An Irish music medley

Irish session 2

Adding to my handy roundup of roundups, as the Irish tag has become unwieldy, here’s a selection of my dabblings in Irish music, which feature some exhilarating tracks that will brighten your days.

lnfCiaran Carson’s exquisite Last night’s fun has inspired several posts, including

And this charming recollection, told to me at a session in an Armagh pub, has a Carsonesque lilt to it.

i got further into the swing with

To whet your appetite, here’s an irresistible playlist:

See also under Indian and world fiddles. And while I’m here, may I remind you of the great Flann O’Brian (more under Myles tag), and various fine Irish jokes such as these.

Small—Far away

Europe is all very well, but the Asian side of Istanbul is really quite enough.

When I do venture to cross the Bosphorus, being aboard a boat still gives me a buzz—my first time afloat since looking after Li Manshan and the Daoists in Venice in 2012.

Yusuf painting

The centre of the world, by renowned Kuzguncuk artist Yusuf Katipoglu (1941–2018).
Üsküdar on right, Kuzguncuk on left.

us on boatReturning to Üsküdar the other afternoon, as landmarks gradually became visible I was trying to recognise its mosques from afar. I was on the lookout for the Yeni Valide Camii (1703)—where we had previously admired a double ezan call to prayer—and the charming little Şemsi Paşa Camii (1581) on the coast; perhaps even the Atik Valide Külliyesi (1583) further up the hill. But at first I couldn’t quite make out any of them.

Uskudar mosques

Şemsi Paşa Mosque (right), Yeni Valide Mosque (left).
Not actual size (Discuss).

I made some fatuous remark like “The big mosque looks very small”, whereupon my Wise Companion Augusta patiently offered me a lesson in perspective not unlike that of Father Ted to Dougall:

Augusta promised me the mosques would soon look bigger—and as if by magic…

In art, the development of perspective is commonly associated with Renaissance Italy (Brunelleschi, Piero della Francesca, and so on). BTW, for China, do read the fascinating article by Hannibal Taubes on the use of perspective on temple murals and opera stages in rural north China since the 19th century!

OK, we’re not talking Art here, more the disconnect between my eyes and brain. Like hello?

For a return match, see Line judges.

The Irish pub session

*Part of my series on Irish music!*

Irish session 2

Debunking another myth: like craic, the fabled archetypal Irish pub session turns out to be a recent invention.

As Reg Hall observes, music wasn’t played in pubs; the first session that we would recognise as such today was at the Devonshire Arms in Kentish Town, London, in 1946 (see also Chris Haigh, under “The origin of the Irish pub session”).

In Ireland the traditional venue for musicking was the family kitchen; even for public social dancing, the “céilí band” only became common after 1918. In 1924 the Bishop of Galway declared:

The dances indulged in are not the clean, healthy national dances but importations from the vilest dens of London, Paris and New York, direct and unmistakable incitements to evil thoughts and evil desires.

Strongly recalling reactions to jazz (cited e.g. by Nicolas Slonimsky), this seems ironic, since céilí bands were themselves formed to counteract the pernicious influence of jazz.

In London, licensing laws forbade musical groups until after World War Two, when many Irish arrived from rural Ireland. Since the cramped living conditions of the workmen hardly made a conducive ambience to make music together, they began to colonise pubs. Reg Hall again:

Until around 1946 there was no Irish music in the English pubs. There was no Irish music in pubs back home in Ireland for that matter. It just wasn’t played in pubs. After the war, the new immigrants in London didn’t expect to play music in the pubs. Some Irish musicians even refused to play in English pubs—they believed it shouldn’t or couldn’t be done. You couldn’t play an Irish tune in a London pub.

Thus the gathering was no longer for family or dancers, but for the musicians themselves, and an audience.

Pub sessions only became common in Ireland from the 1960s. Today we’re used to hearing a rather large ensemble, but curiously the older tradition of one or two instruments (fiddle, flute, and so on), remains popular on stage (see e.g. More Irish fiddlers).

So there.


* Equally, the ancestry of the Irish version seisún seems something of a minefield.

More Irish fiddlers

*Part of my series on Irish music!*

To follow What’s the craic?, just a tiny selection of some notable Irish fiddlers. * I’ll start with different generations in America:

Coleman

  • Michael Coleman (1891–1945) was born in County Sligo, emigrating to the USA as a young man:

Carroll

Doherty

He’s the subject of the 1972 documentary Fiddler on the road:

I still need greater immersion to appreciate the nuances of the various regional styles. The Donegal style is heard on the splendid Nimbus CD Fiddle sticks:

Among the fiddlers there are

Mhaonaigh

  • Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh (b.1959), also known for her singing with Altan. Click here for two reels with Frankie Kennedy on flute (see also with Martin Hayes below);

and

Peoples

With Matt Malloy on flute:

For more Donegal fiddlers, see here.

Canny

  • Paddy Canny (1919–2008), in the East Clare style, a graduate of the Tulla Céilí Band.

With Frankie Gavin:

And with Kieran Hanrahan on banjo:

Hayes

  • Paddy’s nephew Martin Hayes (website; wiki) is blessed with a particularly enchanting style, often introspective yet capable of great energy (good appreciation here). I don’t always feel comfortable with guitar in Irish music, but I quite see why he relishes Denis Cahill’s sensitive accompaniment:

In this set they are joined by Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh (whose bow-hold delights me) and Dermot Byrne:

And here he is with the Brooklyn-born Sligo fiddler Tony DeMarco:

Click here for Martin’s album Under the moon as a playlist.

Burke

  • Kevin Burke (b.1950) (website; wiki), based in London until moving to the States in the late 70s, plays in the Sligo style—here are two complete albums:

* * *

What a wealth of creative wisdom under all those nimble fingers, immersed in the style, each with their own lineages and influences, full of regional and personal variation—like shawm players in north China [Thought you were going to say that—Ed.].

See also Indian and world fiddles, and Some jazz fiddling.

 


* For introductions to regional styles, see e.g.

Daithí Kearney, Towards a regional understanding of Irish Traditional Music

Caoimhín Mac Aoidh on Regional Irish Fiddle Styles.

For a caveat from Chris Haigh, curiously without audio examples, click here.

For style more generally, Niall Keegan, The parameters of style in Irish Traditional Music.

What’s the craic?

*Part of my series on Irish music!*

Craic pub

I’m always intoxicated [Now read on—Ed.] [That’s enough of your lip—SJ] by the mood of Irish music, with its elusive, swirling, heterophonic (or even monophonic) melodies offset by jagged syncopations, any rare hints of harmony serving merely to remind us that it’s a mere modern trinket to which its unruly contours can’t be reduced (see e.g. More early music).

