Image: Lise Sinclair by Lowri Best
We are greatly saddened by the untimely death of Lise Sinclair, the Fair Isle singer-songwriter, musician and poet, after a short illness.
I was introduced to Lise and her work in 2005, when she joined a translation workshop on Shetland run by the Scottish Poetry Library in partnership with Literature Across Frontiers. Of course in music circles she was already well known, as a member of Friđeray (the old Norse name for Fair Isle); Friđeray’s album, Across the Water (2003) features mostly a capella singing by Anne Sinclair, her brothers Neil and Stewart Thomson, her daughter Lise and Neil’s daughter Eilen. As the Shetland Music site puts it, ‘With six family members in the group, equivalent to around 10% of the total population of the island, Friđeray have already made their mark well beyond its shores, not only being a hugely popular local band but with [several] appearances at Glasgow's famed Celtic Connections festival…’.
All the workshop participants had a marvellously productive week, and Lise – who had originally been a bit hesitant about exposing her own poetry to the translation process and trying her hand at translating from Estonian, Icelandic, Finnish and Norwegian – grew in confidence and I think relished the chance to concentrate on writing. We had great discussions about Shetlandic, and Lise’s devotion to it and her exploration of its possibilities as a language for poetry and song were a large part of her life’s work. She published a small collection of poems, Here (North Idea, 2006), and many others in magazines and journals. The results of the workshop can be read in All Points North (SPL/Caseroom Press, 2006). Lise was eager for us visitors to have a real sense of the culture and language of Shetland, and generously shared her knowledge and insights, and her music. When we had the concluding event at the Town Hall in Shetland, the sun came in through the stained glass and lit her up as she played the piano and sang her wonderful setting of ‘Cutting Corn’, which you’ll find on her CD Iver Entrancin Was (2008) – and her voice was entrancing.
That was also the beginning of several friendships, and of a musical partnership with the Icelandic poet and singer-songwriter Aðalsteinn Asberg Sigurdsson. SPL and LAF brought them together on another poetry workshop, this time at Crear in Argyll, in 2008, along with the Icelandic musician Astvaldur Traustasson, Scottish poet and mouth-organ player Gerry Cambridge, and the Lithuanian poet and bass guitarist Gintarus Grajauskas. Usually in these workshops we ask poets to translate each other’s poetry; this time we asked them to translate it into song. I don’t think that Alexandra Büchler, the Director of LAF, and I realised what an extraordinary task this was: to pull together nine new compositions in a week! But this group – the berserkers – rose to the challenge and exceeded all our expectations. Lise was key: her voice, her musicality, her collaborative temperament, her very high standards and her laughter – without her, this week of hard work with a performance in Crear’s stunning music studio at the end of it would not have been possible. One of the most joyous moments of my working life has been an impromptu concert by the berserkers in my Glasgow kitchen, en route from Crear to Edinburgh.
Under the Evening Sky was so good, and so well-received both at Crear and at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, that LAF decided it should be recorded, which it duly was, mainly in Reykjavik, and then the CD was launched with performances in Vilnius and Riga. We were looking for ways to reunite the group in Prague this year, but the travel was difficult to arrange and we reluctantly put it on hold.
Meanwhile, Lise and Aðalsteinn had collaborated on something dear to both their hearts: music inspired by the stories of George Mackay Brown. In the note to the CD A Time to Keep, Lise wrote: ‘I began to hear these songs on first reading the book, as if they were already there, singing out of George’s clear, lyrical prose.’ She wrote the lyrics, and with Astvaldur wrote the music, while Aðalsteinn made the translations into Icelandic and read them on the accompanying CD. A Time to Keep, on which Lise and Astvaldur are joined by Inge, Ewen and Stewart Thomson and Brian Cromarty, was launched in St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall, as was entirely appropriate, in March 2012.
I went to Orkney for the launch, my first visit – so I always associate Lise with the pleasures of discovery as well as the joy of music-making allied to poetry. There was a fine audience and a raptly attentive one, as there was at a later gig at the Scottish Storytelling Centre in Edinburgh, but the quality of sound in the Cathedral was extraordinary. Lise was always a magnetic figure with her long hair and long legs, looking too young to be the mother of four children, absolutely absorbed in the music and while often a soloist, alert – it seemed to me – to everything her fellow musicians did as part of the whole ensemble. I think of the passage in Ecclesiastes that gave Mackay Brown and Lise their title, ‘to everything there is a season… a time to get and a time to lose…’
I’m glad that the SPL played some part in encouraging and supporting this rare talent. Her friends have been shocked by the news of her illness and the rapidity with which it took her life, and our thoughts are with her family in deepest sympathy. As Edna St Vincent Millay writes:
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.
Her energies were prodigious: not only in poetry and music, but also as a mother, as a crofter, as a teacher, and is very hard to think of those radiant energies being stilled. It is disconcerting to hear her voice on my i-Pod Shuffle, suddenly: both immensely sad and yet – remembering her joy in creation – comforting. It conveys something of the authenticity, warmth and generosity with which Lise shared her rich life and great gifts.
Lise Sinclair (1971-2013)