Why sets?

Why sets?

Chris Haigh has an interesting take on why Irish and Scots musicians play medleys/sets of tunes while Old Time
and Bluegrass don’t.

https://youtu.be/ezAA5fkiCdk


I particularly like his conjecture that USA record companies saw more profit in a variety of tunes on one side of a 78 record rather than just one played over and over. An example, for Irish music’s development, of a serendipitous side effect of the lust for money.

Re: Why sets?

Medleys? I didn’t realise that there were medleys. It all sounds the same to me! 😉

Re: Why sets?

I think Irish and Scottish musicians were influenced by the Ramones. They just got rid of the “1-2-3-4.”

Re: Why sets?

The theory is that record companies felt a 78 targeted at Irish record buyers needed to have a variety of tunes on one side, but a 78 targeted at old-time record buyers did not?

I kind of doubt it.

Re: Why sets?

I watched the full lecture, and he does make some interesting points; But I don’t feel like it’s a particularly interesting question. In my opinion, playing music in sets is as natural of an occurrence as music in sets. Personally, before I even started playing Irish music, one of my favorite pastimes was building playlist of music that followed a certain theme, set a certain mood, or had a certain “lift” of energy. This is no doubt influence from hearing popular music performed in sets, whether it being on someone’s album, a Dj’s playlist at a club or party, or various compilation albums I would get over the years of music in themes and narratives.

Though, even music itself, even if it is repetitive, simplistic dance music, has always been about the narrative. The building and releasing of tension. How that build and release is achieved is how we get all of the many forms and ways of delivering the music. A tune is it’s own narrative, sure; But a tune can then facilitate a broader, more colorful narrative by being combined with other tunes. I mean, for goodness sake, who is to say that tunes should or shouldn’t be played together anyway? How exactly does it “cheapen” a tune for it to be played with other tunes? That sounds like pretentious and unnecessary bureaucracy.

Tunes can push, pressure, drive, inflame, invigorate, accent, de-escalate, lift, and relieve other tunes. And with so many tunes in so many different keys, colors, textures, grooves, rhythms, and tones, there is no doubt an endless number of stories to be told! I could go on and on about this, and will certainly threaten to do so!

Re: Why sets?

I would have guessed that the set thing was much more simple - dancers want to dance for five or more minutes at a time, but five minutes of one 32-bar jig would bore the arse off anyone. So the musicians naturally change things up a bit every minute or two. Bluegrass and old-time are less purely about dancing than jigs and reels, so the habit is less ingrained there.

Re: Why sets?

At a lecture on music and dance in the Canadian Artic we were told that only one tune is played for a particular dance and the dance can last for up to 2 hrs. No-one seems to get bored.

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Re: Why sets?

I may not know exactly why Irish musicians change tunes and old time players don’t, but I certainly know that I’d rather listen to Irish music and that’s one of the reasons…

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Playing ITM or Scottish tunes in sets seems natural, even necessary as so many tunes in the genres are mere two-parters (32 bars), over in the blink of an eye if played alone. A set allows the musician to continue the mood, or change the mood.

What has always intrigued me is the choice of time signatures across a set, whether to keep the same rhythm across the set (e.g., a set of 6/8 jigs) or to vary them (e.g., slow air, jig, reel, hornpipe).

Re: Why sets?

“The building and releasing of tension.” I don’t find that is a big part of most dance music - I mean, it might be in there, but music that’s for any kind of communal dance tends be repetitive, sometimes unrelentingly so, with no real build-up and release. Notwithstanding that any given fiddle tune will have that quality of tension/release, of course ….

My impression is that the expectation of medleys in Irish/Scottish/etc. music is a relatively recent - i.e., 20th century - development. Surely Chief O’Neill said something enlightening on the subject?

Re: Why sets?

I guess there are those who seek the instant gratification of clever variations then on to the next tune and those who want to sink into a slowly evolving trance-like state.

Having fallen in with those who argue ‘one dance per tune’ for English dancing, and learned French tunes from youtubes of bals where the same tune goes on for tens of minutes but isn’t quite the same in mood or notes when it ends up, I do appreciate letting a tune develop over many times through.

