Tradition and progress. That just about sums it up… Like always, there is the fine print. Guga is the Gaelic form of gannet, the large seabird known for its distinctive hunting technique. The gannet dines on schools of herring, mackerel and sardine, diving from 30 meters above the ocean surface, slicing through the waves and making its catch while fully submerged. Properly speaking it is not endangered, but the species is listed as a conservation priority, and is protected from harvest by UK and EU law, with a sole exception. That one provision? The annual August hunt on the desolate, uninhabited Sula Sgeir, a perilous, nauseating, 60-kilometer boat trip from Ness, at the northernmost point of Isle of Lewis. For two weeks hunters sleep in a windy, stinking black-and-white photograph, among a single lighthouse and ancient monastic ruins, built into the jagged rock terrain. They catch and process as many as 2,000 birds, likely shunning the older gannets for their flavor and texture.
But why the exemption at all? It seems that gannet cannot taste so different from other domesticated birds as to merit its kill. The answer: the gannet chase is a defining Niseach tradition, in the face of an aging and thinning population, and globalization. Anecdotes routinely speak of empty homes and schools, and on-screen one of the hunters tells of his child’s difficulty in finding playmates. In 2009 the gannet hunt met another declining art, that of journalism without viewpoint, forgoing snap, remote judgments for customary reporting. Filmmaker Mike Day followed the ten men to Sula Sgeir, and the result is The Guga Hunters of Ness, the hour-long documentary that first aired on BBC 2 Scotland in January 2011. Colchester-based trio Dead Rat Orchestra recorded the original soundtrack, “with compositions seeded in hours of study of Hebridean folk song.”
Trailers and other related clips feature the opening movement “Joy/Sorrow (Sula Sgeir),” although this is more orchestral than the others. Aptly titled, it is struggling and string-predominant, initially barren, locked somewhere between tides of nostalgia and the first moments of hope. The simple harmonium melody, lean percussion and acoustic kaleidoscope recall the folk R & D of A Silver Mt. Zion, with whom Dead Rat Orchestra have shared live venues. When played well the violin is not element but ore, streaked with delicious contaminants: veins of regret, the patina of recovery. The following track – “Dods’ Banjo,” also literal in name – is more representative of the soundtrack, and of the trio. Frank in delivery, only a solo performer is evident, although the listener perceives other muted strings and, on occasion, some unconventional type of percussion. At least one YouTube clip finds the trio chopping at a log with small axes, so by “unconventional percussion” we could mean just about anything.
An early album highlight is “The Geshin and the Guga,” which opens with drone, dispersed Rhodes piano notes, and a recording of the sea. Then, the raw timbres of violin (the soundtrack was recorded on a decommissioned ship, and therefore in “the only studio in the world whose acoustics changes with the rising and falling of the tide”). The emotional complexity of the main theme returns here, in a full-bodied and well-earned first climax. The track “Saltside” is another stand-out piece, incorporating psalms sung by the Ness Church Choir into a single, brittle violin line, and now, suddenly, an upbeat charango and taishogoto arrangement driven by hand claps and harmonium. But the brief – tellingly brief – “Ness Social Club” comes across as meta-narrative and returns the mood to its rightful place with a not-quite-morose banjo lick and exaggerated concluding silence.
As always, there are the inevitable questions about the soundtrack’s dependency on the film, or vice-versa. We read that the documentary is mostly without words, and indeed, Dead Rat Orchestra’s score does not come off as the rushed afterthought as do so many others. Instead, The Guga Hunters of Ness is a salty and ruddered collection, and in this case a swift judgment is pretty easy to make: a robust, elaborate, stand-alone work.
- Fred Nolan for Fluid Radio