Irish piper Ronan Browne played at the three HHSI concerts, in Kilkenny, Galway and Dublin last week. One of the tunes he played on his more modern set of pipes was Port na bPúcaí, a most amazing slow air. I already knew that Ronan did a lot of work with archive recordings, and he mentioned that this tune was transmitted via a single archive recording, a fiddle performance by Seán Cheaist Ó Catháin which was released on a CD, Beauty an Oileáin: Music and Songs of the Blasket Islands (Claddagh CC56CD, 1992).
Seán Cheaist’s performance is very interesting and beautiful and I have spent today learning to play it on the fiddle. It has an interesting structure, with repeating phrases having “open” or “closed” endings – you could indicate it as A1 A2 B1 B2 B1 A2 – meaning that the second half is twice as long as the first. The 7th note of the scale is deliciously ambiguous – it tends towards either the flat or sharp 7th at different points of the tune, but never quite gets to either.
The Priors House was packed out for today’s cathedral concert. I was apprehensive about presenting a concert of music from my new CD; these grand epic compositions take about 10 minutes to unfold which means that in a half hour concert there’s time for just two. I always wonder if people will just switch off when faced with such a huge wall of music, but once again I was pleasantly surprised by how engaged with this music people were.
My theme for today was “Ranald and the ghost” and I told the story of the Colainn gun Cheann, and the epic battle on the road at midnight between Ranald and the spectre, and I finished the story with the little song that the ghost sings as it fled. Perhaps this kind of all-engrossing narrative with its strong personalities and unexpected plot twists is what keeps the subsequent 10-minute pibroch relevant and engaging. (having told them that the variations are describing the story in music, perhaps there is more pressure on me to draw those different emotive and dynamic aspects out of each variation).
Either way, both of today’s tunes were very well received and people left well satisfied. It’s only a shame that, due to funding cuts, there were only two cathedral concerts this year. I’m hoping that we’ll be able to continue working with Historic Scotland next year on another series of cathedral harp music.