* * *

Around the world there must be many terms evoking the special atmosphere of entering deeply into the spirit of musicking; I think of flamenco duende and fado saudade—both with a strong undercurrent of loss. In more celebratory vein, an Irish expression much bandied nowadays is craic, the convivial mood sparked by getting together in company (cf. buzz, vibe, groove). I suppose this kind of atmosphere is the goal of most social gatherings where music is likely to be a catalyst, like Moroccan ahouach, Mediterranean festivals, or weddings anywhere. How good it is to have an all-encompassing term that stresses the wider context of sociability—including drinking, joking, musicking together! Significantly, in WAM, whose pundits have worked tirelessly to claim autonomy from mere human interaction, I can’t think of such a term—ideas welcome.

Irish session 2

Sitting around the table, taking turns—like in Shanghai silk-and-bamboo teahouses.

So impertinent non-nationals like me have become familiar with the nation of craic; but sure enough, it’s yet another of those fabricated traditions—in which the Irish are complicit, to boot. Kevin Myers has described it as “pseudo-Gaelic”, a “bogus neologism”.

The word crack (derived from Middle English crak, “loud conversation, bragging talk”) is recorded in Scotland in the 16th century in the sense of chat, news, or gossip; and it was common in north England and Scotland in the 19th century, sometimes with hints of musicking. These senses of the term entered Hiberno-English from Scots through Ulster, and were then borrowed into Irish, with a reference from 1929 and rural citations from the 1950s. In Dublin, the great Flann O’Brian used the word in articles collected in The best of Myles (1966).

The Gaelicized borrowed spelling craic is only documented from 1968, and it was reborrowed into English later still. The glorification of craic as a “specifically and quintessentially Irish form of fun” is even more recent. Critics have accused the Irish tourism industry and the promoters of Irish theme pubs of marketing “commodified craic” as a kind of stereotypical Irishness. For Kevin Myers it “coincided with the moment that Irishness became self-conscious, winsome, stylised, conceited, boastful”. In his 1999 book Companion to Irish traditional music, Fintan Vallely suggests that the use of craic in English is largely an exercise on the part of Irish pubs to make money through the commercialisation of traditional Irish music; he never heard the word spoken in Dublin until the late 1980s. He notes that Ciaran Carson (based in Belfast) was enraged by the spelling craic. Do read this excellent article by Donald Clarke!

Of course, we can’t specify the spelling when uttering the term (now that would make conversation a fine pickle), but just as I was about to try adopting it, I now think it’d be prudent for me to refrain from doing so. Still… it does sum up a feeling that is much needed.

While, um, craic has to be experienced in company, even audio recordings of live concerts can sometimes hint at the jubilation of the event. Here’s a playlist for the CD Dear old Erin’s isle: Irish traditional music from America (Nimbus, 1992—a companion to the 1991 Fiddle sticks: Irish traditional music from Donegal, also wonderful):

Following Last night’s fun, on a linguistic note: #3, with Liz Carroll on fiddle, consists of an exhilarating sequence of reels with magnificent titles: Drying out, Crush cars, The lost Indian; and Séamus Eagan’s flute solo (#6) is The wee bag of spuds. Such creative titles are conspicuously different from those of non-nationals like Messrs Messiaen and Boulez.

A paean to the fry-up, and the music of time

*Part of my series on Irish music!*

LNF

Ciaran Carson’s Last night’s fun is a constant delight—one of the great books about music (for more, see Carson tag).

The chapters are named after, and inspired by, the title of a particular Irish tune. In Boil the breakfast early Carson sings the praises of The Fry and depicts a fantasy of the perfect Belfast café.

If traditional musicians are engaged with constant repetition and renewal, infinite fine-tunings and shades of rhythms, variations on the basic, cooks are even more so.

He recalls the excitement of discovering the vocabulary for eggs in a New York diner:

A: How do you want your eggs?
B: Well… fried, I suppose.
A: What do you mean, fried? You want basted, over-easy, sunny-side up, over-hard, or what?

He soon graduates from the attractive-sounding but wobbly sunny-side up to over-easy. Indeed, “even the Irish fried egg has many schools of thought”. One thing always leads to another:

Then we engage the wider lexicon of “The Fry”, where the possibilities become Byzantine. Some exclude fried mushrooms or potatoes, say, from their definition of The Fry, as being side issues—distractions from the matter in hand. […] Sometimes I am attracted to the Puritan ideal of bacon and eggs, nothing more, nothing less. [For less, see here.]

By a meandering route involving two more tunes (The Kylebrack rambler and The Galway rambler, aka The Kylebrack), Carson recalls a story:

Then there was the café you always found by accident, above a haberdashery or alterations shop. The door that led upstairs was innocent of any label or description of the premises above. * You sat at the white-linen-covered table, and the table silver glinted with a sudden tang of memory; you knew you’d been here many times before. Waitresses in black stockings and little frilly caps appeared to serve you. There was a little scalloped butter-dish, silver slat and pepper cellars; toast came in a toast-rack. Besides the silver tea-pot was a jug of just-boiled water. The fry arrived on thick white wide-rimmed hot delph plates—“Mind the plates”, the waitress said, as she dished them out as if she were dealing cards. All the hands were flush: the famous Dublin Hafner sausages, the exotic Free State bacon, the coarse fat-spotted black pudding, the unctuous creamy texture of the white. The eggs wobbled and glistened their glazed orange yolks. […]

You sat at the window above the hum and buzz of the street below. At first you gulped and chewed and then decelerated as you realised that your hunger would be perfectly assuaged. Then you could eat contemplatively, picking bits and choosing bits you thought would make an interesting ensemble. You craned your neck occasionally like some astronomer, gazing downwards at the Milky Way of interweaving passing heads. The chinking noise of cutlery and crockery cut through the muted traffic noise. You pronged the last inch of Hafner’s sausage on to a tiny toast triangle that you’d custom-cut, and married it to the last remaining quarter of an egg yolk. You ate these morsels in one forkful. Then a gulp of tea. You settled back contentedly. An enormous cut-glass ashtray came from nowhere. Plates vanished, and you put your elbows on the table and lit up. The bill came in its own good time, unhurriedly. You looked with some amazement at the spiky old-fashioned Staedtler HB pencil-writing, quoting price current in the Fifties. You paid the carbon-slip. Then you descended to the mundane busy street. Absorbed into the crowd, you let yourself be taken by its flow, and became another corpuscle in its bloodstream.

We would spread the word about this last word of an eating-house. No-one ever found it, nor could we again when we determined that we would, because the universe is often stumbled upon by accident, or visualised in dreams. Only when the stars concur do we arrive. We stumble through the patterns of the Kylemore and the Kylebrack and we wander through the icons of the city, touching them in well-worn reliquary places. We are on a pilgrimage, and yet we do not know it…

We are fragile, and it is the morning after; rather, it is early afternoon, and we have settled in a dusty sunlit corner of the empty pub. Our talk is desultory till we think to play a tune, and we are all reluctant. Yet we start because we have to. And somehow, two bars into it, we sense each other’s playing in the way the Zodiac arrives at planetary conjunctions, and we can do more than play the pattern out. And though the stars, by now, are out of line with what they were two hundred years ago, we too have been moved, or have been moved to know that until now we had not played this tune. We did not know its beauty, nor had we realised the marks of other hands that knew it, and had passed it on to some they hoped would eventually manage to figure out its gorgeous shape. We repeat this same tune many times, and about the twelfth or thirteenth time, we know it’s time to stop, since we have gained a century in those few minutes of horology. Then we were like some watchers of the skies, or we had gazed at the Pacific for the first time, and we were silent as we contemplated time in all its mirrored constellations.

