Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Mouth Music, Part 3 (Did you see that coming?)

Puirt-a-beul (see yesterday's post) is the most standard style of singing Scottish dance tunes. It does, however, have a more specialized cousin, canntaireachd, (pronounced a bit like "Cawn-trock") which is used exclusively in singing pipe tunes, for the purpose of teaching or learning them. Like Irish lilting, canntaireachd does not use meaningful words, but the syllables employed are calculated to imitate the various embellishments one encounters in piping. Several standards for singing canntaireachd have survived down into our times, but given the tendency of any accomplished piper to choose vocables that best suit his taste, one wonders just how "standard" these methods were, even in their own time. The Campbell style is the one in widest use today, always easy to reference in the publications of the Piobaireachd Society.

A very important aspect of the Campbell canntaireachd is the one-to-one correspondence between the notes played and the notes sung. For example, if the canntaireachd is sung, "a," the piper would know to play a D note. If, however, the sung syllable is "ha," the player remembers to add a G gracenote before playing the D note. (Again, note this is mostly in theory; a good many of the pipers who use canntaireachd fluently are more interested in singing the tune than reserving each phrase for only one purpose. )

Canntaireachd was invaluable in the days before pipe music began to be written down. At that time, pipers did not play ceol beag; it was all piobaireachd. Even today, canntaireachd is given a particular emphasis in the teaching of piobaireachd. The method not only aids in memorization, but gives a piper an extra degree of feeling for the music that will (hopefully) be transfered to his performance on the pipes.

Here, then, is a bit of Campbell canntaireachd, as it would be applied a piobaireachd. The singer is Barnaby Brown; the tune "My Dearest on Earth, Give Me Your Kiss."

The fact that canntaireachd was the traditional means for conveying piobaireachd, however, has not hindered it in becoming a very useful means for learning, expounding, or discussing light music. An accomplished piper tends to slip into it as though it is an extension of his own language. "Watch that hin o che, hin o che," the pipe major will caution, "You're running away with it. A little more hin."

For some reason canntaireachd recordings of light music seem to be quite rare, a circumstance which might serve, to an observer, only to downplay the taken-for-granted relationship between singing and piping. However, over at the Scottish Arts Council's website, you can listen to Rona Lightfoot singing some strathspeys and a reel (deviously, it's the link marked Canntaireachd on that page).

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