Mullindhu: an ambiguous tune

September’s workshop looked at a version of Mullindhu, which translates as The Black Mill. A Scottish tune with Highland origins, there are a few different versions and spellings about in the main collections (Skye, Fraser and Athole are ones I regularly refer to). A reel in A Dorian, our version is slow and stately, more like a march, and was recorded by Jock Tamson’s Bairns.

Resources for this and the two other tunes we looked at (PDF, ABC and MP3 formats) have been added to the Resources Page.

Alba Low whistle in D (c) Gordon Turnbull

The story I originally heard about this melody from Edinburgh fiddler Doug Patience (now in County Clare) was that the mill in question stood on disputed land between two rival families and was burnt down by one of the sides. The composer was local and diplomatically wrote a tune that could be seen as either celebratory or in lament, depending on the point of view of the listener.

On The Session.org, a discussion on the tune quotes a story from Cape Breton Island about the Mill as a clandestine rendezvous for romance that similarly divides opinion:

Apparently, on Cape Breton Island the tune/song was not allowed to be played in certain parts because it was so closely associated with the MacDougalls of Margaree, who apparently were extremely touchy about hearing it played within their earshot! It appears that one line of a stanza of the puirt a beul set to the melody goes “Tha nead circe fraoiche ‘s a’ mhuilean dubh.” (In the black mill is the heather-hen’s nest). The offense to the Margaree MacDougalls was due to a joke that was told about hens at the expense of the clan, and they were so sensitive to any reference to the joke that they could not tolerate mention of poultry of any kind, and took the playing of the tune to be a veiled insult against the clan.

More on the tune background and stories can be found at the Fiddler’s Companion, including one story that includes devilish dealings.

I was pleasantly surprised that a bit of playing about with the tune reveals it to be a version of The Oyster Wives’ Rant, a reel I have known for many years but not often played. We also had a look at this in the workshop. The Fiddler’s Companion informs us that the earliest printed version is in Bremner’s Collection of 1775 and that it is part of a family of tunes and variants from Scotland to England and Ireland — so our Mullin Dhu connection is no surprise.

In searching about for a possible companion piece, I came across the distinctively titled An Oidhche Bha Na Gabhair Againn (The Night We Had the Goats) in the Athole Collection, a book which handily orders the tunes by key. This is in the relatively rare G major and I have adapted it slightly to my playing style. We didn’t have time to look at it properly, but it bounces nicely off the Ds and Gs and lends itself to short sharp spiky rolls. Interestingly, it resolves on to A, which lends it a whistful, inconclusive feel to my ears.

While it is described as a pipe tune, and printed versions may go back to 1795, the origins may be in puirt-à-beul. The odd title might be explained by another translation, The Night the Goats Came Home.

Here’s a version played a few years ago by then 17 year olds Hannah Stockley and Brad Murphy at the Gaelic Society in Sydney, Cape Breton.

After the workshop, myself and Malcolm Reavell rounded off the day by walking along to the Dalriada in Joppa and joined in the regular Saturday afternoon session for a couple of hours. Thanks to Sean Paul Newman (guitar) and Robert Chalmers (concertina) for their hospitality.

Reminder: FluteFling workshops take a break in October, but goes on the road in November with a big Aberdeen weekend featuring tutors Davy Maguire, Sharon Creasey, with a concert and sessions. And to keep the momentum going, regular Edinburgh workshops resume in November and December.

4th Annual FluteFling Scottish Flute Weekend dates announced

Very early news of the 4th Annual FluteFling Scottish Flute Weekend. We’re looking at 16th/ 17th/ 18th June. Please pencil this in your diary.

This is going to be just as unmissable as before and the volunteer team of Kenny Hadden, Tom Oakes and Gordon Turnbull are working hard on organising the details.

Stay tuned and if you haven’t already done so, sign up for the newsletter for a timely announcement right to your email.

December workshop roundup: Seasonal Basque and Shetland tunes, exploring breath control

This month we looked at some seasonal tunes, including Gabriel’s Message, taken from concertina player Paul Hardy’s Xmas tune book (available as a free PDF download) and the Shetland slow air Da Day Dawn. We also explored some flute technique, in particular breath support – also useful for any wind player – and embouchure.

The next workshop will be 21st January. Details will go the the website and be announced in the newsletter very soon.

