It started as a personal exercise, a daily routine to test his own self-discipline and rigour, but James Robertson’s project to write a short story each day for a year, each story containing exactly 365 words, grew into a collection of sharp, lyrical and finely observed vignettes.
Intrigued by the ritual and inspired by the potent atmosphere of the writing, Aidan O’Rourke, one of Scotland’s leading traditional musicians, and fiddler of the folk supergroup Lau, decided to follow suit. He composed a tune every day for a year, each tune a response to one of Robertson’s stories.
Robertson wrote his stories throughout 2013, O’Rourke composed his musical responses through 2016 and into 2017 and it has taken until now for them to be in a position to take this on the road for a short tour. Or, at least, that was the plan…
Just hours after Aidan O’Rourke and I discussed the project, and their plans to perform around the country, came the news that the tour has been cancelled in the wake of concerns over coronavirus.
That’s not to say one can’t still enjoy and appreciate this massive literary and musical project. James Robertson’s book 365 Stories contains the complete short stories while two CDs are currently available with a selection of recordings.
And subscribing (free) to their website will deliver a daily email link to the story and musical response of the day. This is, quite honestly, a simply astonishing project.
“It’s out of control!” Aidan laughs. “James came up with a story every day and then, a couple of years later, I wrote a piece of music each day for a year in response. I wrote the music in 2016 and it’s taken until now to record all of the music. It’s now gone out through the website, so a new tune and story goes up on the 365 website each day. It’s exciting releasing new music into the world as a free source.”
Aidan was a fan of James Robertson’s writings and received a copy of his 365 Stories, for Christmas in 2015. This became a source of inspiration for Aidan to try a project in response.
“Exactly that,” said Aidan. “They’re not written as an underscore, or accompaniment, to the story. They’re written as a first, unfiltered response to reading the story, so my process would be to have my fiddle with me and a way of recording my idea. I would clear my mind, I would read the story and then I would respond to the essence of that story and what it meant to me. It was reflective.”
The stories take all manner of forms, subjects and moods but to create an equal number of melodies is a huge ask. After all, some major recording artists’ entire catalogue is less than Aidan was planning to create in one year.
“That was one of the main worries, that I would be repeating myself and I think I did on a couple of occasions. I was aware of what I’d done a day or two before but, beyond that, it blurred into a lot of melodies although I was aware it. If you do something regularly, even over two or three weeks, your character traits or flaws or insecurities can become amplified, so within three weeks I was becoming a little bored of my own patterns. It did force me to think about my process, definitely. It forced me to play in different ways, extend my techniques and think in different keys and different tonalities.
“It was a difficult exercise but it’s been beneficial to me in general and as a writer. It’s an exercise and, like any exercise, you will adapt and progress and it will evolve. It was fun, I did actually enjoy it. There were days when it was 11.53 and I still wasn’t finished but I did enjoy that moment of… meditation, almost, when I would clear my mind and take in that story and respond to it. Sometimes the tune would take 20 minutes to write and sometimes it took the whole day.
“I started on the 1st of March (2016) and finished at the end of February 2017. As human beings we do crave a certain routine and, as a professional musician, that routine, in my daily life, doesn’t often exist. So my mind and body did crave this moment and I did miss it once it was over.”
Surely, after spending 365 days on the project, was this the first opportunity to share these tunes with someone?
“I’d share them with my partner and I’d share them with Kit (Downes), my collaborator. My relationship with Kit began when I was in the middle of this cycle, we became friends and I started to share some of the music with him but, to that point, it really was a personal exercise.
“I didn’t have any end game in mind, I never thought it would spiral into this project and we would actually go on the road with it, concerts with the author himself. I didn’t know James at the start of it all, so it’s been interesting how it’s evolved from a personal exercise. I didn’t know if I would complete it, or whether I would get a month. If I was to get 60 tunes out of this I would have been quite happy.
“I did communicate with James at the start, as a fan of his writing, and I went to a talk he was doing at Celtic Connections. I introduced myself and said I’d read a few of his novels and I was really enjoying 365. The next time I met him was a concert in February and said I was thinking of writing a response to all these stories. His first reply was ‘Don’t be daft! Don’t do that to yourself!’ He said it wasn’t an easy task and I shouldn’t set myself up for what could be a failure. He said to be careful and give myself a month and see how I feel then.
“That was interesting, speaking to him, about how it made his writing change as well. I did come out of this cycle as a different player and a different composer. There was so much time spent, just me and my instrument – so much extra time because I still had to practice and write for other projects, it was this extra affair I had.”
Aidan is much in demand as one of the eminent composers and fiddle players on the Scottish folk scene, working with other artists and as a part of the award-winning folk trio Lau. He was named as the 2014 BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards Musician of the Year and the Scots Trad Music Awards 2011 Composer of the Year. Despite having a heavy “day”
workload, he says this “affair” was a really worthwhile project.
He contacted the Edinburgh International Book Festival to let them know what he was doing. They responded by asking Aidan and James to perform at the Book Festival in 2018 along with jazz pianist and harmonium player, Kit Downes with whom Aidan had now formed a strong musical bond.
“That was an opportunity,” Aidan explained. “We all got on well and it felt quite poignant. A lot of the stories are quite thought provoking and some have a political edge to them, some are funny, some are sad, there’s a huge gamut of emotions on show and people really seemed to like it. Kit and I have done quite a few gigs as a duo and we managed to do twenty or so with James but this (would have been) the first time we’ve taken him on tour with us. And when Kit gets involved, he takes the harmonies to the most wondrous places.”
Such a shame then, that coronavirus has put paid, for now, to the trio sharing this marvellous project in person. To subscribe to receive the daily email link to 365’s story of the day, read by James Robertson, and Aidan’s tune of the day, please visit https://three-six-five.net/subscribe
In parting Aidan added a little footnote:
“So, we’d written it all, it was all great, we launched the website, the emails go out, and it was mid-January when the guy that built the website said ‘You realise this is a leap year!’ So we had to write another story and tune, it’s actually 366!”
James Robertson’s 365 Stories (ISBN: 9780241146866) is published by Penguin Books
Music double CDs 365: Volume 1 and 365: Volume 2 featuring Aidan O’Rourke and Kit Downes are available from Reveal Records