One of my favourite collections of poetry is The Rattle Bag, edited by Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney. (And ‘Rattle bag’, or ‘rattlebag’, has the same meaning as ‘rag-bag’.) It contains spells, counting rhymes, love songs, laments, nature poetry, ballads, high art and nonsense. The Canasg catalogue too contains a wide variety of material, and you may need to rummage around to find something that grabs you. But there is a reason for the shape and variety of the music on our pages. Read on if you’re interested in finding out more.
Canasg Music started as the mouthpiece for a fistful of composers and arrangers based in and around Edinburgh, each with a connection to Rudsambee Company of Singers, at the time a small amateur choir. (Rudsambee is still going after 30 years, but that’s another story.) We were writing for the choir that we were singing in – and creating a unique and slightly quirky body of repertoire in the process. The name Rudsambee itself connects to the idea of a ‘rag-bag’: it’s derived from the Gaelic expression ‘rud sam bith’ meaning ‘anything at all’.
Sheena Phillips (founding director) had a strong interest in composing and arranging, and Rudsambee was a sounding board for her work from the beginning. Peter Hill, who sang tenor in Rudsambee, Frances Cockburn, alto, Paul Carline, tenor, and Michael Buck, bass, were all soon also writing material for the group – chiefly arrangements of folk songs and settings of poetry. Peter was a Gaelic language learner in his spare time, and so we found ourselves taking on puirt-a-beul, the lively ‘mouth music’ of the west of Scotland, as well as other Gaelic songs from slow airs to foot-tapping dances.
In 2000 – just as Sheena was leaving Scotland for what turned out to be a long stay in the American midwest – Peter had the idea that we should make Rudsambee’s many home-crafted arrangements more widely available. He drafted plans for what was at the time a new kind of venture: selling sheet music online. Our website went by the name of Canasg, the Gaelic word for the bright yellow gorse or furze bush that flourishes in Scotland. And we were amazed and delighted as, within a year, orders came in for our wares from many corners of Europe and the USA.
Pieces by the five members of Rudsambee mentioned above formed the initial core of the Canasg catalogue. However, the fold of Canasg composers quickly expanded to include, first, people who we knew or had worked with – such as David Johnson, a scholar of 18th century Scottish music, and Douglas Cook, who directed a choir in Cumbria of similar size and scope to Rudsambee – and then gradually other composers who came to us and whose work was compatible with our musical interests.
Our catalogue now includes music by about thirty professional and amateur composers from the UK, New Zealand and North America. You’ll find works that have been commissioned, songs that have been broadcast on the BBC, and pieces that have won prizes, as well as music written simply for the pleasure of sharing with a group of friends. Our customers include university choirs and choral societies as well as numerous smaller choirs.
I hope this glimpse of how things started helps explain how you’ll find one-minute-long pieces of Gaelic puirt-a-beul and substantial choral compositions rubbing shoulders on our pages.