Tag Archives: SSSA. creative re-use

SSSA in 70 Objects: Embracing the Unknown – A musician’s response to Bob Hobkirk’s Unknown Air

Today we are delighted to have a post from Carla Michal Sayer, who used material from The School of Scottish Studies Archives in her work for the Situated Place art exhibition, curated by MScR students in Collections and Curating Practices, in early 2020. Today Carla writes about one of the sound recordings which she used to incredible effect in her composition for this exhibition.

East lothian beach

image of an East Lothian Beach, by Carla Sayer

Archive recording:  SA1973.032 Unknown Air, played on fiddle by Bob Hobkirk, recorded by Ailie Munro and Hugh MacDonald, 

Response: original arrangement and solo performance by Carla Michal Sayer, free streaming and download available on Bandcamp. Created and performed live in February 2020.


A lot of the pieces on Bob Hobkirk’s profile on Tobar an Dualchais are labelled ‘Unknown’. They’re brilliant.

In the two years since I created this response there has been so much unknown that we’ve had to deal with. But is there anything to be said for not knowing? Is it worth living in this Unknown space? What are those spaces like? What would we find there? Would it be worth the not knowing?

Whatever you feel about the unknown, I think there’s something there worth exploring. Music is one way of doing this. Whilst the name is a mystery, the depth of feeling in Bob Hobkirk’s playing is not. That’s what originally drew me into this entry. The object is unknown, but the purity and clarity of feeling about it is certainly not. It travels through the slightly scratchy recording like a beam of light. The unknown story is told with conviction, held steady from beginning to end. It says something about himself. I don’t know what but it’s there. I could deeply relate to this Unknown Air and felt inspired to create a musical response as a solo performance using low whistle and synth alongside the archive recording of his playing.

My response is a dialogue between us. My whistle playing follows his fiddle playing and ornamentation exactly, and the piece is held together by droning synth that speaks to the future and past, with both Church-organ-like quality and fabulous electronic buzz and stereo movement. I play live and Bob Hobkirk ‘plays’ through recording, and we pass each other by in slow motion, both coming in and out of focus. The process reminds me of how things pass between generations, some things clearly heard and other things left forgotten and slightly out of focus.

When I performed this piece live the effect was hymnal and meditative, with a quality that looks back and forward, and is endless – with the extremely slow looped harmonic rhythm, starting where it begins with Bob Hobkirk’s playing. Combining ‘old’ sounds with new music-making possibilities was deeply rewarding in this commission, awarded by a team of MSc Curation students from Edinburgh College of Art working in exhibition design in early 2020. The performance was to launch an exhibition that showcased Edinburgh University visual archive material, in collaboration with Travelling Gallery, The gallery subsequently went on tour around East Lothian. This was the final piece of that 20 minute performance to launch the exhibition. My brief was to create music to reflect on the relationship between archive and place, it’s up to you as a listener if this was fulfilled in the piece! Here is more information on the full exhibition, which hopefully managed to go ahead in February 2020: https://www.eca.ed.ac.uk/event/situated-place-art-collection

Thank you, Bob Hobkirk, for your fiddle playing in March 1973, and thank you to the School of Scottish Studies Archives for helping me find and use his beautiful music in this arrangement in February 2020.

Here’s to what is learnt and what remains unknown.