What is an Air?

What is an Air?

Here is where being a Polish kid from the south side of Chicago really shows through. As I have been trying to learn "The Music" over the past six or so years, I am realizing that I have focused much on the Dance and Session tunes. In the past few days I have crossed several recordings of wonderful slow music, some called airs- in the Session ‘Tunes’ often called many other things (Truth in advertising, Jeremy and I exchanged emails about this in 2010 and he did patiently explain that the Session’s focus is Session and dance music), that have brought the realization of a major gap in my ‘culturization’

Context for the 2010 was my playing in the Fleadh and needing an "air". My teacher John got me through that with a tune that required some research and several emails to Comhaltas to pass Fleadh rules muster.

What defines an ‘air’? Is there a specific body of tunes that are definitively acknowledged as ‘airs’? For example. Is ‘Neil Gow’s Lament for His Second Wife an air? Is Liz Carroll’s "Lament for the First Generation’ an air (I think she defines it as a ‘song’.) These tunes sound very different from tunes called ‘airs’ in my collection of Tony McMahon and Noel Hill

As always, everyone’s kind advice is greatly appreciated.

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There is a wider definition, which could just be a melody, but in the context of ITM, it is often the tune to a song, but not necessarily. It could be defined as a listening tune, rather than a dance tune, and usually played slowly.

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Very nice link. Thanks for sharing

His conclusion is very pessimistic….maybe resigned?

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Airs are slow melodies that are characterized by the fact that they are often not played to a steady rhythm, beat or tempo. You have to listen to a great many airs to get the hang of how they should sound. I think slow airs are the hardest part of ITM for the non-Irish-born to get right.

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The proper musicological definition of ‘air’, I think, is ‘a song melody’ - so it could be anything from Jingle Bells to Summertime. In the context of Irish Traditional Music, however, it means, in its broadest sense ‘any instrumental tune other than a dance tune’ - so it could include song melodies or, for example, the compositions of O’Carolan.

Very often, however, ‘air’ is a by-word for ‘slow air’; this is an instrumental tune, generally coming from the sean-nós (old-style) singing repertoire, played in non-metric rhythm, often richly ornamented, with phrasing based heavily on the natural rhythm of the Irish words (although these are not actually sung). The term ‘slow air’ can be misleading, since, although the tune progresses at a slow pace, it may sometimes be embellished with fast runs of notes.

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The definition is wider than ‘a song melody’ CMO:

Oxford Dictionary of Music:

Air.
(1) Melody.

(2) Comp. of melodious character.

The Italian version of the word - "aria" came to be more associated with vocal music, however.

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Also, the spelling ‘ayre’, though it was an alternative spelling, had different connotation in the period when it was spelled that way:

Ayre.
Medieval spelling of ‘Air’, a type of Eng. song written by Dowland and others, less contrapuntal than a madrigal, being more like a strophic song, with vocal or instr. (usually lute) acc., pubd. in a large book around which the performers could gather.

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An air is not confined to song — there are many airs written for mouth-blown instruments. I have always connected the word ‘air’ with its meaning ‘to make public’ as in air a grievance or air an idea. I have no academic reason for this connection; but I think it best describes what an air actually is.

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It’s all upsetting air waves, innit? They are much easier to play if you are just wearing a G string.

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It is a difficult thing to define when you think about it. I’d be inclined to Weejie’s definition - music that is listened to rather than danced to. But then a lot of jigs, reels, hornpipes etc. are listened to now rather than danced, as per their origin.

You might say they don’t have a fixed rhythm and many don’t but there’s also many pieces that do have a regular rhythm and would be considered airs if you played them..

I didn’t follow the Tony MacMahon link above but I’ve heard him partition the music into geantraí, suantraí and the laments. Geantraí the dance music, suantraí - lullaby or I suppose slow pieces with rhythm and then the laments. It might said that to understand laments that you have to have a history of several hundred years of oppression, poverty and emigration etc. But that’s not unique to the Irish.. And not all airs based on sean nós are laments anyway..

Maybe the best definition is just a feeling for it, a piece that gives pause for thought or reflection??

Mind you, don’t confuse this generalising with what CCE might consider a ‘slow air’ - they’d have a tighter view as far as I know and you’d be expected to play from a well established canon of pieces.

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The CCE view, and likely the most widely understood definition, is that a "slow air" is the melody to a sean nos song, or an instrumental piece in that style. Hence, the Blackbird (slow air, not hornpipe or set dance) is a "slow air", even though it doesn’t have a song to it nowadays. Likewise the Yellow Bittern is a slow air when played on an instrument and a sean nos song when sung in Irish (and English if you are liberal, like me, with the definition of sean nos).

