Several years ago on a day trip to Carlisle, I came across a woman busking with a stringed instrument played with a bow. It was a bit larger than a viola – but rather than pressing the strings with her fingers there were an array of keys being fingered to change the notes. Additionally there were several strings sitting below the main four, which weren’t played, but vibrated sympathetically with the notes that were. The overall effect was a deep resonant sound that you could feel in your chest as she played. After standing mesmerised for several minutes I suddenly remembered I was supposed to be meeting up with Maggie and the kids. I dropped a pound coin into her case and headed off into a world that was now subtly different.
Two or three years later the same woman, with the same instrument, turned up at a folk session in a pub I was at. It turned out she lived locally, the instrument was called a nyckelharpa and she was called Ruth.
Over the next couple of years, Ruth would occasionally turn up to the folk sessions with her partner, Gavin, who played a mean fiddle. I lost count of the number of times that when she played the nyckelharpa I had to stop playing and just listen to – indeed feel - the sound reverberating deep inside me.
I then discovered Ruth, Gavin and another guy called Cam, who played the cittern (not dissimilar to a bouzouki, but with 10 strings instead of 8), had a band called Bellevue Rendezvous. Far from being just a local outfit, they toured in Europe, played at Celtic Connections, and had CDs you could buy. So I bought them and played them to Maggie who also fell in love with their sound.
Maggie and I were both desperate to see them play live, but on the rare occasions when they were performing locally, awkward timings or lack of babysitter meant we weren’t able to.
For the past 18 months or so I’ve been involved with The Mill Sessions - a small venue with lovely acoustics, which can’t hold more than about 50 people in the audience. It means the gigs have an intimate feel – barely a step up from having performers playing in your living room – but those limited numbers also mean there’s little money available to pay for high quality, better known musicians. I knew, however, if I could get Bellevue Rendezvous there, it would be something special indeed.
So to help sweeten the deal I offered to top up the fee available from the Mill with a photo shoot so they could have some good publicity images. They agreed and on the morning before the gig I went out to Ruth and Gavin’s with my camera, laptop and a couple of portable studio lights.
We started with an idea I’d been mulling over for a few days, with Ruth sitting with the nyckelharpa on her lap, Gavin on a high stool behind her to one side and Cam standing further behind and to the side, creating a sweeping diagonal across the image.
It took a bit moving stools and adding cushions to change heights but we got there (as always, click on the images for larger versions).
With an acceptable shot in the bag, I was now free to try some other arrangements and managed to get some great diagonals and triangles in this one:
Pleased with that I felt I could now play a bit more and I pulled out the wide-angle lens, which had the effect of distorting the image a bit and exaggerating the size of the instrument, as well as creating some stronger lines.
Finally I decided to ramp everything up by getting in really close with the wide-angle lens, and adding lots of texture in the post-processing of the image afterwards. It’s my personal favourite of all the images, although I’m well aware it won’t be to everyone’s taste.
With the photo shoot out of the way, that evening I was able to just sit back and enjoy the gig with Maggie, and it was truly every bit as wonderful as I’d hoped for, and more.
With my camera resting on my knee I recorded a couple of their tunes. The sound is only coming through the built in microphone, so doesn’t do it full justice, but the videos below should give you a reasonable idea of their music. But if you can’t get to see them live, the next best thing is to buy their CDs, put them on a really good quality sound system and turn it up loud enough to feel the vibrations in your chest.