A few different things I have been reading recently have come together in some vague and half-baked ideas on performance issues.
I have been reading The other classical musics edited by Michael Church (Boydell 2015). When I first saw this book, in Blackwell’s bookshop in Oxford, I thought I wouldn’t like it; I thought the idea of “classical music” as a general concept was too problematical. I kept thinking about the issues though, and later I had another look in Topping’s bookshop here. So I realised I had to get it and read it.
I am listening to last night’s BBC broadcast of The Well-Tuned Piano by La Monte Young. This fascinating five hour performance has prompted many thoughts and half-baked ideas on the nature of this kind of music.
I often hear the opinion that decoration on a new harp is a kind of decadent luxury, unnecessary, a bit of an affectation. And when decoration is applied to a replica harp, it is often somewhat simplified, or sketchy, or partial.
After I finished the Trinity College harp neck decoration sheet, I thought again about the issues surrounding this type of art, considering the sketchy and approximate versions of this scheme that we have seen up to now even on the best copies of the harp.
The study of the historical Gaelic harp traditions of Ireland and Scotland is unusual in its scope, materials and foundations. Of course it shares many aspects with other disciplines. As a combination of historical research and performance art, it does not fit easily into mainstream historical or artistic disciplines. In this, it shares a lot with other historically-informed performance (HIP) practice disciplines, such as harpsichord, lute, or baroque violin. However, historical Gaelic harp is different from other HIP areas because of its nature as an oral tradition. Other areas of HIP deal with dead or extinct literate traditions; one can get hold of an 18th century harpsichord instruction manual, and sit at an original or reproduction instrument, and do what the book tells you to. This is not possible for an extinct oral tradition.
In discussion with Siobhán Armstrong the other day, she challenged me to set out my ideas on how we can use modes to categorise or understand the old Gaelic harp music. Here is the scheme that I think I have been gradually bringing together for a while.
When I suggested to the committee of the Friends of Wighton back in the spring, that I could do a gramophone session for one of the regular Wednesday lunchtime concerts in the Wighton Centre in Dundee, I just thought it would be a bit of light-hearted fun, but actually it has become quite a serious task for me! From planning the sides and running order I’ll play, to opening and cleaning and oiling the machine, to reading up on the music so as to have something useful to say during the presentation, it is taking up a lot more time than I expected.
I have been reading some interesting books or at least sections of books. In Scottish Life and Society, A Compendium of Scottish Ethnology, volume 10: Oral Literature and Performance Culture edited by John Beech, Owen Hand, Fiona MacDonald, Mark A. Mulhern and Jeremy Weston, (John Donald in association with the European Ethnological Research Centre and National Museums Scotland, 2007) (phew!), there is a very good chapter by Stuart Eydmann, ‘Diversity and diversification in Scottish music’. Eydman gives as a subtitle ‘Sketches for a Scottish musical-historical map’, and then gives a couple of pages in turn to a half-century or so, starting with “before 1840”, and then progressing, “1840-1900”, “1900-1945” and “post 1945”.
Of course it is the “1900 to 1945” section that is most relevant to the Scottish 78rpm gramophone records, though the late 19th century observations are useful as well. Eydman deals clearly and concisely with the different types of musical activities which different parts of society took part in, including domestic performance on instruments, both working class and ‘bourgeois’, as well as the music hall, one of the most important contexts for the gramophone records.
It seems to me that there were two different backgrounds from which musicians would come forward to produce a gramophone record of “Scottish music” in the teens, twenties and thirties: music hall performers, and “concert artists”, i.e. classical musicians. Harry Lauder is of course the best known music hall artist performing “scots songs”, and on the disc of his I have he is very much playing up all of the negative racial slurs of the Scotsman as a foolish, drunken, untrustworthy figure of fun. Both on this disc and on another, a record of Jock Mills from 1914, there is a similar vocal style, with slighty hysterical-sounding swoops down onto certain stressed notes, and a very curious extended rolled R in the middle or end of many words – I’m not aware of this sound as a part of any Scottish dialect and I assume it is a music-hall comic convention.
