strathspey Archive: the Cape Breton strathspey connection...

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the Cape Breton strathspey connection...

Message 6120 · Joseph Shelby · 13 Jan 1997 20:51:14 · Top

>>It was interesting because as a result of a change of speed, we acheived
>>a normal performance of the tune, a dance which participants enjoyed and
>>solved a puzzle with respect to the apparent distinction between step
>>dancing and country dancing.
>
>This is really exciting to me to find out that people are experimenting and
>trying to figure out what must be "between" Cape Breton dancing and Country
>dancing. Sort of like filling in the missing links.
>- Kate D.

I was thinking about this one this weekend, and I think the "missing
links"
metaphore might be inappropriate; a "common root origin" is more likely
the
case here. There seem to be three styles of "strathspey playing" out
there:
Modern Country Dance form (generally graceful, 60bpm), Modern Pipe Band
form
(slightly faster, but very precise; style is used for modern competitive
highland dancing as well, and the rhythm can get indistinguishable from
a
Scottische rhythm to the untrained ear), and Cape Breton form (much
faster,
80-110 pbm; wilder; to the untrained ear, one might even call it a jig).

I don't think any of these are "how it was done then" as Hamish and
Maggie
Moore have asserted concerning the Cape Breton style, though perhaps the
Cape Breton style is closest. All three of these are derivations from a
common origin, which undoubtably doesn't exist anymore, and the best we
can
do is guess; and our guesses will probably always be off, based on the
lack
of recordings in the 16th-18th centuries. :(

I support the Cape Breton style as being "closest" based on a few
factors:

I agree with the Moores' assertion the the "Pipe Band" and competition
has
affected piping styles in Scotland proper. This affect of competition
changing music has a strong parallel in the competitions changing the
dancing, both in Scotland and Ireland. Now competitions can have a
positive
affect of keeping the dancing alive; I believe the lack of "competition"
in
hard-sole step dancing in scotland led to its demise in the early 20th
century, which makes the subsequent "discovery" of Cape Breton step such
a
suprise to younger native Scots (to the older ones, it was not much of a
surprise at all...they remembered the stepping, once it was reintroduced
to
them in the late 1950s). Hamish Moore believes that the military pipe
bands
and their need to play in perfect unison has greatly affected piping
styles
in Scotland, and actually made the pipes more difficult to dance to.
(When
you get a piper who can actually play for dancing (and do it WELL),
count
yourselves very fortunate). To quote: "Competitions have in fact
encouraged
technical correctness to the detriment of musicality". (I've made
similar
comments about the affect of competition on dancing in the past).

It has been shown that Country Dance strathspeys got slower, after the
formation of the Society. This is part of a chain of changes, each
leading
to the next, that seems to have taken place since the 1920's. (Now this
is
based on discussions here, and personal observations; I unfortunately do
not
recall what was stated concerning the speed of strathspeys on the old
78's
and 45's that groups like the San Fransisco branch have in their
posession).
It seems the changes started from the (slight) change in the step away
from
the "123hop" or "kemshoole", both described in the Flett works as being
common in the 19th century. The change was made possible by the use of
the
ghillie over the hard-sole shoes/heels common in general dancing circles
(when SCD dances were dance in the same program as "Old Time Dances",
1880-1914).

The standardization of stepping, however, led to the application of the
standard step to dances done to music that was close, but not quite, a
strathspey: the "song aire". This new (well, old, but new to dancing)
rhythm was slightly different from the strathspey rhythm, and the
rhythmic
change has (I believe, and other have asserted here as well) led to
changes
again in how the step is used in certain figures (in particular, I
believe
the current practice in ending bar 4 of a circle with just a "graceful
in
and out" over a more defined "close in third", is a side effect of the
fact
that song aires don't emphasis beat 4 of a measure the way a strathspey
rhythm does).

The song aires being slower than strathspeys might have caused the
dances to
be danced slower than strathspeys, and then the strathspeys might have
been
slowed down to match, since until _very_ recently there's been little in
the
way of public distinction of the differences between the two. Musicians
certainly know the difference. At a recent lecture given here in DC by
Barbara McOwen, she stated that one time she was given a dance program
that
to the dancers seemed like a great program, but to musicians it ended up
rather boring: all 4 "strathspeys" in the program were actually song
aires.

(Dance program planners: keep this in mind. A balance of song aires to
strathspeys is just as important as a balance of jigs to reels)

As for Cape Breton: To assert that the Cape Breton style is truly
linked to
Scotland, one has to find an occurrence of the Cape Breton style within
Scotland, somewhere...Since its not really to be found in piping and
fiddling circles due to the above reasons, one needs to look somewhere
else.

