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'A wee bit pitchy': the delights of discovering folk music

When I moved from London to join the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, one of the many delights awaiting me in my new life was the discovery that there was such a thing as folk music.

Playing the violin from the age of three, I only remember playing one piece of Swedish folk music with friends. Other musical genres muscled in on my cultural horizon, but of folk, I remember hearing almost nothing. Like stories of Nessie, I didn't think I was meant to take it seriously. How wrong I was.

These days, on concert tours of the Highlands, I find myself staying in crofts, where people make their own clarsachs and publish collections of traditional music for the rest of the world to play. I've joined an orchestra that might, on a merry whim after a concert, push back the tables in a hotel bar and stage an impromptu midnight ceilidh. And best of all, traditional music has started to crop up in my official work schedule.

Recently I played with four of Scotland's leading folk musicians and composers, as part of an ongoing tour by Mr McFall's Chamber – an ensemble that is no stranger to genre-bending. Being the newby in the room, occasional translations were needed. Now I know that when someone tells me "it sounds a wee bit pitchy", I am playing out of tune. And I hope I've learned to play a jig with a less obviously classical accent.

Reviewing the St Magnus Festival in Orkney last month, I was expecting a combination of classical and contemporary works, but enjoyed an unmistakeable folk thread woven deftly through the whole week. The diverse but well-integrated programmes offered by festival director Alasdair Nicolson this year – putting Norwegian Hardanger fiddles on stage with the classy and classical Trondheim Soloists and a new young Orcadian folk band for example – were a rare treat.

Unhappily, dangerous rocks lurk off the shore of multi-genre collaboration, and not every project makes the crossing. At its worst, it feels like a desperate attempt to make classical music look more adventurous and less formal. As Svend Brown, director of music for Glasgow Life, puts it, without real artistic integrity, "either the classical players end up a very expensive and under-utilised backing band, or the traddies are wheeled out for a bit of colour and a tune you can hum, rescuing otherwise undistinguished acres of contemporary music".

But look at the exciting possibilities presented by pre-eminent artists such as the Kronos Quartet, espousing the principle of collaboration so wholeheartedly and successfully. Their BBC Proms appearance this summer is typical of their spirit of musical adventure, including a piece by Aleksandra Vrebalov, a Serbian composer, that includes ethnic Balkan instruments, as well as electronic overdubs.

"The music's the thing," underlines Brown. So if it's good, let's hear it, and never mind what genre you call it. As I write, two Scottish artists – Sally Beamish, classical contemporary composer, and Aidan O'Rourke, folk violinist and composer – stand shoulder to shoulder in a weekend of new music at London's Southbank Centre, each having been chosen to write one of the 20x12 Commissions for the London 2012 Festival. Gone are the days when the music establishment was limited enough to tell O'Rourke that, as a talented violinist, he was wasting his time with traditional music.

Anna Meredith, previously composer in residence with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, is another 20x12 commission. Her piece requires the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain to perform her composition Hands Free without their instruments, relying on their beatboxing and body percussion alone. Why? Because she believes their audacious talent and musicianship shine through, not only in a different style, but even without their instruments at all.

Music, after all, is not a sporting competition, so we should be able to do without the categories.

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