OK, it’s still in beta and there are some wrinkles to be ironed out, but we hope you like it! There are 22 fiddle books complete, and the details of about 200 more, compiled by Karen McAulay and me over a year and a half visiting libraries.
Special thanks to our webmaster Luca Guariento who has gone well beyond the call of duty slaving over a hot laptop, to make a vast amount of data into something comprehensible and, we hope, fun to explore. If you see him, buy him a beer or give him a job (depending on your resources).
Get in there and let us know what we can improve – we’ll do the official launch early next year.
Last week the pibroch team of Bill Taylor (harps, lyre) and Clare Salaman (hurdy-gurdy, medieval fiddle, nyckelharpa) were recording with Barnaby in Huddersfield, and next week the fiddle band will be recording in the wonderful acoustic of Crichton Collegiate Church in Midlothian. But first there’s the little business of a gig to play.
On 6 June, with the help of Talitha MacKenzie, Alyona Shmakova, and some folks from the Traditional Music Forum of Scotland, we were able to try out some of the late 18th–century fiddle repertoire with its original dance figures, which was enormous fun.
And this Friday, we’ll do the same with the whole band and the audience at the Cottier Chamber Project. Our team of players is pretty formidable, some of them getting to grips with 18th-century setup instruments for the first time, and others with decades of experience of playing them.
pipes, recorder: Callum Armstrong
fiddles: Mairi Campbell, Aaron McGregor, Lauren MacColl, Shona Mooney, Marie Fielding, Alison McGillivray (bass fiddle)
fortepiano: David McGuinness
I won’t be playing piano for the dancing (I might get on the floor and join in instead), but in between the dances we’ll be playing domestic repertoire from the same time, some of which was published as souvenirs of major dancing events, so that you could play the tunes at home with the piano that you’d already danced to at the Assembly Rooms. So, a busy couple of weeks ahead …
Here’s a very useful blog by Stuart Eydmann, “established during his term as Traditional Artist in Residence 2013/14, in Celtic and Scottish Studies, University of Edinburgh”:-
The Fiddle in the Scottish Folk Music Revival.
For a start, there’s a posting about portraits of Niel Gow … and another about Charles Bayne, Dundonian dancie …
Now that our new Systems Developer Zoltán Kömíves is in post, our whole project is gradually moving its focus from the source materials to our eventual outputs. Or, to put it another way, the questions are changing from ‘What have we got here?’ to ‘What are we doing with it and how?’
One of our eventual outcomes will be to produce a web resource containing, amongst other things, a selection of our original sources, and one of the current questions about this resource is how we choose to represent the music in metadata, to be helpful to as many potential users as possible. I’ll leave the technicalities of describing the various encoding possibilities to Zoltán, but this morning we had a chance to eavesdrop on one kind of potential user, as 4th year BMus student Andy Stevenson came up to our bass culture lair with his work-in-progress edition of Alexander Napier’s 1788 fiddle MS, from the Montagu Music Collection of the Duke of Buccleuch.
He was looking for some help in identifying the more obscure tunes, so we sat down with Charles Gore’s Scottish Music Index and the enormous spreadsheet of notes and library locations that Karen and I have been compiling for the last year and a half, and got to work, occasionally reaching across the room for photocopies of rare old music books. It was quite exciting, discovering previously unknown (we think) variation sets and unusual versions of tunes, by charting the similarities to the versions we know, and those encoded in Gore’s skeletal tune codes. Sometimes the tune codes work very well, and at other times they lead you up blind alleys or bypass lots of really important information that would be just around the corner, if you knew where or how to look.
So by the end of the afternoon, we’d digested this experience enough to have one of those conversations like in The Restaurant at the End of the Universe: ‘OK, your iPad is the downbeat of bar 3, this book is the beginning of the tune, and where my hand is wiggling is about 20 different lines that follow that sort of curve, and what we’re looking for is to analyse the level of similarity between that squiggle there and this more angular line with less data in it over here, in an effort to …’ Well, you get the idea.
I have tracked down my prey! Perhaps I should explain my sense of triumph. When David, Barnaby and I were discussing terminology the other day, we talked about “taste” and “tasto”, but I mentioned that I had also encountered ‘tang’ as a way of describing the Scottish fiddling style. I knew I’d read about it in a piece of writing from the early 20th century. I knew it was written in connection with Scottish fiddlers, in the plural, rather than about one single fiddler. But could I remember where I’d read it? Apart from the fact that I’d found it by Googling for something else!
