Aidan O'Rourke is a fiddler, composer, producer, and curator. With his trio Lau, in multiple solo projects and in collaborations, Aidan O'Rourke has pioneered a new sound in folk music and redefined traditional forms. His roots are in Scottish and Irish folk music. He grew up in an Irish family in Argyll and studied fiddle in the West Highland tradition. By 14 he was touring with The Caledonia Ramblers; in 1998 he joined Blazin’ Fiddles; in 2010 he formed the quartet Kan with whistle player Brian Finnegan; in 2016 he formed a duo with the jazz pianist Kit Downes.
What were your earliest experiences with traditional music?
I was brought up on the west coast of Argyll. I had lessons in school but had private lessons too, with an old man called George McHardy. They should have been an hour but I would spend hours and hours there, just playing tunes, learning tunes. This was at the age of eight. It was a challenge - an emotional thing, but I also liked how it was a puzzle. From day one, my teacher would have me looking at old melodies and asking me to change them to make them into my own tunes. The repertoire is the backbone to everything, but within that there are endless things that can grow out of it - an endless arsenal of ideas. And that has been my life - looking at those tunes as source material and making new music.
Was it also about a connection with place and culture, with a sense of being Scottish?
Absolutely, it was all of those things. I was learning old Scottish music, from that area. It was a language - the music sounded a lot like the way people spoke. There was a sense of ownership over that music, but, at the same time, I enjoyed the mathematical element of it all. Learning sequences, solving musical sequences. Emotion versus numbers. That excited me.
Am I right in thinking that you have Irish as well as Scottish parentage, and that music from these different places was very much part of your upbringing?
My dad plays banjo - he had immersed himself in the Glasgow folk scene of the late 1960s, which was a hotbed of political fervour as well as music. When he left Glasgow and moved to Oban, he brought with him that interest in Irish and Scottish music, and a lot of the political affiliation within it. There were references from Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, as well as Irish republicanism, the Easter Rising, groups like the Dubliners, Planxty - all of which was politically charged.
My mum is from Donegal. My dad is Scottish but his paternal grandfather was Irish, from Tyrone. I could feel that my bones were Irish. The Irish political situation was pretty full-on at that time. We would travel to see my family in Donegal and travel through the north of Ireland and experience all that tension. It was tangible, there was a war zone just across the water.
My music then was just between me and the teacher, as well as a pretty unfriendly competition scene. I went through all the usual fiddle competitions, which were great for focus but not exactly collegiate. The idea of playing music with other people for fun was a strange thing. Then I met a really important family of travelling musicians from Perthshire, a famous family of Stewarts from Blairgowrie. Their son Ian, who was then in his late 20s, had a band that was heading to America on tour and was looking for a fiddle player. I went off at the age of 15 to do a six week tour of North America with that band. I suddenly became immersed in the music of this family, a deep well of traditional music from the North East and the Highlands of Scotland.
Did it feel like a very different world?
Yes, and very much to do with learning about lineage. It was a real hands-on interaction with true tradition-bearers, who woke up in the morning and sang songs that their grandfather taught them. In Oban, music was a pastime, but when I started to spend time with the Stewarts, it felt like a direct line to how these songs were sung hundreds of years ago.
By the time of your first album in 2006, we can hear jazz, soundscape, expansive arrangements. How did those things enter into your consciousness?
I didn’t study music at university (I studied Civil Engineering), then in 1997 I moved to Edinburgh – because Edinburgh was kicking off! A real melting pot of collaboration, a blurring of boundaries between different genres, with people like Martyn Bennett and Jim Sutherland. There were a lot of people my age, a lot of people playing folk music. There were jam sessions every night of the week where you would have 30 musicians round a table playing fiddles and guitars and percussion and bagpipes and whistles.
I met a lot of jazz musicians who opened my mind to freedom within form, melody, space - a fearless attitude to their music. And they were blown away by this deep knowledge of ancient tunes, this huge cache of hundreds of tunes that were in our heads in these quite visceral, hedonistic sessions. And then we’d all go to a late night club and listen to them playing their jazz.
