The Devil is in the Detail (or, A Rose by any other Name …)

At last week’s Bass Culture get-together, we got down to the minutiae of data entry – the mind-numbing but crucial detail determining how the website will ultimately look.  If James Aird is entered as “Aird, James” once, then all names will always be entered in indirect order.  “Jas. Aird” becomes an alternative in another column, and “N.Stewart” must be looked up to double-check if he’s “Neil” or “Niel”.

Enter the Scottish Book Trade Index – one of Karen’s favourite websites, hosted by the National Library of Scotland.  It’s fantastic for checking names and addresses of anyone connected with the Scottish Book Trade up to 1850 – ideal for our project.  It simply must feature in our website bibliography page!

The Librarian’s Instinct to Share

As mentioned already, we’ve reached the real nitty-gritty stage of entering the details of our works and sources onto a huge database.  Suddenly, the minutiae of different copies, printings and editions come into sharp focus, and library shelf-marks of individual copies become of crucial importance.  The inestimable is fantastic, but it doesn’t include public libraries (Dundee and Perth are crucially important to us) or specialist collections like the Vaughan Williams Library at EFDSS (the English Folk Dance and Song Society).

So if we want to tell you about ALL the copies in existence, or even just those we’ve encountered so far, this becomes a bit tricky!  What’s more, Karen reminds us that we probably ought also to share useful bibliographical articles like the ones about Aberdeen University Library’s early music collections.  There’s an initial article by Barry Cooper in the RMA Research Chronicle vol.14 (1978) covering not only the university but also Aberdeen’s public library; another by Cooper and former Aberdeen librarian Richard Turbet (vol.23), and two further articles by Turbet in vols. 30 and 30 of the same journal.  Although these are accessible via the JSTOR or Taylor and Francis online databases, they’re sadly hidden behind subscription gateways, so it’s a bit more difficult for non-academic readers to gain access to them.

Yes, we really do need a place for a bibliography on our HmsScot website when it goes live!

Harps and Harpsichords as well as Fiddles and Bass!

Australian researcher Rosemary Richards spotted a reference to the Marchioness of Huntly in Karen’s recently published paper about the Bass Culture project, published in Brio last year (Vol. 51, No. 2, pp. 16-22), ‘From Historical Collections to Metadata: a Case Study in Scottish Musical Inheritance’.  We had highlighted the changes in accompaniment style between different editions of Marshall’s Scottish Airs, and Rosemary picked up on this:-

“Getting back to your comparison in your article of the two editions of Marshall’s tunes, it is interesting that the plainness of the harmonisation in the 1822 edition was at the time when Beethoven was nearly on his last legs.

“Marshall was over 20 years older than Beethoven and came from a different musical background so it’s not so surprising but the realisation suggested in the later 1845 Marshall edition is also not very lush.”

Rosemary is also intrigued by a tune we quoted, as it’s dedicated to the Marchioness of Huntly – a family in whom she takes a historical interest:-

“The Marchioness of Huntly whose strathspey was included in Marshall’s collections was the stepmother of Georgiana McCrae.  William Marshall was the butler amongst other jobs for the Marchioness’s father-in-law and Georgiana’s grandfather, the 4th Duke of Gordon.”

Straight away, Rosemary started wondering what else we had uncovered dedicated to the estimable, and music-loving Marchioness.  Several pieces, as it happens.

Rosemary comments,

“The Bass Culture Project is based on fiddle and pipe books, but people like Georgiana McCrae, her stepmother the Marchioness of Huntly (Fifth Duchess of Gordon) and Sir Walter Scott’s daughter Sophia were playing these same pieces on keyboard instruments or harp – so I’m wondering how you’re dealing with that?”

