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1424Re: [clairseach] Re:: Re: : Who uses sister strings (na comhluighe) in tuning their harp and..

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  • Andy Hirt
    Feb 12, 2015
      Hello Cindy,

      I weighed in on the conversation because I don't think that the answer lies within the harp-playing community. It's the presence of the other instruments that forces such a strong emphasis on G, not the harp itself. Harpers were members of their culture; there is an overwhelming force that leveraged everyone to centre around G. As a harper, it's hard to see since you have so many options; the other instrumentalists did not. This is hidden by the notation of the music that was altered to conform to mainland practices of using flats in the key signature (Bunting even had the melodic minor in some of his pieces which would be physically impossible to play), ending in only the major and minor modes (ecclesiastical modes, which is ridiculous), using a plethora of key signatures, etc.

      If you look at non-harp music and write the tunes without any key signatures, you can see the backbone of the music. I'd say a good 1/3 of all Gaelic music runs from g to g'. That's a staggering number. The other 2/3 of Gaelic folk tunes can be played by natural trumpets including notes lower than this. Again, a staggering number. All of the other instruments had G drones. The small pipes had droning g (plus octaves and perhaps fifths), droning trumpets/horns were in C/G, and fiddles had flat bridges (the melody was played on one string until the pitch had to descend and then it was played another string; the other 2 or 3 strings were drones; High Bass tuning on modern fiddles is A-E, a-e to match A pipes but would be G-D, g-d with G pipes, meaning g and d drone strings). So there was a massive confluence on tunes between g-g' with G (and perhaps fifths – Barry Shears talks of this) drones. Harps match this with na comhluighe and also the flat leading tone (not the right word, really) that exactly matches the string that is altered between the High Bass and the Natural Key (F – F#). This matches the pipes' flat leading tone and the 11th partial of a C trumpet. It all locks right in place. From this point, the harper can then digress to other keys and temperaments to match in-tune thirds that don't exist in High Bass and the Natural Key tuning. Harpers can also then play diatonic tunes that are not possible on trumpets and are outside the g – g' range of the (G, small) pipes.

      The instrumentarium (types of instruments) at a Gaelic chieftain's court are well-known and described. Since the traditional tunes are all known and based on the natural scale (pipe players omitted some notes to match this), harpers would be expected to play those tunes. I respectfully disagree with Simon Chadwick who states that a harp would be completely drowned out by the pipes. Small pipes are rather quiet as are wood natural trumpets, and older instruments were quieter than modern ones in general (gut stringing, poor reeds, native softwoods instead of iron wood, etc.). Furthermore, traditional Irish music used to be a matter of timbre shifts: different instruments fade in and out to give depths and thinness to the melody. Just because a harp is quiet doesn't mean that the harper would give up pride-of-place and social standing when other instrumentalists were performing. You'd expect that the harp would eventually play alone or with another very quiet instrument before others would slowly come in and leave the melodic line. If you've ever been to a sessiun (an old-time one, without the strummed guitar), you might have noticed this. Also, the make-up of instruments at courts all over Europe were basically the same in the early Middle Ages.

      The point that I'm trying to make (badly, no doubt) is that I believe that the purpose of na comhluighe had to do with the instruments around the harp, but not necessarily the harp itself. Harpers would be expected to play the melody (with drones) of a well-known tune. This would include G drones. They'd eventually would have to do this in concord with other instruments in some way. From that point, they can then move away from that gamut of notes and finals. This gives them incredible flexibility that trumpets certainly don't have (gapped in the lower octave) and pipers don't have (only have the range of an octave and a second). With metal strings, harps have a longer sustain than gut string which matches the sound of the human voice more. It all makes perfect sense. You just can't see it in the notation that was altered for mainland musical norms (they used flats instead of sharps, mainly); so you can't trust any of the key signatures used for Gaelic harp music. You have to transpose the tune to G, C, or D (rarely, for the A bagpipe and D trumpet during a tune with a hellacious noise – that might tone down to hear the harp in a section of the music). So you don't really need G na comhluighe unless you're playing well-known tunes that would normally have drones, However, it gives you a core or base so that you could match the intonation and stricture imposed on other instruments around you – that were all over and pervaded the society's musical scene.