Marjory Kennedy-Fraser is the best known “concert artist” in this field. Her “Songs of the Hebrides”, ostensibly arrangements of traditional Gaelic songs, but in reality pretty much newly-composed pastiches, were very popular, and many classical singers specialised in them, such as Joseph Hislop (I have a 1933 disc of him). But other classical musicians turned to what we would consider genuine traditional material, and performed it in a pretty interesting straight classical style, such as Archie Anderson singing “Jock O’Hazeldean” (Walter Scott’s tidying up of a traditional border ballad) in 1914, or Kenneth MacRae singing “Òran Mòr Mhic Leoid” (a Gaelic song composed in the 1690s by Rory Dall Morrison) in 1931. The text is straight, the accompaniment is simple, and the vocal style is the classical norm of its time.
David McCallum was a leading violinist with the Edinburgh symphony orchestras, and you can hear his classical learning on his record (c.1929) with its extensive slow portamento sliding, but he has a lot of very distinctive Scottish fiddle ornaments as well – this is not just a straight classical performance of the tune, such as we hear today from players like Jordi Savall. McCallum very much has a foot in both camps. I almost said if indeed there were two camps then but of course there were, and we can hear the other “traditional” style on the archive recordings. But the old traditional fiddlers would never have made a gramophone record in the 1920s or 30s!
John MacDonald of Inverness on the pipes, playing “Lament for the Children” in 1927, does fit into this model, but perhaps not as obviously as first seems. Obviously he is not a “music hall performer” or indeed a “concert artist” in the classical sense, but his playing style, and the Pìobaireachd Society score he is working from, represent the height of high modernism, to the point that the traditional tune is barely identifiable in his extremely mannered playing.
The use of sliding as an articulation in classical music is a fascinating aspect of performance practice that is almost completely lost today. Robert Philip’s book Performing music in the age of recording (Yale 2004) documents in huge but fascinating detail the changes in performance style which were brought about in the 20s and 30s by the development of recording technology. This book reminds me of why I love the late 20s recordings so much – they are after the invention of electrical recording in 1925, so the sound quality is much better than pre-1925
records, but they are before the big changes in style and presentation which quality recordings drove forward.
I also read Susan Motherway’s paper ‘Mediated music? the impact of recording on Irish traditional song performance’ in the interesting collection Ancestral imprints: Histories of Irish traditional music and dance ed. Thérèse Smith (Cork 2012). Apart from the rather silly pomo writing style of the title and introductary paragraphs, this is a very insightful article that considers commercial recordings of traditional singers from the 1990s on. Apart from the good comments about the way in which different recordings place themselves very differently in the market, I was most struck by the comments about the amount of control that recording and sound engineers now have over the sound and the music of the singers.
It almost seemed reading this article that similar issues dealt with by Phillips for classical music in the 1920s and 30s, are currently playing out in traditional music. Perhaps these things are always playing out to some extent, but I am fascinated by that constant tension between the musician as a performance artist, standing in front of or even better alongside an audience of their peers, and presenting a musical performance as a personal interaction, saying something to the listeners; and the recording as a product, a manufactured good, that is to be kept on a shelf and admired as an artefact.
I was up in Aberdeen yesterday, interviewing for an education project themed around the Deskford carnyx. As part of my preparation I was reading up on the Deskford find as well as on carnyxes generally, and some ideas crystallised in my mind about this object specifically, as well as about the whole theme of reconstructing archaeological objects more generally. And the recreation of ancient music is perhaps the most difficult strand of reconstructing ancient objects, because the musical instrument is not merely a decorative item or a functioning tool, but is the living substrate of a whole other creative art, i.e. music making.
I was chatting with Maura Uí Chróinín in Kilkenny, about the “BC/AD” music-archaeology theme of this year’s Galway Early Music Festival, and she made the point that most music archaeologists seem to work on their own, outside of both the musical and the archaeological mainstream. The reasons for this are obvious enough, since archaeologists most often don’t have music training and musicians don’t have archaeological background, and so the majority of scholars on both sides feel un-qualified to judge or participate in music-archaeology work.