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meself, I 100% agree with you. Doubling-down, I would even argue that it is an objective fact that dance music is “less-narrative” than other formats of music. However, I feel that there is still some narrative there in dance music. It’s just that with other formats music, that build and release is more linear; whereas with dance music, it is more circular. That’s how I look at it.

Re: Why sets?

I agree with Jerone. The building and releasing of tension takes place in the micro-cosmos of a few minutes. Perhaps it doesn’t tell a “story” the same way a descriptive piece would (in art music and the likes), but it’s still some kind of narrative. Even within the same tune, we vary the phrasing, ornamentation, melodic motifs… chords. And then, the next chapter begins.

Perhaps sets were originally played for practical (recording?) reasons, but personally, it’s about telling a different story each time.

Re: Why sets?

Sessions haven’t been around all that long. Most tunes are only 2-3 lines of music long. In many sessions I’ve attended, if someone played a tune and sustained the final note, indicating the tune repetition was coming to an end, someone would inevitably start a complementary tune to keep things going. At a pub, where there might be a bit of time between tunes for a pint or conversation, this seems pretty natural. Sessions are not “jams,” which have a very different tradition. I would include bluegrass and old timey in that category.

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I’ve always wondered this. Is there any evidence of sets being performed pre-recording? Is it mentioned in the Introductions to any of the collections? You’d think they’d say something like “X commonly paired with Y” or something like that.

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Re: Sets vs. Single Tunes

"Both ways can work, both situations, dance and session, even more so a private session between friends where you are listening to each others take on it and giving the other persons way with it a try. In dance, to time your tune changes with the changes in the dance itself is also a high worth experiencing…

…it would be nice if we at least understood and had some respect for those that may have a different way with this tradition, with respect for its past and the musicians, dancers and contexts we’ve gained our understanding and appreciation from ~ "

Posted by ceolachan May 3rd, 2008

https://thesession.org/discussions/17641#comment367011

I’m not buying into the video. That’s just me thinking he has some holes in his otherwise perfect narrative. Interesting how it weaves together Coleman’s sets/MSR solo bagpipe tradition/& 20th c. Celtic sessions into a tidy package with a neat, frilly bow on top.

Cheers!

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Re: Why sets?

Some years ago I played a ceili where John Kirkpatrick was calling the dance and playing accordion and as stated in the video he insisted on one tune per dance. Having been used to playing 3 or 4 times through a tune then change, I found it quite a gruelling experience - the 6th or 7th time through fatigue starts to set in and by the 11th or 12th time around my fingers were feeling numb. Viewed objectively is there any real difference between playing one tune 12 times or 3 tunes 4 times each? I really don’t know the answer but I found it an exhausting experience both mentally and physically!

Re: Why sets?

This site is about Irish music, and we’re all used to playing tunes in sets.
I think the more crucial question, which needs Old-Timey players to answer is why they don’t!

A small part of the Old-Time answer may be five string banjos. A friend went to a couple of major Old-Time festivals in the US and found that in the “jams” they would all stick to tunes in one key for a while, then the banjos would re-tune for a different key. People might ask “what are the banjos in?”

I think Bluegrass is fairly irrelevant to this. A key element of Bluegrass is a jazz-like format with each instrument taking its turn to play variations on the tune. It’s also more of a performance music, and that structure easily fills a three minute “track.”

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Thanks David50 - an interesting philosophy, well written and articulated but not something I am going to buy into…………. having said that I loved Cormac Begley’s ‘steampunk’ version of Eileen O’ Riordan’s Slide on another current discussion and quite glad he didnt play another tune with it!

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Yes, Thank you David50. My thoughts are the same as christy taylor’s, in that the writing was indeed eloquent and well-said. I appreciate the opposing ideas and can see where the writer is coming from. There is certainly value in being able to connect with the music in such a way as to stretch, and expand, and give it the fresh breath of life. Though I must say, as much as I respect the whole, “observational”, “meditative”, “explorative”, mode of musical experience, that’s not really why I play Irish music. I play Irish music to unabashedly indulge in the richest and most beautiful melodies the world has to offer. I’m not interested in a spiritual experience, I’m interested in a sensual one. And though I would never tell anyone else how to play the music they enjoy, I do believe that one sure way to ruin any musical experience, is to insist that the music be anything other than music.

