Category Archives: Music, Practical

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…

Bonny Scot Returns to Scotland

Today’s anthem was sung by a quartet of voices rather than the choir – just for a change.  The piece started life as an 18th century flute tune before I set to work on it!  I don’t think the congregation had ever heard a harpsichord effect, on the Clavinova before – I thought it was remarkably effective for accompanying four singers in a tune from that era.  So, what we had was an Anglo-Scottish flute tune called ‘The Bonny Scot’, first published in London in the early 1700s, turned into a sacred anthem by an Englishwoman for performance in Scotland.  Work that one out!

Someone asked me afterwards what the piece was.  I summarised by explaining that the soprano sang the original flute tune, the alto and baritones sang my accompaniment, and the words were taken straight from another hymn with a suitable meter!

All Roads Lead To Glasgow? Joshua Campbell’s Glasgow (instrumental medley)

A colleague listened to my recent arrangement of a tune for flute quartet, and asked if I’d ever done any arrangements for string quartets.  I hadn’t.  (Flutes, saxophones, cellos, but not yet a string quartet.)  Well, there was nothing for it – I decided to have a go.  I incorporated the tune I’d already written for flute quartet – why let a good tune go to waste?  You can listen to Joshua’s Glasgow here.

These are my “programme notes”:-

‘Joshua’s Glasgow’ is an instrumental medley from a late 18th century Scottish fiddle tunebook.  Joshua Campbell lived and worked in Glasgow, and I’ve picked a selection of Glasgow-named pieces from his book. His spellings are a bit erratic:-
1 Glasgow Flurish
2 Sweet bells of Glasgow
3 Glasgow Tontine
4 Glasgow ladys
5 The beautifull town of Glasgow
6 Royal Glasgow Volunteers (also known as the 83rd Regiment of Foot, 1778-1783)
7 Glasgow Flurish (I’ve repeated it)

You Don’t Argue With an Organist?

I had a wee grumble at our last worship committee meeting.  A couple of months ago, I’d written new words and a musical setting of a Scottish folksong, for a choir recessional.  A dozen loyal choristers learned it with me, and we gave the debut performance on Sunday.  There was only one problem – it was a quiet, reflective little number and some of the congregation decided to talk loudly through it.  Kids yelled at each other, and their parent did nothing about it.  There’s nothing quite like this for damping one’s spirits!

Of course, no-one had actually asked me to write it, and no-one actually knew I had written it, so it was just another run-of-the-mill “rounding off the service” items that no-one paid any attention to.  I hadn’t really any reason to grumble at all.  Nonetheless, I was peeved.  What was needed, I felt, was another recessional – this time loud, syncopated and energetic.  More lyrics were written, and I composed it from scratch in a more modern style.  I’m ashamed to say I incorporated some very gaudy, trashy little motifs into the organ accompaniment, but my better nature prevailed and I removed them before completing the piece yesterday evening.  So, let’s see if this kind of recessional at least asserts our presence even if we can’t drown out the chatterers entirely!  This is how it goes, so far.  (I might change a few harmonies, so do come back later and see if I’ve improved upon it!)

Having written my annoyance out of my system, I wrote another blogpost for the IAML(UK and Ireland) website.  This time it was about the impact of digital media in music libraries.  And it has been posted already – here.

John Rutter’s Impassioned Declaration: The Importance of Choir

I found this fantastic Youtube clip today, in which John Rutter talks passionately about why choirs are such good things, why we sing in them, and their benefits.  Everyone should sit and watch this – it’s only three minutes or so.  If you go to church, or if you’re involved in education, or you love music … this is for you!  Click HERE(I’ve also posted this on my Organist page, so my apologies if you’re browsing my website and find the same thing twice.)

(Here’s the actual YouTube link if you want to share it:-

Flutes for the Fun of it

I wrote a piece for flute quintet at the weekend!  I should explain – I don’t generally go around composing random flute pieces, but I’ve done a couple of arrangements of Scottish folksongs for Sheffield Flute Choir, and I thought I’d arrange another.  Arranging is fun, and safely within my comfort zone.  I do it quite well  – but I don’t claim to be a composer.

So, when I thought I’d do another arrangement, all I had to do was choose a tune, right?  I was completely certain there was a piece called ‘Ossian’s Dream’, and I decided that, whatever it was like, I’d arrange it.  I thought it might be in the Scots Musical Museum – it wasn’t.  I looked at the National Library of Scotland’s wonderful Digital Gallery of Scottish music books – it didn’t come up.  There certainly was a famous painting by that name by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres – indeed, the artist’s sketch also survives – but that wasn’t much help to me.  In my mind, the dreaming Ossian in my mind was asleep under rustling trees, his own clarsach silent in front of him, and an Aeolian harp hanging from a branch, occasionally sounding in the breeze.  He was indeed  remembering fallen heroes, but the setting wasn’t quite like the painting.  And I found a very animated, modern piece by Andy Lindquist – no traditional Scottish tune lurking there!

