We've selected two slip jigs as this term's core tunes! We'll look forward to hearing these at our end of term concert in April. There's plenty of time to get practising!
As always, try to learn these by ear since the notations always differ.
Over the last few months I have had the opportunity to delve deeply into Irish music in all of its different forms as part of my studies in Queen's University. My listening has ranged between both older and newly composed tunes to sean-nós style songs, and from ballad singing of the 1950s to the revival bands of the 1970s and beyond. This has helped me build upon the knowledge of traditional music that I developed by taking the fiddle workshops with Belfast Trad in early 2016.
I recently had the opportunity to perform as part of my assessment at Queen's and my group's programme included a number of contrasting pieces. In this blog I'll mention two that were of particular interest to me. Firstly, I performed a song named 'Bríd Óg Ní Mhaille' as my solo piece. This song tells a dramatic story of heartbreak. Its slow tempo, captivating melody and beautiful Irish lyrics intrigued me as a singer. The decision to include this in my programme was not a difficult one. The version that I believe communicates this song best is Altan's version, and is sung by Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh. Altan's version of the song can be found here:
Along with a translation of the lyrics:
Is a Bhríd Óg Ní Mháille Oh Bríd Óg O'Malley
'S tú d'fhág mo chroí cráite You have left my heart breaking
'S chuir tú arraingeacha You've sent the death pangs
An bháis fríd cheartlár mo chroí Of sorrow to pierce my heart sore
Tá na céadta fear i ngrá A hundred men are craving
Le d'éadan ciúin náireach For your breathtaking beauty
Is go dtug tú barr breáchtacht' You're the fairest of maidens
Ar Thír Oirghiall más fíor In Oriel for sure
Níl ní ar bith is áille No spectacle is fairer
Ná'n ghealach os cionn a' tsáile Than moonbeams on the harbor
Ná bláth bán na n-airne Or the sweet scented blossoms
Bíos ag fás ar an draighean Of the sloe on the thorn
Ó siúd mar bíos mo ghrá-sa But my love shines much brighter
Níos trilsí le breáchtacht In looks and in stature
Béilín meala na háilleacht That honey-lipped beauty
Nach ndearna riamh claon Who never said wrong
Another part of our programme that I thoroughly enjoyed is modern tune named Michael McGoldrick's Jig, named after the virtuosic flute and whistle player Michael McGoldrick. The resources for this tune are limited, making it a little more difficult to learn and even more so to investigate its origins and composer. Below is a version of sheet music for this jig:
Here is a video of a young band playing this tune (in a different key than D Major):
Studying this subject in depth has opened up a new realm of musical intrigue from all different aspects of the tradition. I'd encourage anybody, whether you're studying this subject or are a casual traditional musician, to always challenge yourself to discover more about the music you're engaging with!
I recently complete a performance exam as part of my studies at Queen's University, displaying what I had learnt throughout the term. The ensemble I performed with included myself on flute, a whistle, a banjo and a guitar and we playedfour sets of tunes and one song which lasted around 20 minutes in total. Below I will discuss one of the tunes I found the most enjoyable to learn and perform.
Brian Finnegan’s The Ravishing Genius of Bones (Singing Tree Music, 2010)
The first solo release from Armagh-born whistle and flute player Brian Finnegan, The Ravishing Genius of Bones, is a brilliant exponent of contemporary performance practices in traditional music. The album draws on many different musical influences (from Irish group Flook to Russian rock group Aquarium) and combines them with a beautiful and virtuosic instrumental technique. It consists largely of newly composed tunes by Finnegan himself as well as other musicians, such as Damien O’Kane (‘Castlerock Road’ from Track 6).
‘Marga’s’ (Track 3) is the tune we played for our performance. Labelled a slip jig, which is the dance type written in a 9/8 time signature, this tune is actually written in the unique time signature of 7/8. At first the timing may seem a bit strange and uncertain but after a bit of careful listening and playing the really enjoyable character should come out.
The first recording I suggest listening to is by Brian Finnegan himself with William Coulter on guitar. In this live performance we can get a grasp of the melody, which is quite simple with little ornamentation. Although the techniques which Finnegan does include, such as notes bends and slides, can be heard very clearly. William Coulter has provided a range of guitar accompaniment, firstly by doubling the melody line in unison and then with each repeat of the tune his playing becomes more strummed with chordal accompaniment.
Another interest performance, again by Finnegan and Coulter, shows how the tune can be played around with and arranged in a way to suit the ensemble. This version starts with Coulter playing the melody on solo guitar with Finnegan accompanies on the flute with percussive techniques. Then Finnegan takes over the melody on the flute with Coulter providing plucked harmony on the guitar. Further into the performance Finnegan has some fun with the tune and improvises a little over the chordal accompaniment, which may be an interesting approach to those with experience in contemporary music or improvising!