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"I think the more crucial question, which needs Old-Timey players to answer is why they don’t!
A small part of the Old-Time answer may be five string banjos. A friend went to a couple of major Old-Time festivals in the US and found that in the “jams” they would all stick to tunes in one key for a while, then the banjos would re-tune for a different key."

When I’m not playing Scottish bellows pipes, I play Southern Mtn. tunes on the banjo clawhammer style. Participated in countless OT sessions. My experience is that it’s all about the groove. Lots of amazing, subtle stuff going on during what an outsider/listener might view as endless repetition. As a player, the groove can be great fun, with a wonderful meditative quality.

Reminds me of the standard line about how many times OT players should repeat a tune. About 10 times. Then, when you get to the end, about 4-5 more times. Then, when you get to the very end, one more time. Or maybe two. Or three …

Bumper sticker seen at an Old Time festival: “Old Time Music - Better Than It Sounds”.

Re: Why sets?

I agree with Tervs— it’s all about the groove. As an example here is Roger Netherton with 7+ minutes of Tipping Back the Corn at Clifftop
https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=OMIgUuemoYE

He doesn’t vary the tune or the energy that much, but it draws you in for the ride (or me, at least; your mileage may vary).
As to why this works for a listener when 7 minutes of The Banshee expertly played might get tedious, is difficult to say. To me there’s something inherent in the style that strikes the listener at a different level . Not better just different.

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Re: Why sets?

Great posts and a great link, thanks Tervs and jond!

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“I think the more crucial question, which needs Old-Timey players to answer is why they don’t!”

I’ve played in a few OldTime jams. The 5-string banjo tuning is part of it, but there are two other important elements. The first is the way players enjoy getting into a kind of meditative trance state, going deeper into the tune with each repetition.

You have to experience it to understand the appeal of that trance state. It’s not something you’d get just watching the group from the outside or in a YouTube clip. Personally, I’m drawn to ITM’s tune shifts but I understand why people like it, having experienced it a few times.

The other thing is that OldTime players like to jump in and play on every tune, whether they know it or not.
I’ve seldom seen anyone just sitting out a tune they don’t know. The many repetitions of a tune facilitate learning on the fly, where you might have at least some grasp of it by the last few repetitions. A friend of mine who plays OldTime once told me he doesn’t like Irish sessions because the tunes go by too fast to pick up, and he doesn’t want to spend time practicing tunes at home.

I don’t think every OldTime player is like that, but it’s part of the appeal, especially for people new to playing in informal groups. It’s a very casual, low-pressure way to play social music compared to some Irish sessions.

Re: Why sets?

I play a lot of OT as a bassist. I love the people I play with but the tunes are mostly really boring made even more so by playing them over and over and over again the same way, note for note every time. It’s something many take a perverse pride in. I’d go on but I think conical said it all. I’ll add that when many/most OT players play an Irish tune they miss the lift and ornaments altogether. Too, many local OT players play for Contras and are reluctant to play more than 2 tunes for each dance. Even then the tunes will be similar justified by not wanting to confuse the dancers.

All that said I love the time spent with my friends even if it means missing some Gillian’s Island re-runs.😉🌴

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I’ve also played in both OT and bluegrass jams, mostly in a handful of the Appalachian states, including West Virginia and Kentucky. Many of the bluegrass jams were fairly large, a dozen or more musicians, sometimes at festivals it’d be well over 20 musicians, and we’d play a single tune for as long as it took to give everyone who wanted to a chance to solo at least twice. Yes, that’s a lot of times through the same tune or song, over and over. But you’re playing backup or a light harmony (or quietly trying to steal someone else’s riffs) most of that time.