Was there a convergence between how people like you thought about freedom and improvisation, and how the jazz musicians you met thought about this?
Without a doubt. But their attitude was even more fearless. I was never really that interested in learning jazz harmony. It was more about an attitude and the free aspect of it. Stripping away barlines, all sense of key; this was all new to me. Despite the inherent freedom that I got from my teacher, I was still bound to basic diatonic harmony and pretty strict bar lines. And then in Edinburgh I realised that it doesn’t have to be that way at all. It was a real paradigm shift for me in attitude, a huge stepping stone to what I went on to write.
Are there any jazz violinists that have been an influence on you, or has it been mainly about spending time among jazz musicians, whatever they play?
I’ve never been fond of jazz violin. It just didn’t ever sit with me, I never studied Jean-Luc Ponty, Stephane Grappelli, I didn’t like the flashiness of it. I liked the dirty end of things. Miles Davis was my way in, John Coltrane, and then the freedom in the Scandinavian players, their sense of folk melody within their free jazz. It grew from there. But in no way am I a jazzer. I will improvise and be free, and emotionally invest in everything I play. But I’m not going to solo over a million changes and I’ve never wanted to really. It’s the free stuff that I got a kick from.
I was struck by a video of you playing with Kit Downes, where you’re sharing a tune in this very agile, but economical, way.
I went to see Kit at the Vortex jazz club in London and we had a pint afterwards. I said, “I really love your playing”, he said he was a fan of Lau, we struck up a friendship. I said, “Would you like to come and record a couple of tunes with me?” Thus far we’ve recorded 142 tracks together!
We’ve created this new palette between the two of us. I don’t think Kit plays jazz when he’s playing with me, that’s the thing. He doesn’t actually use that many jazz chord extensions. His own background is as a classical organist and pianist, and he’s gone back to his roots playing amazing early 20th century French harmony – think Ravel, Messiaen. And I’m pulling right back to the basic elements of my instrument. No effects. Little flashiness. It’s the most stripped-back I’ve played on my instrument since I was a teenager.
I'm currently working on a project called 365, where I made a new piece every day, just me and my fiddle. Within a couple of weeks I got quite bored of my own muscle memory, my own tropes. I found myself stretching out - double stops, much more implied harmony, a new way of relating to this instrument. I’m currently recording every single one of the pieces, many with Kit or other collaborators.
You talk about coming full circle, playing more folky than you ever have. Do you think you would ever make a really straight record of fiddle tunes?
Until I started the 365 project that’s what I was aiming for. I’ve always wanted to make a traditional fiddle album, but I’ve gone down a different road just now, which is very much new music, but deeply rooted in this tradition. I’m making new things, recontextualising the traditional music form but it all feels very natural. It’s just me, mindful composing - not thinking “I need to write this elaborate section for bassoon”. All I need to do is write for myself, for the fiddle, and see what’s available on this instrument. It’s a deep exploration.
Have you ever worked on projects where you were actually calling all the shots - being in that more conventional sense a “composer”?
Yes, I’ve written large scale pieces with multiple instruments, arranging for string ensemble and so on. I wrote the music for the opening of the new bridge over the Firth of Forth (the Queensferry Crossing), and that was for string quartet plus fiddles, harp and bass clarinet. Kit and I are writing a new piece for the Scottish Ensemble – string ensemble plus ourselves – and that will be touring in the autumn.
A lot of my formal composing has been trial and error. I’ve not really studied composition, apart from some mentoring with Brian Irvine and a couple of recent lessons with Laurence Crane. I’d like to study more. I used to regularly paint myself into a compositional corner by trying to be too clever, but over the last couple of years I’ve kind of reset. I’m proud of the things I’ve made, but I’m quite critical of them at the same time. Yes, I can have a good go at writing large-scale forms, but I’m also aware that I can over-complicate things by writing the music I think I should be writing, rather than the music that I want to be writing. That awareness is where I’m at just now.