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.
Some years ago, I got the CD of Willie Ruff’s ‘realisation for the ear’ of the planetary tones from Kepler’s Harmonices Mundi of 1619. Just recently I noticed that his web page has been updated with a very interesting Youtube interview where he discusses this project. Well worth a listen: Continue reading The Harmony of the World
I have not been playing the harp because I have been working on the virtual ANS instead. For my very first experiment (which I put here the other day) I did everything on-screen , sampling the sound of the harp and distorting it rather crudely into a drone and some chime-like sounds.
But one of the things that attracted me to this instrument in the first place was the idea of tactile, hands-on shaping of the sonorities. Continue reading why
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 have been getting my records out, ready for next Wednesday’s event in the Wighton Centre, Dundee. I am getting nervous now, whether the machine will behave itself, and whether it will all run to time OK! I have about half an hour, and so I was thinking that perhaps 6 sides would be OK, though I do think I may overrun if I chat about each track! But I do want to include Gaelic song, Scots song, fiddle, pipes and clarsach, so that’s 5 sides instantly, and I have to play the disc with Marjory Kennedy-fraser at the piano. So we’ll see.
I am thinking I might also take along some of my other discs just to show off or for people to look at (and perhaps for requests after the event is over!). I have another 1914 “Scots song” disc, the Joseph Hislop disc, and one Jimmy Shand (from the ’40s I suppose) and one Harry Lauder which looks like it is from the teens. It’s not a huge collection but it is pretty diverse representation of Scottish music.
I thought of also taking the Mabel Dolmetsch discs to show as well, but they are just too fragile to risk travelling with and they can’t be played so I think there is no point.
You can get the full description of the event next Wednesday lunchtime on the Friends of Wighton news page.
I have recorded the Lament for the Union programme and I am putting it out as a handmade CD single!
http://www.earlygaelicharp.info/union/ will get you the details as well as a sample track.
It’s not officially released until 1st July, but I have made up some pre-release copies to take along to tomorrow morning’s performance, 11.30am at Cupar Corn Exchange.
Yesterday I packaged up a menagerie of instruments and rode on the train all the way to Elgin, and then out to the coast and down a pretty extreme scramble down the cliff and along over the rocks to the Sculptor’s Cave, on the shore of the Moray Firth. I had been asked to play music in the caves for recording by the European Music Archaeology Project.
One of the caves contains Pictish designs carved on the walls, so I prepared some early medieval repertory and as well as the Queen Mary harp, I took with me the two lyres – the replica Trossingen lyre with horsehair strings, and the early Irish lyre with iron, latten and silver strings and with the Iron Age lyre bridge from Uamh an Ard Achaidh on the Isle of Skye. Also I took the bowed lyre or jouhikko, and the trump or jews harp, and the tambourines, and both my horns – the short early medieval style end-blown horn and the long Bronze-Age style side-blown horn.
The site was beautiful; there was almost no view over to the Black Isle because of the haar, but the sun was shining, the gulls were loud and the archaeological team from Bradford were friendly and working hard on their trenches.
Unfortunately there were serious technical problems with the recording equipment and there were also clashes between access times and train times, forcing me to leave early before high tide cut the caves off, and so in the end I only managed to do a few short takes with the lyres, harp and big horn in one of the caves. Bill Taylor was there as well, and he did some takes in one of the other caves after I had left. All in all, it was fun to play in this venue, and wonderful to spend all day exploring and investigating this powerful and fascinating place.
In six months time I have agreed to present a rather different programme for the Friends of Wighton – half an hour of ’20s sounds from old Scottish 78rpm gramophone records. It will be Wednesday 1st October, 1.15pm, in the Wighton Centre, Dundee Central Library.
I realised that I have plenty enough discs for half an hour – just one side of each from a selection will be more than enough. We will have Gaelic song, Scots song, fiddle, pipes and clarsach; the oldest disc is from about 1914 and the most recent from 1931.
I was also thinking about the dates and provenances of the various discs. The one shown above was recorded in London, though I assume it was made for the Scottish market. I have what I think is the oldest Scottish harp record, that is Patuffa Kennedy Fraser’s disc of “Songs of the Hebrides” from 1929. I also have what seems to be the oldest Irish harp record, Mabel Dolmetsch’s “Victorious tree”, recorded in 1937 though never released (I won’t be playing this one as it is too fragile as well as not being Scottish!)
Mabel’s record is Irish harp music but she wasn’t Irish or living in Ireland, so I wondered what was the oldest Irish harp record? Was Mabel first? Actually it seems she was. Susan Reed appears to have been the next to record, and her “Old English Folk Songs” released in 1945 would be the earliest published recording of Irish harp, even though the performer is American and the repertory is English! Mary O’Hara put out her first disc in 1956 I think. I’m having trouble tracking down other Irish harpists on record from this era.
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.