Music from the Donegal tradition
Alasdair FraserOf the instruments associated with Irish traditional instrumental music, the fiddle has enjoyed an enduring and resilient popularity since its introduction to Ireland in the late seventeenth century. The instrument's range and flexibility, its relatively low cost, its portability and its appeal to performers and listeners alike have ensured that Irish traditional fiddle music has thrived in Ireland and abroad (in areas of Irish settlement) particularly in this century. Irish traditional music, vocal and instrumental, is essentially a solo art which survives and circulates mainly by oral transmission. Despite massive and frequently traumatic changes in the structures of Irish society over the last two hundred years, traditional music has successfully adapted to meet the changes. Once almost an exclusively rural art form, traditional music is now probably played and heard most often in Ireland's larger towns and cities. Dublin, Galway, Belfast, Cork have a thriving traditional music scene, as do London, Birmingham, New York, Boston. The richness of traditional music in Ireland arises from the huge diversity in attitudes, repertoires and techniques which distinguish personal, local and regional styles of playing and interpretation. While the basic melodic and rhythmic structures tunes of the music are relatively uncomplicated and straightforward, how individual performers choose to interpret identical tunes can vary enormously within small geographic areas. The stylistic differences between players from more widely separated areas can be even more remarkable and underscore the central role of the solo performer as the principal force in the transmission and development of traditional music as a vibrant contemporary artform. While the fortunes of traditional music in this century can be reasonably described as happy, so far, there are some negative effects associated with the great revival of interest and participation in the music. The emergence of ethnic music as a commercially viable commodity in the United States of America in the early years of this century [1991] resulted in the release there of thousands of discs of Irish traditional music played by musicians from many parts of Ireland, representing a wide variety of styles. The impact of these commercial recordings on musicians and listeners in Ireland at the time was considerable, and it is recognised today that the prestige associated with the appearance of familiar folk tunes on disc and their widespread, if erratic, availability led to the virtual canonisation of versions of tunes, styles of performing, and even medleys of tunes. Among the Irish traditional musicians in the United States of America who had the most lasting impact on traditional music in Ireland were the Sligo fiddle players Michael Coleman, James Morrison and Paddy Killoran. It is not at all unusual nowadays to hear their versions of tunes and their actual medleys performed by musicians from all parts of Ireland on practically any appropriate instrument. In more recent times, especially since the emergence of traditional music ensembles and bands who perform often elaborate and highly stylised arrangements of traditional material, the tendency among young players to model their approach to playing on the eclectic styles promoted by such bands has led to the neglect of the rich body of local style and repertoire still accessible in many parts of the island. Likewise the influence of the broadcast media, record companies and other agents whose interests in the materials of traditional music may often be led by less than musical criteria, has contributed to a large degree to the erosion of many distinctive stylistic traits and to the standardisation of both performing style and repertoire. Nevertheless, the strength and vitality of some areas of the instrumental tradition which have been neglected (in the sense of not having enjoyed or been subject to the attentions of various external media), is beyond question. It can be argued that the artistic integrity/conservatism/conformity to long established tradition, which maintains the unique and distinctive body of music associated with a particular region, has depended to a certain degree, on the lack of acquisitive interest shown by the media and other bodies in that region. In recent times, most noticeably in the last ten years, the rich body of fiddle music associated with Donegal has been the subject of much interest and attention. A large number of tunes whose circulation was virtually restricted to the confines of the county entered the mainstream repertoire through the playing of a handful of young musicians in places like Dublin, Derry, Cork, Belfast and Galway. The establishment of a range of events in the south-west end of the county (Festivals, Concerts, Annual Summer School) together with television/radio exposure and commercial recordings of recognised master players from Donegal such as Francie Byrne, John Doherty, Mickey Doherty, James Byrne, Proinsias O Maonaigh, Mirad n Mhaonaigh, Vincent Campbell and John Gallagher have all assisted in the recognition of the diversity, quality and musical excellence of the living tradition of fiddle music in the county. Likewise, the renaissance of interest within the county has resulted in a marked increase in the number of young people playing or following Donegal fiddle music. Uilleann pipeWhat is it that makes this music, this style so distinctive and so remarkable? How is it that the music of this region is so different from that of the neighbouring counties Sligo, Leitrim and Fermanagh each of