In the OT jams I’ve played in, it was common to play a single tune for 10 or 20 minutes, all in unison. As has been said above, this makes it easy to learn tunes on the fly. I enjoyed that aspect of it, and I do understand the allure of the groove-induced trance, but I prefer the variety of an Irish session. It’s possible to add variety to an OT jam, by “doubling” an octave up or down from everyone else, say. But only as long as it’s not a drag on the groove. Usually not too hard to do.

Even in Irish sessions, I sometimes play a tune 6 or 8 or 12 times if the pulse is particularly fun, if someone is learning it on the fly, or if I still have variations I want to spring.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is the pure laine game, or “fiddle elimination,” popular in Canada, where a circle of fiddlers takes turns. You have to start on the beat, change key, and can’t play a tune that’s already been played. In the early rounds, you play your tune once through. In the final round between the last two fiddlers, the changes come faster because each player plays only one part of the given tune. Here are April Verch and Germain Leduc in the heat of competition: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hZ53pXitKjQ

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“ I play a lot of OT as a bassist. I love the people I play with but the tunes are mostly really boring made even more so by playing them over and over and over again the same way, note for note every time. It’s something many take a perverse pride in. ”

I’ll take gentle exception to this. Just because a tune is simple doesn’t mean it’s boring. Boring to you, perhaps, but maybe not to others. Here’s a great example of the groove: 21 minutes, same tune, folks loving it, and the musicians having all manner of fun with it. Great, great playing. Some folks in the comments declared it “epic”.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cb-INxR7X5c

Re: Why sets?

Responding to: “The building and releasing of tension.”

@meself ,
“I don’t find that is a big part of most dance music - I mean, it might be in there, but music that’s for any kind of communal dance tends be repetitive, sometimes unrelentingly so, with no real build-up and release. ”

I’m pretty much opposite. I notice lots of build-up and release in dance music. In Raves, Tango, Contra, the entire purpose of the DJ or band is to take the dancers on a journey. Around here, the really good contra dance bands change tunes about three times: change of key, change of tempo, or tune type. The lift when they go from one tune to the next makes a huge change in the dancers’ energy.

Re: Why sets?

Tom, I agree with you. When playing for contradances, we chose our tunes for sets to build and release that energy. We also worked with the callers to build and release energy in an intentional way over the entire evening, like a story arc, starting off with a warmup set, then gradually building energy, and often ending the night with a waltz set. This had little to do with tempo (which didn’t vary widely over the night) and much more to do with kneading the pulse and creating lift.

Of course, contradances are different than playing for step dancers, and somewhat different from playing for ceilis, but my experience is that the musicians’ mindset is basically the same. I suppose playing for a feis calls for a more deliberate, steady approach so as not to favor one dancer over another.

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Re: Why sets?

Here’s an example, from the Tulla Ceili Band in 1996, playing for dancers, where they go from P. Joes (aka For the Sake of Old Decency) into the Mountain Lark, and the change from steady (swung and bouncy) to driven (still swung), is clear and bumps the energy up while keeping the pace the same.

That’s Mark Donnellan, Martin Hayes, and P. Joe Hayes on fiddle.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3OydPiUV5a0

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"Musical ability doesn’t come into it. Every performance can become rather a voyage of discovery.
But this approach will not work if you only run through the tune a couple of times before casting it aside in favour of the next item in your selection. You have to play it ten, or fifteen, or twenty times, before you really get inside it and can feel the full extent of its diversity. These tunes were built for constant repetition."

The bit, “…if you only run through the tune a couple of times before casting it aside…” literally jumps out in
front of me & takes me wayback to what Michael Cannon would do in sessions along with the playing of sets. Certain tunes were played several times. You really did get inside a tune. Sure set building was constantly happening. And the sets would change next week. Yet none of that excluded Michael choosing a tune to start up and play 10 times over; no one was counting. Everyone was listening. It was such ‘a voyage of discovery’.

I remember the tunes. They weren’t always Irish tunes, some were multi-part tunes, some could be challenging. Though it never dominated those early sessions the experience was a staple of why we kept coming back.