Need I continue?  The only answer was to write my own ‘Ossians’s Dream’ for flute quintet.  Here’s a midi-file of it:- the Sheffield flautists haven’t tried it yet!

Arranging Folksongs – An Enduring Passion

At work, I’m currently sharing a series of seminars on preserving and transforming Scottish melodies. The first week, we looked at various song collections. The next week, we thought about different angles that were worthy of research, then looked at online resources – both specialist ones that the library subscribes to, and free ones that are simply too good to overlook. And we talked about keeping a bibliography (Mendeley, anyone? Zotero?), and about keeping track of web favourites via Diigo or Google Chrome. (Josh coined the term, “webography”, which is a good way of describing it!) Either way, I strongly recommend keeping a record of which resources you used, for future reference.

Next, we’re talking about taking old tunes and transforming them. I want to demonstrate that you can take an old song from an old songbook and place it in a new setting.  Now then, my Soundcloud account has a number of my arrangements – for saxophone trio and quartet, flute quartet, cello quartet … but I wanted to do something new for next week’s seminar. So this afternoon, I flicked through an old Scottish songbook – not very old in my line of business, just 138 years! – and picked a tune to play with. I found “Farewell to Lochaber”, in a very competent but typically late nineteenth century setting for voice and piano. Actually, the tune goes with Allan Ramsay’s song lyrics. (Ramsay lived 1686-1758).Farewell to Lochaber 1 Brown and Pitttman 001 (572x800)

The songbook is The Songs of Scotland, edited by J. Pittman and Colin Brown, published by Boosey in 1877.  (NB, this is a different publication from George Farquhar Graham’s similarly-named Songs of Scotland published in various editions by John Muir Wood.  I’ve written so much about the Graham/Wood book that I thought I’d better clarify that point!)

I chose to arrange the tune for wind quintet. (The oboe has the tune purely because I’m an oboist!)  I wanted to experiment with five different instruments, because I have done a number of arrangements for multiples of ONE instrument and I fancied a change. It’s a midi file, not a live recording – sorry about that!   LISTEN HERE.

Now, old folksongs do present certain challenges.  For a start – and let’s not get into the tricky question as to how old this tune actually is, or we’ll never get to the notes themselves – they lend themselves to pretty straightforward harmonies, as this example demonstrates.  So it’s always going to be hard to come up with something really original, and if you stray too far from the strait and narrow, you run the risk of spoiling it.  Too many chords per bar certainly wreck the average folk melody, so I avoided that.  However, I quite like sevenths, ninths and temporary clashes that resolve, so if you think I’ve left “wrong notes”, then please be assured that I meant every one of them! My cadences introduce a bit of chromaticism that works in an instrumental setting (in my opinion).  After doing my wind quintet setting, I re-set the piece as a choral arrangement with religious words for my church choir;  I hesitated about replicating these harmonies in a vocal setting, but they worked well enough chorally too.  LISTEN HERE(You can hear the two settings one after another HERE.)

Another consideration is the matter of modality – Victorian compilers got quite concerned about what to do with the “flattened seventh” – the choice is basically either to harmonise it (whether as part of a chord or a temporary clash resolving downwards) – or sharpen it (which I don’t think I’d ever do) – or contrive some other kind of inoffensive discord.  Either way, my harmonies aren’t exactly what you’d put in a more ‘trad’ folksong setting for voice and/or fiddle and guitar.

The other aspect that I particularly concentrate on, after the harmonies, is the interaction between the instrumental (or vocal) lines.  I like to include motifs in the “accompanying” lines, that weave about as a countermelody to the tune itself and recur in different instruments as I go along.  I was quite pleased with this setting, in that regard.

This evening I tried out the choral setting with my choir.  It went quite well, but I had to change a couple of bars where the voices crossed one another.  Where there are two different sounds, the lines remain distinct, but having the soprano and alto crossing over just muddies the sound for the listener.  Also, I changed the underlay of the text in a few places while I was at it.  (You can’t see the text here, but it’s basically some lyrics that I wrote as a “recessional” for the choir to sing at the end of a church service.  I’ve been a church organist so long that finding suitable rhyming words is sadly only too easy for me. There’s nothing wrong with them – they’re just startlingly derivative!)  If you’re involved in church music and would like a copy of the score, do get in touch with me.

There is a mildly humorous side to the whole saga – when I proudly produced my arrangement of a Scottish folksong to my Church of Scotland choir, thinking they’d be enchanted with this Sassenach’s setting of a popular folk melody … they liked it, sure enough – but no-one actually knew the tune!  This just goes to show that fashions change, and tunes that were popular in the 19th century may not still be known today.  Anyway, I’ve just revived it.

What I look forward to, is having the opportunity to discuss the differences in approach between a classical musician with a musicologist’s interest in “trad”, and a trad musician repurposing something that has been preserved in a conventional MOTR (middle of the road) classical collection.  More on this note another day!