One of the fascinating aspects of this project is its breadth: while we’ve been focusing on the accompaniments, and changing styles from elegant baroque to  thumping bass and back to elegant harpsichord (or increasingly, piano), there are also hundreds of stories to be told about the people who wrote, collected, used or had pieces dedicated to them.  How many dedicatees find a place in this repertoire? This is one of life’s imponderables, but there are tales of patronage, of musical interests amongst the nobility, of dances at big houses and amateur music-making at small ones …

And indeed – a totally disconnected fact but a pleasing coincidence – Karen’s great-grandfather-in-law was the bass player for gigs at Fyvie Castle during the winter months when there was little work for stonemasons …

New Year’s Resolutions in Bass Culture Territory

For the first couple of years of the project, we worked on a huge spreadsheet of all our fiddle tune-books.  It seemed a bit unmanageable at times, but compared to the new MEI-enabled spreadsheet, it was merely a tiny little table!  The photo in our last blogpost shows just TWO sample entries of the hundreds that will end up being entered there.  Comparing the preliminary and MEI spreadsheets is like comparing a house with a high-rise block of flats.

So here we are in the new year: 2015, and with the end of the project looming on the horizon.  Entering source details inevitably raises questions about things that really looked very straightforward at the time.  DID that bound volume contain all three publications by the author?  Oh, here’s a second edition. (That makes it a new source, but categorically NOT a new work …)  Such basic details have to be sorted out now.  And then there are the details we’ll have to remember before the website goes live.  And the tiny questions that require answers, but can’t be answered until the donkey-work of data entry is further along the line, or we’ll never get the donkey-work done!

  1. Luca and Karen agreed that we need a “legend” – a list of words where there are different spellings, so that the computer search can take into account such “synonyms” when encountered.  If a user searches for MacGlashan, for example, then the system has to retrieve McGlashan – our preferred spelling.  Similarly, if a tune title includes archaic spellings, or just plain misspellings of words, then the user may enter a modern or correct spelling but we need to be sure they’ll also retrieve the item with its original published spelling.
  2. Consistency in the finer details.  Pagination is entered thus:- 31 p (not 31p, 31 pp, or 31 pp.)  Check COPAC, and you’ll catch different libraries adopting different styles.  We have to adopt one standard and stick to it – the user may not even notice, but it does look better!
  3. We need to define terminology.  For example, we know what Murkys are (broken octaves in quavers), but we can’t predict what terminology will be familiar to someone searching the database at a later date.
  4. We need to flag the “questions for later”, so that we can address them if there’s time.
  5. We’ve listed our published outputs and conference papers on a separate research database, but we’ll need to include a bibliography on the Bass Culture website, too.
  6. Only a day later, and we’ve thought of another important requirement for our website – a tab for listing key online info that we’ve found useful.  (Karen has been saving things to her Diigo bookmarking account.)  First up – the Scottish Book Trade Index at the National Library of Scotland.  Invaluable!

Enough for now!  It’s not so much “fiddling while Rome burns”, as “Blogging while Fiddle sources are to be entered up!”

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.

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.

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.

Sitting on the Fence: Where Musicologist Meets Music Librarian

We’ve reached the stage where we’re thinking about encoding our database.  From a happy place (spiritually speaking) where eighteenth century London-based publishers churned out English collections of Scottish tunes in St Paul’s Church Yard, casually pirating one another’s work as only a newly-copyright-conscious culture could do, Karen now finds herself reading online manuals about MEI, FRBR and RDA.

Karen Finds Her Inner Geek

As it happens, she has already encountered the general principles, if not the practice, of FRBR and RDA, so she decided to start by diving into the Music Encoding Initiative.  All was going well, making a reasonable amount of sense and generating some handwritten note-taking, when she decided to investigate printing out the MEI Guidelines so that she could use highlighter pen and generally make them her own.  At 745 pages, generously illustrated with chunks of XML coding, this now seems a bit excessive.  A marked-up pdf in Dropbox will be greener!  Musicologist met Music Librarian – and both were delighted – when it became apparent that Chapter 22 is devoted to encoding paratext. Paratext (prefaces, dedications, indices etc) aren’t music, so it’s recommended to use the MEI FRBR module which accomodates text (in the strict term) as opposed to music.

And there are still the joys of FRBR (Functional Requirements of Bibliographic Records) and RDA (Resource Description and Access) ahead of us!  Dear Fiddlers, these databases don’t just happen by magic, you know.  We’re so lucky to have Zoltan guiding us through the technicalities!

How far will we be delving into this enticing tome?!

 (Karen the musicologist can’t help but wonder what the publishers Wright, Walsh and Thompson would have made of all this ….)