The End of the Little Bridge: Gesto’s setting – Part 1

Gesto’s setting of this battle tune presents rich opportunities for a creative artist. There are so many options! I find it alarming how quickly we become attached to one interpretation. What we come up with ourselves, or get from someone else, is only one of many possibilities. We quickly forget this, because pruning away pathways is how our brains work. Engaging with this setting helps us stay young.

Here is a recording that captures my decision-making process. It explains what I am currently moved to do and why, before I forget. I am still at the adolescent stage, pushing boundaries – in Part 2, my choices will be more settled. Before you listen, I suggest you open or print the experimental edition that I am working from:

This is destined for the Appendix of my PhD thesis, so I’d appreciate any critical feedback.

Gesto’s vocables are important because they are an honest, unedited reflection of how pipers sang. They represent a long tradition, capturing the vowels and consonants sung by Patrick Og’s grandson, Iain Dubh MacCrimmon, sometime before 1815. Twentieth-century audio recordings of people who learned their canntaireachd orally in the Western Isles differ remarkably little from Iain Dubh’s way of singing.

Gesto’s vocables are widely regarded as inferior to Campbell’s because they fail to encode pitch information with any accuracy. For example, we know from other sources that Iain Dubh sang the two vocables hininindo hininindo on different pitches, but this information is lost in Gesto’s transcription.

Colin Campbell addressed this problem by ‘cooking’ his vocables, altering spellings to encode pitch. The results do not reflect traditional canntaireachd. He seems to have been motivated to develop a scientific notation system, one that made the pitches clear for posterity. What this means is that, for anyone wanting to sing like Campbell or his teachers, Campbell’s notation is unreliable. It is a scribal invention. I have stopped calling it canntaireachd because this implies it was sung. It was not. His notation was born and bred on paper.

Gesto’s vocables are not only more trustworthy – a faithful document of how people sang – but they may be only one step away from the legendary master, Patrick Og. It is entirely possible that Iain Dubh learned his canntaireachd from his grandfather.


1 thought on “The End of the Little Bridge: Gesto’s setting – Part 1

  1. Glad to see you are active again Barnaby.
    Musically interesting but as ever with these sort of exercises based on what is purely the melody, I feel that there should at least be some sort of ‘nod’ towards how the proposed result would interact with the drones. Especially as at the time of Gesto’s work we know that many players still did not use the bass drone?
    It is indeed possible that Iain Dubh might have received his canntaireachd directly from Patrick Og, assuming that over time canntaireachd did not evolve phonetically just as spoken/sung language in general certainly did, but the exact chronology of the MacCrummen linage over that period is not as clear as usually taken for granted. On the other hand that ‘history’ of the tune given by Gesto and therefore the justification of it being a ‘battle tune’ is actually a complete historical mess and of very dubious worth.


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