Here is a tune Sharon Shannon plays which I don’t think was one of the tunes which Michael chose back then; but I think it’s a good example of something he would have (we all listened to everything she played).

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4fIfeJ-_su4

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Re: Why sets?

Um, but Sharon plays it only three times. (Sure, but Reel Beatrice is ripe for variations.)

Sometimes it’s great craic to keep a tune going because the players are feeding each other ideas, keeping it fresh. Sometimes it’s just the pulse and lift keep building. Sometimes it’s because someone is learning it on the fly and just about has it solid.

And sometimes I move on because my left hand needs a break from more of the same fingering, or the next tune is simply begging to be played, or the dancers are looking restless.

It’s nice to have options, choices, no one way the music “must” be played.

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Trust me, Sharon Shannon is great in a house session. Don’t let the recording dictate everything. It’s only a recording.

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Terv you are right to call me out, quite politely. I should have made clear that my feelings toward the tunes are mine alone. Old Time tunes just don’t speak to me the way an IT tune does and that’s hard to define. And by the way, the complexity of a tune has very little to do with it. Others, including my friends, have different mindsets, shaped like mine, are no less deserving of respect. If they enjoy the tune I truly enjoy playing it with them. In fact I play a lot of tunes I don’t care for for that reason. Let’s say it’s about the experience if not the tune. I’ll make the effort to find a way to bring something to it I can like. (note: I never have been or will be, a 1/5 bass player and don’t remember ever playing an open string). Got an Old Time that makes you happy? If we ever meet I’ll gladly play it with you!

Re: Why sets?

“Got an Old Time [tune] that makes you happy?”
Tons.

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Thank you for sharing the documentary. I enjoyed watching it.
I found it interesting that in most cases old-time and bluegrass music were not and have not been commonly played in sets. I don’t have as nearly as much experience listening to it as with Irish music, but Craig Duncan (whose music I first learned about here) plays medleys of tunes from the American South as well, so I didn’t know that wasn’t the norm.

Re: Why sets?

My entire life most of the musicians I’ve met have spontaneously played, sang or danced to medleys.
It’s in their fiber. I cannot imagine it’s new. I grew up around northeast Texas and knew musicians
influenced by a mix of genres from East Texas to Arkansas & Louisiana. There were no genres.
It was all music & they woke up with medleys pouring out of them. Music is about mixing tunes together
*&* playing them individually. Maybe it depends on what day of the week it is.

FWIW I think some of the characterisations of Old-Time fiddle music as stifling is primarily anecdotal &
does not reflect the full-spectrum of how the music is actually played by old-time sessions. It’s not monolithic, which I think some members here are implying.

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Re: Why sets?

AB, obviously Ms Shannon’s commercial recordings and her session playing are not one and the same. I didn’t imply they were. I just couldn’t suss out what your clip of Sharon playing a single tune (and apparently a Quebecois reel based on an Italian polka) 3x had to do with Irish trad sets or OT one-tune marathons and the OP question.

As for OT being “monolithic,” I haven’t seen that implication here either. It’s highly regional—and individual—music. And by regional, I mean not just state to state, but sometimes down to one side of a ridge from another.

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Thanks for posting this Tervs. Looks to me like this is what happens when a joyful, uncomplicated melody meets skilled musicians who “get” playing from the heart with lift and intimacy. Would that this kind of thing happens more often.

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Responding to: “The building and releasing of tension.”

@meself ,
“I don’t find that is a big part of most dance music - I mean, it might be in there, but music that’s for any kind of communal dance tends be repetitive, sometimes unrelentingly so, with no real build-up and release. ”

I’m pretty much opposite in terms of noticing lots of build-up and release in dance music. In Raves, Tango, Contra, the entire purpose of the DJ or band is to take the dancers on a journey. Around here, the really good contra dance bands change tunes about three times: change of key, change of tempo, or tune type. The lift when they go from one tune to the next makes a huge change in the dancers’ energy.

Re: Why sets?

‘why is Irish music played in sets and Oldtime not?’
Because Irish music is inreresting and Oldtime isn’t.
Getting my head down now! 😁