The prehistoric theme continues and so too does the instrument making theme. After discussing didgeridoo playing at the Dundee harp class the Saturday before last, I read up again on the prehistoric Irish horns and trumpets. While a bronze casting is a bit beyond me at present, either technically to make one or financially to purchase, I thought I could manage to make one out of horn. The result is rather fine-looking. I followed the visual cues of the bronze side-blown horns and made the “knop” at the small end. There is subtle incised decoration on the knop; I had considered lines and zigzags round the mouth but I am not sure yet.
Now I only have to learn the circular breathing style of playing, necessary to get the most out of it…
These horns seem characteristic of the bronze age in Ireland. I think it is just plausible to think of a late bronze age horn and an early iron age lyre going together.
AOC Archaeology have released a laser scan rendering of the lyre bridge from Uamh an Ard Achadh (High Pasture Cave) on Skye. I had already been very interested in this fragment of a musical instrument from the iron age (the original interim report suggests a date of 450 to 550 BC).
Using the rendering, and scaling from the photo in the interim report, I have made a copy or reconstruction of the bridge. As you can see from the photos, the excavated bridge is burnt and broken, with perhaps 1/4 missing from one end. It seems clear to me that the four triangular spikes along the top edge are complete – the gap between the second and third is centered over the carved arch on the underside of the bridge. I confirmed this by cutting out profile views and trying different alignments. This suggests to me that the bridge was for an instrument with three or five strings.
For my bridge I used a piece of sycamore or maple which I had to hand. I made it entirely with hand tools (knives), and finished it by scraping and then sealed the surface with beeswax. Because it is hand carved from a slightly curious piece of wood with some tight flame in the grain, and also because I was only working from the laser scan screenshots not from proper dimensioned plans, it is not an exact replica, but I tried to get it fairly close.
As you can see it works just perfectly. The lyre has six strings, so I just ran the last two together and this does not seem to be a problem. The strings are further apart at the bridge than on other lyres I have seen. The backwards slant of the bridge is curious – unless I am misunderstanding the laser scan, I wonder if it is designed for a much sharper break angle than I am using?
I’ll be playing this lyre at my cathedral concert in the ruins of St Andrews cathedral on Tuesday 5th June at 12.45pm. The music will however be medieval, not iron age!
Staff and students from Scoil na gCláirseach 2011, viewing the Downhill harp in Dublin.
Yesterday I was in Edinburgh for lessons. I also managed tea at the Scottish Malt Whisky Society, and a look round the newly refurbished Royal Museum.
In the new museum there is a small gallery of musical instruments, and I was delighted to see a tonkori on display. I have never seen one before, but some years ago a friend in Japan sent me a copy of Oki, Tonkori. This very interesting string music, on an instrument with only 5 or so notes, has to my ear many parallels with the indigenous European string arts such as lyre, jouhikko, kantele, and harp. I think the musical patterns are suprisingly reminiscent of the music in Robert ap Huw’s manuscript.
My fiddle has a most enigmatic label inside!
Kim Janet Spence.
Aged 11 years.
Bought. Acton London W.3
I wonder who she was, and where the violin came from.
Recently I wrote a new page on earlygaelicharp.info, about possible inscriptions on the Queen Mary harp. As part of this I reviewed my photographs of the labels glued on the harp labelling some of the strings, and then I had the idea of photoshopping and cleaning up the photos, scaling them, printing them out and glueing them onto my replica in the appropriate positions.
For those of you with a Queen Mary replica who want to join in the fun, here is the image I ended up with. Print it out at 486dpi onto good old fashioned white or off-white laid paper, cut out along the black edges, and stick on using flour and water paste. The numbers go on the right hand side* of the string band (so they are visible for a left orientation player), and they are upside-down when the harp is in playing position, so the player can read the letters. They go in order, counting from the treble: 1 [illegible], 8 [c], 9 [b], 11 [G], 15 [C], 22 [C].
Any problems or questions let me know! If you send in a photo of your harp with the labels stuck on, I will feature it here!
*Right and left hand side of the harp are described as from the viewpoint of the player, not of an onlooker