Last night we went to Dundee, as I was performing my concert on board the Unicorn. We travelled in early just so we could have an hour or so wandering around the centre of town to see if anything was happening.
In city square there were perhaps a thousand people with flags and music, very peaceful and friendly, lots of family groups. They organised a procession around the block, so we followed on at the end.
We left the gathering and headed down to the docks. The Unicorn is a really beautiful ship, genuinely old and not over-manicured like many historical things. On board, the captains cabin had been cleared and was set with chairs; the wine was laid out on a table ouside the cabin entrance, on the main deck. The ceilings on board are very low!
As it got dimmer, people started arriving. There was not a huge turnout, but the low ceilings and the homely atmosphere of the ship seemed to draw people out; everyone was talking to each other in unexpected intimacy.
For the first half of the concert, I played a selection of 18th century music, from the pibroch Maol Donn to the breezy baroque Blossom of the Raspberry. My fiddle tune went OK and was well received – especially with the story about it.
In the interval everyone went into the main deck for wine and conversation. This went on for quite a long time!
Then for the second half I played the Lament for the Union set. People were interested and sympathetic to the sentiments – it felt like a historic moment, thinking about the beginning of the Union in 1707, on the eve of the historic referendum to undo it. Especially with the evening glow from the docks through the windows…
Walking back up through the town late at night to the bus station to catch our ride home, we saw a battle of the billboards. Looks like Yes is winning this one!
As well as doing some work canvassing for the referendum, I have been preparing for a couple of forthcoming events in Dundee. On Wednesday 1st October I am presenting Scottish music 78s for the Wighton lunchtime concert, though more imminent is my concert on Wednesday 17th September, on the eve of the referendum. I’m playing the harp in the elegant and unusual setting of the captain’s cabin on board HMS Unicorn, moored in Dundee docks. This classy wood-panneled room will be a lovely setting for the replica Queen Mary harp. There will be an interval with a glass of wine, and for the second half I am planning to play my “Lament for the Union” programme.
For the first half though, I am thinking of continuing the “300 years ago” theme with a selection of 18th century harp music. Normally I use the Downhill harp for that, but I know the Dundee people love the Queen Mary replica, and I only recently commandeered the Downhill back from my student who has it, so I am thinking laterally. Perhaps one of the ports played by John Robertson on the original Queen Mary harp in the early 1700s will allow me to joke about “Port Athol, Port Gordon and Port Seton” given the nautical setting!
I am also thinking that, as I always like to in a longer performance, I should pull something completely different out as a novelty and so I am thinking of playing a tune on the fiddle. Port na bPucaí has a suitable marine story to go with it and I think might be a nice suprise item. I just have to practice enough to be able to play it convincingly! We’ll see if my resolve can hold until next week!
Today in the harp class in Dundee we had fun trying out harp accompaniment to medieval bardic poetry! Everyone was very game!
We looked at the poem which was the centrepiece of Wednesday’s concert, Ceannaig Duain T-Athar a Aonghas (pay for your father’s poem, Angus). It is addressed to Aonghas Mòr, the father of Aonghas Og the companion of Robert the Bruce and the leader of the Islesmen at the Battle of Bannockburn in June 1314. (The picture here shows Angus Og’s gravestone on Iona – see Ian MacDonnell’s work for more info).
Ní fhuil a nÉirinn ná a nAlbainn
Aonghas mar thusa, a thaobh seang
Aonghais fháid bhraonghlais an Bhroga
láid, a Aonghais, comha ad cheann.
In Ireland or in Scotland, there is not another Aonghas like you! You graceful form! May Aonghus of the dewy grass of Newgrange, send you gifts, Aonghus!
(Aonghus an Bhroga was the chieftain of the Tuatha Dé Danann, son of the Dagda, and lived at Brú na Bóinne i.e. Newgrange)
It’s pretty sycophantic stuff, extended ego-stroking of the rich and powerful Lord of the Isles, effectively the King of the West of Scotland, but it is also subtle and powerful word – magic, and the voice of the harp supporting and helping to project the verbal presentation of the complex nested ideas has a lot of presence and power.
We have democracy in Dundee! As a break from the hardcore work on gestures we have been doing recently, I had prepared handouts for a new tune that I was planning to give my harp class this afternoon.
However at the beginning of the class, some of them who had been here last week were chatting to those who had missed it, about the pibroch figures we had been looking at. So in the interests of fairness I put it to a democratic vote, new tune or more slogging though the complex ornaments? No-one voted for the tune, and with one or two abstentions everyone else from the youngest to the oldest wanted the standard variations! I was very impressed at their ambition and dedication to this difficult music!
So we returned to the standard variations class handout, and worked through crunluath, crunluath a-mach and crunluath fosgailte; we scrutinised the pipe notation and sang the cannteraichd, before discussing strategies for translating this onto the harp. I was pleased to see everyone managing by the end to play though an octave scale for each one.
Next week I think we’ll leave the pibroch for a bit and try the new song air.
In six months time I have agreed to present a rather different programme for the Friends of Wighton – half an hour of ’20s sounds from old Scottish 78rpm gramophone records. It will be Wednesday 1st October, 1.15pm, in the Wighton Centre, Dundee Central Library.
I realised that I have plenty enough discs for half an hour – just one side of each from a selection will be more than enough. We will have Gaelic song, Scots song, fiddle, pipes and clarsach; the oldest disc is from about 1914 and the most recent from 1931.
