Tag Archives: Manifesto

Ceòl mór or pibroch for the clarsach

Right from the very beginning of my harp studies I was fascinated by the idea of ceòl mór on the harp. I started studying the first tunes (Fair Molly, the Butterfly and Burns March) from November or December 1999, and I think it was just a couple of months later that I found a cassette tape copy of Ann Heymann’s Queen of Harps in an Oxford Celtic/New Age shop. That recording, apart from eternally smelling of patchouli, of course has Ann’s 30 minute performance of her version of the pibroch, Lament for the Tree of Strings.

I think I was taken by the intricate repetitiveness of the music, like a journey through a landscape, or perhaps more pertinently like the folded geometric patterns in medieval manuscripts such as the Book of Kells. I was also interested in the abstract nature of the tunes, which are very different from the more “tuney” tunes more commonly found in traditional music nowadays.

I made a page on my old website about ceol mor, where I searched for inspiration and information.

The first ceòl mór tune I played on the harp was Cumh Easbig Earraghaal, the lament for the Bishop of Argyll, the manuscript source for which is reproduced in Alison Kinnaird’s and Keith Sanger’s book Tree of Strings. I think it took me a long time to get to grips with this tune but in some ways it made perfect sense to me – this is exactly what ancient harp music is meant to sound like, the contrasts between the different variations, and the opportunities for exploring different timbres and idioms as the variations progress. I continued to play and develop this tune and included it on my first CD, Clàrsach na Bànrighe, in 2008.

Ceòl mór is a genre of music that is best known nowadays as pipe music, played on the great highland bagpipe, where it is known as pibroch or pìobaireachd. I say “best known” though in fact you rarely hear pipers playing this type of music; it is rarely included in concert programmes, living instead in a rarefied world of piping competitions. I worked for a while with historical piper Barnaby Brown, on projects including promoting both piping and harping on the internet and developing online teaching resources. His unusual insight into the historical pibroch traditions gave me some useful understandings of the nature of this music and how it might live nowadays. Traditionally it belongs to the pipes and the fiddle and the old Gaelic harp with metal wire strings, and I feel each of the three instruments brings something different and unique to the music. None of them is “imitating” the other, each wholly owns the music and expresses some true deep spiritual essence of it in its own way.

I have continued to work on Gaelic harp ceòl mór; my latest CD Tarbh is entirely pibroch tunes (and I wonder if it is the first CD ever to be 100% harp ceòl mór). It is hard to market; it is serious music but it does fall between stools – too serious for traditional music followers, too traditional for classical and early music people. Pipers who play pibroch seem intruiged by it. When I perform concerts and include a big 10 minute ceòl mór tune, I am always nervous as to how the audience will react – will they be bored and restless? But afterwards I find people come up and say, that was the best piece of the whole concert!

Ceòl mór is such a huge world for me, I think I could spend the rest of my life just studying and playing this repertory. There is something truly meditative about the power of the music. More than one person has said how it is reminiscent of Indian Raga music, and I think it is the way that it selects just two or three notes and then cycles meditatively around them. There are points in some of the pibroch where a new tone appears and hits you with the force of emotion and power – I find it fascinating that such emotional intensity can be built up from such apparently simple material. Perhaps it has that intensity because of its deliberate, austere simplicity.

Just intonation

I have been interested in just intonation as a way of tuning the harp since 2009 I think. Recently I was chatting about this and I was asked, is there a simple instructions or directions about how to tune the harp just?

It is not possible to have every interval on an instrument like a harp perfectly in tune. As soon as you make some intervals perfect, others become sour or dull. There are various solutions to this, and I wrote in 2009 describing some of the possible tunings for early Gaelic harp. Equal temperament is the modern scientific solution, making every interval a little bit equally out of tune. Historical systems that are usually used include Pythagorean tuning, which makes all the 5ths and 4ths pure but leaving the 3rds very rough, or Meantone which makes all of the major 3rds pure, leaving the minor 3rds and the 4ths and the 5ths sour. Just tunings on the other hand make different intervals of the same “class” different sizes, so some 4ths, 5ths, minor 3rds and major 3rds are pure, whilst others are out.

