Installment 1: Structure in Irish Tunes
The Irish dance tune tradition lends itself to structural study because a large and varied repertoire exists which maintains great precision and coherency from tune to tune. That is to say, tunes that share a large proportion of distinctive features, that are similar according to the "markers" of the style, will still be differentiated and considered as different tunes. However, many variants also exist that are recognized as such by players, different individual, instrumental or regional "settings" of a given tune.
Merely detailing the intricate webwork of relationships and parameters of change that affect the dance tunes is staggering in its implications. Some of these parameters might be generalized to other musical forms, others are specific to the Irish tradition. I use a working definition of a "tradition" as: a structured system of meanings assigned to alternative pathways of change. Let's look at Irish music as an in depth example to see what that means in practice.
Improvisation usually involves varying some elements of a musical event while, presumably, other elements remain constant. A tradition supplies a set of structuring patterns which discriminate between appropriate and inappropriate improvisations. In jazz, the chord changes continue (though substitutions may be used) while essentially a new melody is improvised "on" or "over" the changes. In Irish music the situation is different for many reasons. Harmony, or chordal base, may be present or, more important, might be superimposed on the tune, but could not really be said to be the shaping factor in the tune's construction. (At least I believe this was true of many of the older tunes.)
Instead, an Irish tune is an interlocked series of melodic motives, which form a kind of mosaic amongst themselves. Because the modal and rhythmic domain of the style is so specific, and the number of tunes so great, the "alternative pathways" which branch off from any particular tune are tightly constrained. One might say that the totality of tunes in a player's active memory exist in a kind of musical space, wherein structural reminiscences or similarities draw tunes "closer" while contrasts and polarities draw them farther apart. The art, then, is to find a way to play the tune differently every time through, but at all times to evoke the essence of that tune and no other. This art is all the more subtle when player and listener know, in effect, the tunes being "avoided" as well as the tune that is being played.
Thus woven into the basic structure of the melodies of the tradition are a silent, unheard language of the pathways taken and avoided, the crowded thoroughfare of the music's gradual spiderwebbing of the realm of imaginable tunes. Yet beyond these basic axes of change there are many others as well. A few are mentioned here simply to convey the richness of the shared community of associations carried in this amorphous thing we call a genre or a tradition:
The dance tune tradition consists of many different dance rhythms. Jigs, reels, hornpipes, slipjigs, marches, polkas, slides, schottisches, waltzes, planxties, slow airs and laments brush shoulders now and then with odd cousinsmazurkas, barn dances, single reels, single jigs or hop jigs. Without detailing for now the distinctions between these different dance forms, it is possible to find melodic threads which link a slow air with a jig, reel or set dance (such as the Blackbird family) with name sometimes a clue and sometimes a misleading one. There exist jigs which are transformed versions of reels, and vice versa.
The modal system in Irish music is based on the D scale, and includes D with unstable F and C, e dorian, g, a and B. C tunes (particularly on accordion), G minor (particular to fiddle) and other exceptions exist, but this is the modal basis for the music. Every or nearly every melodic motive in the music can be transposed to each mode, but the actual pitch relationships between the constituent notes may change when translated onto the "gap" of a pentatonic scale. Also, since one prime mode of variation within the tune is alternation between neighboring tones (What in one phrase is D, in the repetition becomes C or E) shapes will expand or contract to fit the contour of the new modal neighborhood.
The instrumental corpus includes Uillean pipes, fiddle, flute, tinwhistle, concertina, mouth-organ, melodeon and accordion (the free-reed family), the bodhran or tambourine, and in recent years the piano, guitar, bouzouki, cittern, mandolin and various other plucked stringed instruments. Of the more staunchly upheld traditional instruments, each has its own idiomatic fingering, melodic habits, characteristic styles of ornamentation, and so forth. Certain tunes exist which are thought of as great fiddle tunes, flute tunes and so forth (not impossible on other instruments but particularly suited to one). Yet great players demonstrate mastery by adapting tunes normally thought of as best suited for another instrument and making it fit their own.
Regional styles by all accounts, were more highly marked than they are now, but Donegal, Clare, Galway, Sligo, Kerry, Fermanagh, Cork and other counties still have distinctive repertoires and styles that evoke specific associations to musicians, even if individuals from these areas may have heard a variety of music and play in a style not entirely representative of their area (this is especially the case with many younger players). Tunes change shape and character as they pass among regional settings, and each region has its own tunes as well. But in the modern era, to the extent that the regional styles continue, they almost become modes unto themselves.
Curious, isn't it, that the casual listener hears what
sounds like the same tune over and over again, while the musician and
the engaged listener hear each rendition, each pass, each strain and flourish
of the tune at the intersection of a vast tangled skein of meanings, connections,
correspondences, symmetries, continuations, delicious perplexities, remembered
and half-forgotten dreams...
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