Sunday, July 9, 2017

Hearing Double - 2

Here is a classic sea chantey that I've been meaning to post for ages. The phrase "cold Kamchatka sea" gives me chills no matter the arrangement, but Spiers & Boden's take on it seems to bring the bleakness to the forefront--pleasantly so, when you're sitting safe at home and dreaming of cooler weather.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Hearing Double - 1

This blog does tend to be a bit heavy on music these days, now that you mention it! Perhaps I will manage a bit more variety before too much more time has passed, but in the meantime, I wanted to catch up on a project that's been on my mind for quite some time. Some of the performances that have most delighted me over the last few years have been the work of duos. For the most part, I'm partial to small ensembles over large ones, preferring discrete threads of melody and countermelody to lush soundscapes; certainly two is the smallest of small ensembles! The next few posts, then, will feature recordings and videos of just two musicians at a time.

 Today's offering is a favorite of mine. "Fead an Iolair," or "The Eagle's Whistle," quickly became my go-to tune on both pipes and fiddle after I heard it in the video below. If somebody springs up with a demand, "Play us something," the first thing that pops into my head is usually this little march. There is something in me that revels in the repetition of the structure and of the notes--a complicated tune it is not, but I find it most delightful.

 All the more delightful, of course, as presented here by Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh  and Dan Trueman. The video is a great addition since you can then see some details of the instruments they are playing. The "fiddles" are crosses between Scandinavian hardanger instruments, and the Baroque viola d' amore. So many sympathetic strings, that perhaps, on reflection, I should have counted this as a quartet, rather than a duo.

The voice of the hardanger d'amore has, to me, an exquisite icy quality, something akin to the first glimmer of dawn on a winter morning. Trueman and Ó Raghallaigh use it to excellent advantage on their album Laghdú, which might be an exercise in the claim, attributed to Mozart: "The music is not in the notes, but in the silence between." You can listen to the entire thing on Bandcamp, and, if you like, buy mp3's there. While the style is, in general much more experimental than what I'm used to, it stands as a spectacular reminder that non-traditional is not always equivalent to uncongenial in music. Or, to get straight to the point: I like this album.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

One Can Sympathize

"Life of the party" was probably not an accusation that was often directed toward J.M. Barrie or A.E. Houseman.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Mnemonic, in Ballad Form

Yesterday I had the treat of a customer who preferred to speak Spanish. This only happens just often enough so that my own small share of Spanish is thoroughly rusted over again since its last use--but oh! it makes my day every time I'm allowed to try it! In this case, I was trying to explain how to put a string on a guitar which, fortunately for the customer, was a mostly visual explanation. But there were bits where I needed to scrape up a word, as, I thought, when explaining the necessity of leaving some slack in the string to be wound up around the capstan. I was lost entirely trying to come up with a Spanish equivalent of "slack," but at the notion of winding round, something began to crawl up from the depths of my memory.

And there it was--a mental picture of a steer fleeing into the distance. Around its horns was a rope, and from the rope, tied fast, a saddle was dragging across the teeth of the rocky ground. And as if captioning the picture the timeless advice: "Always take dally weltas, boys, that's California law. . ."

"Vuelta," came with great confidence.

Yes, if my conversation was any clearer, it was thanks to a snippet of a song I first read when I was probably about 12. I don't know that I ever thought it a particularly notable song but for the detail that Texas cowboys tended to tie their ropes fast to the saddle horn when roping, whereas the vaquero-influenced Californians would dar la vuelta, wind the loose end around the horn only after having settled the working end on a steer. In English, the phrase eventually wore down into dally welta, or more simply, dally. At least that is what I recall from whichever book printed this cautionary tale in verse. Younger me was, I am sure, much more interested in the pros and cons of whether one is wise to tie fast to a saddle or not.

I don't think I ever heard the song sung until the Internet Radio age. Looking for an example to show here, I found a lot of singers just gave the moral: "Always take your dallies." Excellent advice, of course, but it adds an extra step in the standing-staring-off-into-space-stage if you insist on using a song to remember the word vuelta. So here, for the sake of linguistic integrity, (and because he is Don Edwards) is Don Edwards:

But I can't help including this one. It's spiked with steel guitar.

Friday, June 16, 2017

A Nice Set

This just popped up on the internet radio I was listening to, so I thought I'd pass it along. I'm not entirely sure I'll ever get enough of "The Little Cascade," which is odd, since it was purposely written to be quite repetitive (it was inspired by a dripping tap, they say). But there 'tis.

Friday, June 9, 2017

St. Colmcille

Today (or what's left of it) is the feast of St. Colmcille, a saint who, despite his quite interesting life story, and quite considerable accomplishments in evangelizing and monastery-building is largely represented in my imagination by the following wistful poem. One story goes that, having found himself the cause of an inter-clan battle in his homeland, now Northern Ireland, he condemned himself to exile in Scotland.

Though this poem, sometimes attributed to Colmcille, is thought to have been of a later composition than his death (yes, he died in Scotland), if he felt even a fraction of what the poet here expressed about Derry--or about any place he had left behind, he had indeed taken a most onerous penance on himself.

