March Artist Spotlight: Musician of Preservation, Laura MacKenzie

Hi Laura, thank you very much for taking the time to talk with COMPAS today. First off, can you tell us what your art form is?

I am a musician, specializing in the traditional music and song of Scotland and Ireland, in both performance and teaching.

Can you tell us a little about your background?

I was classically trained in flute and voice, and continued classical music studies in college. I also pursued an undergraduate degree in Anthropology, which lead me to a great interest in ethnomusicology. While working towards a graduate degree, I began learning Irish and Scottish music directly from bearers of the traditions, on both sides of the Atlantic, and soon became immersed in traditional music. I gave up the academic degree pursuit, began nearly full-time music, and didn’t look back!

Do you remember when you first became interested in wind instruments and traditional Irish/Scottish music? How did it happen?

As an undergraduate studying music and anthropology at Beloit College, I had a term away working in the archives of the School of Scottish Studies, University of Edinburgh. I had listened to documentary recordings of traditional Irish and Scottish music before this period, but actually meeting and interacting with traditional musicians (both Irish and Scottish) in Edinburgh was the turning point. I was hooked.

Did you have any big influences?

Particularly in Ireland, some time ago, I had the immense good fortune to learn informally from many of the older tradition-bearers, before Irish music became so wildly popular world-wide. Older players of the wooden flute (also players of the fiddle and accordion) and singers (of unaccompanied styles) seemed abundant, and generous.  In more recent times, a major influence in Scotland has been Hamish Moore, who was largely responsible for the revival of the Scottish smallpipes, a Lowland Scots type of bagpipe, and now a major instrument for me. The informal workshops and sessions at community halls, pubs and kitchens were the best situations for this welcome education.

What do you love the most about Irish and Scottish culture and music?

Though trained in classical music performance, studying the function and contexts of music worldwide allowed me to understand my own “function” as a musician. I came to understand that learning through oral tradition and informally sharing in performances of traditional music had great meaning for me. And the comparative lack of ageism in traditional Irish and Scottish music has always been of great appeal.  If you have genuinely spent some time learning traditional music or song, you can enter a room of strangers at a hall or pub or home in Ireland or Scotland, or a community in the US, and be welcomed to join an informal “session”.  No books, CDs or travelogues could teach you what you would learn and gain in that room. It is quite wonderful.

Is there anything you feel that is misunderstood about Irish or Scottish culture here in the United States?

We all know the association of drink, the color Kelly green, the shenanigans and hooligans, the folk songs of blood, battle, booze and anti-Brits heard in Irish-American bars, the contemporary and highly competitive Irish dance world besot with bouncy wigs and sparkled costumes….But more and more folks in the US are becoming aware of the broader spectrum of Irish arts and culture, and including the more traditional arts.  I believe the Scots are less well understood, still.  The power of the traditional arts in Scotland has been at work on a more subtle level, not having enjoyed the international stages as have the Irish. Fewer people in the US see beyond the whiskey, Highland pipes (including the kilt-costumed pipe bands, a creation of the Victorian British military!) and tartans of “popular” Scottish culture. I hope my efforts to bring more Scottish music, song and Scottish-style ceilidhs to the Twin Cities will make a wee difference!

What is your favorite thing about performing?

…Pleasing the audience. I always remember what an effort it is for these people to even decide to come out, to travel, park, pay if needs be, enter an unfamiliar room - what faith they have, to just get to the venue. I always intend to honor that faith, and give them something which over time I have found to be of great value. I do not try to compromise the music or song with too many efforts to be popular or familiar. It is an immense privilege to offer what I have gleaned over many decades to these generous folks who choose to be audience.


…I particularly enjoy teaching “by ear”. Many learners are not comfortable without sheet music notation, but most eventually discover the value of learning by ear, appreciating the subtleties of traditional styles and learning them more deeply. If working with a younger group, I enjoy connecting the rhythms and moods of the music with something in our lives and culture that can make them more familiar, more accessible and fun.

I also enjoy adapting what I offer as a teacher to each individual or group, rarely if ever using a set repertoire or presentation. I am grateful that my years of experience in music have given me great resource.

You are on the COMPAS roster as a solo artist as well as in a duo with Willow Brae. Does your approach change as a performer when you’re performing as part of a group rather than by yourself?

When we perform or present a program as a duo, we necessarily have to work from a fairly well set program. This works best for all! We do however continue to expand and develop our mutual repertoire and program content as a duo. When performing or presenting on my own, I enjoy being able to adapt on the spot to the group or the moment!

Have you been working on any new projects lately?

Yes, I have been particularly working on developing a repertoire of Scottish music and song that can be shared and taught locally. This is towards encouraging Scottish music sessions, like the strong and vigorous Irish sessions that have been going in the Twin Cities for decades. I also started a series of Scottish-style ceilidhs – gatherings for music, song, storytelling, ceilidh dancing, and socializing.

You recently received an MSAB Artist Initiative Grant, congratulations! Can you tell us a little bit about what you’ll be doing?

Thank you! I am developing a new ensemble, a 10-piece ensemble, featuring Scottish and Irish music augmented with horn and rhythm sections. I am truly excited about this, as it has been a dream of mine for a number of years, and it is wonderful to have the support of the Minnesota State Arts Board.

You’ve been on the COMPAS roster for 15 years, what’s it been like to be a COMPAS artist?

Over time, I’ve actually done more performing than teaching, being fortunate to bring traditional music styles and instrumentation into diverse musical and theatrical contexts. Concurrently, working as a COMPAS artist has kept me keenly aware of my work as a community based artist.  Because I learned this music and culture through community support, it is very important to me to be able to share it with diverse communities and age groups through the COMPAS roster.

How do you practice creativity in your everyday life?

As an independent artist, each week (aye, each day!) is an opportunity to create and develop the future. It is, in fact, a necessity! I continue to develop new projects grounded in traditional music, while also continuing to seek out new learning opportunities for myself, processes which I am sure will never cease!