The unmetered nature of slow airs/songs

The unmetered nature of slow airs/songs

This is a continuation of what I posted on the thread regarding looking for an air.

One of the things I love about the traditional old style of Irish singing is that it does not usually have a steady beat. Each singer creates the connection of the meaning of the lyrics to the mood and pace of the melody, to the telling of the story, putting an emphasis on words by bringing out ornamentation and adding rests and holds on notes, not staying to a particular meter (which is why it is impossible to really write these down in abc or notation).
Since dancing needs a steady beat, the meter is obvious in dance tunes, but with a song, the point is to listen to the emotion and meaning of what is being told.

Here is a bit about trad Irish singing
http://www.inx.net/~mardidom/rcisong.htm
In fact, as stated in the link above, the unmetered nature of songs/airs is so important that a singer can be disqualified in competition if they sing a song with a distinctive meter such as a waltz.


Another link on trad Irish singing:
http://www.webcom.com/liam/gaelsong/styles.html

The more emotional the singer, I think, the less metered will be the way they sing a song. Variation in tempo is part of the expression of the lyrics. Knowing a song and its lyrics helps in playing that melody as an instrumental air. There are passages of lyrics that really affect the way the melody is rendered, the dynamics, tempo changes, etc.

Alice Flynn

Re: The unmetered nature of slow airs/songs

I think this brings to a head the precise difficulty Jeremy has cited every time someone complains about not being able to post airs to The Session. The point is that abcs and music notation do not accommodate unmetered melodies. Short of plunking an air into a standard meter, there is no way to transcribe the free flowing nature of most airs. You learn these by hearing someone else sing or play them, not by reading them somewhere (or at least not until you’ve listened to a lot of singers and know not to adhere strictly to the sheet music).

I would argue that this is true of all of the sheet music we use for ITM—jigs, reels, polkas, hornpipes—all of it is played "different than written." Hence the perplexed looks on the faces of classical musicians when they sight read along to a session. In the ITM world, we have unspoken conventions about keeping the music notation simple and shifting the rhythm (and even the meter) around to make it sound "right."

In short, I see no problem with posting airs to The Session, as long as we say what they are in the comments section and, ideally, offer some suggestions as to how to interpret the melody and rhythm. But I doubt that this will prove a very effective or accurate way of sharing the airs we know. Better to find a singer, or recordings at least.

Incidentally, the more modern habit of instrumentalists accompanying singers seems to me to be leading us away from the beauty of unmetered songs—the ensemble seeks out a beat and holds to it in order to stay together. I’ve even felt the same thing happening when playing a slow air and other musicians join in—suddenly we’re captive to a beat that didn’t need to be there before, and in fact that detracts from the feeling of the tune.

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Re: The unmetered nature of slow airs/songs

I really have to agree with you Will - for any traditional style of music, the notation can only be a guide. There is a lot of expression that must be added to the notation in order to take it from a mechanical exercise to music.

Still, I am sometimes dissapointed by the lack of attempts at notating slow airs simply because I’d like to be able to teach the tunes I know to others who do not learn by ear, (as I do), or are not as adept at doing so.

But there are certain difficulties to using notation. I actually attempted (this week in fact) to write out a slow air - "The Wild Geese" (which I learned off of a Chieftans album) for the benefit of some friends…it was a beastly mess. It seems to be in 6/4 but that plays bloody hell with the barlines and breaks up the phrasing.

Thomas

Re: The unmetered nature of slow airs/songs

Part of the frustation and beauty of this style of music is that it cannot be properly notated, no matter how much effort you put into it. It MUST be heard! Has anyone considered that when an orcestra plays a piece by Bach or Beethovan, that we are not hearing what those composers intended us to hear? The notes on the staff simply don’t have the language to tell us how the music is supposed to sound, and frankly it never did! But, it’s the best we have come up with and we do the best with what we’ve got!

Re: The unmetered nature of slow airs/songs

You can transcribe them, it’s just bloody hard, and usually not worth it (you’d be transcribing someone’s interpretation, not THE music). You can notate un-metered stuff in ABC.

There’s a messy but ok transcription of The Wild Geese in J.C.’s tune finder (i think it’s actually from O’Neil’s).

The thing with airs is that, even if you notated it perfectly, you’d still have to learn by ear.

g

Re: The unmetered nature of slow airs/songs

I had noticed that tune Glauber, problem is it’s a reel with almost no similarity to the air.

TC

Re: The unmetered nature of slow airs/songs

please do - I would be interested to see it and compare notes if nothing else.

TC

Re: The unmetered nature of slow airs/songs

Look, the more complex the transcription (O’Neills), the harder it is to figure out the air. Less is more. "The Slow Airs of Ireland" does a good job. Additionally, the older sources (O’Neill, Bunting, et.al.) put them in weird keys that contributed to the airs being almost useless to musicians/interpreters/singers used to the more common keys of G, D, A, C and F.

Just include the airs, mark them as such, and i promise we will figure out how to sing and play them.

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Re: The unmetered nature of slow airs/songs

I have to agree here, (well since I may have triggered of something by asking for an air - Mr Moderator, sorry!). THe thing about airs, is sean nos, basically if you are familiar with a style, Connemara, Tir Chonaill or Mumhan, realise what singer you are basing your air on and then, attempt to play in that manner, and only in that manner, you may make a decent job of it. For example, an attempt to play something like Caoin na dtri Mhuire, in a Tir Chonaill style, (ie, clear notes, not much on ornamentation), kind of goes against the grain. You can do the same by playing An Mhaighdean Maire in a Connemara style, with ornamentation everywhere, it doesn’t fit.
So basically if people use the comments section to illustrate the tune, where it comes from, the particular rendition, and the singers style, maybe it just might work!

Re: The unmetered nature of slow airs/songs

There’s a really interesting unertone in all these comments which basically shows up in this dilemma - should we slavishly play to someone else’s style and muscial interpretation, note for note, beat for beat, ornamentation as supplied, or should we be brave, believe in ourselves and play the tune as we feel it.

I understand about local playing styles and local Sean No styles, but, if you ain’t one of them, then play as you feel. Particulary with airs, it’s your feeling that makes the tune. The book, Traditional Slow Airs of Ireland, is wonderfulk in the advice it gives and the range of instuments it demonstrates. The advice is learn the basic tune given here and play it as you want.

It’s personal style, not regional style, that really marks a confident player, not matter the level of their playing.

Re: The unmetered nature of slow airs/songs

How about we just call them "songs" and be done with it? When i learn a tune—jig, march, air, whatever—from "those dots", i seek a source to listen to: "Oh, that’s how it goes". Similarly, one learns from playing with or listening to other musicians. I can’t understand why it’s difficult to make the mental leap from music intended mainly for dancing to music intended mainly for listening or singing.

The great box player Paddy O’Brien is very forthcoming about the idea that many of the very best jigs have derived from clan marches—which, in turn, came, for the most part, from songs or airs. In other words, it’s all a continuium, and the supposed difficulty of noting certain tunes in abc (or lead sheet format, for that matter) should not be an obstacle to including them. Whew.

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OK, one more example, then i promise to quit for a while. An early Boys of the Lough tunebook included a few interesting airs, among them "The Twisting of the Hay Rope". I thought "great", i’ve been looking for this for some time. Now, it’s very difficult to "get" this tune without having heard Cathal play it. But this should (and did not) in no way have detered the Boys from including it in their collection. We are definitely better off for having it than not.

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