A similar composition starts here on Google Books:

Thursday, May 25, 2017


This short first-person article by Henry Noltie offers a reader the vicarious pleasure of hunting through the archives of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh. (And, wow! did Archibald Menzies have stunning handwriting. It was gorgeous and legible.)

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Chess Trivia

Here's something I didn't know until a couple of days ago. In chess, the pieces we call bishops were originally elephants; the rooks were originally chariots (the latter certainly makes a lot more sense than castles moving, whether horizontally, or vertically). I was following up on that information (a.k.a. not starting the housecleaning just yet) when I ran across this Smithsonian article on how modern chess sets got their stylized shape. The short version: if London architecture hadn't been the shape it was in the 19th century, perhaps our idea of an "average" chess set would be quite different; and, ultimately, blame the Greeks.

Me being me, though, I'm mostly still hung up on the word "rook."*1 It came along about the time that English was Middle English, by way of Old French roc. But it was ultimately from Persian rukh, according to the Oxford Universal Dictionary. The OUD demurely does not define rukh, but the online consensus seems to be that it's related to the Hindi word for chariot: rath. *2 The prevailing view being that chess originated in northern India, or thereabouts, this origin of the word seems a reasonable assumption, even if it would be more satisfying to know more about the phonology that resulted in the Persian form. (The Online Etymological Dictionary has a succinct entry on rook.)

I find it entirely fascinating that rukh  made its way over thousands of miles with so little change. Especially, since the imagined character of the piece did change. The Persian fil, elephant, became, as I mentioned, our bishop; our queen retains neither linguistic nor symbolic trace of the Persian vazir. But if the rukh settled down and became a castle, it kept its name all the same.

*1 Not to be confused with "rook" as a type of bird. That one came from Old English hroc. Which, in turn, shouldn't be confused with that bird from the Arabian Nights, the roc, a name which quite inconveniently, we possibly got from Arabic rokh. . .or Persian rukh. The latter which, I assume, isn't the same kind of Persian rukh as the chess piece, but language is a weird thing, so who's to say?

*2 Straying from the chessboard entirely, but I suspect to most English speakers (speaking from English speaking experience) that rather looks as though it should be pronounced rather like, "wroth." In this case, it's actually closer to "rut," with a rather explosive "t,"  if that might assist the linguistic musings. . .

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Whatever It's Called

At the session I just mentioned somebody also brought up this tune, under the title of "Bonaparte Crossing the Rhine." Despite it having the form of a Scottish march, the folks I was with played it with very little pointing--I thought this fit the tune charmingly. I knew finding a setting to show off here might be a little difficult because of previous acquaintance with a catchy tune called "Bonaparte Crossing the Rhine," which wasn't this one at all; it was something more obviously related to the pipe march "The Battle of Waterloo," and the folk songs "Mick Maguire," and "The Regular Army-O."

To make matters rather more complicated, both tunes also carry the alternative title of "Bonaparte's Retreat" *and* there is a third tune, out of the American Old-Time repertoire also called "Bonaparte's Retreat." In case you are still with me, here's a final twist: the very Scottish sounding tune I heard at the session the other night is a standard among the old-time crowd as well (though, if YouTube is anything to go by, usually under the "Bonaparte Crossing the Rhine" title).

 The old-time route seemed to be the way to go if I wanted a fairly round version of the tune (the plot thickens: if I read the Internet aright, in Cape Breton the tune, much more pointed, is called "The Braes of Dunvegan"). It seems particularly popular among banjo players. Here is a banjo version that sets out the direct simplicity of the tune just the way I like it:

Despite the form being certainly familiar, I was surprised that it was a tune I hadn't heard before. Or thought I hadn't. After a few hours, this song was dragged up from the cellars of memory. Though I still couldn't tell you where I'd heard it. It's not an identical twin, but it sounds a first cousin anyway, doesn't it? Or are the subject matter and meter just putting ideas into my mind?


Finally, going a bit further afield, here is a setting less apparently similar in the tune. I found it while looking for the Eliza Carty song above. It is included here less because it's tangential to the topic and more because if there's one thing I like as much as (or more than) disarmingly simple marches, it's masterful unaccompanied singing.


Thursday, April 20, 2017

A Reel by Any Other Name

Why hello, there. As a year's silence suggests, posting around here may never be a very predictable thing. I have, however, certainly been turning ideas over in my mind. So we'll start with the old fallback; I went to an Irish session* this evening and heard a tune I liked immensely. And, lucky me, I came home and found a recording of it that I also liked immensely. It's charming and fun on the fiddle (at least I think it is fun; I haven't quite got the hang of it yet), but I think it would sit exceptionally well on the pipes, too. So here you go: "The Antrim Rose," is the first tune in this set by Michael Muir and Rufus Huggan.

*Do you find the phrase "Irish session," extremely hard to pronounce? What about "Irish wrist watch?" You're welcome.