It’s not the same as a "slow" "air", which could just be any old air played at a slow tempo… a "slow air" usually is used to mean the above by traditional musicians. "Air" is indeed any melody, but in the irish traditional context many (most?) musicians would use it to mean the melody of a song that is NOT sean nos, or a melody in a similar style. You might get O’Carolan pieces called an air, for want of a better description… although most musicians I know call them O’Carolan pieces. It’s all just an effort to impart some meaning to people, and completely accurate and precise or not, it’s nice to be able to communicate and have people understand what you mean.

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TWH

Interesting observation on the partitions. CMO touched on something I have had some discussions about as to where O’Carolan’s fit in the scheme of ITM- are they airs, or in one of the partitions other than airds, or a separate form? When I was selecting my air for the last time I took a fly at the Fleadh (It really is a valuable experience, just to make you focus on doing four tunes consistently and well- Lord Knows consistency is not my strong suit!) The person I corresponded with at CCE (to remain nameless) suggested that O’Carolan’s were not truly airs in the traditional sense. So I used an air from the Roche book which worked well.

OTOH, musicians I really respect and have spoken with on this subject take a much more open view of that thought and go to weejies position.

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cross posted with Nico. kind of what I was trying to say about the O’Carolans. Wonderful "pieces" :-)

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O’Carolan tunes may be airs, in the general sense that a tune without words is an air, but they are different from what folks call a slow air. O’Carolan tunes generally have a strict meter, like a dance tune does, while the meter of a slow air generally ebbs and flows. Its not that slow airs have no meter at all, there is a pulse, but it kind of stretches sometimes, generally at the end of phrases. Slow airs are very much shaped by sean nos singing, so it can be useful to know what words go with the tune, and listen to a singer sing it with the words, as the meter, dynamics and phrasing are also used to emphasize key points in the lyrics.
The folks in a session can play a waltz or O’Carolan together easily, because of the fixed meter. But to play a slow air together, or to accompany one, and do it well, requires the folks to know each other pretty darn well.
When I was first starting out, I learned a lot from the book Traditional Slow Airs of Ireland by Tomas O’Canainn, but if you seek that book out, make sure and get the companion CD, as written music is even less of a guide to playing a slow air than it is a guide to playing dance tunes. You really have to hear them.

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Al, I basically said everything you just did, but more succinctly… But unfortunately what you’ve written makes it seem like there are either O’Carolan pieces or slow airs. There are quite a few additional pieces in the general repertoire of irish music that are neither. I won’t even get into the idea of fast sean nos songs (of which I think there are a few) or other livelier (but not pub song) songs.

The way I’ve always used it, and most other people do:
Slow air means something specific (as I defined above)
Air means melody, usually to a song
Piece means it’s not a tune, but could really be any of the above
Tune usually means dance tune, but could be anything without words
Song is what you sing (and has words)
Melody is that bit which is sung or played and is the main part of the piece

I have that slow airs book - it’s not at all accurate for many (all of the ones I looked at while listening to a great singer or musician) of the slow airs included.

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Nico and Al

I suppose the reason the spots don’t line up with the played music has to do with the amount of individual expression/ornament the player puts into it. Yesterday I spent some time listening to the tune played by Tony McMahon in one of the earlier clips Port Na Bpucai which he seems to have made a cottage industry out of- he plays it very well- and several others. Conceptually it is recognizable over the several interpretations, but the expression is very different.

I was trying to hope to find some less often repeated airs than Port Na Bpucai, Wounded Hussar and Aisling Gheal.

Al Thanks for the source. I was also going to check my stack of Roche and O’Neill books- though my experience has been as Nico mentions. The spots show a concept, but the manner played is subject to wide interpretation

Thanks for the thoughts.
Zip

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It seems like in the last few years Port na bPucai has taken off in terms of popularity. But it’s a fantastic air, so I guess I get that.

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"I think slow airs are the hardest part of ITM for the non-Irish-born to get right."

Well, for sure you can (not "will") make nonsense of a slow air if you don’t know that it’s a song tune/don’t know what the song is about/don’t know what the words are/don’t know what the words are in the language of the song/have never heard it sung. I wouldn’t say you have to be "Irish-born", however, to find slow air playing any "easier" than anyone else finds it. A deep understanding of sean-nos and a good degree of musical sensibility are what’s needed and you could have been born in outer Mongolia and have those qualifications.

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"and you could have been born in outer Mongolia and have those qualifications."

Indeed.