      Regards,

      Andy
      P.S. Only upper-class Englishmen have problems with bodily functions. Other cultures such as Gaels and lower class Englishmen don't. Snot, piss, puke, etc. are very solid Germanic/English words (phlegm, urine, vomit, etc. are not). Sex is not considered vulgar in Gaelic society. Bunting was selling to the upperclass who could afford his books. He altered the translations, titles, tunes/keys and harmony deliberately to appeal to those people. This was completely normal behaviour at this time. I also have a Masters in Music (vocal performance in opera). The Italian emphasis on speech as song (si canta come si parla) matches the old way of singing in Gaelic (I also have a BA and MA in Celtic Studies ;~) In the Italian School, you sing every note fully, with vibrato. This matches a system where there is no leading tone and is noticeable in recordings of Gaelic singers pre-1950s or so; the vibrato is just very small since the singers aren't yelling at the top of their lungs. Singers trained in the British Music Conservatory system are incapable of doing this., it's not a choice for them. This is also true of every-day people who listen to the diatonic scale on the radio with matching harmonic dissonance on the neighboring, passing, and leading tones.

      >________________________________
      > From: "cindy.schaufenbuel@... [clairseach]" <clairseach@...>
      >To: clairseach@...
      >Sent: Saturday, February 7, 2015 11:12 AM
      >Subject: [clairseach] Re:: Re: : Who uses sister strings (na comhluighe) in tuning their harp and..
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      >Andy, do you have any evidence that the clairseach was commonly played with the bagpipe and trumpet? Certainly it was used to accompany the voice, and it's convenient as a singer to have a choice of singing in a C tuning or a G tuning. I'm sorry if you mentioned this in the paper; I haven't had time to read it yet. Thank you for sending me a copy. 
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      >I have a Master's in Music (in voice performance), and I understand the vagaries of tuning and the various systems, proportionalities, etc. I even sat through an hour-long Ross Duffin lecture on the subject at the Madison Early Music Festival, for which I should get some kind of special certification. ;) 
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      >I'm just not sure it's highly relevant to the discussion we've been asked to have here. What use do modern players of the clairseach make of the Sisters? (I am going to use that term unapologetically, by the way, because Bunting did, and he says the harpers of his time did, too. When I was trying to adjust to playing with them early on, I was known to refer to them with a more vulgar word, as well. However, most of what we know of the Sisters comes from Bunting and his harper-contemporaries, so call me a prude, too.) 
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      >Not that history and music theory have no bearing on the matter, but we can't use them to come to any conclusions on even what pitch to tune them on a harp today, even though I still think G makes the most sense, so it's convenient for me, personally, that Bunting says that's what the pitch was. It's possible that even in Bunting's time, the Sisters were tuned in mostly for the sake of Tradition (with a capital T), and those harpers (especially the sighted ones) were already asking themselves why the heck they were still doing such a thing.
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      >For what it's worth to those of you who are interested in what Ann Heymann does (since she's been brought up here as an authority), she strung my Kortier Queen Mary copy with gold strings, and with G for the Sisters. Her Trinity copy also has G Sisters. This, even though these medieval instruments significantly pre-date Bunting and his harper contemporaries. It just makes sense when your lowest string is G, and you're playing in C or G tuning almost all the time. (Working backwards, deciding to make the lowest string G on a new harp also happens to work out conveniently with the lengths of these strings, the string materials, and the written evidence that those were the two tunings most commonly used by harpers in Bunting's time, at least.)
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      >I hope there are not any lurkers on the edges of this conversation who might have something to offer about how they use the Sisters in their personal playing, but who may be hesitant to jump in to what has become a technical discussion. I would be very interested in the contributions of anyone who has practical experience to share. 
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      >Cindy S in Austin, TX
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