goes live!

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.

all coded out

Here in Glasgow we’ve had a visit from Andrew Hankinson of the SIMSSA project at McGill University in Montréal. He’s been helping us implement search functionality and MEI into our web resource, which will live at So Luca and he were coding away behind me for days here in the bass culture office. In fact, it was difficult to get them to stop. On Friday night while we ate dinner, Andrew’s computer was running a script to convert to MEI nearly 2000 Sibelius files of tune incipits that had been carefully transcribed by Karens Marshalsay & McAulay, and this was the scene even outside the pub on Saturday night …

L-R: David McGuinness, Luca Guariento, Andrew Hankinson

L-R: David McGuinness, Luca Guariento, Andrew Hankinson

Here is a sneak preview of our website’s logo, as designed by Ewan MacPherson.

June is recording month

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.

poster for 19 June concertOn 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 …

into the new year

Here in the Glasgow bass culture office we’re gearing up for a new year and a staggery sprint to our October deadline, by appointing Luca Guariento as our new Systems Developer, fresh from handing in his PhD on 17th century physician Robert Fludd.

Zoltán came in to hand over the reins: in the photo below Karen is demonstrating that sometimes with large datasets, it’s only possible to get a helpful understanding of how the material connects up, by presenting it in analogue format. She’s right.

Karen, Zoltan, Luca and a very large piece of paper

Luca looks glum at the amount of data he is going to have to code in MEI.

The Scots Musical Museum and basses

This morning I was in Special Collections at Glasgow’s university library with Dr Vivien Williams, who’s working with Prof. Murray Pittock on what is becoming a monumental edition of the Scots Musical Museum, the six-volume songbook which occupied Robert Burns for much of the last decade of his life.

It’s always surprised me that such an important publication has never been critically edited or explored thoroughly before, as the sources for its music as well as its texts seem to be many and various. But it was quite a surprise to me this morning to have Vivien show me her huge list of the alterations that were made in the basslines for the 1803 version of the first few books, and to see the two collections side by side.

Some of the self-consciously ‘clever’ quirks of the later, familiar version are late additions, but there is no clear consistency of style in the changes made, some of which seem quite arbitrary. Nonetheless, trying to see into the mind of someone making corrections or improvements to a musical text is a lot of fun. The changes here are nothing like the wholesale rewriting of Gow and Marshall’s books that took place; they’re perhaps more like Urbani’s more subtly ‘corrected’ versions of Abraham Johnson, Joshua Campbell and Abraham Mackintosh.

If I had nothing else to do I would set off on some detective work, analysing the changes and looking for stylistic traits that might identify the corrector(s) or improver(s), but we already have plenty to do here as it is! In the meantime I’ll settle for delighting that the really crass-sounding D sharps in the bassline for The Birks of Aberfeldy aren’t in the original version. I won’t be playing those again then.

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.

Joshua Campbell and strathspeys

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.

Is fiddle music traditional?

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’.

de-Italianising basslines in Ayr, 1782

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.