A Spell for Halloween

A year ago today, I tried out something new in Brora Primary School. The crazy thing is, I didn’t even realise it was Halloween! The kids loved the idea of a musical spell, obviously, and I am grateful to Oliver Mezger for inviting me to be part of The Big Lament. It was invigorating to explore the ongoing relevance of pibroch in one of its heartlands, taking ideas brewed in Glasgow and Cambridge to the North East of Scotland. Oliver organised six workshops: three in primary schools (Brora, Rogart and Golspie), two open to all ages at Timespan in Helmsdale, and one in Golspie High School.

Here is the spell we chanted at Brora, “for seeing family and friends”:

These are excerpts from a 55-minute workshop given to about 40 children, aged 5-11, on 31 October 2013. The tune ‘The Brora Gathering’ was composed in the moment, following principles found in Ceann na Drochaide Bige (‘The End of the Little Bridge’) and many other tunes built on the generative pattern 1 1 O 1 O O 1 O. Presenting this pattern in two equal and opposite halves — 1 1 O 1 and O O 1 O — transforms pibroch from being difficult music into something easy to handle… provided you know the magic spell.

The fact that pibroch uses few pitches, avoids semitones and has lots of repetition makes it ideal material for early years music making. The same pattern could be used to generate poems and artwork, asking children to look for examples of symmetrical, balanced structures not just in Celtic art but from anywhere in the world.

One vital correction to what I told the children: Galileo didn’t get into trouble for saying that the earth was round, but that the earth went round the sun. Here are his dad’s comments on Gaelic piping (with my translation):

This instrument is extremely popular with the Gaels; to its sound, these unconquered and fearsome warriors mount their campaigns and encourage one another to feats of valour in the midst of battle; with it, they also accompany their dead to the grave, making sounds so mournful as to invite, nay force the bystanders to weep.

Dialogo di Vincentio Galilei nobile Fiorentino sulla musica antica, et della moderna (Florence: Giorgio Marescotti, 1581), p. 146.


I couldn’t help but notice this sentence from the obituary for the Chieftains’ fiddler Martin Fay in today’s Guardian:

Although he had a classical training, Fay had a natural understanding of traditional music.

That little word ‘although’ betrays an assumption that being ‘trained’ in one species of music makes it unlikely that you will be fluent in another. The history of the Scottish fiddle tradition certainly suggests that this is not the case: Mackintosh and Scott Skinner are two obvious examples that spring to mind.  Note the contrast that the writer here draws between ‘classical training’ and ‘natural understanding’, implying that traditional music skills are innate rather than learned.

One of the aims of our research project is to challenge received notions about the interaction of oral and literate traditions: I think I just stumbled across two!