The late Iron age object from Deskford (my photo shown on the right, in the NMS) was excavated in the 19th century and so is, by modern standards, poorly recorded and conserved. It is in the form of a sheet bronze hollow boar’s head, and has with it a number of associated sheet bronze items which seem to form the palate of the boar’s mouth, its lower jaw, and a circular plate which is often assumed to have closed the open back of the head. The original descriptions also mention a wooden tongue mounted on springs but these are lost.
Early suggestions of its function were perhaps as a headdress. In 1959, Stuart Piggot published a paper suggesting it may have been the bell of a distinctive type of Iron Age long trumpet, called carnyx. At that date, the carnyx was known from classical art and literature, and Piggot drew attention to a lost example excavated in Tattershall, England, in the 18th century.
Piggot’s article included a speculative reconstruction of the Deskford boar’s head mounted on a long vertical tube, and despite his reservations and cautions, this image and the idea of the only extant carnyx surviving from North-East Scotland captured the public imagination. In the 1990s, John Purser led a team to build a working reconstruction of the boars head as a long trumpet bell, following Piggot’s drawing. This modern carnyx has been played extensively by trombonist John Kenny – I remember seeing him play it at a concert in Edinburgh some years ago.
In all this excitement, people forget that Piggot’s suggestion was just that – a speculative suggestion made at a time when very little was actually known about the carnyx. Now we have a lot more information available, especially since the publication of detailed information of the set of almost complete carnyxes excavated in 2004 in Tintinac in France. Looking over the depictions, the Tintinac examples (illustration left from Wikipedia) and the River Witham drawing publiushed by Piggot, I see a number of important features that could be said to characterise the carnyx. The tube is tapering along its whole length like a horn, and flares gently but markedly towards the animal head, which is not seperate in shape but forms a smooth continuation of the bore flare. The animal mouth is wide open, not constricting the bell of the instrument. In contrast, the Deskford head tapers the other way, severly constricting the bell of the reconstructed instrument – a recent acoustical study notes that it acts like a “trombone mute”. Also, the use of the circular dished plate to close the back of the boar’s head requires a thin tube, with a sudden step in profile as the tube meets the head. Again this has an adverse effect on the harmonicity of the instrument in contrast to the smooth expansion of the other extant and depicted carnyxes.
These considerations alone make me instantly very suspicious of this idea, that the Deskford head represents the remains of a musical instrument. I can see no specific evidence to support this interpretation and I can see a number of problems, ways in which the Deskford head is markedly different in form from all of the other extant and depicted carnyxes. I would go as far as to say, the Deskford boar’s head is not a carnyx.
A number of descriptions of the reconstruction Deskford carnyx are at pains to point out that it involves a large amount of interpretative or newly-invented design, but that nonetheless it represents a fascinating working instrument that can “result in
instruments capable of playing a valuable role in the musical culture of the present day.” (M. Campbell & J. Kenny, Acoustical and musical properties of the Deskford Carnyx reconstruction, Proceedings of the Acoustics 2012 Nantes Conference). This is the rub – you invent a new instrument, give it an ancient name and hang it on an ancient cultural icon or artefact, and so set off in a new direction. This is not music archaeology; this is modernist cultural creativity, re-imagining ancient symbols for new purposes. If the purpose was really to get the ancient carnyx up and running, then there are the Tintinac examples ready to be exactly replicated; compared to that, a new instrument using a copy of the Deskford boar’s head as its bell has virtually no archaeological or music-archaeological value. Clearly it is not intended to do music-archaeology work; instead it is designed and produced for present day national-cultural reasons, to provide a newly-invented iconic “ancient” Scottish sight and sound.
We are not so far away from the invention of the gut-strung lever harp in the 1890s, and the neglect of the historical Gaelic harp…
One final thought: many modern depictions or recreations of carnyxes emphasise its long S shape, with a vertical tube topped by a 90 degree bend to hold the animal head, and with another 90 degree bend at the bottom to hold the mouthpiece horizontal while the tube is vertical. It seems to me that all the ancient carnyxes did not have this 90 degree bend at the bottom – some may have had an oblique mouthpiece cut in the lower end of the vertical tube, but the normal arrangement seems to have been a plain mouthpiece on the end of the long tube, as seen on the Tintinac example illustrated above. So the player has to tip their head right back and blow almost vertically into the instrument. A very different playing position with all its implications for sound production!
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.