One thing to note is that in the first recording Finnegan is playing an F whistle so unless you are also playing on an F whistle it is impossible to play along. For the purpose of playing along on a D instrument, I recommend the second recording in which Finnegan is playing the flute.
BelfastTrad is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, and this autumn we are highlighting dance. What better way to get moving, make friends, get out and have fun?
Here is what BelfastTrad has for you:
Three full levels of old style/sean nós solo step on Monday nights at Rosemary Hall with our tutors, Jonathan McCloy, Berni Corr and Bernie Graham. Beginners at 6:30, Intermediate at 7:00 and Advanced at 7:30. Classes Start Monday, September 11th. Enrol for old style/sean nós dance classes online. For sets, just pay per night at the door.
Meet Your Feet! A beginners' taster session in sean nós dance for all ages with the wonderful Edwina Guckian who has been teaching up a storm throughout Ireland with her group, Sean Nós ar an tSionann, and a follow-up workshop for those who have a bit of dance experience.
September 24th at Rosemary Hall.
And don't forget our Monday evening set dancing. 8:30-10:00, Called by Tim Flaherty. New to set dancing or would like to brush up your skills? Come at 8:00pm for a free half hour class for beginners. Again, our set dancing classes are FREE to under 21s!. £4 per class, £3.50 for BelfastTrad Society members (membership available at door).
Playing Irish music is much more than just learning the mechanics of your instrument and practice what your teacher gives you. The mistake that many students make, even at advanced level, is to not spend enough time listening to music away from classes and sessions. While we learn a significant amount from playing music, a whole other realm of understanding is opened up through careful listening. Think of it like learning a language: we can memorise lists of vocab, grammar and syntax, but until we travel to a place where the language is spoken and hear the local dialect and accent, we can never become truly fluent. Throughout the 2016-17 academic year, I'll be attempting to introduce you to some of the key recordings that can help you develop not only your repertoire, but your wider understanding of the music we play.
Matt Molloy, Tommy Peoples, Paul Brady (Mulligan LUN 017, 1978; reissued as Green Linnet GLCD 3018, 1985).
The name of this seminal album speaks for itself: three of the greatest interpreters of the Irish tradition brought together in one breathtaking recording, among the most influential of the revival era. Molloy, Peoples, Brady (its' more commonly known by the shortened title) is important for three key reasons:
a) it's one of the first duet/trio albums which contains heavily-strummed guitar accompaniment
b) it's as close to a 'hit parade' as any Irish music recording has ever come
c) it captures all three performers in a glorious light, as the peak of their powers
On the first of these, if you're new to Irish music, it might be reasonable to assume that the guitar, and accompaniment in general, has been ever-present in the tradition. This is not really the case, and so it's important to view Brady's playing on the album as pioneering, particularly in the right hand. On the subject of Brady, one of the highlights of the album is his unaccompanied song 'The Shamrock Shore' (no, not that one) which adds an entirely different level of drama to the recording. Here is him singing the song on another occasion:
Secondly, this is a fabulous recording to pick apart if you're trying to build your repertoire. The first set, known as Matt Peoples nos. 1 & 2, were supposedly composed by Tommy and Matt for the recording, putting a combination of their names on each of them. This a now a standard set throughout the Irish music world and is not too tricky to pick up. Listen to them performing the tunes unaccompanied and the compare this to the first track of the recording. See which you prefer:
Of the following 13 sets of tunes, perhaps only three or four individual tunes remain outside of the modern canon, including Peoples' solo setting of 'The Rambling Pitchfork' is somewhat out of the blue, with his final phrase of the B part a virtuosic flourish that few try to emulate (fiddlers in particular listen out for the repetition of the 'Peoples triplet' in this phrase).
Finally, the sheer life and joy expressed in the recording allows us to glimpse three virtuosi blending together seamlessly, something that is not always easily achieved when musicians have such distinct individual styles. Molloy's flowing and highly ornamented playing is contrasted with the more staccato approach of Peoples, who clearly plays more 'on the edge' than in his solo recordings of the same era.
One thing to be aware of in listening is that, while the pace may sound completely beyond the skills of a learner, the recording has been sped-up by a fraction. This also results in the instruments sounding at a higher pitch than they sounded in reality. The album was recorded in the key of E flat, which means that the fiddle strings were all tuned up a half-tone (G= Aflat, D=E flat, A=B flat, E=F). The recording was then adjusted up a further quarter tone, so it sounds much higher in pitch than other recordings of traditional music (for those of you familiar with LPs, think of the difference between adjusting your speed dial between 33rpm and 45rpm modes).
So get your hands on a copy of this recording. It's essential listening and will help you not only pick up tunes that other learners will know, but improve your general understanding of how the music evolved and changed through the making of recordings and the arrival on the scene of a generation of musicians who took traditional music to a new level of performance practice.