* * *

Boil the breakfast early is a reel, perhaps best known in versions by The Chieftains—here they play it live in 1981 at a BBC session:

And here’s John Whelan with friends in a medley opening with The Kylebrack:

Another title that reminded me of Li Manshan and Li Bin is Ask my father.


* Cf. my version of the touring musos’ fantasy. See also Health-food options, and even, if it’s Daoist ritual yer after, Pacing the Void.

Women in early Irish music

*Part of my series on Irish music!*

Kenny

Before the 1970s, women’s role in the transmission of traditional Irish music was only sporadically on public display. This lacuna, common around the world, is made good in

She went on to develop these themes in her book Trad nation: gender, sexuality, and race in Irish traditional music (2020).

Focusing on the period from 1890 to 1970, Slominski returns women to the historical narrative by exploring the “disjuncture between the documented public activity of women traditional musicians in early 20th-century Ireland and their subsequent erasure from the narrative of Irish traditional music history” (I gave a succinct introduction to studies of gender and music under my second post on flamenco).

In Irish music a few such women “were visible nationally or internationally, and tend to be remembered as extraordinary rather than exemplary”; many others were once known but have since been mostly forgotten outside their families and immediate communities. A third category was “an unknown and possibly significant number of women musicians [who] occupied social positions that rendered them invisible to the musical public sphere”. And a fourth included the “second-degree visibility” of mothers remembered as tradition-bearers whose names now appear mainly in connection with their sons.

Encoded in these categories is an unspoken assumption that traditional music’s historical gaze still belongs to male musicians. With rare exceptions, Irish traditional music’s texts have all been written by men, and the brain trust of the tradition still rests with its “gentlemen scholars.” Thus, nearly all the accounts and recordings we have of pre-1970 women musicians come from male authors, interviewers, and collectors.

Idealised women commonly appear in the media of the day as metaphors for the Irish nation:

Personifications of careworn Mother Ireland and long-tressed Erin linked homeland and hearth, and invariably cast the nation’s men in the roles of hero, protector, and dutiful son.

More promising are the biographical profiles by Francis O’Neill in Irish Minstrels and Musicians (1913), even if he still largely conforms to the feminized personifications of the nation.

Slominski cites Habermas’s distinction between the “public sphere” (a forum for the shaping of state policy) and the “public” activities of the street; indeed, the public house was the domain of men.

The fiddler Bridget Kenny (“Mrs”) was daughter of piper John McDonough. In O’Neill’s account:

 Devotion to art does not appear to have unfavourably affected the size of Mrs Kenny’s family, for we are informed she is the prolific mother of thirteen children. Neither did the artistic temperament on both sides mar the domestic peace of the Kenny home, and, though the goddess of plenty slighted them in the distribution of her favours, have they not wealth in health and the parentage of a house full of rosy-cheeked sons and daughters, several of whom bid fair to rival their mother, “The Queen of Irish Fiddlers,” in the world of music.

Alas, I can’t set much store by the 1898 recording here, billed as her playing The high road to Galway—surely the playback speed is far too fast, and the pitch correspondingly too high?!

From a poor family, Mrs Kenny became a street musician, an “urban busker”. But O’Neill also stresses her success in music competitions. Her talents were recruited by the nationalist movement.

The dominant narrative held that pipers—whether common men or gentlemen—had once been respected members of society, but that the occupation and its practitioners had fallen into disrepute.

O’Neill again, describing the period following the great famine:

Changed conditions, lack of patronage, and other well-understood causes, forced this class of minstrels, many of them blind, to take to the highways for support—a form of mendicancy which brought their once honoured calling into disrepute.

A 1912 story:

The poverty-stricken piper became an object of contempt, and the contempt was naturally extended to his instrument, the cause of his indigence. It is only a few years since a friend of mine, a good fiddler, who expressed an intention of learning the pipes, was told by his relatives that if he did so disgrace himself he need never show his face at home again! Small wonder that the pipes ceased to be generally played just as the language ceased to be spoken and so many of the old customs to be observed! The race of “gentlemen pipers” had died out and no respectable person would touch the instrument.

If social disapproval fell upon men who made a living from playing the uilleann pipes (cf. shawm bands around the world), it was much worse for the women who did so from “dire necessity”, often after being widowed early. Among instances cited by O’Neill are Mollie Morrissey, May McCarthy, and the blind Nance the Piper.

By the early 20th century, piping was becoming a somewhat more respectable occupation for women, mainly by virtue of nationalist rhetoric.

Cultural nationalist beliefs in the early 20th century helped create an environment in which some parents allowed their daughters to learn the uilleann pipes, teachers agreed to teach them, and some newly-formed pipers’ clubs allowed women members.

Morrissey and McCarthy are portrayed as “young, graceful, and mild-mannered”. This account comes from 1905:

I give you an interesting portrait of Miss Mollie Morrissey of Cork, fideogist [player of the tin whistle?], harpist, pianist, violinist, bagpiper and stepdancer, at the age of fourteen. I venture to say that not many Irish colleens can boast of such a long list of accomplishments, but such are the attainments of this little girl, whose charming and unassuming manner has endeared her to all who know her. She is the youngest and most proficient female piper in Ireland, playing the famous Irish melodies with great expression, and is also a correct exponent of dance music. [….] The clever little artiste is decorated with many medals, won at competitions in piping and step-dancing, and at last year’s Oireachtas she carried off first prize in female hornpipe dancing from all comers, her graceful carriage and movements combined with precision being much admired. [….] Miss Morrissey got a special invitation […] to attend a reception during Pan-Celtic week, which she could not accept on account of being indisposed at the time.

As Slominski observes, her role here is merely to decorate the public practice of Irish cultural nationalism.

Unlike his accounts of male musicians, in which he uses nouns like “piper”, “fiddler”, “musician”, and “composer”, O’Neill’s profiles of these two women pipers rely on words like “learner”, “artiste”, “performer”, and of course, “daughter”, “girl”, and “colleen”.

For such women, even as they depended on musicking as an occupation, music was portrayed as a mere “accomplishment”, an accessory. This at least made them seem less threatening. “By considering a women’s musicianship peripheral to her identity, any expectation that she would continue playing through her adulthood was removed”—although they often did.

Farr

Finally Slominski contrasts the lives of Galway flute-player Mary Kilcar (c.1890–?) and fiddler Lucy Farr (née Kirwan, 1911­–2003). Mary’s playing was confined to the household, while Lucy took part in public musicking quite late, after reconnecting with her musical upbringing.

Mary was a spinster (as one said then) who lived with her sister. Their background seems to have been comfortable, and Mary may have had some formal education in music.

