Over the next several months/years/decades, I’ll be selecting a few tunes at a time, and then posting them here.
The idea is to have ongoing catalogue of the tunes I’ve examined in my repertoire, including my personal recordings, notes on phrasing, ornamentation, interesting tidbits about the tune, etc. In all honesty, I originally started this little project as a way of examining and building my repertoire, as I’ve always found it a weakness of mine. Sure I can play a fair few tunes but how does that compare to really having them, really knowing them, and really, fully inhabiting the tune?
I’m publicising my notes and recordings here because 1) others might find it useful and 2) it keeps me honest. It’s important to remember that these are simply my own personal interpretations of the tune in question. There are scores of ways to play a tune, and you’ll likely get 12 different opinions from 12 different flute players (and we are an opinionated bunch indeed).
In general, I’ll have at least two recordings to accompany the notes: one slow and bare, with ornamentation present but played in time. (More on what I mean by that later. The second is a full-speed recording
as I might play the tune for a session or a performance, with variations and ornamentation where I see fit.
I begin this section of my wee blog here with the great hope that will benefit the reader, the student of Traditional Music,
and very importantly, myself.
Reels are probably the most common tune type to appear in Irish music, followed closely by jigs. They are almost always written in 4/4 time, though you may run across older manuscripts or transpositions which have them in 2/2. Therefore, they have a familiar feel for those coming from other types of Western music, as 4/4 is a typical rhythm employed in many types of pop, rock, and jazz. Accompanists and percussionists from these genres usually find rhythmic accompaniment of reels fairly intuitive.
The jig family of tunes is generally what first springs to the popular mind the topic of Irish music comes up. I’m sure any traditional musician or dancer can attest to the number times they’ve been asked to play or do “the Irish Jig” for the inebriated onlooker, so that they may conjure images of rainbows, pots o’ gold, green beer, and Lucky Charms.
Insufferable paddywhackery aside, jigs, as they are played in Ireland, are descendants of baroque-period dances from mainland Europe, notably the French “Gigue” from which we derive their name.
They are not one type of tune per se, but rather a family of tune types organized by how we count their rhythm, but all related in the fact that we count them in “threes.”
The most commonly played type of jig in Ireland today is the double jig. These tunes are typically in 6/8 time.
[tunes type=”Double Jig”]
Single jigs are also in 6/8 time, but that’s generally where the similarities end. The exact definition is a little ambiguous and somewhat debated, but generally, you’ll notice that they have a more “staggered” rhythmic pattern (a la hornpipes) built into the melody.
[tunes type=”Single Jig”]
Slip jigs are a common jig type in 9/8 time, as well as a corresponding competition step dance.
Hop jigs are another type of jig in 9/8, but generally less commonly encountered. As with singles, their definition can be a bit muddied if you’re unsure of what to listen for. In tune books and recordings, hop jigs will frequently be mislabeled as slip jigs, but they are very much distinct in their rhythm and phrasing. I suppose the difference between slip jigs and hop jigs can be analogous to the difference between double and single jigs: same metre, very different rhythm.
[tunes type=”Hop Jig”]
Slides are a special type of 12/8 jig popularly associated with the Sliabh Luachra region of Cork and Kerry in the Southwest of Ireland.
Originally, a hornpipe was a medieval instrument fashioned from an animal horn (into a sort of pipe, coincidentally enough). Eventually, the term came to describe a tune that would have been played on such instruments, featuring a 4/4 “staggered” rhythm. If the tune were to be written out as played, you’d see the very characteristic “dotted quaver” pattern, which is more or less an approximation of how it would sound. They are historically associated with maritime music. If you’ve heard the lively whistle tune played as part of Popeye the Sailor’s theme, you’ve already heard one: The Sailor’s Hornpipe.
Polkas are another type of tune associated most strongly with Sliabh Luachra, but there are a fair few that have come from other parts of Ireland as well. This is another type of tune that’s made its way to Ireland from mainland Europe. You’re probably already familiar with the type of “oompa pa” polkas heard in Bavaria and Austria; and while similar in spirit, the execution of an Irish polka is quite different.
Also called “slow airs”, these tunes are, well… slow. And also airy. That is to say, they are played to convey an emotional disposition, often an air of melancholy in… the air. (If you haven’t figured it out by now, I’ve no idea why they’re called “airs”).
Airs aren’t associated with any particular metre, and the interpretation, phrasing, and timing of the tune are left up to the artistic expressions of the individual performer. The melodies generally draw from an associated song in the sean-nós tradition of Irish-language singing, so many of them are very old indeed.[tunes type=”Air”]
Other Tune Types
I was a little hesitant to create an “other” category. I absolutely don’t want to give the impressions that I’m jamming these off to the side into some obscure miscellany or novelty; they are in and of themselves every bit as important within the Tradition as reels and jigs. Highlands and Mazurkas, for example, are a core part of the tradition in Donegal. Turlough O’Carolan’s compositions for the harp form the core of a classical Irish repertoire, and no discussion of Irish music would be complete without mention of him and his contemporaries. But since I’m by no means an expert on the playing of these tunes (or anything, to be perfectly honest), and and they occupy the fringe of my particular repertoire, I’m going to give them all their own category.