‘The tang of the real Scottish snap’

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 …

tonal terminology in the café

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.

musical terminology

Musicians in different environments use different words to describe the same things, and the same words can have very different meanings, depending on who’s using them and where.

For example, in musicology-land, a ‘part’ almost always refers to an independent voice within a musical texture. So, a piece of music in two parts has two voices or instrumental lines which are played or sung together, but are distinct from one another.

However, in many kinds of traditional music, a tune with two parts is a tune that has two sections, played one after the other. There’s the A part, and then there’s the B part. Musicologists tend to call these ‘strains’ (1st strain, 2nd strain) which can give their descriptions a sense of constipation.

Now if even a very basic piece of musical terminology like ‘part’ can have quite separate meanings to different musical communities, how are we going to describe detailed musical material in a way that’s comprehensible to more than one group? This is just one of our ongoing challenges.

index, locate, define

Index, locate, define is Karen’s neat summing-up of what she and I will first be concerned with over the next year or so, when we have our bass culture hats on (officially that’s two days a week).

So much of this work has been done already by Charles Gore, and is now available online at www.scottishmusicindex.org – fiddlers, pay your tenner and get access to an enormous library of old tunes. But the books which escaped Charlie’s notice won’t make it into our sights or anyone else’s, unless there is a record somewhere of which tunes are in them, so some indexing is required. Of the making of lists there is no end, so we’re aiming to be discriminating over which sources get Karen’s attention and which don’t.

Once we’ve narrowed down which books we want to look at, in most cases we still have to find a physical copy. Once our spiffy web resource is up and running in two or three years’ time, this will be less of a problem for everyone. But in the meantime, given that most of the books are over 200 years old, this means visiting libraries.

When we have located our fiddle basslines, we’ll have to develop a vocabulary to describe them in words, using terminology that as many musicians as possible can understand. This is more difficult than you might think and will no doubt be the subject of many a blog post in the future …