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Reels à la Mode

I’ve recently found myself having spirited discussions with students about scales and modes.  Several students get positively agitated about knowing what mode an Irish tune is in before they can wrap their brains and fingers around it.  I stopped worrying about that a long time ago, and I had to stop and think about why I’d stopped worrying and how I could encourage my students not to worry.

So here again is the truth about modes in Irish tunes:  (a) modes are academic constructs invented to describe scale differences in Renaissance, Baroque, and Classical music, and (b) Irish traditional music has absolutely no interest in being described by these academic constructs.  What with bent notes and blue notes and the joyful application of a host of different ornaments and the highly-encouraged practice of theme-and-variation, Irish tunes often skip blithely from one mode to another with neither blink nor apology.

 Sometimes this casual attitude makes life difficult for the new enthusiast, trying so hard to find the “right” chords to accompany a tune in a session.  But all enthusiasts should occasionally remind themselves that more often than not, less is more in Irish accompaniment and you can never go wrong sticking to the first and fifth scale steps with nice, ringing open fifths, letting the tune tell you when it wants to sound major or minor as it goes by.  Tunes that are ambivalent about the seventh scale step are also common.  This ambivalence requires some attention, since you don’t want to strike a solid rock-and-roll flatted seven chord under a melody that insists on including the sharped seven.  At times like these, if you’re in uncharted waters and trying to absorb the shape of the tune, just back off and drone on the tonic until you’ve figured out some other plausible options for the next time the tune cycles around.

One of my favorite mode-busting tunes is the Irish reel “The Girl Who Broke My Heart”.  There are many different versions and settings for this tune, including a common perky version much favored by button accordion and concertina players. But the first time I really sat up and noticed the particular beauty of this tune was listening to a fiddler named Stuart Gordon, who played in The Short-Wave Band in the English West Country some years ago.  Gordon treated the reel like a slow air, letting it uncoil languorously and lingering over the cadence points.  He played it in a dark G scale, mostly a dorian mode (with its minor-sounding third scale step and flatted seven), but sharping the seventh step at the end of both parts, momentarily changing the lighting on the tune and thumbing his nose at modal consistency.

I’ve transcribed Stuart Gordon’s setting of “The Girl Who Broke My Heart” here with some chordal ideas that fit its shape.

But this tune is capable of plenty of alternative emotional and modal levels.  The late guitarist Tony Cuffe, best known as vocal front man for the Scots band Ossian, found a lovely one that’s in many ways the modal reverse of Gordon’s.  Cuffe started out in a solid, happy major, which darkened to the mixolydian mode in the third bar by touching a flatted seven and then continuing on darkly.  Then, where Gordon unexpectedly shifted his broken-hearted mood to a more hopeful one by sharping the seventh scale step as it led back to the final tonic, Cuffe did the opposite—he stayed flat, giving the cadence a hint of melancholy, brightening again only when he returned to the top of the tune.

I’ve transcribed Tony Cuffe’s setting of the tune for you, too, to compare and contrast.  The chordal implications and placements are different from Gordon’s, but you’ll notice that the essential shape of the tune is not harmed in any way by the toggling from one modal mood to another.  You can find Cuffe’s setting on his posthumously-released 2003 CD, “Sae Will We Yet”, on Greentrax Recordings, Ltd.  He played it in F, but I’ve set it in G, like Gordon’s, the key you’re most likely to hear played in sessions.

In the transcription chordal suggestions, my notation “Gmod” (short for modal), is just shorthand for a chord that avoids the third scale step, sticking to any combination of ones and fives.  In other words, while G major contains the notes G, B, and D, Gmod is only G and D.

I’ve left out a few ornaments (Gordon’s subtle anticipatory grace notes and Cuffe’s triplets in the second and sixth bars, for instance), but you can find amusing and appropriate places to add the occasional ornament of your own.  As you play the two settings of “The Girl Who Broke My Heart” notice how the simple shifting of the seventh scale step up or down a half-step can add elements of surprise and emotional coloration while ignoring the classical need for modal consistency.  And I do recommend gearing down and playing the tune less like a lickety-split dance tune and more like an air, at least for starters.  It’s so beautiful, it’s worth lingering over.

Click here for printed tab notation for “The Girl Who Broke My Heart”



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