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Spinning New Tunes Out of Old

Where do all these traditional Celtic tunes come from, anyway?  I mean, there are literally thousands of them in books dating back a couple of hundred years.  Yet, CDs keep being released filled with brand-spanking-new tunes that rock like crazy, or make you cry, or compel you to leap up and dance, and they’re all as cool as the old chestnuts and they all sound as Celtic as can be.  Is there no end to these riches?

I’ve spoken in this space before about how once you’ve marinated for a while in the Celtic milieu, you begin unconsciously to alter and mutate tunes.  You also (if you’re anything like me) rather freely begin to recombine tunes, sticking a B part after another tune’s A part, sometimes without being aware of it until some other cranky musician at a session barks at you over the pint glasses.

Years ago I wondered one day how many tunes I had collected in books like O’Neill’s and Bunting and Fraser and stopped counting at 7000.  That was the day I swore off buying tune collections until I’d learned all the good ones I had.  Okay, so I’ve occasionally strayed from my vow, but still I have more than enough to keep me busy for a lifetime.

But for some reason, I keep finding myself writing new tunes.  I’m sure there are lots of intertwined reasons for this, but allow me to ramble about Celtic melodic riches for a moment.  If you’ve learned as few as a couple dozen jigs and a couple dozen reels, you’ve begun to notice recurrent Celtic tune shapes.  These are short phrases or runs that keep popping up in tunes, telegraphing where the next phrase might be going, or logically finishing a melodic thought at the end of a phrase or part.  The more tunes you learn, then more fleeting mutual musical quotes begin to reveal themselves.  And since we’re playing session dance tunes in such a small number of keys, our fingers are getting physically accustomed to playing these recurrent scraps and the muscle memory is becoming increasing fluid and unconscious. 

And so after a while, when you hear a new tune, you don’t have to worry about learning it note by note from the beginning.  You just listen to it roll by a few times and you can ride both the key and the overall shape or arc of it.  Did the B part revoice the arpeggios upward from the A part?  Did both A and B parts end with the same few notes, as they so often do?  Did the whole thing start on the tonic and end again on the tonic?  Is the melody relatively static, relying mostly on one or two strings, or does it fly around all over the place?

These sound like hard questions, but they’re really amazingly easy to answer as you try to get your fingers to find the notes the fourth time the tune goes by.  And the tunes you’ll pick up fastest are the ones that share phrases and runs with tunes you already know.  A few columns back I wrote about trying to learn Québecois tunes and realizing that I was Irish-izing them without either trying or wanting to.  This was a problem when really trying to master a different style and repertoire, but on the other hand, it sort of heartened me that some shapes and logical ways to begin and end tune parts and to connect one musical thought with another had become so ingrained that I could just wind up my fingers and let them go and something essentially Irish would come out.

And so we return to the idea of writing new “traditional” tunes.  Perhaps you’d prefer we call them “new tunes in the tradition”.  Or perhaps you are horrified that I should have the gall to suggest that a tune of mine might be called “traditional” at all.  I will merely quote the wise and benevolent Pete Seeger who, when asked to define traditional music, replied, “Anything that’s been played more than once”.  I happily defer to his view.

Here, then, is “The Pickle”, a tune I wrote a couple years ago and which I present as a bonafide Celtic tune.  It’s in a Celtic key, plays fair with reasonable Celtic chord changes, and borrows bits from both Irish and Scottish traditions. Here’s how it evolved.

I had a rousing song in the key of D that was fun as far as it went but it needed some organizational supercharging.  If you’ve played strings of cool tunes one after another in sessions, you’ve certainly noticed how changing key from one tune to another can inject some real exhiliration into the set.  That was my thought with the song… that in between rousing choruses it needed to go elsewhere, so I came up with a reel in A major to toggle back and forth with.  The key change worked beautifully in both directions.  The odd and beautiful thing about shifting from D to A and back to D is that both directions seem to kick things upward emotionally, rather than ramping up only to let things down with the return to the original key.  Why?  Ask a music theoretician.

“The Pickle” wrote itself all in a whoosh.  I launched into the key of A while practicing a song chorus in D to see what would happen and just flailed madly for eight bars.  But what might have been random flailing turned out to be surprisingly organized and so I kept playing the phrase over and over until it settled into a pleasant little A part.  And because I’d told myself that what I really wanted to hear at that point in the song was a bagpipe, the B part became a series of obviously bagpipe-shaped paradiddles that I know I stole from some tune or tunes I heard somewhere but can’t for the life of me identify.

If you analyze the B part it’s really just fleshing out arpeggios that follow the chord changes, which is true for many Irish and Scottish tunes we all know and love.  If you can play all the triplets in bars 3 and 4 of the B part cleanly, you’re a better mando than I… I save those for the fiddle and just soldier forward with the eighth-notes when playing the octave mando.  Either way, it’s fun to give a sharp accent to the high notes in that phrase, with the unanticipated syncopation that vanishes as fast as it appears.

I’ve included a repeat B that cycles back to the top of the tune as well as a B that ends abruptly on the high note, but resolves to D again in the next bar.  You can follow “The Pickle” in a session equally well with another A tune or a D tune.  Go wild.

If you’ve ever toyed with writing your own tunes, my advice is to go ahead and try.  One way to start is to crib a phrase — a bar or two — from a favorite tune and see where else it takes you.  Go up instead of down, scramble an arpeggio, imply a new chord, resolve to the four instead of the tonic.  These tunes are little scraps of cultural DNA.  There are many ways to pull them apart and rearrange the pieces that retain both the life of the tradition and the fire of a unique musical moment.  So go forth and experiment without fear.  If you do, there will never be an end to new tunes joining the party.  And I, for one, am delighted by that.

Click here for printed tab notation for “The Pickle”

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