15 January 2017

Scottish Fiddle Music Versus Irish Fiddle Music (A Non-Competitive Duel)

In one of several well-known online variations on a theme, words attributed to the 16th President of the USA, Abraham Lincoln (who died in 1865), have him commenting that “The thing about quotes from the internet is that it’s hard to verify their authenticity.”

One music-related quote you can find on the internet has been variously linked to Laurie Anderson, Steve Martin, Frank Zappa, Elvis Costello and Thelonius Monk. It is:

“Talking (or writing) about music is like dancing about architecture.”

An analysis on quoteinvestigator.com, suggests it was the humorist, Martin Mull, who originated that version of the statement. An alternative has it that it is “like singing about economics”.

The problem highlighted seems to be that talking about music is pointless because it is its own language.

So, on we go with a – probably pointless – discussion about an issue in music that is relevant us in the SFO:

Scottish Fiddle Music versus Irish Fiddle Music.

With the SFO having enjoyed a memorable weekend and concert in Belfast in October 2016, it’s an opportunity to reflect on the links and differences between Scottish and Irish fiddle music.

This is the kind of argument where there can be no conclusion and no “winner”. A lot of Irish tunes originally came from Scotland and vice versa, as there has always been steady migration between the two countries.

The SFO’s repertoire features much Irish music and it is a rare SFO concert which does not feature some Irish melody or song (and, often, there are many). Indeed, one of the SFO’s most beloved members was an Irishman.

Discussion forums on the internet contain opinions of random, anonymous strangers.

Posts are often laced with sarcasm and just intended to wind everyone else up.

Keeping that in mind, here are some quotes we liked, taken from The Session website – which has a forum frequented by players and enthusiasts of Irish Traditional Music, many of whom are Scottish and all of whom like a bit of fun (tinged with sarcasm and wind-ups).

“Irish music is Scottish music with its corsets off.”

“One is from Scotland and the other is from Ireland. Except each is influenced by the other.”

“Which one is from Scotland and which one is from Ireland?”

“Basically you can tell fairly accurately if a tune is Scottish or Irish by using the “He-Durum Haw-Durum” test for Scottish music (Reels are more like Hee-Drum Haw-Drum and so on) and the more “didley-didley” a tune is the more Irish it sounds.”

“Generally if you hear a tune and think: “Oh! That was bloody good!” – it’s probably Scottish. Likewise, if your response is: “I kinda liked that.” – you can bet your credentials it’s most probably some diddly Irish reel or some such.”

“[T]he differences [between Irish and Scottish traditional music] are more like an accent than a whole different language.”

The Lonesome Touch

The following quote is taken from the liner notes to Martin Hayes and Dennis Cahill’s fiddle / guitar album “The Lonesome Touch” (1996). It’s written from an Irish music perspective but the sentiments can apply equally to the Scottish tradition – or any music tradition.

There’s a definite risk of ‘dancing about architecture’ here, of course, but what he says rings true and avoids pretentiousness:

“The Lonesome Touch is a phrase I have heard in my native County Clare all my life. It is used to describe a person’s music. It is the intangible aspect of music that is both elusive and essential. The word “lonesome” expresses a sadness, a blue note, a sour note. Even though the music bares the trace of struggle and of pain, it is also the means of uplift, transcendence to joy and celebration. The lonesome touch is something that is difficult to achieve. One is forced to put the requirements of the music before all personal considerations, to play honestly from the heart with no motive other than the selfless expression of joy and beauty for their own sake. For the most part, it remains the unobtainable horizon, the object of inspiration and motivation.”

If you think of your favourite fiddler playing your favourite slow air (Irish, Scottish or otherwise), that probably chimes with Martin Hayes’ words. The language of words and the language of music in perfect harmony.

Image credit: Blarney Castle, Co. Cork, Ireland by Fleur Treurniet via Unsplash.com