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no sessions in Outer Mongolia in the drop down. :-)

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I wonder if CCE would allow—as an air—a song/melody such as An Sean Duine Dóite if played rubato, slowly and seriously. Even though the lyrical content is rather comical.

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"O’Carolan tunes generally have a strict meter, like a dance tune does," says Al Brown. Maybe people play them that way, but that’s the people, not the tunes. Granted you said ‘generally’, but I would still tend to disagree with this rather sweeping statement.

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I’ve heard it played every which way, though never slow and rubato. That’s one the hyper fiddlers usually jump in and run with!

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gam
on the Carolan’s I’ve learned with the assistance of a teacher- strict meter has ruled.

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"I have that slow airs book - it’s not at all accurate for many (all of the ones I looked at while listening to a great singer or musician) of the slow airs included"

I’m not sure I’d entirely agree with that sentiment Nico - there are many different ways of saying the same thing in Ireland, many ways to spell the names of places and many different ways to approach some of these old songs and melodies. You might have one way with it and I another but to say one is necessarily more accurate than the other is nonsense, imho.

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You beat me to the punch, hussar. I don’t think I have ever heard anyone play a slow air exactly as it was transcribed in the O’Canainn book, in fact, even the ones I originally learned from the book and CD, I no longer play quite that way. I know a lot of people who speak highly of the book, though, and while its settings and transcriptions of those tunes may not be universal, they are well presented, and a reasonable starting point.
And Nico, I was making a point about the difference in slow airs and O’Carolan tunes not being the speed or tempo, but the ‘elasticity’ of the rhythm, something that was not addressed in your more ‘succinct’ statement. And just because I was discussing the differences between those two categories of tunes does not mean I think that they are the only two categories that exist—not sure where you got that idea.
And gam, I would agree that no tune has a meter until it is played, but once it is played, that is the meter the tune ‘has.’ And, while there are probably some performers who have played with the rhythmic pace of O’Carolan tunes, and I am sure that someone could point to a CD track where that occurs, I cannot ever remember anyone playing them at one of the many sessions I have attended over the years who played an O’Carolan with other than a steady rhythm, whether that steady rhythm be slow or quick. So, especially given I said ‘generally,’ I would stand by that statement, sweeping or not…

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I’ve heard a good few Carolan tunes played without strict rhythm, among them Eleanor Plunkett, Bridget Cruise, Farewell To Music and Blind Mary, off the top of my head.

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If someone hasn’t mentioned this already. Tomás Ó Canainn includes a number of Carolan tunes in his collection of slow airs.

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I thought an air was an inaudible sound made by a contestant at an English beer -arting contest and was deemed a DNF by the judges.

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Well, based on what Steve said, perhaps my experience is less universal than I thought it was. Ooops. And I am afraid I don’t remember what was in that O Canainn collection, since I loaned it years ago to someone who never returned it. Perhaps it is time for some backpedaling on my part! ;-)

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Just the same, Al, you knew about Mr. Spear long before I did.

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Thanks. I have order a copy of the O Canainn book and CD. Hopefully have it today.

I think that the exclusion of the O’Carolans from the air category must be a Comhaltas sensitivity for their fleadh rules.

I figured to learn some things that are pretty and also fit under the rules if that chance to do the Fleadh ever arose again. But, having done it on a Lark a few years ago, Herself gets testy when I talk about that because of the time it takes reduces my availability to respond to the ‘Honey Do" list. :-)

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You’d think Shebeg Sheemor would be considered an air, as it has lyrics written by Turlough based on an earlier piece called The Bloody Cuckold or something like that. Don’t know how that overdone tune would be recieved in a CCE-sanctioned fleadh though unless you were in the under-12 category.

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It’s a waltz, and I’ve only really heard it played as a dance tune, though at several different paces. I would not consider it an air- too bouncy and it relies on the continuity of its long phrasing, which would seem to work against it being used as an air.

Funny about overused tunes. No one uses them- but they are still called overused.

It actually a very pretty tune. It is reasonable easy, has a memorable melody and has an iconic chord structure which makes it appealing.

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zippydw, is it really a waltz? I thought its composition predated the waltz—not that one couldn’t waltz to it, mind. I also agree that it’s a beautiful tune, but everybody’s heard it a million times, and if you were to trot it out at a competition you’d need to do something pretty special with it.

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fidkid

a rose by any other name…

It’s not something to use in competition…unless there was something very special about the rendition. even then…not.

But in a mellow crowd, American Irish crowd not into hard core Trad, trotting that out can be very popular.

A horse well beaten.

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I would call Shi Beag Shi Mohr a harp tune, although I have also heard it played with a waltzy swing to it.