Tag Archives: books

Ceòl Rí Innse Gall

I am preparing for Wednesday’s concert here in St Andrews. I am going to play a programme of “Ceòl Rígh Innse Gall”, my speculative re-imaginings of medieval West-Highland ceremonial music. This project is still very much a work-in-progress, and I am still thinking hard about how this music should work, and what sources of inspiration and musical material to raid.

Continue reading Ceòl Rí Innse Gall

Kelt and Keltic, or Selt and Seltic?

I find myself, before a Scottish audience, in a position of phonetic ambiguity. Do I say Kelt and Keltic, or Selt and Seltic? As an Englishman, I use the former pronounciation from habit, though aware that Scottish usage favours the soft ‘c’, as does the O.E.D., giving ‘Keltic’ only as a secondary alternative.

from Stuart Piggot, Celts, Saxons and the Early Antiquarians, The O’Donnell Lecture 1966, Edinburgh University Press, 1967, p.4

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!

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.

Irish harpist busking in London, c.1900


Ealasaid was looking through George Sims’s amazing books Living London, published around 1900-1903, searching for images to use in her artwork, when she found this lovely photograph in a section about street musicians. This gentleman is playing what looks like an Egan portable harp, or perhaps one of the late 19th century imitations made by Holderness, Morley or other London harpmakers.

He also appears to have a concertina under his arm and there is what I imagine is a collecting box strapped to the pillar of his harp.

The Egan Royal portable harps usually have a strap button at top and bottom of the soundbox, but I don’t recall ever seeing a picture of someone with the harp strapped to themselves before.

Henry George Farmer, in his paper ‘Some Notes on the Irish Harp’, in Music & Letters vol XXIV, April 1943, describes how he remembered seeing an Irish harper busking on the Old Kent Road in about 1900. Farmer said he did not have time to check out who the harper was or how his instrument was set up, leading to much speculation about whether this was the last of the blind students from the Dublin Harp Society, playing one of the big Society wire-strung early Irish harps. However this image suggests that Farmer might have seen this man or someone like him, playing a gut-strung neo-Irish harp.

Playing ceòl mór from Donald MacDonald’s 1820 printed book

I am intrigued by Donald MacDonald’s arrangements of ceòl mór or pibroch, because on his title page he indicates that he is not setting out the tunes in “pipers tablature”, that cryptic system that looks confusingly similar to staff notation; instead, he describes his work:

A / collection / of the / Ancient Martial /  Music of Caledonia / called / Piobaireachd / as performed on the / Great Highland Bagpipe / Now also adapted to the / Piano Forte, violin and violoncello…

By setting the music on two staves, treble and bass, he intends that the purchasers of his book, price one guinea (£1 1s, or a few hundred pounds in today’s money) to play this music not on the pipes (what wealthy, musically literate book-buyer in 1820 owned or played pipes?) but on the piano; if they had musical guests at their Edinburgh townhouse they may well also try it as violin and cello duets.

Donald writes a single bass line very simply in the bass clef, which looks to me quite old-fashioned for 1820; I think by that date many music arrangers were writing chordal and thicker textures in the bass.  On the other hand the modal, drone-based nature of the music may have discouraged anything more complex.

He writes the melody in a more nuanced way, setting the tune in large notes with their stems all pointing down, and using little notes with the stems up to indicate the characteristic bagpipe grace-notes. I imagine he expected piano and fiddle players to ignore these in performance, but to appreciate them as exotic talking-points read in connection with the “instructions” at the beginning of the book.

How did he decide which notes to make big, and which small? This is the vexed question of all early pibroch scholarship, since there seems to have been a strong movement through the 19th and 20th century to shift the musical emphasis in a big way, with melody notes becoming swallowed up into bundles of gracenotes, and rogue grace notes being held so long that they speak as stressed melody notes.

My opinion is that he wrote the big notes so that when played normally on the fiddle or piano, the melody sounded as he imagined in his head that it should, based on his knowledge of the expected traditional expression of this tune on the pipes (and perhaps also on the fiddle, seeing as the fiddle pibroch tradition may have still been reasonably strong at this time)

More on Ronald MacDonald of Morar’s Lament

Today I tried playing the Lament for Ranald MacDonald of Morar on the harp, and I discovered two very interesting things about this tune.

First, it really does not sit well on the harp.

Secondly, it is a minor-mode tune. The notation gives it in a, as is usual for Highland bagpipe music, as the pipes usually play an a major scale: a b c# d e f# g a, plus low G, with drones sounding all the while on A.

This tune is mostly pentatonic, moving over g a b – d e – g a, with passing notes on f# and on c natural. The c natural is not at all what one would expect to hear in a pipe tune, yet not only does c# sound very wrong but the notation clearly gives only one sharp in the key signature.

Listening to the only pipe recording I have to hand (and ignoring the substantial changes to pulse and accent) I note that the issue doesn’t arise on the pipes, because the sequence that Donald MacDonald writes very clearly as d (G) c (G) b, i.e. a descending series of 3 notes d c b, separated by low G gracenotes, becomes in modern performance d G(c#)G b, i.e. a sequence of two notes d  b separated by a burble on low G. So the tune remains pentatonic on the pipes.

I checked in Joseph MacDonald‘s book, where he has a section on the “keys” in which ceòl mór is set on the pipes, he doesn not really deal with this type of scale; he only talks about laments omitting c# and concentrating on the low end of the scale. Other than that he is mainly interested in music set in modal equivalents of g major, a major and d major.