I have spent several hours since then, trying to find it again. My web history wasn’t helpful. Neither was my recollection of my researches into an Irish poet who was fascinated with Scottish poetry, particularly by Robert Burns.
Finally, finally, I have found it! William Honeyman’s ‘Strathspey Players’ was written in 1922. Yes, it referred to an authentic ‘tang’. We certainly do need to be aware of this article, as a historical piece of writing if nothing else. You can read it here.
But the word – I can now say authoritatively – is not solely applied to strathspey playing! Scottish whisky is often said to have a salty tang. There’s also a seaweed called Tang – it comes in yellow and blue! An interesting word, then, but perhaps not particularly useful to us! And now I can stop banging my head against a brick wall …
We’ve just had a meeting this morning with Josh Dickson at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland about how we can get involved with the BA Scottish Music course over the next couple of years. It will be a really valuable way to test out some of our theoretical models with practising musicians, in the hope that we’ll see ways that the historical material in the sources might have an influence on what today’s players can choose to do.
Then Karen, Barnaby and I repaired to the window of the RCS café to thrash out some terminology that we can share between pipe and fiddle music. Philip Tagg’s recent explorations of tonal terminology have influenced us to the point that for two out of the three of us, the phrase tertial tetrad isn’t weird any more, it’s just helpfully precise (it’s a four-part chord built with a stack of thirds), but other phrases came and went as our conversation became more animated, and occasionally louder. Strains for parts or sections of a tune was abandoned in favour of using arithmetical fractions such as the first half or the third eighth; modal vocabulary became palette; tone, note and pitch were all assigned usages and abusages; hierarchy, focus and signal developed specific musical meanings, and blas and tasto wandered in from Gaelic and Italian respectively. Joseph MacDonald used taste as a synonym for key in his Compleat Theory of the Scots Highland Bagpipe (c.1760), which sounds like a borrowing from Italian to me, having spent many years reading basslines which include the marking tasto solo, which asks the harpsichord player to play only a single key at a time.
Karen and I are now nearing the end of our odyssey to investigate as many printed sources of Scottish fiddle music from about 1750-1840 as we can. On the way back from Aberdeen yesterday we realised that we only have two library visits left to make, and then we will have seen pretty much everything relevant that’s in Charles Gore’s Scottish Music Index.
Down in the basement of Aberdeen’s iconic Sir Duncan Rice library we were looking at two of Joshua Campbell’s books, both from Glasgow around 1788. One is a substantial, handsome volume A Collection of New Reels & Highland Strathspeys, which contains mostly strathspeys of great character, some with variations. The other, A Collection of the Newest & best Reels and Minuets, is a cheaper pocket book of tunes collected from other sources. It’s very curious that strathspeys were given the big authoritative expensive treatment, while reels and minuets were relegated to a cheaper, more rough-and-ready publication. Did strathspeys have more cultural cachet? Or was the smaller book a reaction to the commercial failure of the bigger one?
Either way, the books contain an object lesson in early strathspey style, as the tune ‘The New Town of Edinburgh’ appears in both. In the wee book it’s a reel, almost exactly as it had appeared in Bremner’s similarly small A Collection of Scots Reels book decades earlier. But in the big book, it’s a strathspey, and not only has it the characteristic dotted and back-dotted rhythms, but the tune is decorated liberally with semiquaver runs. Bremner has to point out in his Scots Reels (c.1757) that ‘The Strathspey Reels are play’d much slower than the others’ (p38) and his example ‘The Fir Tree’ has a similar combination of dotted rhythms and semiquaver passages. So playing a reel as a ‘Strathspey reel’ could involve more than just changing the rhythm and the bowing: there was an opportunity to fit in more notes as well.
Ronnie Gibson’s thoughts on whether he should use the F-word or stick with the more formal ‘violin’ prompted me to think further about our use of another couple of words: ‘traditional’ and ‘Scottish’.
Looking at all these old books of fiddle tunes, we inevitably make judgments of them based on our own 21st-century experience and categorisation. One of the questions often asked is whether the material is in a traditional music genre, which might perhaps be best suited to the word ‘fiddle’. In the 18th century, only a small proportion of the music was traditional; it was mostly new, and that was seen as a virtue: many title pages and descriptions proudly proclaim the newness of the material. ‘Old’ tunes were seen as valuable mostly by antiquarian music collectors, rather than by professional musicians promoting their own work. For us, the term ‘traditional’ might be better used for a tune that appears in many different versions throughout the sources: this shows that it was widely played and transmitted aurally, rather than it already having a long history. The tunes of Marshall, Mackintosh and the Gows weren’t (yet) traditional; they were new.
