My new CD released today features five solo harp tracks of late 17th or early 18th century music attributed to a great local hero of the West of Scotland – Raghnall Mac Ailein Òig. These grand formal tunes come from the pibroch tradition of the pipes, and also from early fiddle and vocal sources, and I have turned them into dreamy, beautiful clarsach meditations. Each tune has a very different atmosphere, and the CD booklet includes five full-page illustrations made by Ealasaid Gilfillan especially for this project. These unique and intense montage images really give you a sense of the meaning of each tune.

For more info, please visit www.earlygaelicharp.info/tarbh

As a companion to the CD I have also made a set of web pages all about Raghnall Mac Ailein Òig – Ronald MacDonald of Morar, said to have lived 1662-1741. The pages include all the references I used as sources for the CD and also include links to a number of fascinating songs and stories on archive audio recordings at Tobar an Dualchais – the online portal for the tape recordings preserved in the School of Scottish Studies in Edinburgh.

Ecce Fulget

Today at the Harp Class in Dundee, as it is St Patrick’s day, we looked at a medieval hymn to St Patrick from Trinity College Dublin ms.80.

Ecce fulget clarissima
Behold, flashes brightly

Patricii sollempnitas
Patrick’s festival,

in qua carne deposita
whereby the body he has abandoned,

felix transcendit sidera.
happily he passes through the stars.

Recording of me singing it

Recording of me playing it on the harp


For last Thursday’s poetry event in the Netherbow, Henry Marsh asked me, did I have any Carver in my repertory? I had to admit I did not. One of his poems, about Mary, Queen of Scots at Fotheringhay, mentions Carver:

That endless fleeting night, elusive
as the scent of flowers, she’d touched
on moments of serenity, drifted in Carver’s
silver labyrinth – O good Jesus…
O sweet Jesus…

(The Guidman’s Daughter, p.92)

While I had no intention of even looking at Carver’s notorious 19 part mass, I did find a section of his 5 part mass, Fera Pessima, described by D. James Ross (Musick Fyne, p. 46) as being reminiscent of piobaireachd. While I can disagree with the comparison, I found this an acceptable fragment for reducing onto the harp, and so I played it after Henry read the Fotheringhay poem at the Storytelling Centre.

Here’s a recording I made of it today, while it is still up and running:


Salve Splendor

In my Dundee class, we have been working on the Magnificat antiphon, Salve Splendor, from the 14th century Inchcolm Antiphoner, a manuscript of chant from the island of Inchcolm in the Firth of Forth.

Here are some recordings I have put together illustrating different approaches to this lovely little song.

First off, singing it straight off the manuscript page. Click here for the facsimile at Edinburgh University Library

And here are the words:

Salve splendor et pa-
Hail, glorious one and protector

-trone, iubar que iusticie. Orthodoxe doctor bone pastor et vas gratie. O Columba Columbine,
light of justice,correct teacher & good, shepherd and vessel of grace. O Columba, dove-like,

felicis memorie tue fac nos sine fine, coheredes glorie.
happy memories of you, give us without end, co-heir of glory.

And here is the recording:

Next, playing the song version though on the harp:

And finally, jazzing it up with some twiddles and drones:

Aldhelm and Sherbourne

I have just received a new book, Aldhelm and Sherbourne – essays to celebrate the founding of the bishopric edited by Katherine Barker and Nicholas Brooks, published by Oxbow Books last year. I ordered this book of conference papers because it includes an audio CD of a performance of one of Aldhelm’s Latin lyrics, the Carmen rythmicum, as performed by a “Finnish rune-singer” accompanied with kantele.

Aldhem was a late 7th -early 8th century Anglo Saxon Christian priest in the south-west of England, and the book is an erudite and scholarly series of papers discussing various aspects of his life and work, and especially his connection to the ecclesiastical centre at Sherbourne which he founded in 705.

The preface and introduction are quite personal and intimate, and you get the impression that the organisers and scholars in this field are all close friends. The papers vary a lot, from historical and geographical surveys of the region, to detailed linguistic analyses. Barbara Yorke’s survey of Aldhelm’s Irish and British connections is especially interesting as a broad overview of cultural connections at this time. David Howlett’s numerological layout of the Latin life of Aldhelm is baffling in its application of number and letter counting and lack of explanation or discussion, and Katherine Barker’s discussion of Aldhelm as composer and author of the Carmen rythmicum is rather too ready to identify Latin musical terms with modern instrument categories (e.g. I would be suspicious of translating Aldhelm’s psalterium with “psaltery” without comment), but is a very thought provoking discussion of musical learning and practice in early medieval times.

The audio CD, with a single 35 minute track, is not a live recording of the conference performance, but a later studio version. The two performers are described as Masters students at Sibelius Institute and I found the performance style to be quite modern, much cleaner and more ‘professional’ sounding than the archive recordings of traditional Finnish singers I have heard. The text is in lines of 8 syllables, and the singers use the same even-spaced 8 syllable metre that is used for Kalevala singing, where each syllable is of equal length except for extended final syllables. To my mind this is less successful for the Latin verse, since my understanding of Latin meter is that it is strongly based on the alternation of feet containing long and short syllables. I also hear no trace of the Carmen‘s distinctive three syllable line ending, with the third from last stressed, and the second from last short (described here). The kantele is sometimes strummed, sometimes plucked, and complements the voices well, though some sections seemed a little too contrapunctal for my taste.

But, it is still a very interesting project, and the inclusion of the CD makes it almost unique and highly recommended. Also, the way that the book provides not only a complete Latin text of the song but also a number of different translations by different scholars really allows for a rich appreciation of this material.

Musique mécanique

In 1930, the French periodical Revue Musicale devoted an entire issue to ‘musique mécanique’ – mechanical music. They were, of course, not interested in fairground organs, orchestrions, reproducing pianos, or music-boxes, though that’s what you’ll find if you google for musique mécanique now.

In 1930 the exciting new mechanical music was recorded music, but also broadcast music – both were seen as ‘mechanical’ because the sound came out of a machine, not out of the mouth or instrument of a performer. Of course, this kind of musique mécanique does start with the musical performance of a musician. But nowadays, emphasis is placed on the type of mechanisation. A reproducing piano, for example, captures the performer’s key-presses onto paper tape as a series of start and stop instructions that can be read back by a suitably equipped piano to produce the originally intended sound by striking the appropriate strings at the appropriate time. By contrast, recording or broadcast technologies captured the sound waves produced by the musician’s instrument or voice, and turned them into mechanical or electrical impulses, to be scored on a shellac disc or transmitted by radio waves; they are read back by being used to excite a membrane in a loudspeaker or gramophone, to approximately recreate the pattern of sound waves heard at source.

When looking for music online, we are used to making a big distinction between audio recordings and MIDI files. A MIDI file is the digital equivalent of the reproducing piano’s paper tape; an audio recording is the digital equivalent of a gramophone record. I suppose a live stream is the digital equivalent of a radio broadcast.

But I like the distinction drawn implicitly by the Revue Musicale. All of this is mechanical; we are listening, not to an instrument manipulated by a person, but to a paper cone manipulated by an electrically-controlled magnet.

Music is fundamentally about communication, and the most interesting music is live, person-to-person, in an intimate venue. Even better if there is sharing or discussion between people rather than a one-way communication between a ‘musician’ and ‘listeners’. I am thinking more and more that audio recording is best considered alongside notation, written description, and other memory aids – a way to help us to make better music, live, face to face, with each other.