Cycle and Motion

In place of the word variation, I use the word cycle in order to drop unhelpful cultural baggage generally attached to the idea of variation. I’d define a pibroch cycle as the fundamental unit of memorisation – the essential idea or framework from which the rest of the piece is generated. It is usually laid out in the Urlar and often corresponds to a single statement of a measure (e.g. 11OO1O11).

I use measure here in its medieval Welsh sense: a binary pattern of phrases and counter phrases, or sonorities and counter sonorities – elements of harmonic tension (B and low G) and resolution (A and C). Such measures were popular harmonic procedures, ones that enjoyed wide currency, both facilitating music making and catalysing musical enjoyment – much like an 8-bar blues. A measure is something shared by many works, although it may be well hidden by more crafty composers. In pibroch, a melodic theme may or may not be built on a measure, and measures can give rise to music that is more textural than tuneful.

So, in this usage, the Urlar is one cycle and what our transcribers call the “1st Variation” is the second cycle. In modern editions of pibroch, the cycles are numbered consecutively using roman numerals. Why not use the word ‘movements’ for these basic units of structure? The answer is that it would introduce ambiguity: ‘movement’ is probably the clearest translation of ludh – found in the pibroch terms Ludh na h-òrdaig, Ludh Sleamhuinn, Taoludh, Crunnludh – and these finger movements typically encompass more than one cycle (e.g. Singling and Doubling).

For these groups of cycles, I find it helpful use the word motion in the same sense as Colin Campbell when he writes “First Motion” or “Second Motion” – translating the Gaelic term Siubhal. In this usage, a motion refers to the whole section of music between restatements of the Urlar. So, a motion may consist of anything between 1 and 6 cycles. Why not use the word cycle for this larger-scale revolution? I have two reasons: first, Colin Campbell gives us a lovely word for the larger revolution (motion); and secondly, these larger revolutions have less stability and regularity – particularly with restatements of the Urlar being dropped in the 19th century – and the word cycle suggests regularity.

So, to summarise –  a Taoludh Singling is one cycle, but a Taoludh Singling and Doubling is one motion. Distinguishing between and identifying with these concepts of cycle and motion – or micro and macro levels of musical structure – brings us into closer sympathy with this remote musical craft. It’s like day and night, high tide low tide, full moon new moon, summer winter: a musical embodiment of natural cycles that today we are much less in touch with than the men and women who shaped this tradition.

Many natural cycles are irregular – like heartbeat, in-breath out-breath, wind no-wind, sunshine rain, high spirits low spirits, good summer bad summer, birth death. Some of the best music in this tradition, I suggest, embodies these irregularities too. That’s where the association between pibroch and the form “Theme and Variations”  is counterproductive to high-level music making.  A moving performance and an enduring composition somehow plumb the depth and breadth of human experience. Pibroch used to be fundamentally more sophisticated than your average Theme and Variations, with multiple cycles spinning at different speeds. My contention is that it has become more stereotypical and trivial through Highland pipers’  use of the word Variation, on account of the preconceptions which that word imports from the lighter, popular music of Handel, Mozart and countless lesser composers.


8 thoughts on “Cycle and Motion

  1. Being relatively “new” to piobaireachd, I find the articles/posts etc here quite interesting (though admittedly, I am often left confused with some of the opinions expressed).
    The statement “That’s where the baggage in the word variation is counterproductive to high-level music making.”, leaves me scratching my head.
    Why on Earth would using the term “variation” be counter-productive to being able to produce music (at any level)?

    1. The problem with Variations, generally, is slavish adherence to the theme – the idea that if you depart from the theme it is “wrong”. We see this in Angus MacKay’s emendations of inherited material and in his father John MacKay’s compositions. This restricted idea of “Variation” has exerted a progressively stronger grip on pibroch, destroying confidence to transform the opening material beyond recognition and leading to vandalism – adventurous music being squeezed to fit the basic idea of variation form rather than allowed to be rhapsodic, going unpredictably where the spirit blows it.

      So, I find Variation counterproductive because I see it stifling creativity, both in 19th-century sources and in contemporary pibroch compositions, resulting in music of lower quality and stature. Perhaps I need to distinguish between variation as an extremely general compositional technique, and the specific musical form “Theme and Variations” as used by Handel and Mozart. Pibroch is an example of variation technique; what I find helpful to discard is the association between pibroch and “Theme and Variations”.

      Joseph MacDonald was perfectly familiar with the term Variation and used many English and Italian technical terms in his treatise. But he chose to use “Running” instead of “Variation”, I suggest because the Variations he knew as a violinist behaved differently to the Runnings he knew as a piper.

