Category Archives: recordings

Eskimo violin recording

I got hold of a recording of Tautirut (“eskimo violin”) playing. Not the recording from the 1950s I was after, but a 50 second track recorded in the early 1970s in Ungava Bay in the far north of Quebec. The player is an Inuit musician, Sarah Airo, and she also plays a bit on Jew’s harp, a fragment of a tune that reminds me very much of a Norwegian hardanger fiddle tune I have heard.

But it was the bowed strings I was really wanting to hear. Sarah’s instrument has a startlingly hoarse low-pitched sound. It sounds to me like she has three strings tuned c#, a, c#’. She is play a very formulaic melody, mostly alternating rythmically between c#’
and f#’. She is using some fast finger ornaments and some fast bowing ornaments to lift the repetitive two-note melodic figure. In the second section she also seems to be playing a passing note (c natural or I suppose b#’ it should be. I fancy she might be fingering this note on the second string but it is hard to say.

Sarah does not really bow the strings together as a continuous drone, but she is definitely using the lower strings as strong steady drone notes. I have a feeling that some of the Karelian jouhikko players use this alternation between the fragments of melody and the drone, as an alternative to the more common technique of playing the melody continuously with the drone(s) also sounding continuously. Sarah’s drones are interesting being a sixth apart; my ear is hearing the high melodic f# as a kind of modal centre, giving the melody a minor sonority.

The recording is track 21b on the 1986 LP, Inuit Games and Songs, UNESCO Collection / GREM LP G1036

Now I am even more interested to get the 1950s recording for comparison!

Mabel Dolmetsch recordings

I have digitised the first of the three sides I have of these old Dolmetsch transcription discs. I chose the “test” side to do first as I assumed it would be the least interesting.

Actually it turned out to be really fascinating. There are 5 tracks. The first starts with the voice of Arnold Dolmetsch himself, announcing his performance of Lord Salisbury’s Pavan on the Clavichord. At the end he laughs and says “hopeless!”

Then we have three tracks of Mabel playing the early Irish harp. Two of them are fragments of An Seann Triucha (the Old Trugh) – from Bunting’s Ancient Music of Ireland, 1809, p.6.

I do not recognise the third track. I wonder if it is some Welsh music from Robert ap Huw.

You can listen to these tracks here:
http://www.earlygaelicharp.info/Dolmetsch/

The oldest recordings of early Irish harp music?

I have acquired two discs which I think might be the oldest recordings of early Irish harp music, recorded in April 1937. I have not yet played them to hear what is on them – I am still trying to source a suitable stylus for my turntable.

They are one-off lacquer gramophone records, also known as transcription discs – the 1930s equivalent of a cassette tape, for direct recording as a one-off copy. These are not reproductions or duplicate pressings so are almost certainly the only copies that exist of these takes.

Here’s the handwritten label of one of the discs, a double-sided 10-inch disc:

 Victorious Tree
Lullaby
Take 3.   N.D.G
(The other side of this disc says “Tests – A.D. on outer ring – II.IV.37”)

And here is the second record, a 12 inch single-sided disc:

D II Take I
Irish Harp Music.
Mrs. Dolmetsch.
The Victorious Tree.
Lullaby.
 These records came from a collection of Dolmetsch discs, tapes and papers. Some of the other discs indicated that they were recorded by L. Ward.
Arnold Dolmetsch made a number of harps, both small gut strung instruments as well as the early Irish harps modelled on the Queen Mary harp and Trinity College harp, and fitted with metal wire strings. Mabel used them mainly for exploring the medieval Welsh repertory preserved in the Robert ap Huw manuscript, and in 1937 they released a set of gramophone records with an accompanying book of sheet music “translated” from the manuscript. Mabel played this Welsh music on the wire-strung Irish harp, and her performances and Arnold’s editions proved very influential; Alan Stivell included performances of these versions on his LP “Renaissance of the Celtic Harp”.
However I did not know until now that Mabel had also experimented with Irish repertory. “An Bile Buadhach” (The Victorious Great Tree) comes from Edward Bunting’s 1809 collection; it was collected by Bunting from an unnamed informant “at Lord Clanbrassil’s” house, Tollymore Park, co. Down, “in 1793”.
When I get the correct stylus for my turntable I will play these discs once, digitise them and present them here for you! I am not going to put them on the gramophone machine – I understand that these transcription discs are extremely fragile and wear out very quickly from only a few plays.
Here’s what Mabel had to say about her own playing of the early Irish harp music:
…the small, metal-strung variety [of harp], favoured in Ireland, and the Highlands of Scotland, under the name of Clarsach. I never ceased to thank him [Arnold Dolmetsch] for producing these most fascinating of instruments, whose suavely tuneful music rejoices the heart and charms the senses. One day when I was recreating myself with one of these little instruments, a neighbour who had asked if she might use our telephone, came running into the music room, exclaiming: ‘Oh, what are those lovely sounds? That is the kind of music I want to hear when I am dying!’

 From Mabel Dolmetsch, Personal Recollections of Arnold Dolmetsch, RKP, 1957, p148

Tarbh

My new CD released today features five solo harp tracks of late 17th or early 18th century music attributed to a great local hero of the West of Scotland – Raghnall Mac Ailein Òig. These grand formal tunes come from the pibroch tradition of the pipes, and also from early fiddle and vocal sources, and I have turned them into dreamy, beautiful clarsach meditations. Each tune has a very different atmosphere, and the CD booklet includes five full-page illustrations made by Ealasaid Gilfillan especially for this project. These unique and intense montage images really give you a sense of the meaning of each tune.

For more info, please visit www.earlygaelicharp.info/tarbh

As a companion to the CD I have also made a set of web pages all about Raghnall Mac Ailein Òig – Ronald MacDonald of Morar, said to have lived 1662-1741. The pages include all the references I used as sources for the CD and also include links to a number of fascinating songs and stories on archive audio recordings at Tobar an Dualchais – the online portal for the tape recordings preserved in the School of Scottish Studies in Edinburgh.
www.earlygaelicharp.info/ranald