Fiddler in the groove
Alasdair Fraser's yearslong musical pairing with cellist Natalie Haas makes for a journey of creativity and adventure
Master fiddler Alasdair Fraser takes a very philosophical view when talking about the music he makes with cellist Natalie Haas.
“We’re always living in the question,” Fraser says with a laugh. “Questioning tradition, questioning ourselves, trying to learn new talents, taking on new challenges and techniques,” he adds.
This willingness to grow and find new ways to make their engaging take on Scottish and Celtic music more interesting embodies the adventurous spirit that has filled each of their previous releases. Their forthcoming album, Abundance, set for a January release, promises to continue this trend.
“Neither of us like to be idle, and neither of us want to feel like we’re just reinventing stuff we’ve already done. We wanted to explore some new ideas, add a few more colors to our musical palette,” Fraser says of the new album.
Some of those changes comprise the inclusion of percussion player, a pianist and Haas’ sister Brittany on the fiddle.
“Although it’s a duo, it’s a duo sort of having a great celebration with our friends, and enriching the tapestry,” Fraser says.
Fraser and Haas have toured the world together as a duo for over a decade. Haas, now 29, was first introduced to Fraser at the age of 11 at one of Fraser’s annual music camps, the Valley of the Moon Scottish Fiddle School in Santa Cruz.
Over the years, Haas’ love of Celtic music intensified and the musical connection she shared with Fraser grew stronger, to the point that the idea of a pairing proved intriguing.
“When [Natalie] was 17, we decided we would go on the road with a fiddle and cello, which was—and is—quite an unusual combination,” says Fraser, 58. “But you connect with someone and you want to have a conversation. Natalie is incredibly focused but wonderfully free in her playing, musically. I would toss out ideas and she would say, ’Let’s try it!’ She was kind of fearless, which was incredibly refreshing.”
The two have applied that aesthetic to recordings as well, first with the 2004 release Fire & Grace, and later with 2007’s In the Moment and 2011’s Highlander’s Farewell. On each recording, the pair’s crafted music that encompasses both the traditional and the modern, with as much emphasis being placed on standards such as “The Pitnacree Ferryman” as on songs composed by Fraser himself, such as his ode to the beauty of the Yuba River (“Whitewater”) or a track he wrote to commemorate the marriage of two friends (“McLaughlin’s Strathspey”). When it comes to writing original works, Fraser says he tries to make the experience personal.
“A lot of it, for me, is about people,” says Fraser. “If I’m asked to write a song for someone’s birthday or for a certain occasion, then I have that person in mind, the qualities of that person.”
This sort of insight, whether it be of musical styles or of people, has helped Fraser and Haas create a number of dynamic tunes. It doesn’t hurt, either, that the two continue to individually and collectively evolve as musicians, both aiming to reach new levels of artistry. And, as their music has evolved and grown, so has their relationship.
“At the beginning we had sort of a teacher-student relationship, but that has long since evolved into an utterly equal partnership,” Fraser says. “We’re always reaching for new heights. We’re two kindred spirits who really enjoy music and like to have many ideas for consideration. I’m absolutely lucky to have someone to journey with in that way.”