As a single and ageing woman in the socially conservative years of the Irish Free State, Mary would have been symbolically invisible: she was neither a mother nor a maiden in a society whose metaphors of nation defined the behaviour and aspirations of real women. However politically and rhetorically invisible, Mary’s position as spinster was legible within rural Irish society. The combination of her musicianship and her marital status, however, was not.

In a 1987 interview, Lucy recalled:

And there was a lady in the next village, and her name was Mary Kilcar, and she would be—when I was 20, she’d be about 40, and she played a flute, and—though she was never part of the scene in my young days— she never—women didn’t come down into the houses where the men were. You’d hear Mary Kilcar playing the flute inside in her own house, but you’d never see her in any house where there was music. And so one day, I was walking around, and I knocked at the door. “Oh!” she said, “Lucy Kirwan! Come in!” “Well,” I said, “I’ve come in because I’m playing the fiddle, and we’ve all heard you playing outside, but you never come to our neighborhood dos.” “Oh,” she says, “They wouldn’t have women—they wouldn’t at all them dos.” I said, “Well, we do, I do.” “Ah, but you’re living in the house where it is. I couldn’t, I couldn’t do that.”

As Slominski comments,

Lucy’s status as maidenly daughter of a musical father placed her, a future tradition bearer, on the receiving end of borne tradition. As a spinster, however, Mary was a transmissive dead end. […]she does not fit into the category through which most women musicians of her generation are remembered: as mothers who pass tunes down to their sons. […] For single women like Mary Kilcar, bodies out of reproductive circulation also meant tunes out of circulation.

Lucy moved to London in 1936, and after her marriage she only re-engaged with the music of her youth from the late 1950s (see this fine article). Although she enjoyed greater access to the musical public sphere than Mary, even in comparatively progressive London in the late 1960s she too described the discomfort of going out to sessions alone.

Here’s a short film:

* * *

Lucy Farr mentioned sessions with the fiddler Julia Clifford (1914–97: wiki, and here), who also moved to England:

Another musician who moved to England in the 1950s was the Irish traveller Margaret Barry (1917–89), a singer and banjo player. Here’s She moves through the fair:

and the first part of a documentary:

Now I’d like to learn more about early women harpers, singers, and dancers, and the challenges they faced.

Click here for Séamus Ennis playing the uilleann pipes and telling an almost related story.

A guide for bemused rugby fans

scrum

“And I suppose you think I’m going to do your washing for you.”

While the language of rugby union may not be quite so elaborate as that of Daoist ritual, the list of arcane infringements is quaint, and subject to constant revision. Not only do players have to understand the distinction between a maul and a ruck, they can be penalised for such faux pas as

  • Not rolling away [Mick Jagger]
  • Entering from the side [don’t ask]
  • Bringing down a maul
  • Ball held up
  • Not releasing [Engelbert Humperdinck]
  • Forward pass [cheeky]
  • Taking the man out [ditto]
  • Blood replacement [Transylvania]
  • Not straight (at the lineout)
  • Not driving straight [Afterble, constanoon] *

And one admires the way the players meekly accept the ref’s decision, whatever it’s supposed to mean. And even while the game is flowing, the obliging ref is full of succint advice on How to Behave—like

 The best bit is TMO (Too Much Oratory), where we all get to watch dastardly behaviour in slowmo and from every angle, like viewing a burglary on CCTV, while the ref makes learned speeches. 

As to the basics (cf. snooker), the Irish column Ask Audrey offers a helpful explanation:

Guten Tag. I am in Cork for three months and see that everyone is watching the Rugby World Cup. Can you explain the rules? — Karl, Berlin

Here is my understanding of how it works. The fat guys all run into each other, while the slightly slimmer guys stand in a line watching them. Eventually the fat guys get tired and have a lie down on top of each other. The ball comes out the back of this lie down and the skinnier guys kick it back and forward to each other for half an hour. Then the fat guys wake up and start running into each other again. Every now and again the referee stops play because someone dropped the ball. That’s the only thing you are not allowed to do in rugby. Everything else would appear to be okay. Sometimes one group of fat guys pushes the other group over the line and there is some manly hugging, but no shifting like in soccer. After 80 minutes they add up the score and New Zealand wins.

Note also The haka, and suitable responses—part of a series under A sporting medley.


* As in
   “Excuse me sir, do you realise this is a one-way street?”
   “It’s all right officer, I’m only going one way.”

Some Irish singing

*Part of my series on Irish music!*

Solas an lae

Pursuing my Irish theme, Songlines led me to the duo of Connemara singer Eoghan Ó Ceannabháin and County Clare fiddler Ultan O’Brien, with their splendid recent album Solas an lae. Here’s the playlist:

Such comfortable musicking! On a whimsical note, here’s Máirseáil Na Sióg:

But they present more disturbing songs too, like Tá Na Páipéir Dhá Saighneáil, tale of a bride-to-be mourning her beloved’s departure for war (cf. Soave sia il vento!):

And the harrowing All our lonely ghosts, a lament about the institutional abuse of women and children in Ireland—a topical theme:

Here they are with Jayne Pomplas:

Heaney

From 2017 film Song of granite: source here.

This led me to sean-nós singing of an earlier vintage, such as this wonderful playlist of Seosamh O hÉanaí (Joe Heaney):

Here’s his version of Tá Na Páipéir Á Saighneáil, rich in nasalisations:

Note from the Plain People of Ireland: if it’s intense solo monophonic singing you’re after, then dhrupad‘s your man too!

Normal people

Now that the initial frenzy over Normal people has subsided a little, I must say that I’m overwhelmed by both Sally Rooney’s book and the TV series.

For all the general critical excitement, I’m perturbed to see that that many people, of all ages, don’t get it (e.g. here). Having already read the book, I found myself watching an episode and then going back to the relevant chapters; they complement each other (for the differences, see here). So FWIW, both film and book move me immeasurably.

Daisy Edgar Jones and Paul Mescal as Marianne and Connell are astounding—as well as Sarah Greene playing Connell’s wonderful mum. The story is informed by a great playlist too, I might add.

Now, I’m not saying that Great Art is Universal!, but the Irish setting is finely observed, transcending time and place, like Romeo and Juliet… The S&M subplot (“Fifty shades of Sligo”) is precisely that—a subplot; Marianne may be damaged, but both she and Connell are vulnerable, fragile. It’s sobering to learn of Irish conservatives’ view that the “sex scenes” “promote fornication”—interviews with Daisy and Paul should dispel such medieval nonsense:

Tellingly described by Sally Rooney as “just another form of dialogue”, those scenes, with all their integrity (see e.g. here and here), are surely the most wonderful since the previously unmatched Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland in Don’t look now.

All this serves to underline the sheer intensity of Marianne and Connell’s bond as soulmates—their understated expressions and tiny phrases, as their relationship is constantly derailed by agonising misunderstandings. Now I can hardly bear to watch a single scene.

A recognition sextet, and more stammering

 

Sextet

To follow my Mozart opera dream:

Of all the wonderful music in The marriage of Figaro, I think we in the orchestra all lavished particular loving care on the Act 3 sextet Riconosci in questo amplesso, in which Figaro recognizes his parents.