Technique

Notes below the range of the flute

We played long tones on Em (E-G-B) to warm up and then learned Gabriel’s Message by ear. The tune features a B below the range of our instruments, so we looked at strategies for accommodating it. In this case we settled on playing the B in the low octave – i.e. an octave above what is written – but when we then played the melody entirely in the upper register, we played the same B. Other options include playing a low note that harmonises, such as E or F#. Keeping it low respects the feel of the melody.

It is not uncommon for traditional tunes to drop to G string on the fiddle. What strategy is adopted depends on the tune and how those notes feature.

Breath support

We looked at a few ways of employing the diaphragm for more efficient use of air in producing a sound. This included exploring playing the flute while lying on our backs, as described by Ciarán Carson in Last Night’s Fun:

Playing the flute while lying on your back encourages use of the diaphragm. Photo: Alan Chan

We included a refinement that brought us closer to the Semi-Supine position in the Alexander Technique.  Bringing the feet up the body and supporting the head. This may be helpful in developing good posture while playing the flute.

We thought about extinguishing a candle flame with directed and controlled breath and keeping it spluttering. We also looked at keeping a piece of paper to the wall using breath:

Flute exercise

Eileen demonstrates pinning a piece of paper to the wall using the breath. This helps to develop stamina while training the embouchure to focus and be efficient. Photo: Alan Chan

We explored whistle tones to find the embouchure sweet spot (see Jennifer Cluff on this) and tried singing and playing to open up the throat. Flutecolors lists some of the benefits in its extended techniques pages. Larry Krantz’s web site also includes an exploration of technique.

Books

Books that were brought in or mentioned and look at extending technique:

Repertoire

The tunes we covered and some others are on the Resources page. The written music will follow on. Gabriel’s Message is a Basque carol but SW England song collector Rev. Baring-Gould translated the lyrics and it is widely sung, here by Sting:

The other tune was Da Day Dawn, which I have written about previously. Mairi Campbell’s version and recording of the modern song is here.

Finally, I recorded a version on the Bb flute:

November workshop roundup: a Galician waltz and an Irish reel with variations

The FluteFling November workshop was surprisingly sold out with as many as fifteen people attending, so firstly my apologies to those who were unable to make it.

It’s only the second of this new monthly series, but it has been well- attended and I am delighted with the level of interest. Plans are already being made for January-April and beyond.

The next FluteFling workshop will take place on Saturday December 17th and you are welcome to join us for a coffee or beer afterwards.

Flute and whistle players take a well-earned break at November's FluteFling workshop.

Flute and whistle players take a well-earned break at November’s FluteFling workshop.

Technique

We played long tones to begin with and help us warm up ourselves and the flutes. These tones were based on arpeggios associated with the tunes we were going to look at and get our ears and fingers used to the tonal centres and shapes within the tunes themselves.

An arpeggio is basically a broken chord, meaning the notes of the chord are not all played simultaneously, but one at a time. These arpeggios are to be found within the tune structures of all music genres, including traditional music. When learning by ear it is a useful and important skill to understand that, for example a tune in the key of G will feature phrases that include G, B and D with linking notes and runs of notes. So if your fingers are familiar with the relevant shapes and positions, then the melody can be anticipated and more readily picked up.

If you aren’t familiar with chord structures, then for our purposes all you need to consider is that a chord triad (three notes) consists of the first, third and fifth notes. (There are many permutations, but all we are concerned with here is understanding how a traditional tune may be structured and how we can use that to help us play by ear.) For a tune in G, the G is the root of the chord, or first note, A is the second and not part of it, so B is the third, C the fourth and D the fifth, giving us a pattern of G-B-D.

So for a tune in G, we would expect to hear phrases that incorporate these notes. Furthermore, these notes could be expected to feature prominently. This is useful in learning the tune as we can after listening hear and understand the shape of the phrases and try to translate this to our fingers and breath.

Repertoire

The tunes were the Galician waltz A Bruxa (The Witch) by Antón Seoane, which I had transposed into B minor and hung on B-D-F# and The Sunny Banks (The Flowers of Ballymote), a traditional Irish reel very much in D and hanging on D-F#-A. The sheet music for this can be found here and on the Resources page. Click on the links below for my recordings of the tunes or follow me on Soundcloud and access more that I have done.

