Merging Traditional and Classical Music
A Conversation With James Ross about His Latest Album, “Landscape to Light”

James Ross is a pianist and composer who blends the rich tapestry of Scottish traditions with innovative compositions that combine Scottish folk and classical music. His latest album, “Landscape to Light,” will be released on June 21, 2024. In this interview, Ross shares how the album continues to weave Scotland’s musical traditions, landscape, folklore, literature, and history into beautiful and haunting compositions.

Hi James, can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your background as a composer, pianist, and teacher?

Pianist and composer James Ross

James Ross

I am from Wick, a small town in the Highlands of Scotland. I grew up in a music-loving household, joining my parents from an early age to local music events. My Mum, especially, loved Scottish country dance music, so there was always traditional music on the radio. I was fascinated by the accordion and started learning Scottish traditional music on the accordion when I was 9 years old; classical piano lessons followed. After school, I studied the traditional music course at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. Though I applied as an accordionist, the piano pretty much took over while I was there. After graduation, I studied for a master’s in traditional music at the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance, studying piano with the late Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin. Mícheál’s distinctive style of using the piano as a solo instrument in Irish traditional music and his creative integration of traditional and classical music have had a massive impact and influence on my work. Over the last twenty years, I have composed music inspired by the traditional music I grew up with. I blend this with classical music to create compositions drawing on the landscape, folklore, and history of the north of Scotland. I am a lecturer in traditional music at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in Glasgow.

James Ross has collaborated with various ensembles and regularly creates new ensembles bringing together classical and traditional musicians. His collaborations are not only limited to musicians but also writers. He recently collaborated with author Alexander McCall Smith and created a song cycle called “These are the Hands,” exploring Scotland’s relationship with the sea.

The album “Landscape to Light” is inspired by Neil Gunn’s novel of the same title, the nine pieces in the album captivate the remarkable landscape of Caithness, both James’s and Gunn’s home county.

Neil Gunn was a prolific author and novelist; he wrote a collection of essays called Landscape to Light, and that’s the title of the album. I’ve always been really drawn to his writing and his evocative descriptions and vivid pictures of land, sea, and nature. The album’s namesake track Landscape to Light is accompanied by a video by Minttu Mäntynen.

Landscape to Light

This album was recorded by James (piano) and the renowned Maxwell String Quartet. James mentioned this was the first time collaborating with them.

This project has been a couple of years in the making. In 2022, I did a residency with the Maxwell Quartet at Lyth Arts Centre in the north of Scotland to workshop and develop music I had written. After that, I came back to Glasgow, and I developed the music further in preparation for recording. We recorded the music in a beautiful church in Edinburgh in 2023, produced by Calum Malcom. It was nice to have that space of time between the writing, residency, and then the recording. The full album will be released on the 21st of June.

Landscape to Light – Album Preview

How did your music introduce the folk elements?

My compositional style is inspired by the rich tapestry of traditional music I grew up with in the Highlands. My music is inspired by folk music, whether it’s a fiddle tune, traditional music for dance, a Gaelic song, or a bagpipe lament. I am drawn to the beautiful modal melodies, ornamentation, and phrasing.

James also mentioned how he was inspired by local folklore and the legends of fairy mischief passed down through generations. When I asked him what his favorite tracks on this new album are, he mentioned three, and they are all related to the sea.

James Ross: Landscape to Light album cover

There are 3 tracks on the album relating to the sea. One is a rhythmic piece called The Swilkie, which refers to the most dangerous whirlpool on the North Coast, which is well-known for the strength of its tidal currents. Then, two laments called Black Saturday and Seafarers Hymn. Black Saturday refers to the tragedy that happened in 1848 when a colossal storm blew up. The ferocity of the wind and the waves drove many boats onto the rocks as they tried to enter the harbor in front of the watching families and friends. The final track on the album, Seafarers Hymn, was written for the many who sailed out, never to return.

The album, Landscape to Light will be released on June 21, 2024, on the Phenotypic Recordings label on June 21, 2024. For more information, please visit

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