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Reelin' and Rockin'

     There’s something about a rip-snorting set of reels played in an Irish pub that makes the blood pump faster and the Guinness taste better. The tunes morph into each other, shifting keys as they shift emotional punch. The best of them deliver real rock-and-roll energy.

    And yet, Irish reels sound distinctly Irish (and Scottish reels sound distinctily Scottish), in spite of sharing an underlying four/four rhythm with bluegrass and country and swing and many other popular American genres.

    So what is it that sets them apart? And if we’re coming into Celtic reels from other musical realms, how do we keep those other ealms separate from the Celtic? Well, the short answer to that last one is: we don’t, really. There’s so much cross-pollination in music nowadays that no genre can claim absolute purity anymore.

     But not to worry. We’re left with the core shapes of the tunes to build out from, and a short list of idiosynchratic ornaments that help hearken back to ancient times, older instruments, even to old forgotten languages.

     In my last column I broke down a few of the most common (and most identifyable Celtic) ornaments, including the fiddle turn, the fast-picked triplet, and the anticipatory snap grace note. All of these ornaments are as important in playing reels as they are in playing jigs. In fact, whether playing jigs, reels, hornpipes, or even slower set pieces, you’ll find these ornaments incorporated into tunes in limitless variation.

     But let’s go back to the core shapes of the tunes for a moment. Most Irish and Scottish reels are built of two or more eight-bar phrases, most often repeated before continuing on to the next one.

     I’ve transcribed one of my favorite quirky reels, "The Gravel Walks," here as a slightly atypical opening example. You’ll notice that it is transcribed as a four-part reel with the first three parts only four bars long. I actually prefer to think of this tune as having four eight-bar parts, but that the first three don’t repeat. And if you try to think in terms of longer melodic phrases, you’ll have an easier time mastering the "Irishness" of a reel.

     A few years ago I was studying Balkan music with Bosnian violinist Slavko Silic and struggling with such "socket-wrench" time signatures as 7/4, 11/4, and 13/4. As a newcomer to that musical genre, it was all I could do to count my way through each bar and hope to start the next one on the right down beat. But I couldn’t get anything to flow properly. It all came out choppy and unsatisfying.

     Slavko’s most cosmic bit of teaching involved explaining that the melodic phrases were, in fact, 16 bars long — long sentences without punctuation, zipping past the bar lines that were just there as notation conveniences. When I started playing them that way, removing unnecessary punctuation, magical thngs happened.

     It turns out that there’s a similar phenomenon going on with Celtic tunes. While we’re used to seeing reels written out with four beats per bar and tempted to think in terms of "ONE-two-THREE-four" and then on to the next bar, this notion misses the point of the tune entirely.

     A reel must be propelled forward, across the bar lines, allowing the melody to be understood as a series of complete sentences — sentences that ultimately tell a story we want to hear again and again.

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