Art exhibits!

At tomorrow’s concert, we will have two of Ealasaid’s artworks on display. I’ll play a couple of the tunes from my Tarbh CD, and so today I looked out the original artworks from the CD booklet for these two tunes, and framed them, so we can put one on each of the little shelves behind me in the hall. I have often thought before of exhibiting the artwork at a performance of the music, but I have never actually organised to do it before. We’ll see how it goes!

Ranald and the Ghost

On Wednesday 6th August is my next concert in this summer’s series. I’ll be playing the replica Queen Mary harp in the lovely setting of All Saints Church hall on North Castle Street, St Andrews, starting 12.45pm. As usual, admission is free and all are welcome.

August’s programme is the supernatural music associated with the 18th century harper-composer, Ranald MacDonald of Morar. I’ll play just two of these huge architectural compositions, each of which is set in a mysterious world of weird beings and dangerous encounters with ghosts.

Hidden Door festival

Last night I was playing at the Hidden Door festival in Edinburgh’s old town. The festival itself was amazing, a beautiful collaboration of installation arts and performing arts. I loved the spontaneous nature of everything, and the DIY volunteer ethos of the festival organisers and the people running it on the ground. You do not find anything like this in St Andrews.

Everything was set in disused vaults on Market Street – bare, spartan stone underground caverns. Some of them were music venues and some were spaces for art installations. I was particularly intrigued by an art installation in a completely blacked out vault, which consisted of a garden of lichtsuchende, robot plants, light sensitive and light emitting – torches were provided by the entrance curtain. There was also a very nice exhibition in another vault of framed collage pictures by Miriam Mallalieu on the theme of lichens. Some of the colours and structures in these images reminded me of some of Ealasaid’s work.

I played in one of the vaults, which was a “hidden” music venue in amongst the installation art vaults. Unsuspecting art-lovers stumbled in and listened to some of the Tarbh music before leaving to explore the next installation. Sometimes I felt like some kind of strange robot flower in the centre of the vault, beneath a star-like lighting installation, playing this weird meditative music to an audience unprepared to hear it but open to new artistic experiences.

More on Ronald MacDonald of Morar’s Lament

Today I tried playing the Lament for Ranald MacDonald of Morar on the harp, and I discovered two very interesting things about this tune.

First, it really does not sit well on the harp.

Secondly, it is a minor-mode tune. The notation gives it in a, as is usual for Highland bagpipe music, as the pipes usually play an a major scale: a b c# d e f# g a, plus low G, with drones sounding all the while on A.

This tune is mostly pentatonic, moving over g a b – d e – g a, with passing notes on f# and on c natural. The c natural is not at all what one would expect to hear in a pipe tune, yet not only does c# sound very wrong but the notation clearly gives only one sharp in the key signature.

Listening to the only pipe recording I have to hand (and ignoring the substantial changes to pulse and accent) I note that the issue doesn’t arise on the pipes, because the sequence that Donald MacDonald writes very clearly as d (G) c (G) b, i.e. a descending series of 3 notes d c b, separated by low G gracenotes, becomes in modern performance d G(c#)G b, i.e. a sequence of two notes d  b separated by a burble on low G. So the tune remains pentatonic on the pipes.

I checked in Joseph MacDonald‘s book, where he has a section on the “keys” in which ceòl mór is set on the pipes, he doesn not really deal with this type of scale; he only talks about laments omitting c# and concentrating on the low end of the scale. Other than that he is mainly interested in music set in modal equivalents of g major, a major and d major.

Cumha Raonuill Mhic Ailein Òig

Today I have been working on Cumha Raonuill Mhic Ailein Òig, the  Lament for Ronald MacDonald of Morar. It is working very nicely as a fiddle tune. I am following Donald MacDonald’s 1820 printed arrangement:

It continues for three more pages with the variations; so far I have been concentrating on the first variation and its doubling. Donald MacDonald’s setting is strangely assymetrical with startling developments of the melody in the second half of the tune; Angus MacKay’s manuscript seems to be the same though I don’t know if MacKay was just copying MacDonald or whether he had the tune independently from oral tradition. All the later sources hack about with it and remove bars to make it four-square and much less dramatic.

I’m tuning the fiddle a-e’-a’-e” (though as usual I keep it one note lower than modern pitch), as this allows the tune to be played mainly on the two highest strings, with the two lowest acting as intermittent drones. I’m finding this tune sits very well on the fiddle, with pleasant string-crossings and open intervals.

I’m not planning to play this on the harp, out of respect for Ranald – if he was, as tradition says, one of the last of the old harpers, whoever composed this fine lament after he died would not have been a harper, though they may well have played fiddle as well as pipes.

Hopefully I will put up a Youtube of it at some point though I already have a backlog of things to record!

Ceòl mór at the cathedral ruins

The Priors House was packed out for today’s cathedral concert. I was apprehensive about presenting a concert of music from my new CD; these grand epic compositions take about 10 minutes to unfold which means that in a half hour concert there’s time for just two. I always wonder if people will just switch off when faced with such a huge wall of music, but once again I was pleasantly surprised by how engaged with this music people were.

My theme for today was “Ranald and the ghost” and I told the story of the Colainn gun Cheann, and the epic battle on the road at midnight between Ranald and the spectre, and I finished the story with the little song that the ghost sings as it fled. Perhaps this kind of all-engrossing narrative with its strong personalities and unexpected plot twists is what keeps the subsequent 10-minute pibroch relevant and engaging. (having told them that the variations are describing the story in music, perhaps there is more pressure on me to draw those different emotive and dynamic aspects out of each variation).

Either way, both of today’s tunes were very well received and people left well satisfied. It’s only a shame that, due to funding cuts, there were only two cathedral concerts this year. I’m hoping that we’ll be able to continue working with Historic Scotland next year on another series of cathedral harp music.