PLUS Biography (Courtesy the Artist's site, 2005).
A story Phil Cunningham oftens tells against himself sums up his natural gifts as a tunesmith.
Some years ago the accordionist and multi-instrumentalist was invited to a charity dinner near his home near Beauly in the north of Scotland. When he arrived and found fellow guests donating extremely generous sums, Cunningham realised that the two books of tunes and the CD that he had brought with him as raffle prizes were on the light side.
So he quickly composed a tune, jotted it down on his napkin and offered it as a prize instead, with the winner granted the priviledge of naming it. Which he did, as Cunningham says with typical wit: "He called it Sara's Song - after his wife, Mary."
When uilleann pipesmeister Liam O'Flynn, a man of famously discerning taste, heard Sara's Song, his response was, firstly, to play it and secondly, to advise Cunningham to carry a napkin with him at all times.
Since Sara's Song, Cunningham has jotted down tunes on much grander, more formal paper, of course. His Highlands and Islands Suite, which opened Glasgow Royal Concert Hall's Celtic Connections festival in 1997, was written, although not actually scored by Cunningham - Dave Heath relieved him of that onerous task, for a cast of 158 musicians and singers including fiddle orchestra, concert orchestra, choir, bagpipers and harpers. It was a composition which marked the realisation of a life-long ambition.
It was back in 1974 that Cunningham first thought that "it would be great to try and write a piece that brought Scottish music and classical music together". He actually began to write it then but, inevitably for one of the busiest musicians on the traditional music scene, other work got in the way.
In those days the fourteen year old Cunningham was studying classical accordion and playing violin in the school orchestra. Meanwhile, his brother, Johnny, had joined Scotland's most popular folk group of the era, Silly Wizard, and would drag - although hardly kicking and screaming - his younger sibling into "certain establishments" for a tune.
Within two years Phil, too, had joined Silly Wizard, beginning a hectic lifestyle that continues unabated. Post-Wizard, he toured and recorded with Johnny and the Bothy Band's Micheal O Domhnaill and Triona Ni Dhomnaill in Relativity, got into album production with Dolores Keane, Altan and Wolfstone, amongst many others, recorded two solo albums, and began a partnership with Aly Bain whose annual tours sell out quicker than the latest Disney toys.
On top of this, the recording of the original theme from Scottish Television's Take the High Road macsoap opera with Wizard in 1980 was just the start of Cunningham's work in television, radio, film and stage productions which has included theme tunes for further television programmes and music for Bill Bryden's large-scale theatre pieces The Ship and The Big Picnic. The latter included Farewell to Govan which the great O'Flynn recorded on his splendid 1995 release, The Given Note.
When, after various false starts, re-writes and funding difficulties, the Highlands and Islands Suite finally came to fruition, it was enthusiastically received and followed up its intitial performance with a Highland tour and a reprise, for Cunnigham's fortieth birthday concert, at Celtic Connections 2000. It has since been followed by a second large-scale work, Ceilidh, which featured world renowned concert percussionist Evelyn Glennie as soloist and was premiered at Celtic Connections 2001.
"I always loved the combination of an orchestra and traditional instruments' rougher edge," says Cunningham. "Other people had been doing similar things, Shaun Davey with the Brendan Voyage being the obvious example, and although I found the whole process terrifying and still do, it's a great feeling to hear the music actually being played."
An unashamed romantic ("I'm the kind of bloke who greets at Lassie films"), Cunningham cites Ennio Morricone's film scores as a major influence on his large scale writing. And while he takes great pleasure in moving Scottish music forward and collaborating and interacting with all sorts of musicians, including the Proclaimers, Eddi Reader, jazz guitarist Martin Taylor and Rickie Ross of Deacon Blue, in his work as musical director on television programmes, he always acknowledges his debt to a Scot whose name is synonymous with Scottish music but which isn't always a cool name to drop, the late Jimmy Shand.
"I grew up listening to Jimmy's records," he says. "My mum used to give me a pile of them to play with and keep me out of mischief, and one day a few years ago now, I decided to go and tell him how much I loved his music. I sat outside his house in my car, too terrified to go in and see him, and eventually drove off. But later I went back and we had a tune together in his garden, and that was just brilliant."
Widely regarded as one of the most exciting and innovative accordion players of the times, Phil Cunningham has taken this instrument from strength to strength, setting the standards by which many young players fix their sights today. His early work with leading Scots band Silly Wizard (1976-1986) reclaimed a place for the instrument in the traditional music world and his astonishing dexterity and musicality has delighted audiences across the world.
The accordion being only one of the strings to his bow..multi instrumentalist Cunningham works extensively in the television and film world as a composer , music director and presenter, he is much sought after as a record producer and he manages to juggle all of these diverse commitments to enable him to continue touring with long time musical partner and friend Aly Bain. His compositions are covered by musicians the world over, and he continues to write and add to his prolific repertoire. The depth and beauty of his slow airs is reknowned among audiences and performers alike.
His proudest moments have been the premiers of his two orchestral suites for Symphony orchestra and Celtic instruments. His last piece “Ceilidh” was written for and performed by acclaimed Scots percussionist Evelyn Glennie and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra.
He teaches regularly, both children and adults alike and is currently trying to establish a Traditional youth orchestra in the Highlands of Scotland.
Phil was awarded the MBE in 2002 for services to Scottish Music and was voted Best Instrumentalist in the inaugural Scottish Traditional Music Awards in 2003.
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