Q&A: Jenny Sturgeon, The Living Mountain

A chat with musician and songwriter Jenny Sturgeon about her latest project – turning what is widely regarded as the finest book ever written on Britain’s nature and landscape into a spell-binding audio-visual performance.

The Living Mountain is such a seminal work of mountain literature. When did you first come across it and what was the appeal?

My partner introduced me to the book and he kept leaving it lying around the house for me to read. It took me a while to finally pick it up, but once I did I was hooked! I was initially drawn to it because it was written by Nan Shepherd who had lived close to where I was brought up. Being familiar with the Cairngorms I was intrigued to find out more.

What would you say to Nan Shepherd if she were alive today?

Thank you!

What is it about wild places (and perhaps Scotland’s wild places specifically) that means so much to you?

Wild places give me time and space to ‘be’. There is a certain peace to being in wild places which I can’t find indoors (probably because of my never ending ‘to-do’ list). Scotland’s wild places, in particular areas of natural woodland and mountains, have a draw because of the soundscapes and ancientness of the environment. Some of these places have been unchanged for centuries and there is something humbling and freeing about that.

You have previously worked as a seabird biologist – tell us more!

Before moving into music full time, I worked for eight years as an ecologist, mainly focused on ornithology. This led me to studying for a PhD in seabird ecology – partly because of my love of coasts and cliffs. My research involved studying populations of colour-ringed European shags along the east coast of Scotland in winter. It was cold work, but I really enjoyed being on the coast with a telescope and flask of tea!

How has your love of the natural world informed your music and songwriting?

It wasn’t until it was pointed out to me that I noticed just how much nature infused my music and songwriting. Then a chance commission from the National Trust for Scotland took me to St Kilda. This project, to write songs and tunes inspired by the archipelago, was an opportunity for me to work on a suite of pieces inspired by my two passions: nature and music. I really enjoyed working with field recordings and bird calls. This led on to Northern Flyway, a project that I co-wrote with Inge Thomson, which is an audio-visual performance inspired by bird mythology, ecology and song.

Tell us about your approach to translating a work of literature to an audio-visual performance on stage

I was keen to explore Nan’s writing and my own connection to the Cairngorms. I decided early on in the process that I wanted to write a song for each of the 12 chapters of the book. I spent time in the Cairngorms collecting field recordings and notebooks full of writing based on each chapter title. Once I’d started work on the lyrics, I re-read Nan’s book which helped inform the melodies and musical approach of each song. Writing in this way, for a ‘concept album’, was a great experience for me. I enjoyed thinking about each song and how it fitted in with the other pieces on the album. Thinking about things like mood/emotion, key, time signature, melody and rhythm.

Can you provide a little more detail on your collaborative partners – Shona Thompson and Robyn Spice – and what they have brought to the performance?

I knew early on that I wanted to include visuals with the live performance so that audiences could see and experience the landscape that the music and book speaks of. Shona Thomson and Robyn Spice are both filmmakers I’ve been keen to work with for a while, so I was delighted when they both said yes! Shona is a filmmaker and curator who specialises in archive film. She spent time researching the National Library of Scotland archives for film of the Cairngorms. She came across some incredible footage from the 1940s-80s. Having archive film in the performance is really powerful as it helps place the book in the time that it was written – during the Second World War – and allows us to use the past to talk about the present and even the future. Alongside the archive footage is some modern-day footage of the mountain range filmed by Robyn as well as stunning footage from rewilding charity Scotland: The Big Picture.

Robyn, Shona and I spent three days exploring in the Cairngorms, gathering footage for the project (including mountain and woodland scenes, bats flying over Loch Garten and a rising full moon). Shona brought all of this together in 12 pieces which accompany each of the songs. The film brings another dimension to the performance which helps place the audience in the landscape.

Overall, what can audiences expect when you bring The Living Mountain to Peebles?  

The Living Mountain explores the landscape, geology, ecology and sounds of the Cairngorms and is an intimate audio-visual performance. Through lyrical, melodic and visual interpretation, the performance delves into Nan’s writing, the Cairngorm mountains and human connections with the wild. The meditative experience of the combined live music and imagery provides a soothing and poignant exploration of what it means to connect with a landscape and find a sense of place.

Further info

Jenny Sturgeon will perform The Living Mountain at the Eastgate Theatre, 7.30pm, Tues 23 Nov. Tickets priced £14, £12, £8 under 16s, available from Box Office on 01721 725777 or online here. For much more on Jenny’s work, visit www.jennysturgeonmusic.com