Experimental Anarchy: Open Strings, and Throwing Away the Rule-Book

I’ve previously mentioned an intriguing little flute-book, Aria di Camera,  published by Wright in the early early 18th century.  It has Celtic tunes from around Britain, and includes a (probably pirated) copy of Prelleur’s flute tutor.  But it doesn’t include any accompaniment.

My fingers, itching for something fun to do last night, opened the modern edition of Wright’s Aria di Camera, and I took it across to the piano to play the first tune – ‘Coxetown’.*  It seemed quite catchy, and I wondered what I could do with it.  I did something I’ve never tried before.  WHAT IF, I thought to myself, I wanted to accompany my friend the flautist, but there was no written out accompaniment?  WHAT IF I were a cellist of very limited ability, and I only played on open strings?  WHAT IF I allowed my bow to catch the adjacent string above the one I was meaning to play.  How would that sound?

Well, guess what? You can accompany the whole tune that way!  Admittedly, it doesn’t make for a genteel, elegant bassline, because you can only move in fifths – no hope of combining stepwise movement and bigger leaps.  And in all honesty, you wouldn’t imagine that parallel fifths jumping across the cello strings would sound remotely pleasant.  After all, it’s as though you’ve thrown away the rule-book, breaking every musical grammatical rule one by one.

I must admit I’ve never seen a fiddle or flute collection in which the bass was constructed this way.  But in the scenario I’ve just outlined, an amateur cellist’s improvisation might be precisely like this.  Indeed, since I posted this, Stuart Eydmann has just provided a confirmatory anecdote about a nineteenth century concertina player who self-accompanied on cello played by feet…!

And it stands to reason that he could only have played on open strings, so there we have it – evidence that some cello accompaniment was very, very elementary!

I arranged the piece for flute AND fiddle (for an edgier sound, and the opportunity to contrast the instruments or play in thirds at the end), accompanied by viola AND cello.  The viola is optional, really, but the cello is a must.  Having done my “what if?” arrangement – if you can call it an arrangement – I repeated the whole tune and went on to make a more conventional accompaniment.  It sounded better than I imagined it would!

Would you still like to know what it sounds like?  I haven’t put you off?

Right, then.  CLICK HERE.

*  There’s a Coxtown in Galway, Ireland, but there’s another Coxtown in Moray, Scotland.  Confused?!  Because I have an inquisitive mind, I may explore this further, later.  But that’s another story altogether…

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Taking Stock – A Bit of Writing

It’s hard to know whether you’re publishing enough, when you’re a part-time postdoc!  But sitting and taking stock of recent writing activity, I think I’m probably on track.

  • A journal article about our research project (basically a smartened up version of a paper I gave in Antwerp, Summer 2014) – pending publication.
  • An article I wrote for a librarianship magazine – more of a personal opinion piece than scholarly writing – pending publication.
  • A peer-reviewed, and quite significantly revised version of a paper I gave in Aberdeen, Spring 2014 – submitted and pending response.
  • A completely different article about the research project – peer-reviewed and resubmitted – pending response.
  • 3 encyclopedia articles uploaded but as yet uncommented upon – pending.

When I’m not in the mood for writing in my spare time, I tend to indulge my creativity arranging music, sewing, or writing blogposts like this one.  There’s been quite a bit of creativity in between article revisions of late!  However, my wardrobe is now bulging, and I have a backlog of tune arrangements that are in score, uploaded to Dropbox, but need separate parts for each instrument.  I really should knuckle down!

However, I’m quite looking forward to tomorrow, because the church choir that I’m responsible for, will be singing one of my own compositions – not an arrangement of a pre-existing tune, for once! – at the end of the service.  They’ve practiced hard, and so have I.  I do hope the congregation sits still long enough to actually hear it!  If there’s a hubbub of people talking and getting up to leave while we’re still performing (yes, this happens), I shall come home very dejected.  I shouldn’t mind, because it happens so regularly and regardless of what we’re singing, but … well, I hope it doesn’t happen tomorrow, all the same!

PhD Prison, or Letting the Bird out of the Cage?

I’ve just read a blogpost by a young researcher called Marcel Hofeditz, who is an academic writer and management thinker.  In his ‘How to get out of the PhD prison‘, he asks why people use the metaphor of a prison for their doctoral studies, and suggests ways of meeting the challenges that the PhD poses.  It’s a great, cogent posting, and I’m not about to write as long and well-reasoned a piece in reply.  Nor am I going to rip it to shreds!

However, it made me sit up and think, because I never once considered myself to be in any kind of doctoral prison.  If I could suggest a different metaphor – which I experienced personally during my PhD – for years I had suspected that my hearing wasn’t too good, and in 2007 I got hearing aids.  Suddenly I could hear the birds sing again!  They hadn’t gone away, but had been there all the time and I just hadn’t been able to hear them.

Likewise, when I decided to have a second attempt at a PhD, having failed to complete one a couple of decades previously, I embraced my research with a sense of coming home, and finally having the chance to become the scholar I always knew I was.  Like the birds in my garden, my scholarly leanings had been there all the time, but had become hidden behind the routine day-to-day stuff that we all have to do, and it took the discovery in  2002 of three old music books from Dundee, for me again to hear the siren call of musicological research.

I chose to have another go at doctoral research entirely of my own free will, and continued to work full-time.  As the main breadwinner with three sons to look after, I needed that salary!  Time with my books or visiting libraries was a privilege, even if I ended up half knackered as a result.  Since completing, I’ve done all the usual things – given papers, written articles, turned the thesis into an Ashgate book, and been invited to participate as a postdoctoral researcher on an AHRC research project.  Far from a prison, the five years doing my PhD represented time practising flying before I could spread my wings into the varied things I’ve had a chance to do since then.  I do still work as a librarian, currently part-time while I’m doing the postdoctoral work, and I can’t predict what might happen in the future, but I know I’m fortunate not to be in the semi-permanent state of uncertainty that afflicts many new doctorates.  I know many would envy my comparatively safe uncertainty!

So, was writing my PhD an emotional experience?  It was challenging, but I wouldn’t have chosen the word, ’emotional’ to describe it.  I was never reduced to the depths of despair.  I never doubted I’d complete it, either.  I’d failed to complete once before, and there was absolutely no way it was going to happen again, even though the second attempt was part-time as a working parent, compared to the carefree, full-time research of the singleton the first time round.  Sometimes I think we need constraints in order to bring out the best in us.

I was lucky with my supervisor.  We got on fine, and there were no wrinkles there, either.

Marcel writes about the implied threat of, ‘Publish or perish’, and I can’t argue with that.  If at times I write like a creature driven, it’s because I’m conscious that my published output is my evidence – it’s what other scholars see of my research and how it will be judged.  I’ve blogged before about the peer-review process, so suffice to say that I don’t disagree with the principle, but I do sometimes wish the ‘peers’ would try to imagine how their critiques come across to quiveringly new scholars trying to establish their professional reputation.

And, lastly, I certainly agree with Marcel about celebrating milestones – it’s hugely important.  I’m certainly not a party animal, and I hadn’t planned a party since our wedding many years ago, but we had a very memorable party when I got my PhD, and my institution allowed me to plan a rather ambitious book-launch when the book came out.  Bagpipes in the library?  That was just the start!