which has well known traditions of instrumental and vocal music? The answers to these questions are suggested by a number of factors, although definitive and comprehensive research on the subject remains to be done. The geographic isolation and relative inaccessibility of many parts of the county along with the socio-economic background which gave rise to much contact with, and seasonal migration to parts of Scotland (and occasionally Shetland) have made their mark on Donegal fiddle music. The long tradition of piping in the county (highland bagpipe as opposed to bellow-blown Irish or Uilleann pipe [see photo]) has also contributed to certain characteristics of the fiddle sound and repertoire. The connection with Scotland finds musical expression in not only technical matters such as bowing and fairly stark, unadorned fingerwork, but also in the assumption of distinctively Scottish tune types and rhythms such as the Strathspey into the repertoire. The Strathspey is widely recognised as a classic Scottish fiddle metre, and the type was developed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries into the complex form in which it is known today. The classic Scottish approach to Strathspey playing calls for intricate bowing, and the music is essentially for playing and listening, not for dancing. In Donegal, Strathspey tunes are regularly played as 'highlands' and their principal function is as the music for steps danced by a couple. The emphasis is on rhythm for dancing, and the 'highland' is notable for the lively swing and fluidity of bowing as much as its ostensibly Scottish sound or feel. The 'highland' as a metre is also well served by tunes specially composed for the dance, as well as by reels which have been broken down or adapted for the dance. Without doubt, the way in which the bow is used in Donegal is what dictates the rhythm, pulse and drive of the music. While it is difficult and dangerous to generalise or lay down principles and rules, it is accurate to state that what the listener hears a lot of the time is fast, single-stroke bowing, occasionally quite staccato and peppered with staccato triplets. The use of finger ornamentation is certainly less than in much of the fiddle music from counties Clare [see photo]Martin Hayes at Feakle Festival (Co. Clare) - August 2002, Sligo and Kerry, but it is not accurate to suggest that it is almost wholly absent. The listener tends to hear a lot of tunes in 4/4 time, mainly reels but also highlands, hornpipes, barndances and other dance-specific melodies. Jigs in 6/8, 9/8 and 12/8 also feature as a number of types of polkas, but these are virtual rarities in the current repertoire. The rules governing performance are loose and ill defined, if indeed they can be defined at all, but it is fair to say that duets, trios and larger groups are heard more often than soloists nowadays. Usually tunes will be played in medleys of two or three, and more often than not the duration of a medley will not be established until performance gets under way. Players will agree and indicate that they wish to change to the second or third tune of a medley by visible, audible or other gestures and a medley will conclude by similar agreement. Most traditional Irish dance tunes consist of two or more 'parts' (eight-bar sections), and each part t is played single (once) or double (twice) before moving on to the next part or returning to the beginning of the tune which may be repeated with variations and embellishments several times. Within the confines of a tune, a good player has ample opportunities for melodic and rhythmic improvisation and variation, and a wide array of ornamentation may be employed at the discretion of the player. The ornamentation may involve fingerwork, bowing or a sophisticated combination of both (such as the use of fourth finger drones, double stopping). When two or more fiddlers play together, it is a common practice for one player to play the melody, or the suitable parts of a melody, in lower octave. This can add depth, richness and interesting colours to the music, and offers opportunities for lively musical interchanges between players. The practice of octave playing is associated with the fiddling traditions of both Donegal and Kerry and older players from these areas state that besides creating a richer and more fulfilling sound for the players, it also meant that fiddlers involved in playing for dances in houses could be heard more easily by the dancers. The names of traditional tunes are frequently the cause of some confusion, amusement and debate. Generally speaking the title of a tune serves only to identify that tune, rather than describe it as a piece of music. Titles can preserve the name of a player's source (e.g. Ciaran O Reilly's, Reavy's, Coleman's etc) or can refer to unknown, mythical or forgotten individuals and their personalities (e.g. Gusty's Frolicks, Frainc a'Phoill, The Wild Irishman), or events and places (e.g. The Mullingar Races, The Glen Road to Carrick, The Wedding Jig) and others may reflect the whims of either the anonymous composers or the players from whom the tunes are generated (e.g. The Jug of Punch, The Pigeon on the Gate). There are also a number of descriptive, novelty or trick pieces whose titles refer to particular effects or parts of the tune (e.g. The Four Posts of the Bed, The Postman's Knock, the Farting Badger, The Atlantic Roar). In any case, it is true to say that in most cases the title of a tune is relatively unimportant, hence the number tunes which share the same title and the number and bewildering variety of titles which are often attached to particular tunes.