Basically I prefer instrumental music. Singer / Song writer music is fine but it is instrumental music that, for me, is a distillation of the real magic and mystery of music. I particularly like jazz and at every jazz performance I come away wondering “how did they do that” and the answer always escapes me. Its magic.There are also classical performances that amaze me with their perfection. Glen Gould’s recordings of The Goldberg Variations I have listened to more times than I could possibly count and it still sounds as fresh as the first time I heard it. Instrumental Celtic music falls into that realm of magic and mystery where one forgets the beginning and the end and gets lost somewhere in the middle. A perfect example of what I am talking about is this performance by The Blackie O’Connell Band featuring Cyril O’Donoghue on Irish Bouzouki; Meabh O’Hare on Fiddle; Blackie O’Connell on Uillean Pipes and, off camera, Eamon Cotter on Flute. Why do Celtic performances, and this one in particular, appeal to me?
Well here are some of my observations:
- I like the tunes. Even some Irish citizens disparage the music as “diddly i-di-di music” and prefer more modern genres. I can see why some audiences, including my daughter in law, think that all the tunes sound the same. To begin with, to appreciate the tunes one needs to be able to hear the differences between the various dance forms – reels, jigs, slip jigs, mazurkas, hornpipes, marches, Strathspeys, highlands, slides, polkas, etc, and that requires a lot of exposure to the music over a long period of time. Being born into the tradition helps.
- I like the repetition of the tunes and the repetition within the tunes. Celtic instrumental music is dance music and dancers demand and expect predictable repetition. The basic format of a dance tune is an eight bar segment, Part A, that sometimes has a repeated four bar portion within the eight bars. The A part is usually repeated in total before moving onto the second B part that may, or may not be, similar to the A part. The B part is usually repeated and this can be followed by a C part with repeats or even a D part with repeats, depending on how many parts there are in the particular tune. So, the basic format of the tune is AA BB played two, three, or more times depending on the whim of the lead musician. If there are extra parts to the tune the format can be seen as AA BB CC DD etc also played as many times as the circumstance permits. The tunes in this example are in the AA BB format.
- I like the way musicians can string together a batch of similar or dissimilar tunes to create an extended performance into what can be heard as a seamless composition. For me the more tunes strung together and the longer the performance the better I like it. The idea is to create a musical grove. In this instances the tunes are The Mullingar Races , The Mountain Top and Lady Gordon. In this YouTube example the band kicks off with the first tune and plays the usual AA BB form of the tune until the Piper, Blackie O’Connell, gives a subtle nod to switch to the second tune. The Bouzouki player deftly slides the capo up to the fifth fret without missing a beat. I suspect that, for whatever reason, he wanted to keep playing a D chordal pattern as the band changed up to the Key of G and the way to do that was to slide the capo up the neck to the appropriate fret. On making the switch to the second tune the fiddle player gives Blackie a sly wink and a smile as she hits the tune in lock step with the other performers. And so the performance goes on until Blackie looks across to the flute player and the fiddle player and gives the nod for the change up to third tune. The Bouzouki player slides the capo back down the neck as every body makes a seamless switch to the new tune. The piper finally gives the nod for the end repeat and the run down to the finale.
- I like the lack of false theatrics. There are no flashing lights, fireworks, fog generators and gymnastic leaps around the stage. The musicians just play the music. Anything else is just unnecessary distractions.
- I like the fact that instrumental Celtic music is not guitar based. The guitar can have a place in the music but it is essentially in a secondary role. The predominant instruments tend to be strong melodic instruments like the fiddle, flute, accordion, harmonica, mandolin and Uillean pipes. This gives the music a sonority that is very different from the run of the mill pop music. In this performance I particularly like the “wailing” sound that comes with the blend of pipes, flute and fiddle. The guitar as a rhythm instrument is not present on this performance and has been replaced by the Irish Bouzouki. In other performances the Irish frame drum, the Bodhran, can add punch to the rhythm.
- In a jazz or classical music sense instrumental Celtic music may not sound as harmonically advanced. Although, that may be because the music is based on modal melodies and concepts and perhaps we just don’t hear what is happening in a conventional harmonic way. Any harmonic elements present are usually very simple. Bouzouki players, guitarists and piano players may enhance harmonic sensibilities by playing complementary bass lines and counter melodies and unison playing behind the featured melodic instruments.
- Melody is a prime component in this style of music and the melodies tend to have a flowing line with few gaps and significant spaces in the music. The exception to this generalization would be slow airs. Most Celtic melodies, but not all, do not readily lend themselves to improvised solo treatments and that may be the reason that when Bluegrass musicians play these melodies that just don’t sound Celtic. Bluegrass musicians just love to solo and that concept is largely foreign to Celtic music. Wide variations in the melody are not usual. There is a tendency to just play the melody as it is “written”. Having said that it must be understood that “written” versions of a tune may not reflect the actual way a tune exists in a particular performance. “Written” versions are just the scaffold of the tune on which to hang the performance and musicians will interpret the melody as they see fit.
- Rhythmically, depending on ones point of view, Celtic music is more varied. Most Jazz, Bluegrass and pop music is 4/4 in nature. Every now and then a waltz or a 12/8 blues shuffle will sneak in but the 1-2-3-4 beat is the rhythmic underpinning of most of our familiar music. Variety is provided by the use of “swing” and syncopation. Celtic music, like most ethnic based folkloric cultures seems to rely on eighth rhythms and triplets rather than standard four rhythms. 6/8, 7/8, 9/8 and various “dotted” rhythm syncopation co-exist along with the familiar 2/4 and 4/4 rhythms.
Having said all of the above. Nothing is cast in stone and like all rules they are there to be broken. In one form or another Celtic music has existed for hundreds of years and the reason it continues to exist is that each generation of performers literally re-invents the music. As the traditional fiddle player Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh of the Celtic band Altan has often mentioned in interviews “When I play a traditional tune I don’t play it the way my father played it. That would not be possible. I have been exposed to too many other musical influences to be able to do that”. That is why the music keeps evolving.
I hope you enjoy this YouTube clip.