The focus on the rather naff dramatic business tends to distract from the riches of the exquisite music—there’s so much delight in caressing the orchestral accompaniment. Here’s our 1993 recording:

A minor bonus for me personally is the role of the stammering notary Don Curzio (sadly, I wasn’t employed as a voice coach). His imp-p-pediment is harder to suggest in metered song than in recitative—this clip includes the recitative as performed at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris:

But Kleiber’s 1955 recording manages to include it in the sextet itself (@2.45):

* * *

The figure of the stammering lawyer or notary goes back to Tartaglia in commedia dell’arte and Il Tartaglione, foil to Polecenella in Neapolitan puppetry. Don Curzio’s stammer was created by the Irish tenor Michael Kelly; indeed, Mozart feared that it detracted from his music, but Kelly convinced him to keep it since it was an audience-pleaser—Typical!

Besides all the musical portrayals of disfluency that I mentioned in this post (including Rossini’s “stupefaction ensemble”), we can add Vašek in Smetana’s The bartered bride:

An earnest yet drôle article considers it a sympathetic portrayal; but

some nameless “laryngologists” [!] were quoted maintaining that it is quite impossible to stutter in Vašek’s way. No systematic phoniatric analysis of his fluency disorder has been published. The present study is assessing and enumerating Vašek’s tonic, clonic and tonoclonic speech blockades. It also delivers musical examples of his effective stuttered phrases and compares them to scientific descriptions and objective registrations of physical (external) and psychical (internal) symptoms of stuttering in phoniatric textbooks. It confirms the complete agreement of Smetana’s artistic expression of speech disfluency with the real stuttering.

And the role of Dr Blind in Die Fledermaus led me to this blistering review (“Mark Saltzman as Dr Blind was made to labor under the delusion that stammering jokes are funny”—no turn is left unstoned). But Barbara Hannigan’s portrayal of Gepopo still takes the b-b-biscuit.

 

An Irish choice

Irish

I’m still entertained by this poster that I saw on an Irish train in the 1990s. I imagine a response from the archetypal miscreant, confused by the options, might go:

Let me see now, that’s a teaser.* Can I have both?

 

* As in the Japanese particle Saa, helpfully explained in the wacky Teach yourself Japanese.

Among myriad aperçus of the great Flann O’Brien, note his “smoking substances of non-nationals“. There’s a whole host of drôlerie under the Irish tag, such as this—as well as the great Ciaran Carson.

Partridgisms

AP

I’ve already sung the praises of Steve Coogan’s alter ego Alan Partridge in this post. Here are a couple more gems.

In a meeting with the BBC head of programming, Alan pitches several fatuous ideas (“Monkey Tennis”?). Or “Swallow”, a detective series set in Norwich:

Think about it—no one had heard of Oxford before Inspector Morse.

And tucking into breakfast with RTE executives he insouciantly crashes right through the barriers of taste (cf. Jesus jokes):

Alan (suavely): So, how many people were killed in the Irish famine?

Aidan: Erm. Two million, and another two million had to leave the country.

Alan: Right… If it was just the potatoes that were affected, at the end of the day, you will pay the price if you’re a fussy eater. If they could afford to emigrate, then they could afford to eat in a modest restaurant.

Critiques of artistic competition

LNF

Allow me to draw your attention to several diverting posts bearing on the misguided nature of competitions in music and dance:

In her book WIld music, Maria Sonevytsky has more mature analyses of Eurovision and popular TV contests in Ukraine.

And then, I do concur, contests are a more creative aspect of traditional performance—such as Chinese ritual groups (and shawm bands) “facing platforms”, or “cutting” in jazz…

New tag: fiddles!

At last I’ve added a tag in the sidebar for fiddles, embracing all kinds of bowed lutes (or even, um, friction chordophones) around the world, including folk fiddles, ghijak and satar, sarangi and kamancha, violins in WAM, and so on.

It’s a typically extensive list, and I’m sorry I can’t subhead tags, yet. If I could, the entries might include

and so on.

A stimulating comparative post is

with the amazing Transylvanian fiddling there pursued further in Musical cultures of East Europe. See also Some jazz fiddling.

Do also explore the tags for Irish and the brilliant Ciaran Carson—some highlights include

One quirk of the blog format I use here is that I can only give categories and tags to posts, not pages. So I’d add other pages like

and so on.

For another instrument tag, see trumpet—giving links to many world traditions of wind and brass playing.

In memoriam Sean Hughes

Sean Hughes

Source here.

With tributes to Sean Hughes pouring in, I really shouldn’t try and encapsulate such a brilliant narrative comedian through pithy one-liners, but:

What the fuck do gardeners do when they retire?

and

I failed my driving test for stalling. The instructor said: “Just get into the fucking car.”

Also fine is his 1993 poem for his ideal funeral.

A sporting headline

While we’re on football, in the notorious and grandly-named Saipan incident in the run-up to the 2002 World Cup, Roy Keane’s spat with the Republic of Ireland team manager Mick McCarthy evokes the principled hauteur of an illustrious Ming-dynasty court official going into voluntary exile rather than serving under the new Manchu regime.

The confrontation between player and manager allegedly culminated in this fine rant from Keane:

“Mick, you’re a liar… you’re a fucking wanker. I didn’t rate you as a player, I don’t rate you as a manager, and I don’t rate you as a person. The only reason I have any dealings with you is that somehow you are manager of my country and you’re not even Irish, you English cunt. You can stick the World Cup up your bollocks.”

Reporting the story, the Guardian came out with the magnificent headline

Keane Displays Tenuous Grasp Of Anatomy

Note also my roundup of wacky headlines.

Ruin an Irish book in one letter

Following my glowing paean to the Great Man, as a belated tribute to the Flann O’Brien Society’s recent competition —and supplementing my efforts regarding Chinese and orchestral cliché (see also Myles tag)—I hereby submit my weighty ethnomusicological ethnography:

The catechism of Clichy: vocal liturgy in a Parisian suburb.

For further scholarly works that I haven’t really published, see here.

Indian and world fiddles

The other day, just before my alarming rendition of Bach on the erhu, I went to an enthralling concert of Carnatic violin by the sisters M. Lalitha and M. Nandini at the Bhavan Centre in West London, a lively centre for the Indian community.

How mesmerizing Indian music can be, unfolding naturally with grace and fluency! Learning such oral traditions is aided by memorizing sargam solfeggio. Tuning the strings in open fifths (like G–D–g–d, often used in world fiddle styles— actually, here they commonly have five strings) lends the violin a wonderful sonority (cf. Keef’s excited epiphany).

