Two-bell ringing

Sometimes at St Salvators tower we are short-handed, and we have been gradually working our way though The Chris Higgins Guide To Three-Bell Ringing (ed. Ian Chandler, Kirby Manor Press 2003). I have been enjoying the elegant simplicity of the music as well as the physical challenge of placing and striking the bell well.

Today, being the first day of semester at the University of St Andrews, and also the morning of the clocks changing, there were only two of us. There are two two-bell methods in the book, and we tried them both – Cambridge being a little more pleasant, with more intellectual challenge as well as less physical. But then I fancied something different and so invented on the spot some stedman-style methods which I see now loking though my notes also share some charateristics of the ultimate 3-bell method, Shipping Forecast.

The idea is to lie, point and lie. You can lie for 2 or 3 blows, and you can arrange the blocks of 2 and 3 lying adjacent or alternating.

x=xx=x=xx= or x=xx==x=xx== or x=xx==x==xx=

We rang the three and the five, the University’s two medieval bells, whose minor 3rd interval was to me the characteristic sound of the tower before the augmentation in 2010.

I wonder if it would be possible to make a connection with the binary music of Robert ap Huw and the other late medieval / early modern Welsh secular instrumentalists? Was this most fundamental art of change ringing used before changes on higher numbers were developed?

In medieval Welsh notation we might write for the three methods above
00100.11011 and 001000.110111 and 001000.111011

Finally we discussed a little what to call this type of ringing. The book unimaginatively describes these methods using just the word “two”. We can do better than that. The convention for odd numbers of bells is to count the number of simultaneous changes possible, so on 3 is singles, 5 is doubles, 7 is triples, and so on. On even numbers, Latin descriptors are used: 4 is minimus, 6 is minor, 8 is major, &c. I proposed “micromus” but I don’t know if that is too silly!

Scottish 78s

In six months time I have agreed to present a rather different programme for the Friends of Wighton – half an hour of ’20s sounds from old Scottish 78rpm gramophone records. It will be Wednesday 1st October, 1.15pm, in the Wighton Centre, Dundee Central Library.

I realised that I have plenty enough discs for half an hour – just one side of each from a selection will be more than enough. We will have Gaelic song, Scots song, fiddle, pipes and clarsach; the oldest disc is from about 1914 and the most recent from 1931.

I was also thinking about the dates and provenances of the various discs. The one shown above was recorded in London, though I assume it was made for the Scottish market. I have what I think is the oldest Scottish harp record, that is Patuffa Kennedy Fraser’s disc of “Songs of the Hebrides” from 1929. I also have what seems to be the oldest Irish harp record, Mabel Dolmetsch’s “Victorious tree”, recorded in 1937 though never released (I won’t be playing this one as it is too fragile as well as not being Scottish!)

Mabel’s record is Irish harp music but she wasn’t Irish or living in Ireland, so I wondered what was the oldest Irish harp record? Was Mabel first? Actually it seems she was. Susan Reed appears to have been the next to record, and her “Old English Folk Songs” released in 1945 would be the earliest published recording of Irish harp, even though the performer is American and the repertory is English! Mary O’Hara put out her first disc in 1956 I think. I’m having trouble tracking down other Irish harpists on record from this era.

The Cliffs of Kinbellachoir

Ronald Smith in Perth suggested I compose a tune with this title. There are ancient histories that tell how Irish monks associated with St Columba founded two monastic sites, at Rigmonadh and Bellathor. The former place name is now Kilrymont, better known as St Andrews where I live. The latter, also Kinbellachoir, is not really known but Ronald suggests it refers to modern day Perth. I have seen suggestions it is Scone – in any case somewhere in the area of Perth seems likely.

For this tune I have picked up on these themes, and also on the history of a Beltane fair that Ronald tells me was celebrated in the area before the Reformation.

I had hoped that my tune might come out in a form that fitted harp, fiddle and pipes. Unfortunately it twisted and turned and ended up being useless for Highland pipes, however Patrick Molard has played it on Uillean pipes and it sounds delicious! Here’s Patrick’s MP3 for you to listen to.

Ethnomusicology VSI

I got the new Very Short Introduction to Ethnomusicology by Timothy Rice last month and I have been meaning to do a post about it for a few weeks now. This book is part of the VSI series published by Oxford University Press. I have been collecting this series for a very long time, because I find the small format, the high production values and the artistic covers very attractive. Though having said that, I noticed that on the more recent volumes the binding has changed from a stitched paperback to perfect-bound which does lower the tone a little.

Books in the VSI series tend to be either excellent or rubbish. The constraints of the format – a small 100-ish page paperback that is to summarise an entire field of study or knowledge for the educated general reader, is very hard and it is interesting to see the authors strain to present complex spreads of ideas concisely and clearly.