Just tunings are the most obvious solution for a diatonic instrument, because you can maximise the amount of consonance without having to take account of all the sharps and flats and key changes that you find in a chromatic instrument.

I have made up three instruction / demonstration sheets which show three possible just tunings that you can try on the harp. The first is pretty much the way I have been doing things, deliberately since 2009 and “accidentally” for somewhat longer I think. This one is pretty easy to tune on the harp, as the 5ths are all pure except the 3rd one in the sequence from a up to e, and if you listen to the sympathetic hum of the harp it is not hard to sound this 5th and tune it narrow so the e sounds pure against the sympathetic g drone of na comhluighe.

The third one is based on Highland bagpipe scales presented by Seamus MacNeill and also by Barnaby Brown. It is tuned exactly the same as the one above except that when you start the cycle of 4ths you push the c wide to make it sound wild and scary, just like on the pipes.

The middle one is a kind of half-way house I have made up. I think it’s harder to tune because your narrow 5th is the second in the sequence, d up to a. The a is not speaking so clearly against the sympathetic drone of the harp, so even though this tuning has more consonances than the other two I don’t think I will end up using it. But it’s in there as an option to think about. You’ll notice that it is a transposed version of the first: scale 2 with f natural is the same as scale 1 with f#.

The circles showing the consonant intervals are also useful if you want to think about the properties of different modes. You might think that the pentatonic scales c-d-e-g-a and g-a-b-d-e and f-g-a-c-d would all sound the same, but a glance at the chart will show that this is not the case at all!

Click on the picture to get all 3 charts as a PDF

Some thoughts on replicas of old instruments

To me the extant surviving instruments are like treasure-houses of detailed specific data about not only the historical instrument design and construction, but also about all other aspects of the historical music-making (because of the presumption that the original instruments were commissioned by discerning musicians).

So I would regard every last detail about the old instruments as having something important to tell us. And as a player investigating the old music traditions, I want a replica harp that is as close as humanly possible to the old museum examples.

Of the two oldest Gaelic harps, the Queen Mary and the Trinity College harp, I would say they are remarkably similar in design and construction, and that similarity points to a shared conservative instrument-making tradition and a shared conservative music-making tradition, covering Ireland and Scotland. Similarities between them I take to be confirmation of that shared tradition; differences between them become specific individual features of that particular instrument. (you can do the same exercise with the later harps but there are more differences then. The Trinity & Queen Mary are by far the most similar pair I would think).

The Queen Mary harp is far easier to consider since a lot more info has been published on it, mainly the study in 1904 by R.B. Armstrong and more recently Karen Loomis’s ongoing study of it which is published in interim in the Galpin Society Journal 2012.  The Trinity College harp is far less well studied or published; the information in Armstrong’s 1904 book is a lot more sketchy and has as I understand it at least one misleading error; and there has not been any further more recent published work than that.

When I commissioned my own harp (which is a copy of the Queen Mary harp) I insisted that my maker simply copy every aspect he could see with as much fidelity as possible, from selection of timber through to decoration and even the idiosyncracies of individual fittings and adjustments. The idea being to end up with a new instrument that was as close as possible to handling the real thing in as many respects as possible. Since then, Karen Loomis’s work producing 3D X-ray models of the instruments and materials analysis, has revealed important structural and decorative information that would have led to some different decisions being made with my copy, but that is part of the learning process, and Karen’s study has directly addressed certain questions which were raised by my commission.

When I worked with David Kortier on the HHSI Student Trinity Harps, this was a somewhat different project. The initial aim here was simply to obtain a set of affordable harps for use in summer school classes. We were not satisfied with any commercially available models so we approached Kortier to discuss options and he ended up making a custom student model for the Historical Harp Society of Ireland. The main design criteria for this student harp were that it be affordable and quick to make, but that it present a student in class with the string count, string spacing, ‘feel’, and overall ergonomics of the original harp. So you see there was no attempt made to reproduce the subtleties of construction or decoration; but from the beginning the exact geometry and ergonomics of the strings were the most important thing. This was so that a class student given one of these harps would instantly be learning the finger movements and playing techniques exactly as on a proper replica (i.e. exactly as on the real thing!), even if the nuances of sound and response were not as accurate as could be obtained by a proper replica.