The ideal in many cultures is for instruments of all kinds to imitate the voice—I love the way Wu Mei decorates the vocal liturgy of the Li band on the guanzi oboe, for instance. It was by chance that I ended up playing the violin in WAM, but we can all appreciate the link between the voice and bowed lutes (or should I say friction chordophones? No you bloody shouldn’tThe Plain People of Ireland) by extending our interests to other world genres. OK, for us WAM fiddlers embarking on Mahler 5 there may be no clear benefits to this, but why don’t we all learn the rudiments of Indian style and technique too? However rigorous a training in rag may be, it can’t be as arid and painful as ploughing through sodding Ševčík studies—it’s amazing we didn’t all give up.

The Bhavan audience was sadly thin on the ground, but it’s the magic of the rapport that counts. It reminds me of a Mozart Requiem tour of Italy with John Eliot Gardiner in the 1990s. For some reason we ended up doing a gig at a dingy cinema in the sleepy town of Terni on a Sunday afternoon, performing for a tiny audience that barely outnumbered the massed orchestral and choral forces. Nonetheless, with stellar singers like Barbara Bonney and Anne Sofie von Otter, it was one of our most moving performances.

At the risk of sounding like Away from it all (“the one thing that Venice truly lacks is leprechauns“), here’s a random but inspiring sample of some further riches of world fiddling—needless to say, it’s all about technique at the service of the music, which in turn stems from its social use…

Still with the exquisite gamak styles of India, here’s a Hindustani female dynasty (cf. Rāg Malkauns):

And then there’s the wonderful sarangi—click here for a fine website.

I outline some of the diverse bowed lutes of China here; the erhu is the least traditional of them, but you must hear this astounding playing. See also here.

The Korean haegeum is distinctive:

Irish fiddling can be irresistible (for more from Liz Carroll, listen to Dear Old Erin’s Isle here):

Some unaccompanied Bach (on violin instead of cello, for a change):

And Transylvanian bands (see mainly here):

Poland has some fine fiddle traditions too—here’s Stanisław Klejnas, from a village near Łódź:

From Iran, here’s Mohammad Reza Lotfi on kamancheh:

Kamancha playing from Azerbaijan is amazing too. I used to have a clip here of an Azeri party—complete with mobile phones, naff yet tasteful accompaniment, and no fancy fakelore costumes. But it’s disappeared, so we’ll have to settle for a reified official concert version:

And here’s a stellar gathering of players, all with their own distinctive styles (with thanks to Jeffrey Werbock, himself a fine exponent of Azeri music):

Note also the lyra of Crete and the Pontic Greeks.

For the Uyghurs of Xinjiang, besides the ghijak, the soul of the muqam is the plangent long-necked satar (featured in a wonderful muqaddime prelude here), but they use “our” violin just as expressively too, as on this track— from a cassette by the renowned singer Abliz Shakir in the early 1990s:

Some of these genres are explored in the fine projects Growing into music and The music of Central Asia.

That’s a start. I leave jazz fiddling to another post… For yet more, see fiddles tag in the sidebar, introduced here. For another concert at the Bhavan, see here.

The acme of ethnographic authority

If it’s proper language you’ll be wanting, by blessed chance I’ve just come across “The trade”, an early (1940) essay on pubs by Myles na gCopaleen that has found a respectable home in the fine anthology Great Irish reportage.

This is the ultimate insider’s account. Pubs were Myles’s office and his home—seldom can ethnographers have had such an in-depth knowledge of their chosen fieldsite. He shows great sensitivity to change in attire and interior design:

The result is a combination of utility (functional something-or-other architects call it), comfort and restraint—but no pints.

His poignant account manages to be both engaged and dispassionate. Just the opening paragraph is a too, er, deaf ‘orse—sorry, I mean tour de force (blame Keats and Chapman):

In the last ten years there has been a marked change in the decor of boozing in Dublin. The old-time pub was something in the nature of the Augean stable (it is true that Pegasus was often tethered there) with liberal lashings of sawdust and mopping-rags to prevent customers from perishing in their own spillings and spewing. No genuine Irishman could relax and feel at home in a pub unless he was sitting in deep gloom on a hard seat with a a very sad expression on his face, listening to the drone of bluebottle squadrons carrying out a raid on the yellow sandwich cheese. In those days a genuine social stigma attached to drinking. It was exclusively a male occupation and on that account (and apart from anything temperance advocates had to say) it could not be regarded as respectable by any reasonable woman. Demon rum was a pal of the kind one is ashamed to be seen with. Even moderate drinkers accepted themselves as genteel degenerates and could slink into a pub with as much feline hug-the-wall as any cirrhotic whiskey-addict, there to hide even from each other in dim secret snugs. A pub without a side-door up a lane would have been as well off as one with no door at all.

The late great Hugh Maguire

Hugh Maguire (1926–2013) managed to combine his work as leader of orchestras with making some fine chamber music. I share my admiration for his playing with far more distinguished pupils of his. As he caressed the strings lovingly, his way of turning a phrase was irresistible.

In the NYO another important kind of education for me was pub sessions where he and flautist Norman Knight would swap indiscreet orchestral stories over copious G&Ts.

Blessed with a brilliant Irish sense of humour (see also Irish tag), Hugh could be both charming and tough with conductors; it was he who told me the Hermann Scherchen story. This reminiscence of Jacqueline du Pré, with whom he and Fou Ts’ong loved playing piano trios in the 1960s, gives an idea of his sincerity.

Hugh’s playing appears all too rarely on YouTube, but here’s his wonderful 1964 recording of Scheherazade (Rimsky-Korsakov, not the equally ravishing Ravel version) with Pierre Monteux and the LSO:

BTW, Monteux (1875–1964) had conducted the premières of Petrushka, The Rite of Spring, and Daphnis and Chloé—just imagine! That recording was his last, in his final year.

Pete Hanson, heir to Hugh’s own spirit, recalls his account of a scary moment during the Scheherazade sessions:

Towards the end of a day’s recording, Monteux turned to him after the first take of the finale, with its ethereal high harmonics, and said “Come on Maguire, get it right!”

Hugh too could be as down-to-earth as his playing was sublime. Here’s Pete again, with a couple of choice comments received during lessons:

“You sound great, Pete, all the shapes and feelings are there—but you’ve got to play all the notes!”

“Pete, even if your strings are out, you must play in tune! Just do it wit’ your fingers!”

Nor is the play of fag-ash on ancient instrument the exclusive province of Li ManshanYet again, Cieran Carson has a beautiful description (Last night’s fun, p.54):

So I remember fiddle-players with cigarettes poised between two fingers of their bow-hand, and the ash would wave and sprinkle across their trouser-knees; or the cigarette that drooped between a player’s lips would let drop a little grub of ash into an f-hole of a fiddle, where it disintegrated as it crashed into the ersatz “Stradivari” label. The knees were dusted off, someone rosined up, and a fitful shaft of sunlight would illuminate the dust-motes like a dissolute snowstorm souvenir.

Even better, Hugh really was playing a Strad—like the first fiddler in Mick Hoy’s wonderful story.

