This is an excerpted example of how Barnaby Brown and J David Hester work their way through an unfamiliar pibroch, struggling to understand history, tradition and expression.
Wellcome George (Failt Dherse Oig PS 55 – H.8).
There are 5 different versions: Campbell Canntaireachd, Hannay MacAuslan, Peter Reid, Donald MacDonald and Angus MacKay.
Start with Hannay MacAuslan:
Questions that come to mind: How do we phrase it? One-Four? Two-Four? Across two measures? What’s the rhythm? It looks pretty straight-forward, but what would be an expressive way to perform it?
First, we compare with Peter Reid. From his collection it is clear that he is making a serious, dedicated attempt to capturing the nuances of performance. It’s not that the others before him (Patrick MacDonald, Joseph MacDonald, Hannay-MacAuslan) haven’t tried. But the more of his manuscripts you peruse, the more you see him willing to break conventions of metered time in order to capture nuance.
Here is his version and our discussion:
No pauses. Phrases don’t rest on the fourth of the second measure, but on the third, keeping the tune moving forward. And Reid and Hannay-MacAuslan are pretty much identical.
But we still haven’t quite gotten to the heart of it. What is the feeling of the song? The structure is very simple:
It’s very repetitive, simple: potentially boring.
Okay. So we need to think about the variations, where the real musical effort lies. We need to start comparing the structures.
So, let’s put them side by side a bit.
Here’s Hannay-MacAuslan, which is similar to Peter Reid:
Here’s what we found:
Take a look:
And this is what impresses us:
This is important to embrace: Pibroch is improvisation, within structure, based upon mastery. Every notated pibroch is an effort to capture all the mastery that musicians at the time demonstrated. And eventually, a kind of pressure to standardize performance took place, where every improvised variation recorded for posterity became something that must be played. But that is not how it used to be.
Clearly, for competition purposes, expectations are set high. But for purposes of spontaneity and musicality? They may be even higher, but not necessarily in the same and most expansive way. We see this throughout the manuscript tradition prior to Angus MacKay.
Speaking of whom, let’s take a look at what he’s done:
Now, from a textual-history perspective, the more we explore, the more interesting the conclusions that the evidence begins to suggest.
Take a look from Donald MacDonald, and then listen to the conclusions that can be :
Returning to the reason for this exploration: the music and our interpretation – How should we approach the Urlar?
Here we begin to explore the musical depths:
As you can tell, this is pretty difficult. It is different than selecting a tune from the PS Books and listening to a few recordings. Because, after all, there are no recordings from the 18th century. You have to rely on your ability to read manuscript family trajectories, discern differences between families, interpolate unique expressions, and simply believe in your own ability as a musician to bring this music to life in a way most performers, competitors and teachers generally don’t understand.
Hope you found this interesting. And hope you appreciate just how difficult it is. But that is true of any music: figuring out how to get at the heart of what it’s trying to communicate and becoming a means of doing so.