So if ‘traditional’ isn’t a particularly useful term when looking at this music historically, what about ‘Scottish’? One widely-used method for making value judgments on old fiddle books has been to ask whether the tunes are in an identifiably Scottish style, rather than an imported one. But this is deeply problematic. If the music clearly had an active life in Scotland, why should a demonstrably Scottish origin for its style necessarily make it much more valuable to us now? Aren’t we filtering out important parts of the nation’s musical history? (I wouldn’t dare to suggest that the Rezillos are less interesting because an Englishman, Jo Callis, wrote the songs, and because the group’s pop culture references are largely American.)
In conversation with Noel O’Regan and Katy Cooper yesterday, we were discussing the assumption that Scottish music went through a dead patch in the 17th century: that there just wasn’t much new music being made. What seems a more likely explanation is that after the Union of the Crowns and the moving of the court to London, English music became more influential, and that modern musicians and scholars have just ignored anything that seems ‘English’ or English-influenced, as somehow invalid for consideration as Scottish music. Noel pointed out that particularly for the 17th century it makes a lot of sense to talk about there being a British repertoire, even if Britain didn’t yet exist as a state. If you require a less Unionist term than ‘British’, how about ‘cross-border repertoire’?
So … when considering ‘Scottish traditional fiddle music’, it’s quite possible that to include it all, the only word that really fits is ‘music’.
Ayr’s John Riddle (or Riddell) published his Collection of Scots Reels or Country Dances and Minuets in the mid 1760s, and it’s a great collection of tunes. There are a few copies surviving of the second edition from 1782 (which is described as ‘Greatly Improved’) but the unique copy of the first edition is in the National Library of Scotland, where Karen and I have been hiding out for two days a week recently.
The Library bought its copy for the princely sum of £10 (less discount) from Davidson Cook in 1937, because it is ‘the earliest collection of Scots Dance Music bearing the name of the composer on its title-page’, according to a note left inside. There’s an index from D.C. (presumably Cook) in the University of Glasgow copy of the 2nd edition, detailing the differences between the two books, but in the NLS today, we were able to put the two versions side by side and look for ourselves.
And what did we find? Well, where the same tune exists in both books, it’s pretty much identical, complete with slurs and ornaments, but there is some very subtle rewriting of the basslines here and there. Where a tune moves simply from one tonal centre to another, sometimes Riddle has found a grammatical but slightly awkward bassline which forms a plausible harmonic progression following the ‘classical’ rules. Francesco Barsanti and William McGibbon were very good at this with Scots Tunes in the 1740s.
But in the 80s Riddell, with his re-spelt name, has looked back and realised that such a style may work for Scots Tunes (or airs), but it doesn’t make sense for Reels and Strathspeys, which need something more direct, rhythmic and uncluttered. So he’s simplified the basslines, breaking the ‘scientific’ harmonic rules as he goes, to uncover a simpler style that better represents the harmonic structure expressed by the tunes. It’s not a big change, but it shows a certain confidence in the inherent quality of the music that perhaps he lacked as a younger man. It doesn’t have to be dressed up with the rules of counterpoint to be presentable.
Karen and I have started working our way through the huge collection of old fiddle books in Glasgow University Library, and one of our earliest finds was John Clark’s Collection of New Strathspey Reels, published in 1795 by Anderson’s music shop in Perth. Clark’s family members, plenty of local people, and even the music shop itself have tunes dedicated to them, and there is a strict copyright warning on the titlepage: ‘NB. Such copies as are not signed & numbered by the Composers own hand write, are a Forgery & will be strictly Looked after.’
But what struck me was the number of reels that had almost identical, or completely identical basslines in the first strain: here are some examples (there are plenty more). click on the images to see them more clearly
The first two bars have 6 beats of the tonic I followed by 2 beats of the note a step above (or sometimes below) O, and the other two bars are a walking bass followed by a V-I perfect cadence. The third example shows some slight variation in bar 3, but only just.
In these and other examples the 6+2 of the first two bars remains even when it’s very clear that the harmonic structure outlined by the tune is 4+4 beats: the bass line isn’t under any obligation to follow the tune slavishly. Perhaps you know a session player who always starts off with the same chord patterns under every reel? This is clearly a practice with a heritage!