Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Understanding the folk process in Irish music.

The man, the music, and the box: why going back to the source is important.

[Editor's note: I don't own John Kelly's music, but I've given you a chance to have a listen to it. Also, the concertina I've used for an example photo is one of Jeff Thomas'. He's awesome, makes wonderful concertinas, and his website is http://www.thomasconcertinas.com.]

Both of my previous entries were about games, but I did let on that this blog would be about Irish music as well. As such, I’d like to take a similar tack to those entries, and use a specific example to draw out a realization which has practical benefits. It probably helps to know a bit about concertinas, and music theory, to totally grasp what’s going on here, but it might be fun and interesting if you’re not in the know in either niche.

A while ago, my friend Armand and I were playing a very West Clare West Clare reel: the Bunch of Green Rushes. It’s a spectacular three-part tune in a D mode, with Fs and Cs very fluid in their tuning. We launched into it…to find that in the very first part, he and I quite spectacularly played the F totally differently: he played it sharp, I played it flat. The result sounded like getting stabbed in the eye with a cheese grater. He told me it was sharp, and I just shook my head, because I’m not talented enough to play the fiddle and speak at the same time. When we had finished the set, he told me he always heard the tune played with the F-sharp in the first part. I insisted that John Kelly played it flat. John was a noted fiddler and concertina player, so Armand suggested he might have played that note sharp on the concertina.

This is where I tried to pull my concertina-player knowledge on him; it might require a little bit of backstory if you’ve never held a concertina. See, you’ll take a look at your standard concertina in Irish music and see three rows: the inside row, the middle row, and the outside (or accidental) row. The most common layout, by far, is a G major scale on the inside, a C major scale (one fifth below) in the middle, and relative accidentals (notes which aren’t in either of those scales) on the outside. Although, for a music that’s primarily in D major, that may seem silly, the layout actually provides an incredibly useful and flexible system for playing in all the major keys of Irish music, if you’re comfortable going between all three rows of the concertina to reach all the buttons you need. The thing is, older players often tended not to cross rows too much – they certainly did it, but usually only when necessary. Furthermore, many older players learned, or continued to play, on two-row German concertinas, which didn’t have any accidental row at all! If you play the Bunch of Green Rushes on the concertina, the first part very nicely fits into the C row, with a big juicy F-natural right under your middle finger (and the F-sharp cast off to the G row, under the relatively uncomfortably left-hand little finger). So I figured, if anything, John probably played that note flat on the concertina, since it’s a lot easier to reach.

Here’s where things got weird. We went back and listened to the track from John Kelly’s solo album, which includes him playing the Bunch of Green Rushes on both fiddle and concertina. He plays it on the fiddle with glorious F-natural notes, and big meaty C-natural as well. But on the concertina…he plays the note sharp! And in fact, he plays both the F and the C sharp – which made very little sense to me, since the C-sharp note is on the third, accidental, row on the concertina, and John’s style very rarely reached into that row. Now I was thoroughly confused – especially since, in the second part, the C was fluid, flat the first time and sharp the second. This was totally at odds with the accepted understanding of how John played the concertina; while he would normally be expected to play more or less in a single row at a time, this sounded like he was switching rows quite a bit, and in some rather unnatural shapes. What was going on?

When I finally checked the pitch, and thought about it a bit, I figured out how he was playing the tune, and why. He was playing the tune in G, rather than D, and this had totally changed the availability of notes in the tune, and how he could ornament them. G is a remarkably flexible key on the C/G concertina; G major and C major overlap considerably in notes, and the difference – F – means that you can play with the tuning of the seventh in the scale, which happens quite often in Irish music (in the key of D major, that would mean the change of C-natural and C-sharp). That means you have the whole G major scale, in the inside row, and can quickly go to the C row just for F-natural; John had chosen this layout for the tune, simpler and more flexible than playing it in D. However, this also made different options implausible. Whereas playing the tune in D makes F-natural accessible in the first part, playing it in G means the corresponding note would be B-flat – neither in C major or G major, banished to the outside row of the concertina which John rarely used.

So what’s the big deal? Nothing really. But if you play Irish music, you know that there are countless different settings of tunes, many of them with regional connections, or linked to particular musicians. Usually we chalk up these differences to the “folk process” in general – it’s true that this music was primarily orally-transmitted, and therefore allowed for a lot of variation based on mishearing and misremembering. Differences in regional and personal styles also prompted people to outright change tunes to suit themselves better, or to suit the needs of dancers. But here’s a very particular instance of how a setting of a tune changed due to the necessities of a particular instrument: the Anglo-German concertina, immensely popular in Ireland during the latter half of the nineteenth century. Especially because John Kelly plays the tune totally differently on his two instruments, it’s also a neat example of how musicians negotiated these sorts of problems in the past – rather than contorting his setting on one or the other to fit both instruments, he did what sounded the most awesome on either! On the fiddle, he slides dramatically into big F-natural notes; on the concertina, he hits big meaty chords on the B-natural, and plays in octaves during the second part of the tune. Especially for concertina players these days, who have heard a generation or two of concertina players whose ornamentation, phrasing, and style was very much based on fiddle and pipes playing, it’s refreshing to hear, and understand, how someone really plays the concertina with an ear for the specificities of the instrument.

To John Kelly!

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