I find that the common style does survive in the Puirt a Beul, the mouth
music. After the first Jacobite revolts (1690), and again after the
'45,
the pipes became a banned instrument by the English overlords. Two
instruments, both of which were also playing the tunes, came to the
forefront: the fiddle, and the voice. The mouth music singing carried
the
pipe tradition along, creating specific sylables and sounds that were
meant
to emulate the pipe and its grace-note techniques (in fact, these sounds
were then used to re-teach pipe fingering after the bans were lifted).

The mouth music was also used for dancing, and as a result the singers
carried on the traditions of "March, Strathspey, and Reel" and
"Strathspey
and Reel", based on the piping style of the time. This mouth music
survived
(barely) the loss of the language in the highlands, and is a growing
tradition again. Stylistically, the mouth music form of the strathspey
(as
performed in old National Geographic records from the 1950s and 1970s,
plus
more recent groups like the well-respected Sileas) is far closer to the
Cape
Breton style than either the modern piping style or the modern country
dance
style.

Why do I not consider the Cape Breton style to be "pure" highland style?

All influences will have an effect over time; we've seen how the ghillie
and song are could have affected country dance strathspeys, and how the
aspect of "unison playing" and competition have affected native Scottish
piping strathspeys. Though neither of those influences appear in Cape
Breton, the introduction of the piano and the Cape Breton piano style,
I think, did have an effect on the playing. They (Cape Breton
musicians)
assert that the piano style reflected the dancing style, but then again,
the dancing style did begin to change in the early 20th century as the
older dance schools on the island began to close down and people were
learning the dancing through "osmosis" rather than formal training. By
1920, the reels and more precise solo dances were becoming a rarity, and
people just "stepped to the music"; the music created a (relatively) new
form of dance, rather than reflecting the dancing. I believe the
cycle continued as the music reflected the new dancing, leading to
its modern form.

what to do about it?

I personally disagree with those who think a 60bpm strathspey "sucks"
(and
i've heard that comment on more than one occasion). The drama and
tension
(both in the music, the dance, and the dancers legs trying to move so
slowly
:) is what makes a country dance strathspey work. In the slower speed,
there is room for dynamics and building that can make for a magical
dance
that might be lost if you just "plough through it at high speeds" (and
i've
experienced that magic from many of the musical groups i've danced for).
While I don't necessarily care for song aires myself, and I think the
overuse of song aires can lead to sloppy strathspey stepping, they are
still
now a part of our modern SCD tradition, and do still belong. Just keep
them
balanced, and an evening can remain magical.

However, I think some "experimentation" might be desired. We've all
enjoyed
dancing "slightly faster" strathspey steps to Glasgow Highlanders;
perhaps
we should try the "slightly faster" tempo to other strathspeys,
particularly
older ones like Monemusk or Tulloch Gorum and others that utilize pure
"highland" tunes. Just an experiment...I don't know if it'll work or
not.

Another option is to re-introduce the old reels on a more general basis.
I
feel the loss of the highland reel to strictly competition is a great
detriment to a beautifully elegant dance. Think about it: for eight
bars,
you are dancing with _everybody_. those in your set as you pass each
one,
those in the sets nearby as you meet them on the ends. Then for eight
bars,
its an absolute focus, you and your partner (at the time, remember that
the
men in the middle change places during each reel), giving each other the
best stepping you've got. All the while, having to remain completely
focused also on the musician. In the old days, it wasn't necessarily
"32bars and 32bars"; the piper could play whatever tunes wanted, and the
dancers actually had to _LISTEN_ to the music to catch what he was
playing;
particularly if he suddenly switched to "Reel of Tulloch". Simple, yet
elegant.

As a modest proposal, I think that groups should start teaching some of
the
old reels and some highland steps, and also the Cape Breton reels and
steps;
simple once-or-twice-in-a-season workshops will probably suffice, not
part
of the regular class by any means.

But the groups should also give more chances to use the lessons of those
workshops. Put a "reel" or a Cape Breton circular reel into an
evening's
program. Give people a chance to really workout what they've learned.
In
the case of the highland reel, simply remind dancers who've not done the
recent workshop that steps like "Highland Scottish", "Glasgow
Highlanders",
and "coupe pas-de-basq" are perfectly useful for the setting portions;
this
should help out of towners (from areas that haven't adopted this kind of
policy) from feeling out of place.