I was also thinking about the dates and provenances of the various discs. The one shown above was recorded in London, though I assume it was made for the Scottish market. I have what I think is the oldest Scottish harp record, that is Patuffa Kennedy Fraser’s disc of “Songs of the Hebrides” from 1929. I also have what seems to be the oldest Irish harp record, Mabel Dolmetsch’s “Victorious tree”, recorded in 1937 though never released (I won’t be playing this one as it is too fragile as well as not being Scottish!)
Mabel’s record is Irish harp music but she wasn’t Irish or living in Ireland, so I wondered what was the oldest Irish harp record? Was Mabel first? Actually it seems she was. Susan Reed appears to have been the next to record, and her “Old English Folk Songs” released in 1945 would be the earliest published recording of Irish harp, even though the performer is American and the repertory is English! Mary O’Hara put out her first disc in 1956 I think. I’m having trouble tracking down other Irish harpists on record from this era.
Last week and this week and next week the theme for my Saturday afternoon harp class in Dundee is Christmas music. Early this morning I suddenly decided that the wren song tradition would be a fun thing to do today – I have worked on Bunting’s 1809 setting of the Wren song before with a student, so I knew it was a great tune to give the class. But I also wanted to work on the traditions behind the wren hunt and so I had a quick look round to remind myself.
Fintan Vallely’s Companion to Irish Traditional Music has a nice little article on the wren, with a lovely photo of wren boys in Dingle – I would guess the photo was pre-WW2, one of the boys has a fife and two have bodhrans (which gave me a chance to talk about that!). The article also included one verse of the wren song, which fits Bunting’s tune pretty well.
I checked in Donal O’Sullivan’s notes on the Bunting tunes, and he does go into a lot of detail on the wren hunt but I did not spend too much time following up his references this morning.
Looking online I got a couple of excellent references. I got the pointer of the cutty wren song in Herd’s Scots Songs of 1776 – google books provided me with facsimile pages and all of a sudden I remembered that I knew this song from 20 years back, so I walked round the house trying to remember how it went. Every so often a whole new section of the question and answer would pop back into my head. In the class I managed to sing it and some of them even joined in with the answer sections – great fun, and not often that I sing an old song dragged up out of the back of my mind like that.
But the most fun was seeing a reference to Liam Clancy’s 1953 recording of the wren song on the LP, The Lark in the Morning. I have a copy of this LP which I had for some reason never got round to playing much so I had the fun of finding the record, setting up the equipment and listening to his lively version of the wren. This is another song I know from way back (I have it on an old cassette tape of traditional British and Irish midwinter songs), and I was amused to hear him mentioning the town where he lived and also his mother by name in the song.
Of course this evening as the gear was out and the record propped up against the bookcase I sat down on the floor and listened to both sides. What a beautiful and moving set of performances. At times I laughed out loud, and at other times there was a tear in my eye.
Yesterday I was at the Wighton Centre in Dundee, helping organise the 10th anniversary events. I was in charge of displaying some of the books from the main Wighton Collection as well as new acquisitions from the Jimmy Shand Collection and the Alice Palmer Collection.
After the concert and the presentation some of my students joined in the informal music making.
Yesterday’s lunchtime concert with the bowed lyre went really well. The audience was about mid-sized for these events. Everyone shuffled nervously when they saw the instrument lying out beforehand!
I really enjoyed presenting this programme of “national music” from each of the northern countries. I started with the Russian tunes from Petrozavodsk, and then explained a bit about the Finnish collectors and informants before playing some tunes from Finnish Karelia, and so continuing ever Westward, through Sweden, Norway, Shetland, Iceland…
I think the most difficult tune was the Inuit shamanic chant, since it was most alien to my understanding of the ancient European traditions. It was interesting that all of the other music clearly “fitted together” well with similar structures and sonorities, while this one stood out as really foreign. However I think everyone enjoyed the participative and experimental aspects of this one tune!
Towards the end I realised that I had prepared too much material so I missed out a couple of the tunes I had planned to play – and still overran. And then was asked by the host, Sheena Wellington, to play an encore. So I count that as a great success and now I feel I would have no problem putting together a 45 minute or one-hour show based on this idea, a tour of the bowed-harp or bowed-lyre traditions of the old North of Europe.
On Wednesday, I’m performing for the Friends of Wighton lunchtime concert in Dundee. For something a bit different I thought I would try to put together a half hour recital using only the bowed lyre.
The theme of the concert will be a tour round the ancient north of Europe. I’ll play a tune or two from all of the places that have a bowed lyre or bowed harp tradition – Karelia (Finland/Russia), Sweden, Shetland, Iceland, maybe even Canada, and also some English Irish and Scottish tunes.
The half-hour concert will be held upstairs in Dundee Central Library. The concert is on Wednesday 2nd October, starting at 1.15pm. Admission is free.
Today I was pleased to be able to introduce Alison Kinnaird, who gave a lovely performance of old Scottish harp music at the Friends of Wighton’s Community Music Day in the Bonar Hall, Dundee. Alison talked and played for an hour to a very appreciative audience, using three different harps.
In this picture Alison is playing her copy of the Lamont harp made by Robert Evans, and you can also see her 1930s Briggs harp. She also had her Renaissance bray harp with her. As well as playing some representative tunes to illustrate the voice and traditions of each instrument, she sang a really super song – one of the big Scots ballads about the murderous sister.
Here’s a photo of my come and try earlier in the day:
Thanks to my glamourous tuning assistant on the right there!