Aidan O'Rourke: 'I really quickly fell in love with his succinct way of getting a message or a feeling across in just 365 words'

Aidan O'Rourke: 'I really quickly fell in love with his succinct way of getting a message or a feeling across in just 365 words'

credit: Genevieve Stevenson

Folk musician discusses his collaboration with leading Scottish author James Robertson, which weaves 365 stories and tunes to create 365: Stories + Music

Aidan O'Rourke received a copy of James Robertson's 365 Stories for Christmas in 2015. After reading a story every day from 1 January, he challenged himself to respond with his own musical writing cycle. 'I met James in February, and I said "James, as of March the 1st I'm thinking of writing a tune in response to these stories every day, until I've got 365 tunes." His first response was "don't be daft," and his wife was there going "no don't do it!"'

But O'Rourke embarked on this epic compositional task, finding time to write whilst touring, snatching his daily meditative writing moment whenever he could. When O'Rourke talks of Robertson's stories, it's clear that their musicality grabs him. 'I thought he wrote these amazingly vivid, sweeping Scottish stories. I really quickly fell in love with the form, fell in love with his succinct way of getting a message or a feeling across in just 365 words.'

What began as a completely personal project soon began to snowball, with the collaboration of arranger Kit Downes adding a new layer to the rolling cycle. 'Kit asked if I had any tunes that we could work on, and I said "well, I do actually!" At that point I had like, 183 tunes to share or something. He was the first person who ever played any of them with me. James has now come on board and we've got a show we do with Kit on harmonium and piano, and we weave music around his stories. At the start of this project I didn't know Kit, I didn't know James, and now we've got this kind of really deep relationship between the three of us, and it's quite beautiful.'

Aidan O'Rourke: 'I really quickly fell in love with his succinct way of getting a message or a feeling across in just 365 words'

From the increasingly-large scale project grew a significant body of music. 'Recording the tunes to studio quality took another couple of years. When I dropped all 365 into an iTunes folder, it was 16 hours of new music that'd been written.' The next layer of the project was an installation, designed in collaboration with inventor Yann Seznec, that allows the listener pick any story and tune to hear at once. 'I think what's beautiful about the installation is that it's this really gentle, immersive experience – it's public art escapism. The easy idea would have been to stick an iPad up there, but I think as soon as you've got a white screen, it puts you back in that world … I think having no screens is vital to the sense of escape.'

The organically collaborative nature of the project has been inspiring O'Rourke's ongoing work – a gig at the Queen's Hall as part of St Andrew's Fair Saturday this weekend sees him curate a line-up of some of Scotland's most exciting contemporary musicians – and O'Rourke hopes that project 365 will live on. 'In the foreword of the book, James wonders if his personal writing cycle will have another life, not knowing that this would happen a couple of years later. I think there's something beautiful about that cyclical nature. It rolls on and you kind of get caught up in it. I wonder if there'll be more lives in the cycle … you can only hope.'

365: Stories + Music (Aidan O'Rourke, James Robertson and Kit Downes plus special guests), The Mackintosh Church, Glasgow, Sun 2 Feb; 365: Stories + Music (Installation), Glasgow Royal Concert Hall foyer, Thu 16 Jan–Sun 2 Feb. Go to the 365 website to sign up to receive a 365 story and tune each day of 2020.

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How to tell a story without saying too much? How to tap the oldest wisdoms, the hardest truths, add in love, wit and political rage across the seasons – and distil it all into humble miniatures? This slightly mad and epic project began back in 2013, when James Robertson set himself the challenge of writing a short…

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