We stood up, walked about as we played and felt the movement of the tunes in our legs and at one point had a number of us unconsciously swaying gently together like grasses in the wind. We also has a look at phrasing across parts of the tune, especially with the wistful descending phrases of A Bruxa, giving more air to the opening of the phrases than the conclusions.

Our setting of A Bruxa in B minor has an A# (or Bb) in the final phrase. This is fine with a keyed flute, but we looked at cross-fingering to flatten the B natural on keyless instruments and on the low whistles a half-holing measure was also found to be useful. Although tricky, this was better than a setting in A minor that had many F naturals and a G#. If you’re interested in how that might look or sound, there are versions on The Session web site, along with discussion of the title.

The original version was recorded by Milladoiro (official web site here), with hurdy gurdy player Antón Seoane being a founder member.

The tune has an Edinburgh history as there are recent musical connections between Edinburgh and both Galicia and Asturias in northern Spain.

The Easy Club recorded the tune in the 1980s, and The Tannahill Weavers did so later on. John Martin played fiddle with the former and has been with the latter for many years. One of the bands which gave rise to Shooglenifty in the late 80s and early 90s was Edinburgh band Miro, who included mandolin player Iain MacLeod, but also fiddler Simon Bradley (who plays with Asturian band Llan de Cubel) and at various times flute players Rebecca Knorr and Niall Kenny; Shooglenifty’s fiddler Angus Grant Jr., who sadly died recently, also appeared with them on occasion.

Another notable recording of A Bruxa is on Senex Puer by Lá Lugh, from Dundalk. You can hear a sample of the tracks on Eithne Ní Uallacháin’s web page and it is worth exploring the rest of the site to learn more about the group’s singer and flute player and her legacy.

The version I taught is here:

Flute player and teacher Kenny Hadden joined us for the second tune, an Irish reel called The Sunny Banks (also generally known as The Flowers of Ballymote and in Bulmer and Sharpley’s collection as The Flying Column).

Again, we looked at arpeggios for the tune and then learned the bare bones. We walked about and found our own acoustic spaces. A discussion then followed about how variations feature in traditional music, in particular in Ireland. The Session web page for The Sunny Banks includes a number of versions that show it is open to interpretation and variation, but it is still the same tune.

As it happens, Kenny Hadden had posted a YouTube clip of The Cheiftain’s playing it, with a Matt Molloy solo for the reel. They precede it with a slip jig (9/8 time) entitled Top it Off, which is a version of the same tune.

Here’s the clip:

Quoting Cathal McConnell, Kenny made the point that once you learn a tune it is yours and you can do what you like with it. Variations are your way of expressing what you enjoy about the tune and for me I would say that exploring variations is like turning the tune around and viewing it from different angles in order to know it better. It embeds it in your mind and you become more comfortable playing it. I would say that a tune existing as both a reel and a slip jig is another example of somebody somewhere and at some time trying out variations, too.

Here are some of my variations:

I generally agree with Kenny that this is more common and accepted in Irish music. However it also exists historically in Scottish music in the form of set variations of tunes published in the 18th and 19th Centuries and in the Highland and Lowland piping repertoires. Fiddler Alasdair Fraser also commonly plays variations on his recordings.

FluteFling Autumn Workshops

Gordon Turnbull teaching flute (c) Ros Gasson

Gordon Turnbull teaching flute (c) Ros Gasson

FluteFling returns to Edinburgh this Autumn with a series of three workshops on traditional flute and whistle playing led by Gordon Turnbull. The afternoon workshops will take place at Tribe Porty in Portobello and evolve out of both the successful regular fortnightly classes that had previously taken place up to 2015 and the popular ongoing all-day annual Scottish Flute Day events that will return in 2017.

The workshops will take place on:

  • Saturday 8 October
  • Saturday 19 November
  • Saturday 17 December

There will continue to be a relaxed, supportive and informal style to the teaching, which will not only help develop repertoire from Scotland, Ireland and beyond, but also focus on aspects of technique. As before, the workshops are open to adults already playing whistle, low whistle or wooden flute in D as well as metal classical flutes (Boehm sytem).

Musicians returning to the instrument after a break are most welcome, but the workshops are unfortunately not suitable for complete beginners at this stage.

You can find out more about the workshops on the dedicated page of the reorganised web site, including online booking details.

I hope to be able to accommodate beginners in the near future; if interested, please get in touch and also sign up to the FluteFling Newsletter