If these outlets for "performance" aren't there, the steps will simply
be
forgotten until the next workshop, and that does niether the dancer nor
the
dance itself any good at all.

This kind of approach to the reels I think is beneficial to all
involved.
The dancers learn new (and fun) dances and steps, the musicians get to
play
in more styles, and the dances can start to get the more widespread
appeal I
(and many others) think they deserve.

Joe Shelby
--
for the Moore's articles on Cape Breton music and dancing, check out
http://sunsite.unc.edu/gaelic/john/subversion/ssm.html

I don't agree that the change in Scottish music is a "subversion".
Changes can be healthy, so long as the older style isn't forgotten
or treated as "lesser" to the newer.
--
-------------------------------------------------------------------
Joseph Shelby mailto:acroyear@io.com
7401 Englewood Pl. #3 http://www.io.com/~acroyear
Annandale, VA 22003 (703) 658-0167 | 247-7868
Software Engineer, ISX Corporation, Arlington, VA
"Nice boy, but about as sharp as a sack of wet mice."
-- Foghorn Leghorn
-------------------------------------------------------------------

the Cape Breton strathspey connection...

Message 6124 · Joseph Shelby · 13 Jan 1997 23:25:24 · Top

Joseph Shelby wrote:
> I was thinking about this one this weekend, and I think the "missing
> links"
> metaphore might be inappropriate; a "common root origin" is more likely
> the
> case here. There seem to be three styles of "strathspey playing" out
> there:

etc...
sorry 'bout the word wrapping...had i known netscape was gonna do that
i would have used an alternate mailer...

something tells me that to get a mail program that does what i need
to do _and nothing more_, i'm just gonna have to write one myself... :(

joe
--
-------------------------------------------------------------------
Joseph Shelby mailto:acroyear@io.com
7401 Englewood Pl. #3 http://www.io.com/~acroyear
Annandale, VA 22003 (703) 658-0167 | 247-7868
Software Engineer, ISX Corporation, Arlington, VA
"Nice boy, but about as sharp as a sack of wet mice."
-- Foghorn Leghorn
-------------------------------------------------------------------

the Cape Breton strathspey connection...

Message 6185 · Jack Campin · 15 Jan 1997 14:30:33 · Top

Joe Shelby wrote:
> The mouth music singing carried the pipe tradition along, creating
> specific sylables and sounds that were meant to emulate the pipe and
> its grace-note techniques (in fact, these sounds were then used to
> re-teach pipe fingering after the bans were lifted).

I've never heard this before, and I can't see any resemblance between the two
known forms of canntaireachd (pipe syllables) and any mouth music I've heard -
the latter is usually a mixture of meaningful words and random gibberish
invented because it sounds good; canntaireachd uses only a few stereotyped
syllables and would sound pretty boring to dance to.

> The mouth music was also used for dancing, and as a result the singers
> carried on the traditions of "March, Strathspey, and Reel" and "Strathspey
> and Reel", based on the piping style of the time. This mouth music
> survived (barely) the loss of the language in the highlands, and is a
> growing tradition again.

The last statement strikes me as a bit over-enthusiastic. Only a very small
number of people are involved. OK, there are other aspects of folk tradition
that have usually had very few carriers; just don't expect to find people
doing it round the pool table in the pub in Portree of an evening.

> Stylistically, the mouth music form of the strathspey (as performed in old
> National Geographic records from the 1950s and 1970s, plus more recent
> groups like the well-respected Sileas) is far closer to the Cape Breton
> style than either the modern piping style or the modern country dance
> style.

At least at the start (I haven't talked to them for a while) Sileas got
their stuff from archives like those of the School of Scottish Studies
(where Patsy did her degree) - they aren't music collectors and aren't
an independent source of information about older traditions (and wouldn't
claim to be).

> As a modest proposal, I think that groups should start teaching some of
> the old reels and some highland steps, and also the Cape Breton reels and
> steps; simple once-or-twice-in-a-season workshops will probably suffice,
> not part of the regular class by any means.

People in Edinburgh might be interested in a workshop being run by the
Adult Learning Project Scots Music Group, where the whole weekend (for
both dancers and musicians) is based on the "Flowers of Edinburgh" - Mats
Melin is teaching the dance part, and he has seven different hardshoe
Scottish variants and a number of Cape Breton ones. The event is at
Bruntsfield School, Montpelier, Edinburgh, February 8th and 9th; contact
the Scots Music Group at (+44) 131 337 5442.

Anybody tried doing a whole programme of SCD to mouth music?