This 1968 recording of the Mendelssohn Octet has long been a favourite, with Hugh leading a star cast including Neville Marriner and Iona Brown (or Iona Brown violin, as she’s known):

On the same LP, the poise of Hugh’s playing in the Minuet of the Boccherini Quintet is charming too—with a bold yet tasteful glissando on the cello (0.37, 1.03, and best of all at 3.15):

Boccherini also makes a priceless backdrop for The ladykillers. For an incident in the middle of a string quartet, see here; and for another string quartet, here.

And here’s Hugh leading the Allegri quartet in the Mozart clarinet quintet, with Jack Brymer:

(For the clarinet concerto, click here.)

For St Patrick’s Day

St Patrick

Source.

Always on the case with calendrical rituals (and as a change from Myles), I now offer a couple of apposite Irish jokes to celebrate St Patrick’s Day—one about animal husbandry, the other on religion:

Two farmers chatting:
“My cow fell down a hole—I had to shoot it.”
“Did you shoot it in the hole?”
“No, in the head.”

This seems to be related to the séance joke.

And now for religion:

O’Malley is leaving his favourite bar when he gets run over by a bus. He gets to the gates of heaven and St. Peter tells him he can’t enter unless he passes a test. But he decides to go easy on him.
“What’s got five fingers and is made of black leather?” he asks.
O’Malley scratches his head, thinks hard and finally gives up.
“It’s a glove,” says St. Peter. “Let’s try again—What’s got ten fingers and is made of black leather?”
O’Malley is stumped again. After pacing round in a circle and scratching his head, he gives up.
“Why it’s two gloves.” says St. Peter, amazed. “Don’t you see—ten fingers, black leather…”
But being in a generous mood, he decides to give O’Malley one more chance, so he lobs him an easier one:
“Who is the patron saint of Ireland?’ he asks.
“Now let me see now,” says O’Malley. “Would that be three gloves?”

As I swapped stories and cigarettes at home with Li Manshan, I did a a Chinese version of that one, substituting “Who is in charge of (dangjia 当家) the Chinese Communist Party?” for the last question.

Chinese mouth-organs and Irish flutes

Irish flutes

While I was writing with affection and awe on the sheng mouth-organ, I recalled that Ciaran Carson has a similar passion for the tactile minutiae of Irish flutes and their human custodians (Last night’s fun, “Hard to fill”, pp.49–57). Each chapter takes the title of a tune, and (like life, and like jokes!) each tune leads into another.

A few excerpts to give a flavour:

He picks up the foot-joint and prises out the little brass pins which hold the C♯ key in place; he turns it over, and there, under the touch of the key, are the initials “A.L.”, the hidden mark of Alexander Little who spent some time with D’Almaine and later set up shop on his own at 24 Chenies Street (1847–54) and then at 35 Devonshire Street (1854–73).
This is a six-keyed flute of Jamaican cocus-wood, weathered to a rich dark chocolate brown with oxblood striations glinting under the immediate surface. […]
We are in Sam’s workshop at 1 Exchange Place, Belfast. Exchange Place is, in Belfast parlance, an “entry”: a narrow lane between two streets, a backwater or a short-cut, a deviation from the beaten path. Exchange Place is an entry: we talk and breathe in an exhalation, a many-layered scent of shellac, beeswax, raw and boiled linseed oil, tallow, almond oil, aromatic blackwood shavings, nitric acid and ammonia. I believe you can smell the blue steel blades and boxwood handles of the antique tools: gravers, gouges, chisels, pliers, diamond files and flat files, pincers, chasers. You pick one up and feel its oily-sharp edge with grainy specks of sawdust on it.
[…]
And this is not to speak of the unspeakable archaeological layers of things strewn and assembled on every available surface in the workshop: pins, papers, screws, tobacco tins and and coffee jars, thread, waxed paper, empty bobbins, walrus, tusks, billiard balls, sealing-wax and string, envelopes, cigar-boxes, empty glasses, tannin-encrusted teacups, bus tickets, knives, a bottle of Angostura bitters, a drawing-plate, a bicycle repair-kit, two old trade tin trays (Ross’s Mineral Waters and Buckfast Tonic Wine) with rusted pocks in them, bills, invoices, a blue tin of Vaseline, Christmas cards and postcards, a blowtorch, fluxes, solders, coils of silver wire, brass tubing, wine corks, an old cardboard advertisement for Bassett’s Liquorice Allsorts, brass plate, a Swiss Army knife, dust, unaccountable detritus and filings of long-gone operations, a Bo-Peep matchbox which rattles with brass thumb-tacks when you pick it up, washers, drill-bits, oil-cans, tea-pots, files, gimlets, scissors, a copy of the Irish News from last year, a shrivelled chip, Kirby grips, bulldog clips, Jubilee clips and paper-clips, a square damp packet of Saxa salt, Blu-Tack, bits of putty, sealing-wax, a little paper packet of cigarette-lighter flints, a candle stub, a Zippo lighter, cotton-wool, a sticky tin of Tate & Lyle’s Golden Syrup, wisps of steel wool, and the blue glint of methylated spirits shivering in a glass square-shouldered glass-stoppered bottle against a stained, scarred patch of the workbench; on a window-sill, three little tinker-made tin inkwell-shaped receptacles with milled brass screwtops, containing pumice, tripoli and rouge, each bearing the original early Victorian price of three shillings (3/-).

Click here for Pakie Duignan in duet with fiddler Peter Fitzpatrick.

And Last night’s fun is just as wonderful on performance practice. I’ve linked Chinese and Irish musics before; for a change from the usual comparison with silk-and-bamboo (for both social context and heterophonic sound-world), Carson’s recollection of Pakie Duignan reminds me of Daoist guanzi-player Wu Mei:

His way of breathing was a joy: it had economy and grace and power; his management of time was perfect. He had the time to hit whatever note it was that came next, then to extend the breath into the next phrase like a sudden almost-visible extension of the room, as if this phrase had yearned to be united with its predecessor, and now they were together. Then he’d cut the end of that phrase and wander off into the split chink of a twilight zone, momentarily. Normal business would resume some time, but in this instant he had gone down steps he’d never seen till then, that led down to a dark harbour where water clucked against the boats and rocks and a constellation could be seen reflected.

Astounding—go on, read the chapter, and the whole book!

Like Carson’s fantasy on the role of the Irish breakfast in musical life (“Boil the Breakfast early”, pp.15–21), that’s just the kind of loving detail, mutatis mutandis, that we need for China, and Chinese ritual.

As with the syncopated cadential pattern in the hymns of the Li family Daoists, we need to evoke all the practical insider’s detail and the embedding of ritual with daily lives—not just grandiose theory and ancient mysticism. If we’re going to write about music—and ritual—at all, then along with Berliner’s Thinking in jazz, Carson’s book is a paragon. For more, see my series on Irish music!

Ask my father

*Part of my series on Irish music!*

Ennis

Peter Kennedy (fiddle), Marie Slocombe, and Séamus Ennis (Uillean pipes).

Another passage from Last Night’s fun that reminds me of Chinese music is Carson’s brilliant discussion (pp.7–13) of the naming of tunes, what the Chinese call qupai 曲牌 “melodic labels”:

A: What do you call that?
B: Ask my father.
A: “Ask my father”?