The Ethnomusicology volume is one of the excellent ones. Partly it retains its focus and clarity by addressing and describing Ethnomusicology as an academic discipline, which gives the book a clear sense of structure and purpose. What do professional ethnomusicologists do, how has the discipline evolved and changed, what are the current political and ideological faultlines in the discipline? This is in great contrast to, for example, the volumes on Folk Music or World Music which struggle from the outset to define their subject area (and which both quickly admit that they don’t have any coherent definition to offer)

For me there were a number of useful insights or viewpoints to explore further. One was the issues of notation, “music as text”. But most interesting thing mentioned in the book, I thought, was the discussion of trance. I have come across ideas of trance in music before, but this book has reminded me that this is something I need to look into further.

Tutor book 2nd edition

I have completed the revision of my harp tutor book. “Progressive Lessons for Early Gaelic harp“.

The 1st edition was published in 2009 and I was starting to be unhappy with some of the text and instructions, and also with the music notation. When I first wrote the book, I was really unsure about including notation of the tunes. I seriously considered just omitting all the notation, and I did just that when I re-wrote the book in simplified form as “Clarsach lessons for young harpers“.

I feared that people would put the book up on their music stands and start sight-reading from the notation – and I have seen that happening.

So for the 2nd edition I am making a brave experiment – I wrote to Queens University Belfast to request permission to reproduce facsimiles of Bunting’s manuscripts, and so the music notation of the first edition has now been replaced in the 2nd edition with manuscript facsimiles. This has forced me to explain the music more clearly in the text, but the idea is that the text explanation plus the recorded examples on the CD will make everything clear.

So “Progressive Lessons” has become more serious and hardcore – but I feel OK with that because “Young Harpers” is available as a more easy and accessible introduction to the material.

I haven’t announced the 2nd edition yet – I’ll update the web pages for the 1st April update. But any orders placed from now on will get the 2nd edition.

Medieval Scottish sword

I have a new sword, which I acquired secondhand. It was made in Czechoslovakia by Nielo – there seems to be a number of very good bladesmith craftsmen in Eastern Europe. It is nicely made and seems a quality piece of work. Though it is over 10 years since I last did any historical fencing this seems a very good sword.

I have been looking for a long time for a sword of this type. The drooping quillons with broad ends are the really distinctive thing here and these differentiate this “Scottish style”, and they are what develop to give the classic “claymore” or “twa-handit sword” of the 15th to 17th century.

The West Highland grave slabs, such as the ones at Keills, show similar swords but with viking style lobed pommels. Was there a real difference between the designs of the West and the East in the 14th and 15th century? Or were the late medieval West coast stone carvers deliberately showing an archaic design? I don’t think there are any extant examples of the lobed-pommel type whereas there are a number of this wheel-pommel type surviving. Here is an excellent example in Kelvingrove museum, Glasgow.

I could have done with this in 2011, when I ran my Battle of Harlaw music workshops. We spent part of one of the sessions looking at the effigy of Gilbert de Greenlaw, and discussing his arms and armour. He is carrying exactly this kind of sword – again in an East coast context. We also looked at some of the West highland effigies.

The sword does not have a scabbard, so making one is my next project. I need to look at more of the effigies and stone slabs to get a better idea of how they work.

Silver harp strings

At the beginning of January I was fiddling with the setup of my harp, as part of an ill-fated New Years Resolution to change its tuning. For the last two months I have had 10 gold, 10 silver and 10 brass strings on (nominally), which I liked because of the neatness and symmetry of the counting.

Taking the silver 3 notes higher than it ever used to be, up to an octave above middle c, must have emboldened me. The silver I am using now, and the way I am drawing it hard, seems to work very well for thinner higher pitched strings.

Also I have been pondering the Ouseley quote about the silver strings on the Trinity College harp.

So the latest scheme (pictured below) takes the silver right up to the top of the harp. The only exception is the very highest string which still has Dan Tokar’s experimental super-hard-drawn gold wire from years back. I just can’t bring myself to remove it!

The sound of the high silver is nice, more creamy and fluid that the brass. I think I always felt that the high strings on this harp were a bit pingy; I swayed between thinking that the treble end of the soundbox is too thick, or thinking that it is meant to be pingy as a contrast with the singing midrange and the roaring bass, or thinking that if I could only get the right type of brass (red brass, yellow brass, hard-drawn, latten…) then it would become perfect.

Now I will watch how these high silver strings hold up for a couple of weeks. If they behave themselves then I’ll probably keep them going for a while.


The death and re-invention of Scotland – Tom Devine

While I was riding on the bus to Dundee and back for my weekly harp class this afternoon, I listened to Professor Tom Devine on the death and reinvention of Scotland – not of the actual place or people of course, but of the idea of the nation.

This was a lecture that was given at my old college last June. Devine spoke mostly about 18th and 19th century history, and I found a number of his points were very pertinent to the current groundswell and shifts in the constitutional settlement. Ideas about the pace of change in Scottish society, the enlightenment, the relationship between the Central Belt and the rest of the country. The way in which the Scottish settlement was seen as different from the Irish.

Worth listening to if you have 50 minutes! Download as video or audio from Oxford Podcasts.