Thursday, January 13, 2011

Since music has taken a lion's share of the topics here of late, I should probably post something else today. Then again, there's always tomorrow, and in the meantime, here's a rousing Quebecois set that's just as well heard sooner as later.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

While I'm On the Subject. . .

As I was rambling on last night it occurred to me that quite aside from any music Stevenson played himself, one could likely compose a decent paper on mentions of songs and tunes quarried out of his books. "The Bonnie House of Airlie," turned up more than once, and there was Alan Breck Stewart, bursting "with a great voice into a Gaelic song," after his defense of the roundhouse, or whistling "Hey, Johnnie Cope" by way of an insult--or to switch books entirely, what about "Fifteen men on a dead man's chest"? When I thought about it, I realized my delight in the discovery of the music archive I posted yesterday was caused less by a satisfying of historical curiosity and more because Stevenson, when he had occasion to work a bit of music into a story, wrote as though he appreciated both a good tune and the skill required to turn it out well. Well, yes, he was a writer of fiction and so could make his characters say whatever they ought, not necessarily what he was believing in his own mind, but he was, for my money, accurate on the subject and. . .aw, I'll just come out and say it. To borrow a word from Alan Breck, I'm unco fond of the piping bits--like that scene from Catriona where the selfsame Alan is describing how he passed his time while in hiding:

'And whiles I would make songs.'
'What were they about?' says I.
'O, about the deer and the heather,' says he, 'and about the ancient old chiefs that are all by with it long syne, and just about what songs are about in general. And then whiles I would make believe I had a set of pipes and I was playing. I played some grand springs, and I thought I played them awful bonny; I vow whiles that I could hear the squeal of them!'

Stevenson himself said, on the subject of writing: "The right kind of thing should fall out in the right kind of place; the right kind of thing should follow; and not only the characters talk aptly and think naturally, but all the circumstances in a tale answer one to another like notes in music. The threads of a story come from time to time together and make a picture in the web, the characters fall from time to time into some attitude to each other or to nature, which stamps the story home like an illustration."* In his own writing, such illustrations are far from lacking, but one of my lasting favourites is "In Balquhidder" from Kidnapped. If you click the beginning below, it should take you to a page where you can finish out the chapter and decide its merits for yourself. But a story stamped "home like an illustration," or no, the details are delightful--the picture of the two enemies nearly running into each other at the door, the descriptions of the playing, especially the "warblers," which would almost have to be crunluaths, by the details set out, even the remark: "And he had no thought but for the music," is a perfect summation of the effect of a piobaireachd. Not as visually memorable, but the bit where Alan and Robin are debating whether they should eat before playing is rich. . .or at least somehow it comes back to haunt you when you find yourself first up some chilly morning, in a solo competition with nothing more hearty than a cup of Arco coffee to encourage you: "I havenae broken bread for near upon ten hours..."

*"A Gossip on Romance" (1882)

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

'Ay, ye have music'

Some months ago--indeed, over a year ago, now, I mentioned that Robert Louis Stevenson (the same ubiquitous Stevenson) had a fondness for music, playing the flageolet and the piano. Here, however, is an impressive site that does a good deal more than mention it, having transcriptions of some of the tunes RLS wrote or collected. It requires a bit of scrolling, which is well worth it, especially on the home page where you can get a look at a jam session in the South Seas, including views of two French flageolets which seem to have very little finger room in relation to their size. (There was a copy of the same picture in the Stevenson Museum when I was there last month, and I did end up making several trips back and forth between it and Stevenson's (English-style) flageolet which was on display in the other room. I never did quite figure out how it worked; the fingering looked straightforward enough, but the keys were intimidating.)

Among the tunes in the index, one particularly worth mentioning is "Over the Sea to Skye," an old tune to which Stevenson penned a set of his own particularly wistful words. His lyrics are available at the bottom of the page, along with the useful trivia that "Over the Sea to Skye" (or "Skye Boat Song," if that's what your band calls it) is pentatonic (at least in the setting he used)--and why.

So there's your music theory for the day. Furthermore, the list includes several good old Scottish tunes, as well as some classical pieces that look rather intriguing--or if you are, like me, just an abyssmal piano player, there is company for the misery, a line from a letter Stevenson wrote to his cousin: "I can fish along with either hand pretty jolly, but on putting them together I become like Martha careful and troubled."

One bit of music which doesn't seem to appear on the site is the tune mentioned late in Kidnapped: "At first I proposed I should give him for a signal the 'Bonnie House of Airlie*,' which was a favourite of mine; but he objected that as the piece was very commonly known, any ploughman might whistle it by accident; and taught me instead a little fragment of a Highland air, which has run in my head from that day to this, and will likely run in my head as I lie dying. . ." One could, of course, assume that Stevenson had generously left the tune to the imagination of the reader which, perhaps, was exactly what he did at the time. However, when he got around to writing Catriona, he, went to the trouble of inserting a footnote in David Balfour's voice: "A learned folklorist of my acquaintance hereby identifies Alan's air. It has been printed (it seems) in Campbell's Tales of the West Highlands, Vol. II, p.91." Which, thanks to Google Books, is this:

*A tune which gets its own page here.

Monday, January 10, 2011


It's a little late in the morning to label the Shetland reels here as "wake up tunes," but they are pretty sprightly!

The company that posted this video, Foot Stompin' Records, is a great one-stop shop for Orkney, Shetland, and Scottish music (including Gaelic singing, and various sorts of fine piping), and their shipping prices and times were quite reasonable for overseas orders, the last I checked. If you do the Facebook thing, you can "follow" them there, and get snippets of the latest traditional music news and releases; they have an email newsletter as well.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Eighth of January

After all, it's not every date that has a tune named after it. I've always found this one a rather cheerful bit of music, even without the benefit of clever uke-work.

The end of this page has a charming, innovative, and unexpectedly stately version of the tune, arranged for fingerstyle guitar; in fact, the arranger was kind enough to put up the tabs as well, in case anyone doesn't have enough winter projects already.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Something Short of Spring

Least the profusion of new growth might seem a bit out of place for two days after Christmas--I hadn't come close to a quota of mushroom pictures when the sun iced over, turning the landscape monochrome, like a black-and-white shot in bad lighting. . .and four or five hours later, everything was under four inches of snow.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Happy Epiphany!

Well here it is the twelfth day of Christmas by some reckonings, and the day after the twelfth by others, and here is a great lack of commentary (thanks to me) and a very lovely picture (thanks to Wikipedia, where you can read more about it.) But really, did you ever see so many flowers in a Christmas picture? Or an angel, calmly cradling the Star of Bethlehem between his hands? I think you could search many a year and find no match for so much wonder filling so small a space.