Mike Vass is one of the most creative forces on the Scottish music scene. As a musician, composer, producer and arranger Vass has amassed a body of work that encompasses early appearances as a livewire young fiddler, collaborations with many of the leading voices among today’s Scots and Gaelic tradition bearers, delivering multi-media performances, overseeing critically acclaimed recordings, and scoring for prestigious ensembles.
Born in Nairn, Vass emerged as vital young talent in a Highlands-based fiddle and keyboard duo with his twin sister, Ali. They came to the attention of Edinburgh’s long-established
Bechhofer Agency and in 2008 they toured Scotland with Fiddle Rendezvous, an international presentation with Bruce Molsky & Mary Ann Kennedy and Gerry O'Connor & Gilles le Bigot.
By this time Vass, having moved to Edinburgh then Glasgow, was showing accomplishment both as a composer and multi-instrumentalist. Cavers of Kirkcudbright, a tune written for a close friend in 2007, would develop into a session favourite in Glasgow, Newcastle and even in the Valley of the Moon in California, and in 2008 he won the inaugural Niel Gow Composition Award (now the Amber Fiddle award) at the Perthshire Amber festival, going on to join the festival’s founder, Dougie Maclean the following year in a live re-working of Maclean’s Fiddle album.
Also in 2008 Vass joined Malinky, the internationally respected champions of traditional Scots song. He played fiddle and tenor guitar on their Flower and Iron album, toured regularly with the band until 2010 and following their five – year hiatus he returned to record Far Better Days and play further concerts with them in 2015.
Vass’s status as a composer whose tunes have been featured by organisations such as the BBC and Visit Scotland as well as being played and recorded by musicians including Brian Finnegan, Kan, Alasdair Fraser & Natalie Haas, Anna Massie & Mairearad Green, and Irish/ American band Comas, began to grow exponentially with his 2010 Celtic Connections New Voices commission, String Theory.
One of the stand-out pieces in this collection was Man's Search, a highly developed composition for bagpipes, strings and a rhythm section of guitar, piano, drums. Inspired by Viktor Frankl's memoir of his experiences in Auschwitz, Man's Search for Meaning, the piece was subsequently featured by the Victor Frankl Institute during the author’s birthday celebrations.
Doors, a piece for border pipes and string quintet inspired by Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception and performed by James MacKenzie, of Breabach, and Mr McFall's Chamber, continued the literary connection and having written, performed and produced his 2012 album, Decemberwell, which involved multi-tracking piano, melodica, glockenspiel, percussion, cittern and voice in addition to fiddle and guitars, Vass earned the Composer of the Year title that he won at the 2012 Scots Trad Music Awards.
The following year found Vass acting as mentor and record producer for the young musicians and composers of Edinburgh Youth Gaitherin' in their School of Scottish Studies-researched Archive Project. Commissions followed to compose After Niall Sgrob for Amble Skuse's Remembered Imagined, a project also featuring archival recordings from the School of Scottish Studies, with actor Angus Peter Campbell, singer Maeve Mackinnon and Mr McFall's Chamber, and the original soundtrack for Gavin C Robinson's Scottish Bafta- winning animated short, Hart's Desire.
During the summer of 2013 Vass’s momentum as a go-to musician and strongly developing composer came to an abrupt halt as he was hospitalised with neuroborreliosis, a disorder of
the central nervous system. This potentially life-threatening illness resulted in Vass spending time in a medically induced coma but during his recuperation Vass read Scottish author Neil Gunn's account of his sea-going sabbatical, Off in a Boat and the following year, back to full health and drawing on a love of sailing that goes back to his childhood, he recreated Gunn's voyage round the west of Scotland.
In the Wake of Neil Gunn, a suite of music and subsequent album and tour inspired by both Gunn's journey and his own journey through ill health and recovery, became a defining achievement and a successful spur to further extended composition. The album was long- listed in the Scottish Album of the Year award and short-listed in Album of the Year category of the Scots Trad Music Awards.
Following on from these triumphs Vass has maintained a busy schedule as an accompanist and session musician, working with some of Scotland's finest voices including Scots singers Fiona Hunter, Siobhan Miller, Gillian Frame, and Robyn Stapleton, and recording with Paul McKenna, Mairearad Green and Runrig. He played a major part in the success of Gaelic singer Kathleen MacInnes’ Scots/Irish collaboration with Brian Finnegan, of Flook, and former Altan accordionist Dermot Byrne at Celtic Connections 2016, where their performance received a five-star review in The Herald newspaper. Also at Celtic Connections 2016 Vass acted as musical director for The Gathering Stream, an exploration of the Moray Firth's musical heritage featuring some of Scotland's most respected singers and musicians, including Shona Donaldson, Anna Massie, Jack Smedley, Hamish Napier, and Angus Binnie
Recent commissions have included Away Being, a suite written for Edinburgh Youth Gaitherin's Big Band and inspired by the photography of John Maher and Ian Paterson in a project led by Jan Bee Brown and the Thrive Archive, and the soundtrack to Earthmovies’ Windfall Island which was nominated for best score in Screentest, the UK’s national student film festival.
Record production work has included Malinky singer Fiona Hunter’s self-titled debut solo album, former Back of the Moon fiddler-singer Gillian Frame's Pendulum album and North Uist Sea Poems, cellist-composer Catherine Eunson and poet Pauline Prior Pitt's Hebridean tone poem.
Vass collaborated with singer-violist Mairi Campbell on two singles released during 2016, Eyes Fixed and Sleepless Again, and on the touring production The Dead Stations, an experimental live show and recording featuring animation, acted dialogue, sound design, live music, and improvisation. His arrangements of songs from the Charles Sharpe collection for Robyn Stapleton and the Scottish Ensemble premiered at Dumfries and Galloway Arts Festival in 2016
I gratefully acknowledge support from PRS Foundation