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Hoots and Roots - Life and Death

Julian Cowley, Signal To Noise

Why make music when it’s not for money? It would be an interesting exercise to invite a selection of individuals making non-commercial music to pin down their motivation. And the Hoots and Roots duo would be a good place to start. Over the years, in various contexts drummer Ken Hyder and singer Maggie Nicols have made music that has often been shaped and strengthened by non-musical concerns. Since the days when she sang with the legendary Spontaneous Music Ensemble, Nicols has engaged with what she calls ‘social virtuosity’ - issues of community and possibilities for creative interaction without sacrifice of personal distinctiveness. For Nicols, music involves getting together with other people in the hope of working magic.
Hyder has toured and recorded with groups of Tibetan Buddhist monks, and understands deeply their sense of music as spiritual practice. His involvement with the shamanic culture of Tuva informs directly the music he makes in the remarkable improvising trio K-Space. And he recalls that when he collaborated back in 1985 on an entirely instrumental album, Fanfare For Tomorrow,with passionately left-wing Scottish folk musician Dick Gaughan, “each note and gesture was informed by politics. The day we were in the studio was the 25th anniversary of the Sharpeville massacre. We spent half an hour arguing about the politics of that struggle, the event, our attitudes to it and what we wanted to convey. It wouldn’t have been the same without that focus, that concentration and fine-tuning of energy.”

On Life And Death Hyder and Nicols turn their finely tuned energy to exploration of their shared culture of growing up in Scotland. It’s a concern they both touched on years ago in Hyder’s Celtic-jazz group Talisker, but with Hoots And Roots that imaginative plunge into the everyday conscious and unconscious life of their formative years is stripped of all distractions. Each note and gesture carries the accents, preoccupations and flavour of their homeland. Any serious anatomy of national character has to deal with parody and stereotypes, and try to distil what’s real. Tender ballads and whisky fuelled snarling, Gaelic exuberance and Calvinistic nay-saying, workers’ complaints and maudlin lamentation, busybody chitchat, robust humour and music-hall caricature - whatever surfaces out of memory or fantasy is woven into Nicols’s stream of song. Hyder adds his voice when the spirit or his sense of drama moves him. On drums he works with tell-tale Scottish rhythmic patterns, tilts them off-balance and sends them reeling or refines them into atmospheric texture. The basic material was recorded at the Guelph Festival in Canada in September 2000. Later Hyder mixed, folded and layered it into a 22-minute improvised montage, as concentrated, nuanced, uplifting and delightful as a fine single malt. “That was so fucking Scottish!”, Nicols chortles in the hilarity that ends the performance. And Hyder responds, “Where’s your Sigmund Freud now then?” A rhetorical question: Hoots And Roots meet Eros and Thanatos coming thro’ the glen.

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