Tag Archives: Scottish songs

My Obsession with Musical Repertoires

I was just mentioning to someone earlier this evening, that my research has always been about repertoires.  My Masters at Exeter was in English plainsong repertoires.  My first doctoral studies foundered due to miscalculations of timescale on my part, but I did examine a lot of fifteenth century English cantus firmus settings before admitting to myself that I hadn’t left enough time to get the thing written up and submitted.

Fast-forward a couple of decades, and my interest in research was rekindled by the discovery of three early nineteenth century flute manuscripts from Dundee.  What did I do?  Listed the repertoire, researched the books, and wrote an article for the RMA Chronicle about it.

That was enough to convince me that I really did want a PhD, and this time I completed it part-time, on time.  My subject was on late eighteenth and nineteenth century Scottish song collecting.  This fitted my interests as well as my occupation as Music and Academic Services Librarian at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, where we offer degrees in Scottish music amongst many others.  Moreover, having experienced the difficulties of visiting distant manuscripts in the pre-internet days, I now wanted to be sure that if there were physical items that I simply had to see, I had a good chance of them being within easy reach for my part-time research existence.

I’m currently seconded part-time to postdoctoral research on an AHRC-funded project into Bass Culture in Scottish Musical Traditions – the accompaniments and basslines of Scottish fiddle collections.  More repertoire studies?  You bet!

That project ends in mid-October 2015, and after that I’m conducting a shorter piece of research into early copyright music collections.  I’m looking forward to exploring the collections in St Andrew’s University Library Special Collections, and I’m hoping by the end of it I may have devised a larger-scale project to take this research further.  However, one thing at a time – I have to finish the massive, somewhat daunting database for the present project first!  The spreadsheet is all there – we’re at the editing stage now, before it is turned into a website for all to see.  A bit like the Hilaire Belloc verse, “it makes one gape and stretch one’s eyes”.  But it’ll be fantastic once it’s up and running.

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!

Wynds, Vennels and Dual Carriageways: the Changing Nature of Scottish Music

I’m writing what I hope will be a controversial conference paper for the forthcoming Understanding Scotland Musically AHRC-funded two-day conference in Newcastle, 20th-21st October.  I’ll be making the point that pinning down what Scottish music actually IS, is pretty much like going to look for the place where your ancestors come from, and wondering why it doesn’t look the same.  You can’t compare what people thought Scottish music was, 200 years ago, with what people think it is now.  Indeed, if you try to compare what I think Scottish music is, with what you think Scottish music is, or what my son, or your granny, think Scottish music is, you’ll get as many different answers. 

WherGreenock Dalrymple Street Car parke do the wynds, vennels and dual carriageways come into it?  Ah, that would be telling! Though I can tell you that if you see a small, middle-aged personage taking photographs in the middle of a roundabout in Greenock with a perplexed look on her furrowed brow, then you can be fairly sure that’ll be me.

The abstract for my paper can be found under the “Musicologist” tab on this blog.

Reflections on a Lecture

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This morning I gave my annual lecture about historic Scottish song-books, to the second-year students on the BA Scottish Music course.  It was the fourth time I’d given it, but each time it changes a bit.  This time I spent quite a long time scanning and inserting musical examples into my paper, and then I had it ring-bound.  This totally removed last year’s unseemly scuffling with oodles of sheets of paper and assorted song-books.  All I had to do was keep the paper with me, and move from powerpoint to piano from time to time.  I had ONE student play a few examples, and I managed to skip bits of the paper when I felt I’d probably said enough about a particular point.  So, it was a far slicker presentation, and I wasn’t glued to my “script” all the time.  (Quite a bit, but not all!)  I remembered to look up and make eye-contact with different students, and I deliberately built in a few questions and challenges, so it was definitely a bit more interactive.

My proudest moment, though, was at the end.  I had tweeted and then blogged earlier in the week, asking trad singers what they looked out for when selecting songs, and I asked if they ever used old song-books.  This was an attempt to find out what was most important to performing musicians, so I could try to relate what I knew, to what they would find interesting.  The responses were more about subject-matter than anything, though, and I struggled to think how I was going to get that into my lecture, when I am more concerned with cultural history and aesthetics than with the subject-matter of individual songs.  Attempting to mention my “mini-survey” at the beginning of the lecture just wasn’t going to work.  However, as I was summing up, inspiration struck.  I told the class about my Twitter survey, and the results.  Then I admitted that I couldn’t tell them which songs had those characteristics (poignant, memorable, featuring strong women or dramatic events), but that I was absolutely sure they’d find such materials in the old song-books I’d been telling them about – so I strongly advised them to go and explore the repertoire.  I must admit I was pleased I’d thought of this on the spur of the moment.  It meant that in summing up, I’d managed to relate my subject-matter with their interest as performers.

Besides posting my bibliography and powerpoint on Mahara, I shared them – and the paper itself – with the course-leader, but I couldn’t resist a follow-up blogpost on Whittaker Live, as well.  I think it’s quite important to let folks know what I’m up to, and how I try to get public engagement with my work.