I can only hope we haven’t made such a mistake in documenting folk qupai. Indeed, I could well have asked Li Manshan’s son that very question (cf. the joke at the end of our film)…

Here’s the great Séamus Ennis playing Ask my father:

This story of his bears on the subject too:

More early music

*Part of my series on Irish music!*

LNF

In Irish music I already cited some fine quotes from Cieran Carson’s Last night’s fun bearing on the mania for soulless competitions, including the tale of the three fiddlers. The final passage in this section is remarkable (p.98):

I find among these people commendable diligence only on musical instruments, on which they are incomparably more skilled than any nation I have seen. Their style is not, as on the British instruments to which we are accustomed, deliberate and solemn but quick and lively; nevertheless the sound is smooth and pleasant.

It is remarkable that, with such rapid fingerwork, the musical rhythm is maintained and that, by unfailingly disciplined art, the integrity of the tune is fully preserved through the ornate rhythms and the profusely intricate polyphony… They introduce and leave the rhythmic motifs so subtly, they play the tinkling sounds on the thinner strings above the sustained sounds of the thicker strings so freely, they take such secret delight and caress [the strings] so sensuously, that the greatest part of their art seems to lie in veiling it, as if “that which is concealed is bettered— art revealed is art shamed”. Thus it happens that those things which bring private and ineffable delight to people of subtle appreciation and sharp discernment, burden rather than delight the ears of those who, and in spite of looking do not see and in spite of hearing do not understand; to unwilling listeners, fastidious things appear tedious and have a confused and disordered sound.

That passage might seem like a fine description of Irish music today—but it was written in 1185, by Giraldus Cambrensis in Topographia Hiberniae!

Generally (my Daoist priests of the Li family, p.291),

I wage a tireless campaign against the Chinese scholarly trend to make ambitious links between ancient citations and living folk practice, but here is one case where I totally support it. Comparable to the centrality of the keyboard for 18th-century kapellmeisters, the sheng master was the grand director of courtly ritual music right from the Zhou dynasty around the 6th century BCE, with an unmatched understanding of scales and pitches, a custom that has persisted throughout imperial history right down to today. Of all the wise sheng masters we have met in north Chinese villages, Li Qing was among the most outstanding.

Doubtless Irish music has changed in many ways since the 12th century, and that passage is just general enough to allow us to discern parallels that may not add up to so much—but still, it’s impressive.

More Irish music

There I was on tour in Ireland, playing Mozart’s first opera Apollo and Hyacinthus, which enjoys the added blessing of being short, so we could go on to sessions in local pubs. One night in the pub after a gig across the border in Armagh, an old codger got chatting to me, and told me of his father Jimmy.

Notionally a shopkeeper, Jimmy gave little thought to the business, instead spending all his time in his back room with his mates playing old tunes and getting pleasantly pissed. They were all pretty rubbish, but had a great time, scraping away ineptly on their fiddles. One day in a break Jimmy switches on the wireless to hear a solemn announcement:

“It is with deep regret that we announce the death of the celebrated concert violinist Mr Jascha Heifetz.”

One of the guys looks at him with a tear in his eye and sighs,

“Bejaysus, Jimmy, there ain’t many of us left.”

I wish I’d been able to tell my teacher Hugh Maguire that one. For more stories about Irish music, see the great Cieran Carson; and for Paul Bowles’s story about Yehudi “Monahan”, click here. My posts on Irish music are rounded up here.

Irish music

*Part of my series on Irish music!*

Paul Carthy (1911–2006)

Paul Carthy (1911–2006).

In his brilliant Last Night’s Fun, Ciaran Carson devotes a chapter (“The standard”, pp.91–8) to the mania for soulless competitions—a caveat for Chinese pundits too. A few instances:

Deirdre was once asked to adjudicate the fiddle competition in the County — Fleadh. Unfortunately, the event attracted no entrants; but the competition had to happen and a winner be selected. It so happened that a Mr X, generally regarded as the best fiddle-player in the area, might well have gone in for it; however, he couldn’t be got out of the pub, except for the official free high-tea that it was his duty to attend. Deirdre was dispatched to the tea-room above the hall, and managed to inveigle Mr X into playing the requisite reel, jig, and slow air, in between the soup, the salad sandwiches, and the jelly trifle. He was then presented with an enormous trophy, much to his surprise.

And

I was once present at a singing competition in the town of —, in the province of —. The adjudicators were the well-known singers Mr Y and Mr Z. The venue was the local Temperance Hall. The competition started rather late, as the adjudicators found it difficult to leave the nearby pub. They eventually arrived with a brown paper bag which they discreetly shared under the trestle table. At the finale, everyone was awarded medals. The adjudicators sang a duet. Everyone was happy. Everyone felt well-adjudicated.

Another story, from the 1908 Freeman’s Journal:

“Our country musicians are possessed of the talent of music and have in their minds the beautiful in it, but they cannot reproduce them, for they lach the technical means of doing so.” Applause. “Were they reasonably educated they would produce a race of musicians worthy of our history. Again, we had those who believed that Irish music should be rendered in scales of unusual construction. [SJ: shades of de Selby?!] Many scales existed in ancient times, but, alas, those who could teach us have gone. Because a singer or player, through lack of technical means, sang or played with a total disregard of any correctness of intonation, that did not qualify them to claim that they were using a scale of unusual construction. The majority of them did not adhere to the accepted musical scale, not that they used any other form of scale, but that their ear being totally untrained, they involuntarily produced a music not in any one scale, but in an infinity of scales of impossible construction.” Laughter and applause.

Mr Darley then gave his violin recital of Irish airs.

Most delightful is Carson’s citation of a fine story from Mick Hoy—a caveat to reverse musical snobbery:

There were these three fiddlers once upon a time.
And they were in for this competition
And the first one came up
and he was dressed in a dress-suit
and he had a dicky-bow and bib on him.
And the fiddle-case was made out of crocodile skin.
And when he brought out the fiddle,
what was it, but a Stradivarius.
And he started to play,
and beGod, he was desperate.

And the second fiddler came up
and he was wearing a nice Burton’s suit
and a matching handkerchief and tie
and socks with clocks on them.
And he had a nice wooden case
and not a bad fiddle in it,
so he got it out and started to play,
and beGod, he was desperate.

 And the third fiddler came up
and the elbows was out of his jacket
and the toes peeping from his shoes,
and the fiddle-case was tied with bits of wire
and when he brought out the fiddle,
there was more strings on the fiddle
than there was on the bow.
And he started to play.
And beGod, he was desperate too.

Note also Alexei Sayle’s pithy critique of ballroom dancing.

Family history

Waterloo

Overheard (allegedly) by Flann O’Brien:

“D’you know, Geoffrey, only last night I learnt many interesting things about my family. D’you know that my great-grandfather was killed at Waterloo?”

“Rayully, sweetness, which platform?”

The golden head was tossed in disdain.

“How ridiculous you are, Geoffrey. As if it mattered which platform.”