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.

Telemann on massed pipes and fiddles in Poland

It is impossible to imagine the fantastic musical ideas they presented between dances when the dancers rested and the musicians ‘jammed’ together to fill out the time. Anyone who paid very close attention could pick up in 8 days sufficient musical ideas to last a lifetime.

Fernando Conde and Carlos Núñez pointed me to this quote today. Thank you! It concerns Polish piping and fiddling in 1705 and was written by the composer Georg Philipp Telemann (1681–1767). On one occasion, Telemann heard 36 pipers and 8 fiddlers playing together. He also observed that the fiddles were ‘tuned a 3rd higher than usual’ — I wonder if fiddlers in Scotland ever tuned higher in order to help their sound carry outdoors?

Telemann’s praise for the musical craftsmanship of Polish players brings to mind the variations ‘pricked’ down in the 1730s by William Dixon, a professional town piper in Northumberland. The wealth that Dixon spun out of 9 notes is inspiring and anyone curious should check out Matt Seattle’s edition, The Master Piper: Nine notes that shook the world.

Here is what Telemann wrote, translated by Thomas Braatz:

When the court moved to Plesse [now Pszczyna], an Upper-Silesian area which the Promnitz family governed, I became acquainted there and also in Krakau with Polish and Moravian music in its true, barbaric beauty. In the common inns of the region, the instruments consisted of a violin which was strapped to the body, tuned a third higher than usual, and which could ‘outscream’ a normal violin, a Polish bagpipe, a bass trombone and a regal. In fancier inns a regal would not be used, but the first two were increased in number. I had once heard 36 bagpipes and 8 Polish violins playing together. It is impossible to imagine the fantastic musical ideas they presented between dances when the dancers rested and the musicians ‘jammed’ together to fill out the time. Anyone who paid very close attention could pick up in 8 days sufficient musical ideas to last a lifetime. In short, in this music there is much that is good if you know how to work with this material properly. Later I had composed various concerti and trios in this manner in which I featured a solo Italian bagpipe with alternating adagio and allegro sections.

This alternation of adagio and allegro sections brings to mind Joseph MacDonald’s distinction between the ‘Adagio’ and the ‘Allegros’ in 18th-century pibroch (see his Compleat Theory of the Scots Highland Bagpipe, c.1760, MS p. 38). Might any musical sources shed light on the ‘bass culture’ of the Polish trombone and regal players? Telemann’s autobiography was published by Johann Mattheson in 1740:

Johann Mattheson, Grundlage einer Ehren-Pforte (1740), p. 360

Johann Mattheson, Grundlage einer Ehren-Pforte (Hamburg, 1740), p. 360

Memory – a medieval perspective

I’m reading a fascinating book by Mary Curruthers, The Craft of Thought (1998). This is the beginning of my search for ways of thinking in other fields that might help to illuminate pibroch’s darker, more difficult corners. I’m guilty of spending too many hours in the pibroch echo-chamber, so this is a way of getting my head into fresh air and looking to the horizon for inspiration. Curruthers writes:

Mnemosyne, “memory,” is the mother of all the Muses … In order to create, in order to think at all, human beings require some mental tool or machine, and that “machine” lives in the intricate networks of their own memory.

… the orator’s “art of memory” was not in practice designed to let him reiterate exactly in every detail a composition he had previously fabricated. For one thing, to sound as though he were reciting from memory like a parrot was one of the worst faults a Roman orator could commit. It was also foolish, for if he were to forget his lines or if (very likely in the debates of the Republican Senate) he were flustered by some unexpected event or attack, he would have nothing to say. The goal of Roman oratory was to speak eloquently ex tempore; this was the sign of a master.

… I repeat: the goal of rhetorical mnemotechnical craft was not to give students a prodigious memory for all the information they might be asked to repeat in an examination, but to give an orator the means and wherewithal to invent his material, both beforehand and – crucially – on the spot. Memoria is most usefully thought of as a compositional art. The arts of memory are among the arts of thinking, especially involved with fostering the qualities we now revere as “imagination” and “creativity”.

As one reviewer wrote, The Craft of Thought “explores a core of medieval culture whose premises and practices were broadly pervasive, and so scholars in many different fields will benefit from it” (read the whole review).