Help with airs

Help with airs

I have a mind to spend some time on the airs in O’Neill’s Music of Ireland (1850). At this point they still seem pretty mysterious although working through the Breathnach CRE books has helped. I’ve been told that they are melodies that were used for poems. I wonder if anyone has matched O’Neill’s Air section to known poems. Is there some book or study that can get me closer to how they would have been used originally?

Re: Help with airs

They’re song melodies. Learn the songs first, or at least listen to someone singing them in Irish. Notation doesn’t convey the freeness of the phrasing.

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Re: Help with airs

Just an observation from songwriting, of which I’ve done a bit in my time. "Which comes first, the tune or the words?" For my own songs, usually the words come first, then the tune, which I try to make original, unless perhaps writing a parody to an already well-known song, or borrowing a well-known tune for a humorous song.
But there are many examples of people either setting words to lovely tunes, (some of which IMHO should have been left unadulterated with cheesy and dubious lyrics!) - or writing poems and then looking for tunes to fit their poems. (Many of Burns’ songs fall into the latter category.)

Re: Help with airs

This discussion, https://thesession.org/discussions/43478#comment868380 , which I believe you participated in, touched on the lyrics to Bunting´s collection. O´Neill is said to have shamelessly cribbed from Bunting. Patrick Lynch´s efforts are referenced here http://digital-library.qub.ac.uk/digital/collection/p15979coll9/id/1152/rec/6 and here
https://blogs.qub.ac.uk/specialcollections/newly-digitised-the-journal-of-patrick-lynch/
Tomás O´Canainn touches on some aspects in his book https://www.amazon.com/Tomas-Canainn-Traditional-Music-Ireland/dp/0946005737.

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Re: Help with airs

I think learning airs from sheet music isn’t going to result in you producing performances of the tunes that sound correct to the idiom.

I will say that myself and some people I play with learned a metrical version of A Spailpin, A Ruin and when we played it at a house party a Sean Nos singer who was present seemed to like it, however different it was from how it was sung.

Personally airs were the hardest nut for me to crack, in ITM. After noodling on them for many years I had a breakthrough, when I broke away from bars and meter, felt freedom with the timing of the notes, and learned that it was all about creating larger musical phrases. Now it seems second nature to me. When I went to teach an air at a pipers’ gathering I found that the group had more difficulty that I had anticipated in grasping it; they were in the same situation I was in for so long.

Re: Help with airs

Yes, I agree with everyone who says to listen to a solo sung version first, then use that to inform your interpretation on an instrument. That’s how I learn airs, at least those that are based on songs.

Re: Help with airs

No less a light than Seamus Ennis himself said that the way to learn airs was to learn at least a verse or two of the song. Well worth considering since he was an astoundingly good airs player.

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Re: Help with airs

Thank you, MP1996!