This article originally appeared in: Mandolin Magazine, Winter 2003/2004 issue
It’s been a good while since I’ve talked about Celtic ornaments in this space, so I thought I’d trot out a favorite Scottish fiddle tune that sports a particularly nice ornament requiring both hands to accomplish.
As you probably know, the whole purpose of Celtic ornamentation on the mandolin and mando family instruments is to make the mando sound as much as possible like other instruments that are already part of the Celtic tradition. Hence, mandos try to emulate fiddles, which in turn try to emulate the bagpipes and on back to the bagpipes emulating the human voice singing in a mysterious, ancient language. And each new instrument adds something different and idiosynchratic, making the music that much more fun to play.
So here’s a great, rollicking 19th century Scottish reel called “Timour the Tartar.” My setting is mongrelized from many sessions all over Scotland and years of questionable memory, but it still bears close resemblance to the version played and recorded by the great fiddler J. Scott Skinner in about 1910. Skinner, a flamboyant Highlander, was one of the true characters in the history of Celtic music. He performed right up to his death in 1927 at the age of 83 and published something like 600 original tunes. Some of his tunes were showpieces that would have done Paganini proud, and he loved playing in weird and difficult keys. But plenty of Skinner’s tunes are playable by us normal folks and common in the sessions to this day.
I play “Timour the Tartar” with a very regular right hand pattern, hitting each of the four beats of each bar with a down stroke, coming up on the off-beats and either hitting the eighth-note that’s there or clearing the string in silence as the quarter note rings. This pattern is crucial for picking up the third note of each three-note ornament. Happily, for the left hand, the whole tune fits comfortably into first position, although the longer-necked mando players will have to stretch the pinky to the sixth fret on the D string.
The trick to mastering this little ornament (which actually harkens back past the fiddle to the bagpipes) is to match the intensity of the second note pulloff and the picked third note. You want all three notes in each triplet to be of equal intensity. This will take a little practice. The left hand position, also, will be slightly different for the ornaments ending on the open A string and those ending on the barred second fret of the D string, due to the pinky stretch.
Jumping straight from the C# to the A or the G# to the E is what endows these ornaments with their particular bagpipe spiciness. You can, of course, play any of these triplets as descending runs (C#-B-A or G#-F#-E) and certainly that’s the way many fiddlers play this tune. Either version certainly maintains the essential shape of the tune and, in fact, both versions can be played simultaneously in a session and won’t sound too muddy together. But I find the version notated here to be cleaner and perkier on my octave mandolin, so give it a try and see if you don’t agree.
Lastly, keep in mind is that this tune is not designed to be played too fast. As one old collection puts it, “Play this one in the Scottish manner, that is, at not too great a speed.” The ornaments are plenty satisfying at an easy tempo.
Looking at this tune from another angle entirely, it occurs to me that there’s an amusing structural trick you can try on “Timour the Tartar,” as well as many other tunes. This is a trick that I sometimes call “time compression” or “jumping the gun,” and which I’ve used many times over the years. It works on any tune with a melody that both starts and ends on the tonic note, so right away you have several thousand to choose from.
In the case of “Timour the Tartar,” it only works in the first 8-bar part of tune, between the first time through and the repeat. You hack the eighth bar in half, so it’s only two beats long. Then the A that used to be on the third beat of the eighth bar becomes the first beat of the first bar. You’ve just sling-shot yourself into the repeat of the tune, skipping two beats. Why? Because it’s fun and rock and roll and totally unexpected. It’s a trick that gets people who are only half paying attention to sit up and say, “Wha’ hoppen?” In fact, I like dropping beats exactly once a night, just so the audience is listening that much more closely and is left at the end of the show wondering if they only imagined it.
Time compression should be used sparingly, and for its amusing shock value. Of course, you can’t indulge in time compression just any old time. In a session, unless everybody has agreed to do it, skipping two beats anywhere will only get you into hot water. And if you’re playing for dancers, you’d better play the tune straight or incur the wrath of the poor dancers who suddenly don’t know where they are. But in a band setting, or simply playing for yourself, it’s fun to find these little Celtic moments when you can rocket forward to the next downbeat with power and surprise.