      Of course, Variation has a broader sense that encompasses most music-making on planet earth. But do we call Jazz standards Variations? Jazz goes round in cycles, taking listeners on an adventure, departing and returning like a pibroch. Cycle too has a broader sense that is useful in pibroch, which is cyclic on multiple levels.

      These words all have different meanings in different contexts and flexibility is crucial – my post above is a symptom of writing a thesis and having to be unusually precise with language!

  2. The word “cycle” doesn’t suggest room for irregularity to me, sort of the opposite, although the examples given of irregularity are natural descriptions that do not necessarily reflect a “return”. Since some feel “variation” may be steeped in a tradition to be suspect or outright discarded, perhaps “stage” would present an element that does not imply a return within a return system, and allows any musical expression to be displayed without suggestion of neat packaging or forced reflective phrasing that has constrained the expansion of free movement adrift of the urlar. The only drawback would be the suggestion that a single excised stage could musically stand on its own just as much as a “motion” could. Perhaps that’s not such a bad thing.

    1. Good points. It depends on how we conceptualise the thing that is cycling around. Is it detailed, composed of pitches (surface level)? Or is it more abstract, composed of bigger blocks of pitches that have been fused in our thinking to form phrases or tonal contrasts (substructure)?

      The pibroch sources, as I understand them, show that a substructural idea was much more what pipers had in mind when this music was in oral transmission. That simpler essence can remain intact – preserved from cycle to cycle – and yet produce music that sounds utterly different, impossible even for aficionados to hear the connection. Pibroch composers evidently liked teasing their listeners, mystifying them – it was part of their craft! This is what is different to Variation in the 18th-century and 19th-century sense (variations by Handel, Mozart, Beethoven, Rachmaninov). As soon as notation gets involved, the focus of the musician’s brain shifts from substructure to surface level. That’s why Jazz is more similar to pibroch than variations in Classical Music – jazz musicians’ eyes are on an essential lead sheet (or nothing at all), not on 100s of notes.

      The medieval Welsh evidence is revealing. They called the equivalent units of structure a “branch” (cainc) and it is from Welsh sources of music theory (1480-1650) that I take the term “Measure” for the mental conception of what it is that remains intact as the music travels on its journey in cyclic fashion. Writing in Welsh, they spelled it mesur, and there was a syllabus of 24 measures (see Of course, in US English, that introduces a second level for Measure – quicker revolutions every bar, slower revolutions every 11O1 OO1O (branch, measure, running, variation, cycle – at least 5 words to choose from here!). Measure and hyper-measure? Cycle and hyper-cycle?

      I like the idea of having multiple levels of Measure (fast and slow) and multiple levels of Cycle (fast and slow). For slow cycles, we know the Gaelic term was Siubhal (Motion). Was there a Gaelic term for fast cycles, or variations? If Roderick Cannon is correct, suggesting that “Running” is also a translation of Siubhal in his 1994 edition, then perhaps Siubhal was used for both types of cycle – fast and slow.

  3. Yeah. I was wondering about how counter-intuitive or counter-productive the term “variation could be.

    Maybe it’s a matter of expanding, rather than replacing the vocabulary. After all, our “variations” can tend to be grouped into particular types. And the term “cycle” reminds us that Urlar returns were the norm (and their loss represents a fundamental redefinition of the experience of the idiom).

    1. If a suggestion of cyclical return is implied, I could see “cycle” used for what Barnaby defines as “motions” between urlar and refrain. Perhaps we should go back to using “fingers”. :)

      1. I think Fingers are very helpful and wonder if the MacCrimmons kept time on their fingers in the same way that Indian classical musicians do, moving their left thumb from finger to finger (four fingers, from index to little) and joint to joint (four joints, from finger tip to palm), in order to keep track of where they are in a 16-unit cycle. Indian musicians are also masters of hyper-metrical structures, so complexities such as superimposing 6+6+4 over 4+4+4+4 are well within the bounds of reasonable expectation given the similarly long apprenticeships and high status associated with the teaching lineages.

        A lot of this is about restoring orality, or at least increasing our sensitivity to and respect for its phenomena.

        I’d like to thank everyone who has commented for helping me to clarify my ideas and my writing – I have revised the post above and further comments are most welcome!

  4. This is very good Barnaby, but I like the flexibility of not being tied down to specific terminology for specific things.

    Aren’t there some examples in cerdd dant, where one cainc contains what looks like a singling and doubling?

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