----------------------------------------------------------------------------
jack@purr.demon.co.uk - Jack Campin, 2 Haddington Place, Edinburgh EH7 4AE

the Cape Breton strathspey connection...

Message 6194 · Joseph Shelby · 15 Jan 1997 18:20:58 · Top

Jack Campin wrote:
>
> Joe Shelby wrote:
> > The mouth music singing carried the pipe tradition along, creating
> > specific sylables and sounds that were meant to emulate the pipe and
> > its grace-note techniques (in fact, these sounds were then used to
> > re-teach pipe fingering after the bans were lifted).
>
> I've never heard this before, and I can't see any resemblance between the two
> known forms of canntaireachd (pipe syllables) and any mouth music I've heard -
> the latter is usually a mixture of meaningful words and random gibberish
> invented because it sounds good; canntaireachd uses only a few stereotyped
> syllables and would sound pretty boring to dance to.

it depends on if you view the pipe syllables as a form of mouth music.
my source for this was an interview with Talitha MacKenzie by
Fiona Ritchie on an episode of "Thistle and Shamrock", around 1993,
just prior to the release of Talitha's "Solas" album. The album
contains an a cappella track that features a tune where her singing
is emulating the style of the early portion of a pipe piobracht;
the tune does have words as well as these pipe sounds.

> > The mouth music was also used for dancing, and as a result the singers
> > carried on the traditions of "March, Strathspey, and Reel" and "Strathspey
> > and Reel", based on the piping style of the time. This mouth music
> > survived (barely) the loss of the language in the highlands, and is a
> > growing tradition again.
>
> The last statement strikes me as a bit over-enthusiastic. Only a very small
> number of people are involved. OK, there are other aspects of folk tradition
> that have usually had very few carriers; just don't expect to find people
> doing it round the pool table in the pub in Portree of an evening.

interest in the "folk culture" has always been small since the victorian
era.
if it couldn't be easily commercialized into a "highland games", it
wasn't
likely to survive the victorian reconstructions of highland culture.

and maybe not around the pool table, but mouth music is becoming
something of a growing feature at pub sessions. Craig Cockburn
lives in Edinburgh, and often can be found in pub sessions singing
mouth music among the instrumental musicians around...(Craig is a
regular of "rec.music.celtic" and maintains the "soc.culture.scottish"
FAQ) *(see below)

as for "growing tradition", groups like Runrig and Capercaillie, as
well as individuals like Talitha, have been writing new gaelic lyrics
and tunes in the mouth music styles (as well as in more contemporary
styles). yes, they are few in number, but what do you expect from
a relatively dead language, from a culture pretty much condemned
by the ruling authority for 400 years (since James VI/I).

> At least at the start (I haven't talked to them for a while) Sileas got
> their stuff from archives like those of the School of Scottish Studies
> (where Patsy did her degree) - they aren't music collectors and aren't
> an independent source of information about older traditions (and wouldn't
> claim to be).

i didn't mean to imply that they were. in fact, the national geographic
recordings were done with the cooperation of the school for scottish
studies, if i recall. (and can anybody be considered an "independent
source"?)

> Anybody tried doing a whole programme of SCD to mouth music?

no, and i probably wouldn't want to. one or two dances in
an evening might be nice though. Barbara McOwen has a CD out that
has a few dances featuring mouth music (not a capella, though;
fiddles, piano, and an accordian are playing along). the only
strathspey is MacDonald of the Isles (3x32). i wouldn't want to
try to sing a whole 8x32 8 minute strathspey, personally :)

joe
--
-------------------------------------------------------------------
Joseph Shelby mailto:acroyear@io.com
7401 Englewood Pl. #3 http://www.io.com/~acroyear
Annandale, VA 22003 (703) 658-0167 | 247-7868
Software Engineer, ISX Corporation, Arlington, VA
"Nice boy, but about as sharp as a sack of wet mice."
-- Foghorn Leghorn
-------------------------------------------------------------------
* for the net newbie:
"rec.music.celtic" and "soc.culture.scottish" are "newsgroups" from
a legacy net system called usenet. with newsgroups, rather than
receiving each posting by mail, as the strathspey list does, the
postings are kept on news servers and cloned to other news servers.
from the usenet systems, the tendency to keep seeing a new newbie
posting a question already answered led to the "FAQ", the
Frequently Asked Questions file, a q&a text for the subjects
often discussed to the point that regulars are sick of mentioning
them. the FAQ's are posted to the newsgroup on a regular basis,
usually monthly, and can be found collected on some ftp and www
sites. if interested in usenet, ask your internet provider...
end of shameless plug :)

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