12 December 2012

Traditionally Unauthentic


Faced with a bevy of Scottish Traditional Fiddlers I found myself seriously out of my musical depth.  Not that I’ve never encountered Scottish Traditional fiddlers before nor that I do not enjoy the sound they make; I’ve always admired the way they can seamlessly move from pathos-laden laments to jaunty jigs with barely a flick of the bow, and I just adore the crisp snaps of a Strathspey.  But in this occasion I was there to adjudicate each of them individually and I was very much out of my comfort zone.

By a peculiar twist of fate, while my sisters, brother and myself attended the same infants school in what was then a twee suburb of south east London where our Scottish teacher insisted we devote one afternoon a week to Scottish Highland Dancing, we have all eventually gravitated to Scotland.  Indeed, my eldest sister has been living there since the early 1970s.  An abiding memory of my niece’s wedding was the stunning Scottish fiddlers who led the dancing at the whisky-laden reception, while a nephew used to play in a Ceilidh band.  He used to explain to me some of the ins and outs of Scottish Traditional music, but I always regarded these as the sorts of things only of real interest to those actually involved in playing in the bands, and I was content just to sit back and enjoy, in my unashamed ignorance of its undoubtedly manifest nuances, the sound of the music.

What always struck me with Scottish Traditional Fiddlers when I observed them from the outside, as it were, was their astonishing ability to produce rapid playing whilst grasping the instrument with their left hand.  I foolishly assumed this was part of the essential technique which differentiated it from other schools of violin playing, but with my first Scottish Traditional Fiddler, I saw the instrument held classical-style under the chin, leaving both hands free to manipulate the bow and move freely over the fingerboard.  This player produced a lovely, opulent tone full of rich vibrato and warm dynamics which would not have sounded at all out of place in Tchaikovsky.  Excellent violin playing, but was it legitimate Scottish Traditional Fiddling?  I really did not know.

Luckily a colleague passed on to me a leaflet written as a guide to adjudicators so that we would have some idea of what we were supposed to be looking for.  This guide included the following extraordinary statement; “Traditionally fiddlers held the instrument almost under the shoulder rather than under the chin, however the demands musically and technically were not so high.  As a result modern traditional players and students are encouraged to use a more violinistic approach”.

Which begs the question, where does traditional fiddling end and classical violin playing begin?

Surely, if Scottish Traditional Fiddlers no longer play the fiddle in the traditional way, they merely become classical violinist playing Scottish Traditional Music?  That seems to negate any purpose in having a specialist skill in Scottish Traditional Fiddling.  I am not committed enough to the cause of Scottish Traditional Music to have a worthwhile opinion as to whether it is evolving or merely aping what is happening in a parallel art form; I simply suggest that evolution along these lines leads, eventually, to the extinction of an entire tradition, and that cannot be a good thing.

However, it opens up the broader question about what we mean in music as “traditional”.  Strangely, while all art forms naturally evolve, music often seems to believe in regression as the way forward.  Back in the 1950s Thurston Dart was among several pioneers in reviving awareness of historical performance practices in classical music.  I was lucky enough to be taught by one of his students, and I remember attending several concerts given on historic instruments or instruments made as copies of historic ones.  The sound was certainly revelatory and deeply fascinating; and it certainly opened up a wholly different perspective on how the music of earlier periods could sound.  The abiding memory, however, was the fact that after every few bars, the whole thing stopped while they all had to re-tune their instruments.  That doesn’t happen in historical performances today.  Why?  In part, players are more adept at handling their delicate instruments, but mostly the instruments have been sensitively adapted to the demands of modern day performance occasions.

We do know that in the past musicians tuned their instruments – we can tell that from the presence of easily operated tuning pegs and keys on old instruments.  But to what did they tune?  I once presented an academic paper on the history of pitch to a conference, and pointed out that ISO 16 was established to standardize pitch at A=440 internationally only in 1955, and almost immediately orchestras and ensembles have broken away from that short-lived pitch standard.  Pitch before and since has varied from country to country, often from orchestra to orchestra, with few regarding 440 as the norm.  However, I was always led to believe that while pitch was more-or-less randomly selected for each early performance, in general pitch in the Baroque era was around a third lower than it is today.  Many of the historical performances in recent years have addressed the issues of pitch and tuning, but a disc I had to review last month of very early 17th century choral music commented that, although the performances followed strictly historical practices, the pitch had been selected at 440 in order to make it comfortable for the singers. 

We seem to have got ourselves into a continually revolving cycle of evolving music up to a point at which someone decides to return to historical performance practices, only to set off in motion the whole sequence of evolution again and again. I suspect that if I live long enough I shall witness another revival of historical performance practice to undo the developments that have taken place since 1950, while I am sure that before long someone will look at Scottish Traditional fiddling and suggest it goes back to how it used to be done in the past.

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