Instruments, repertory, or interpretation?

Reviewing the whole idea of “early music” I was struck by how different areas of it focus on different things. I’m especially aware of a focus on instruments which comes in the historical harp field. I suppose that harps in general are quite rare instruments in modern Western culture, so a replica or reconstruction of a historical harp is all the more curious as a physical object. Many times at events people come up to me and want to know how old it is, and what wood it is made from. I doubt that jazz pianists get asked that very often!

The second area of focus is then repertory – given a carefully reconstructed and exhaustively described and explained instrument, what do we play? The search for historical repertory is an interesting activity to observe. There is a constant tension between the familiar and the exotic. People know certain old tunes and there is a temptation to overplay them. On the other hand, part of the attraction of reviving old music is the novelty, the thrill of discovering something new and exotic. Some old repertories sound very alien, and I often have people come up after an event to comment on how the music sounds oriental.

But I think that the most important aspect of our work ought to be expression and interpretation. The whole point of music is surely a communication between people, and so it is by definition happening right now, totally in the present. If it speaks of the past, all well and good; many conversations today reference history as a symbol or authority, with great rhetorical and symbolic weight. But the past is only that, a reference; the communication is entirely now between living breathing people, and so the expression and the communication have to be the most important thing.

Symbolism of musical instruments

Nowadays music is considered somewhat neutral, as a pure art or as entertainment, but in the past it was much more embedded in wider life, with functional and symbolic significance.

One big reason for that was that before the rise of recordings, all musical acts were necessarily done in real time by a live human performer. This meant that the music was done for something, for someone, and not (as often now) just happening as background noise.

Because of this intentionality of performance, all aspects of music had purpose and meaning. I was particularly thinking of the significance of musical instruments recently. I think that certain instruments still do retain these symbolisms and resonances, but in a less clearly articulated way.

Rory Dall Morison

I have long been interested in the music of Rory Dall O’Kane, the early 17th century harper-composer from Norther Ireland who lived and worked in Scotland, composing tunes for the Perthshire and Central Scottish gentry and nobility in the 1620s and 1630s. I included a number of his tunes on my CD including Port Atholl, Port Gordon, Da Mihi Manum and Lude’s Supper.

However I have long felt that I should also be interested in the music of Rory Dall Morison, the late 17th century harper and poet to Iain Breac MacLeod at Dunvegan Castle on Skye in the 1680s. Unfortunately, the harp tunes often ascribed to him (such as Rory Dall’s Sister’s Lament, or the Fiddler’s Contempt) appear in manuscripts written before his birth (in 1656), and so it seems that the ‘Rory Dall’ tunes all belong to O’Kane.

What Morison did do without a doubt was compose songs, and perform them with harp accompaniment. William Matheson’s book The Blind Harper is a great edition and translation of these songs.

I have just found on Tobar an Dualchais, a lovely field recording from 1953, of Calum Johnston singing Rory Dall Morison’s song to Iain Breac. Rory Dall laments that Iain is away down South, and that he misses him greatly – it has almost romantic overtones, with Rory pining for Iain like a lover. You can listen to this performance here:

I’m hoping to work up a version of this. Maybe down the line I will post a Youtube of it…

Bands, collaborations and sharing platforms

One question I’m often asked is whether I play with an orchestra, or, if the questioner is more aware of music scenes and genres, if I play with a group or band. I find it interesting that there seems a lot of subtle expectation or even social pressure on musicians to join forces, the modern symphony orchestra with choir I suppose being the ultimate manifestation of this. In classical music, performers are rarely truly solo – pianists and organists being the only ones to regularly perform unaccompanied.

In Scottish and Irish music I see it a lot as well, though to a lesser extent – groups are rarely more than 4 or 5 strong, much smaller than a symphony orchestra. But it’s fairly uncommon to find recordings or professional performances of unaccompanied singers or fiddle players. I think the more high profile and professional the gig, the more expectation there is of having other people performing at the same time.