We based the first HHSI Student Harp on the Trinity College harp because it is the Irish national symbol and this seemed appropriate. Kortier had visited Trinity College and inspected and measured the original some time before, so he was able to use a lot more than just the published data; even so there were a number of details that had to be guessed or interpolated simply because the data about the original is not available. I mean the data is there, it exists, but it is locked away inside the fabric of the instrument itself and would need a long term detailed programme of scientific analysis like is happening in Edinburgh, to discover it.

So in summary, reconstructing an instrument from the surviving old instruments really needs a partnership between high-tech scientific analysis of the original, and a highly skilled sensitive craftsman-artist. In practice, you have to compromise and make do with what you can get – most of the compromise to date being on the analysis side I have to say. I hope that the recently published ongoing work in Edinburgh will soon feed into the work of the artist-craftsmen and we start to see really high quality accurate replicas that take on board and accurately reproduce these important new discoveries about the detailed features of the old harps.

Every level of data is vital – from the large scale measurements of height, width, string count and string lengths etc, down to tiny details of alignment and adjustment and profiling, all combine to give a very particular playing experience of the musician with important implications for what is and is not idiomatic for that particular instrument – and as our mission is to rediscover the lost old historical idiom, it seems to me that the idiom of each specific historical instrument (or rather, the imperfectly recreated idiom of each attempted reconstruction) is a vital tool for this. And that means that each reconstruction has to be as close as humanly possible to the specific museum original to have any value in that process.

Music as architecture

Music is seen at different times and by different people in different cultures as different things. Working so intensely with the ancient Northern European traditions, I am more and more interested in the idea of music as architecture.

In earlier medieval and back through to classical times, music was seen as part of the quadrivium, the four mathematical or scientific subjects that formed the major part of a liberal education. The placing of music as a mathematical discipline alongside geometry, astronomy and arithmetic highlights the importance of number, ratio, and structural understanding in the ancient conception of what music truly was.

Vitruvius in his treatise points out how architecture depends on many other subjects, including geometry and music, to provide its essential numeric and structural grounding. But interestingly, he also says that an architect needs to know other subjects such as law, more humane subjects that we would now associate more with the emotional and expressive needs of musical creativity. I would think that this gives us a clue as to how music and architecture are related.

I see both as being first and foremost arts which create formal public spaces, which provide an environment for a person to be in. And being created environments, both a building and a musical performance are expected to be artificial, displaying their artifice, rather than natural and organic. Hence the rigid squareness and geometric layout of formal buildings. Yet, as Vitruvious is keen to point out, architecture must be rooted in natural forms, but I think this is more concerned with the supposedly natural nature of simple harmonic numbers, which are also found as the basis of ancient musical thought, scales and tunings.

I have often held up Caniad San Silin as a great example of a piece of medieval music that is gloriously architectural in its form. With 12 major divisions, grouped into four sets of three, each division having three sections, each section having four phrases, and with the four-fold sonorities of I O I I repeating, fractal-like, at every level, the conceptual basis of this music seems to me to be less like the intricate winding of an early medieval carpet page from one of the illuminated gospel books, and more like a cathedral (see the photo above of Carlisle cathedral, with its superimposed rows of arches upon arches from the wooden choir stalls up to the gilded ceiling).

So, if this kind of music is considered in architectural terms, what principles can we consider to help with performance and creativity? Well, one thing that seems interesting is the idea of a building having multiple uses and functions. It has to be formally beautiful and well proportioned, so as to be appreciated in detail as an art object, withstanding and rewarding close and intense scrutiny. But it also has to be a practical place for humans to be in whilst they do other business, in other words it has to provide a discreet, ergonomic ambience. This to my mind parallels music’s dual function as a focussed and concentrated art form as well as providing a background hum for distracted activity.

