with thirty of them. The Roman legionaries thought they were being attacked by an army of ghosts. Kenny plays the world's only playable carnyx, a reconstruction by archaeologists. It fits the song like the piece of fruit in the mouth of a boar's head at a reivers' banquet. Similarly, Donald Hay, credited with percussion on "Border Widow's Lament", makes a dustbin lid sound as hollow as the blond haired knight's desecrated armour, as haunting as his wife's grief. On the same track, Mary Macmaster puts a sheet of paper between the low strings of her harp. It hums like Danny Thompson's double bass in the heyday of Pentangle, another band on the roster of Park Records.
Tickell's own playing with Mystical Ensemble sounds invigorated, especially by the vocals and playing of Macmaster (ex-Poozies). The exchange of ideas between the two women feels like this unit's driving force. Their CD shows us how traditional music, not only that of contemporary bands like U2, has the power to remind us in new ways about "all that you cannot leave behind".