Pibroch on the Hardanger fiddle

Yesterday, Delphian Records released the CD counterpart to my PhD thesis: Spellweaving. The experimental rehearsals for this were a source of deep joy. I was sharing pibroch with two wonderful musicians who were receptive, supremely capable and from whom I had much to learn. It was an invigorating two-way exchange from which I emerged wiser and my thesis stronger and clearer.

We had time to experiment and test-drive ideas, pushing each other’s boundaries, thanks to support from UK tax payers through the Arts and Humanities Research Council. Rehearsals were spread out over a 16-month period. In these meetings, sympathetic musical cultures came into conversation, creative sparks flew and something new was born.

The two weightiest results were Bill Taylor’s Cumha Mhic Leòid (PS 135) on Highland clarsach [15:35] and Clare Salaman’s Cruinneachadh nan Sutharlanach (PS 72) on Hardanger fiddle [14:54]. Last year, I published a rehearsal recording by Bill with my detailed feedback notes. Today, I’d like to share the corresponding notes I sent to Clare – feedback on her last rehearsal recording before we met in the studio to make the CD. Impressively, she took on board every one of my points with only four days to go!

Here is the score I prepared for her.  This is my distillation of notations by Colin Campbell (1797) and Peter Reid (1826) into something easier for a fiddle player to read, exercising some artistic judgement and synthesising a range of evidence. Many other interpretations are possible.

Here is an excerpt from the recording Clare made in Huddersfield on 8 June 2015 (released yesterday) – the 1st Motion and the 2nd Ùrlar:

This brings to fruition my feedback notes below with superlative artistry. I have revised the track timings to correspond with the released recording: timings in black refer to the whole CD track; timings in amber to the excerpt above.

I hope this documentation of our rehearsal process encourages others to build on our experiments, to develop new approaches, and above all to increase the quality of interaction between pibroch specialists and the rest of the world – performers and audiences.

Feedback sent to Clare Salaman on 4 June 2015

I. Ùrlar (0:06)

Perfect tempo. Lovely shaping. Could you lean expressively on some of the little streams to A, as you do on the streams to higher pitches? Be sure to sound the double beats (two taps) strongly – perhaps give them a little more time and weight, so we just perceive the pitch. Rhetorically, raise them up a rank.

II. First Motion Single (2:40, 1:33)

I suggest a faster tempo, noticeably up a notch from the Ùrlar. Let the sense of ‘Gathering’ begin here. Joseph MacDonald wrote in 1760:

Joseph MacDonald’s treatise (c. 1760), folio 22r

The Gatherings … consist chiefly of Allegros diversified with very curious Cuttings, & Different Time also. These are the most animating of Pipe Compositions, as they were originally intended to assemble the Highlanders under their respective Chiefs upon any emergency & indeed they answerd the Purpose being very well adapted for it. Every Chief had a Gathering for his Name, which are So full of Life and Fury that no Musick can be more animating.

III. First Motion Double (4:36, 2:47)

This is where, I suggest, we first get a sense of “Life and Fury” – but save some gunpowder and bravado for the Taoludh Double.

Be particularly careful to open out the first ornament of every cycle – make it the focus of your attention. Slow the first time, under the magnifying glass, then gradually relax and loosen. The intelligence in the timing of the ornament stays awake, a prime source of expression. You can afford to open them a fraction, so the grace notes are more palpable to the ear. A few are lost through tightness, getting crushed. Better too open when practising – they will ripple beautifully when you let go or the adrenalin flows in performance.

IV. Ùrlar (6:23, 4:43)

Expressive weight on the first grace note of some of the opening runs would be lovely, wherever takes your fancy. No need to fix this: it’s a way of making the 3 Ùrlaran different, your inner sentiment coming through. Playful. Hear every note in those runs, they are a prime source of expressive nuance.

8:19, 5:12 Make more of Campbell’s D here (and when it returns, at 17:06). Maybe give it a run or an ornament? Or just more anticipation and length – unveil it with ceremony.

V. Taoludh Single (8:54)

Allegro please, two notches up from the Ùrlar: this is the call to assembly. I feel you could be more airy, off the string, at the ends of phrases. Give the Single more dynamic variation, saving that intense, sustained drone sound for the Double.

12:55 Really drive those four Bs. Menacing. Threatening. Far distant in feel from the Ùrlar. A call to arms, tinged with excitement and foreboding.

VI. Taoludh Double

To achieve the faster tempo, shorten the melody note, don’t speed up the finger movement. Keep it lovely and open, with intelligence in its internal timing. Take special care to open out the grace notes in the first finger movement of the cycle (Single and Double).

VII. Ùrlar

The joy of coming home will be more intense when you’ve travelled further away, to a very different place energetically and emotionally.

Don’t over-do the rallentando at the end – a strong sense of ending can be conveyed without it and the archive recordings of Gaelic tradition bearers suggest this wasn’t part of the style. Think nobility. Dignified restraint. Less is more.


3 thoughts on “Pibroch on the Hardanger fiddle

  1. A splendid achievement, and superlative illustration of what ‘reclaiming’ means in this tradition. It reminds me that the Western Isles, as well as the eastern lands north of Inverness, were part of Norway until 1266, when they were ceded to the Crown of Scotland, and Gaelic began to replace Norse in these areas. It seems possible that echoes of Norse music may have survived and influenced that which replaced it, including Pibroch; and perhaps this will encourage a search of Norwegian traditional music for some of these traces.

    (Elements of previous Norse occupation include place-names (Boreraig – from Borve = burg = fort) and personal names ( Somerled = Summer Soldier, MacLeod, MacAulay, MacSween, etc. Genetic evidence also supports this.)

  2. I bought the CD and have enjoyed listening to it. The notes are very interesting as well, although I need a magnifying glass to read them because the typeface is so small. LP’s are making a comeback because the sound is warmer, and the canvas of the larger format makes projects like this easier to read. This recording, like the Canntaireachd Project (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M5T7RMiRBHU), gives me hope for the future. In the mean, go forth and conquer.

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