Interpreting Primary Source Manuscripts – Part 11

In general, there are a number of approaches to be taken with respect to the lessons these manuscripts and scores bring to us. Particularly when it comes to performance and interpretation:

Many of you may wish to perform a particular setting.

In a competition environment, it is important to bring a copy of the setting with you to hand to the judge.  You may feel it important to be as “true” to the score as possible by playing a “literal” interpretation that can help the judge assess your performance, because you play according to the exact notation on the score.  You will play the cadences as written, the crahinin as written, and attempt the light (half-grip) or full (redundant-A) style of taorluaths and crunluaths.   You will stick to the notes on the page, giving them the values as they appear on the score.

Maybe this will sound good.

Maybe it won’t.

When the judge gives you hesitant (or even negative) feedback, you will assume it is because they don’t understand.  You may be right.  But you may be wrong, too.  It is just possible that the “literal” performance you offered is musically quite dull, in point of fact.  It is also possible that your blowing isn’t steady, your instrument doesn’t sound good, and your technique isn’t up to snuff.  But you are committed to performing something “different” and “authentic”.  Just remember: a judge may not know the score, and, more importantly, does not like how well you are performing it.

Because you have done something different, and they reject it, doesn’t mean they are wrong.  They may be arrogant, dismissive, defensive.  But ultimately, YOU have to play the tune well, and have to play it thoughtfully and persuasively.  It is hard being different, esp. in an aesthetic environment that prides itself (somewhat too assertively) as “maintaining a tradition”.

Some of you may wish to go back to a core Gaelic song tradition and start from there.

It is extremely musical.  It is memorable.  It is extraordinarily convincing.  But it requires a deep knowledge of the roots of pibroch tunes and a level of musicality not many of have attained.

Audiences are usually very open to this, and appreciate the ease with which they come to understand the structure of the tune and experience the innate beauty of pibroch.

Judges (and fellow competitors) on the other hand are typically overwhelmed by the freedom of the choices you are making in your performance.  It is often well outside of their experience, of their own “tradition”.  They look at it is “wild”, “revisionist”, perhaps even “chaotic” and wonder how they could possibly judge such a performance.  You are putting them at a disadvantage in some ways.

We all like to think we can draw from our own experiences and judge aesthetic encounters objectively, particularly when we can point to a tradition of interpretation. When something new comes around, it is difficult for us to know what to do.  Imagine experiencing that when being put in a position of determining whether someone wins hundreds of dollars (or quids): it feels indefensible somehow to justify such a decision.

As a performer or competitor, you will have to accept that reaction, live with it.  But you will also grow as a musician, and may eventually leave the competition arena behind, because what is most important to you is not whether you can convince a judge of your performance, but whether you can pursue the music itself in its deep cultural context and keep it alive.

Some of you may be searching for recovering as authenticate an experience of the music as possible.

You seek out the deep roots of our music, exploring connections across time and distance.  You may wish to recreate instruments, interpret ancient texts, engage in reconstruction.  It may take you into realms of history, or historical cultural anthropology.  You are not interested in competition – you are interested in understanding the deep roots of music and musical tradition that can be found across cultures and centuries.

You will come across to those interested in winning competitions or in supporting a current approach to pibroch as “interesting” and “informative”.  You will be respected for your creative efforts. You also run the risk of being received as a performing in a hypothetical style so far removed from today’s tradition that few of your fellow pipers or competitors or judges would follow you.  They will deeply respect you as someone with a great deal of knowledge, but won’t understand how to bring it into their own playing.

Interestingly, however, public audiences will find your work utterly fascinating and compelling.  Because you will be tapping into a deeply human core, one that digs into the prehistoric and pre-cognitive parts of ourselves.  And the music will resonate in

Some of you may wish to take an “archaeological” approach.  

You bring the sensitivity of your awareness of what the primary sources show about a tune, and choose to respect the scores as they stand.  However, you are less interested in performing in a literal way than approaching it as more of an informed reading of the material.

You will approach each score with respect, allowing its distinctive interpretation to come to the fore. But you know that what is written needs to be made alive by your own musical insights.  You will know that not all crahinin are identical rhythmically.  You will understand that cadences are embellishments that may be written one way, but musically can be played in another.  You will explore the idea that different genres and imagined social contexts demand different approaches, different (and more-than-subtle) tempos.

You will have to balance the needs for musicality with the desire to allow the score to be heard for its own musical insights.  The results will remain foreign both to you and to your audiences (and judges and fellow competitors), but will also be musical and expressive.

Because you will have understood that every score is something that needs to come alive and wants to be heard. It requires interpretation. It needs rubato and expression. It demands that you put something of yourself into it.

And yet, each score will be different, allowing both you and your audiences to appreciate those differences and learn from them.

Many of you will explore the primary sources and decide that today’s style is more comfortable and somehow prettier for you.

The more power to you.  You will have made a journey through history. You will have exposed your self to a variety of different scores, different transcribers, different interpretations that span temporality and geography.

And you will bring a deeper understanding and a more informed choice to every performance you make, no matter what you do.  You will begin to shape your expression based on a better appreciation of what, exactly, these powerfully expressive movements and phrases are capable of bringing to a tune.

And as a result, contribute to the ongoing and very promising future of our art form.


2 thoughts on “Interpreting Primary Source Manuscripts – Part 11

  1. Interesting analysis. Don’t you think there’s a bit of each in everybody?

    But also, I still remain amazed that a piece like this can mention “judges” and “competitions” more than “audiences” and “concerts”. I feel like I have stumbled into a sporting discussion not a musical one.

  2. That is an entirely fair comment, regarding the focus on competitions.  I plead guilty, and can only say that we, at the APC, are looking into ways by which we can begin funding alternative paths by which our art can be encountered by the public.  We are just not ready yet to do so.

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