Tag Archives: archive recordings

Horsehair string on a fairy fiddle

Jeemsie Laurenson describes the music played by the Picts at a mill on Fetlar:

And they said, “well, we’ll play a bit tune”. They had a string instrument that they call a porsh. They didn’t call it the fiddle you know, but they could play a tune on a string, a horse hair you know.

I assume the “porsh” is the French word “pochette” for a mini fiddle, rather than the Gaelic word “port” for a tune. The horse hair may be following the idea of the fairies playing on a tiny instrument with a single hair for a string, or it may be a memory of horsehair strings used on the gue. Jeemsie was very interested in the Picts (i.e. the trows or fairies).

Listen at Tobar an Dualchais: this excerpt is from 2:42 to 3:10

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!

Eskimo violin

For my concert last month in the Wighton Centre, Dundee, I tried to find tunes from as many different countries as I could. I was particularly keen to get an Inuit tune, because of the bowed zither traditions from Baffin Island and Northern Labrador.

I read up as much as I could about the various different traditions, and I have updated my Jouhikko web pages to include information on these different traditions. I also made a map to try and show how the different regional traditions of “bowed-harp” playing relate to each other:

The different numbered groups are my attempt to divide the different traditions. Group 1 is the bowed zithers of Canada and Iceland. Group 2 is the narrow-handhole bowed lyres from Northern Scandinavia. Group 3 is the wide-handhole bowed lyres from Southern Scandinavia, and group 4 is the fingerboard bowed lyres from Britain (though there are Continental examples of this type as well)

In the middle I have put Shetland, because no-one really knows what the form of the Shetland gue was. I like to think of it as being part of group 2, but some scholars have argued quite strongly that it should be in group 1.

I managed to get hold of the article by E. Y. Arima and M. Einarsson, Whence and Where the Eskimo Fiddle? published in the journal “Folk”, vol 18 1976. This has some very useful information about the Inuit bowed zithers including photos of a number of museum examples and alsoa  photo of a soapstone carving of one being played. However it is not really clear to me exactly how these instruments were played and fingered.

The article also refers to an archive recording from the 1950s, after the tradition had died out and come to an end, when an Inuit person from Northern Labrador made a couple of instruments and played them. I am currently in negotiations to try and get hold of a copy of this recording to listen to it.

Tobar an Dualchais

From Tobar an Dualchais:

Tobar an Dualchais/Kist o Riches is today announcing a special fundraising campaign to support our ongoing work to develop online access to some of Scotland’s most important audio archives.

Tobar an Dualchais/Kist o Riches is a landmark project to digitize, catalogue and make available online thousands of hours of folklore and folklife recordings made in Scotland over the past century. Most of these recordings come from the Sound Archive of the School of Scottish Studies at the University of Edinburgh, which contains a wealth of traditional songs, music, tales, poetry, oral history and information on a range of traditional customs and beliefs, from weather lore to second sight, and much more.

Already an invaluable cultural and linguistic resource, Tobar an Dualchais/Kist o Riches contains a great deal of material in Scots, English, and Gaelic, including many hundreds of recordings made in the Hebrides by John Lorne Campbell of Canna (1906–1996), starting in the 1930s. Our archives are also an important documentary source of information on the enormous social and economic changes that occurred in 20th century Scotland, with ordinary people across the country describing the last days of centuries-old working practices and the corresponding effects on their communities.

Although our website now contains many thousands of such tracks, several thousand more hours of recordings from the School of Scottish Studies Archives and Canna Collection are still waiting to be catalogued and added to the site. To help us achieve this goal we are inviting members of the public to donate to our new crowdfunding campaign, hosted by Sponsume at http://www.sponsume.com/project/tobar-dualchais , and running until the 15 December 2013.

Donors can choose from a range of fantastic rewards, including limited song releases from our recent Gaelic and Scots Artists in Residence, traditional musicians Julie Fowlis and Chris Wright, short-courses at the Sabhal Mòr Ostaig college on Skye, and Lifetime Membership of the Traditional Music and Song Association of Scotland.

For more information on Tobar an Dualchais/Kist o Riches and our new fundraising campaign, please contact Mairead MacDonald (Director) on 01471 888 600 / md2.smo@uhi.ac.uk, or Chris Wright (Crowdfunding Campaign Manager) on chris.wright@ed.ac.uk.

Port na bPúcaí

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.

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:

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
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.
 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


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.

Maol Donn

At the moment I am working on Maol Donn. This lovely pibroch is often given the romantic English title “MacCrimmon’s Sweetheart”. Its original title means brown or tawny hummock, or rounded thing, perhaps referring to the bald hornless forehead of the cow that was lost in the bog, which some stories say is the origin of the tune. I like the story of Ranald MacDonald of Morar composing this tune to a smooth brown seashell he found on the beach.

There are a number of recordings available of this tune played on the pipes. The oldest is played by John MacDonald of Inverness in 1926:
from Ross’s Music Page

My favourite is played by Calum Johnston in 1955:

Here’s the traditional song that goes with it, sung by Kate MacDonald in 1970:

The Forest

I was in The Forest twice yesterday. First time was for a nice quiet relaxed Elevenses with Ealasaid. When we saw this fantastic artwork on the wall, she commented that Rodchenko used the dinosaur on the phone in his illustration for Про Зто – actually I think the same metaphor appears in the poem too.

The second time was when I was hurrying to catch my bus in the evening, I passed by the big glass windows just as the 78s man was about to start his next record – so I stopped breathlessly for three minutes of the most beautiful and delicate swing jazz before whisking back out of the door and pegging it up to the bus stop.