The other thing that buildings have to have, according to Vitruvius, is permanence, continuing solidity through time. Now this is the exact opposite of music, which by its very nature emphasises the transience of time and experience. But I am wondering if a single, unique musical performance can somehow express that timeless permanence through the memories of the people who listened to it. And if it can, does the concept of a “piece” of music have any part to play in this, or is it a hinderance instead?


“Nisi enim ab homine memoria teneantur soni, pereunt, quia scribi non possunt”
for unless sounds are held in the memory by man they perish, because they cannot be written down

Isidore of Seville, Etymologies, III, XV.

This quote has often been held up as evidence for the start of musical notation; because (so it seems), once notation is invented in the form of neumes and the musical staff, sounds can be written down.

This is of course a false, or at least very naive view. Notation only writes down certain lexical or semantical parts of the musical sound. I think Isidore was perhaps contrasting the world of sound, with the world of language – language is by its nature organised in semantic or lexical units, which can be assigned graphic symbols and so utterances can be preserved in writing.

But the world of sound is a sensory continuum. For the past century or so, sound has been able to be written down by the use of mechanical transponders, i.e. microphones; the written sound is in the form of a waveform etched onto wax or shellac or vinyl, or more recently chopped up and represented digitally. But even a stereo recording only captures the sound world at two specific points – sound is a 3-D phenomena filling a room or a space, and so far no way has been invented to my knowledge of writing down the totality of sound phenomena in any enclosed space.

I was, I now realise, very lucky to have been brought up in a living indigenous music tradition that to this day does not use conventional staff notation at all. I have seen fragments of performances transcribed into staff notation, but never for the use of practitioners – it is simply irrelevant, not done. The musicians do use a couple of different geometric and numerical tablatures, but these are not used in performance, only for composition, teaching, memorisation and record-keeping. The performance is entirely free from any written notation.

Chords, harmonies, and other types of music

I’m currently working on a fragment of one of Robert Carver’s 16th century masses, for a music and poetry event in Edinburgh on 24th November. This lush polyphony has led me to think about and read up on counterpoint, harmony, and chords. I have long considered the dominance that chordal harmony has held over peoples understanding of music; for example, Amy Murray’s account of her discussion with an eminent composer on her proposed presentation of the Gaelic songs she had collected out West from unaccompanied singers. In response to his enquiry as to what accompaniment she would use for the songs, she replied:
“none, I think”
“That’s a mistake” said he. “My ear, as I listen, supplies the harmony. But you won’t find them making much of an effect generally unless you give them some sort of a background”. (Father Allan’s Island, p.128)

Of course, he was the one who was out of line, because the old Gaelic singers on Eriskay would not have ever used harmony with these songs, and none of their forebearers in the tradition either. But he, I imagine, was unable to imagine music without “common practice” functional harmony – his ear, he tells us, supplies it, regardless of its appropriateness.

I think that there is a case to be made – perhaps a manifesto to be composed – for a music theory and a music aesthetic of non-chordal, non-harmonic music. It could be a modern equivalent of the work of the Florentine Camerata; Galilei’s Dialogue gives us a useful model of the application of historical research into lost musical traditions informing new developments in performance and composition.

I imagine the first challenge might be nomenclature. The early baroque innovators developed the style that came to be called monody. Perhaps we are more fussy nowadays about terminological exactitude. But this can help define the bounds of what is and is not under consideration.

I would think that the main concern of such a manifesto would be to organise and promote the appreciation of unaccompanied monophony, heterophony, and drone music. It would especially be interested in unaccompanied music – the art of a single performer, which has become somewhat transgressive nowadays, with the ever increasing pressure for collaborations. But not exclusively; heterophony is intrinsically communal music, such as Gaelic psalm singing, or the kind of instrumental performance you might hear at a pub session. And the inclusion of drone music allows us to consider consonant and dissonant intervals.

As a manifesto, our text would of course have to include a critique of the old order – of common practice, chordal harmony, and of counterpoint. It would advance moral and ethical issues and arguments in favour of change.