This article originally appeared in: Mandolin Magazine, Winter 2005/2006 issue
Every now and then, we mando players are gently reminded that we’re the Johnny-Come-Latelies in the Celtic sessions. The reminders come in the form of appealing tunes that seem specifically designed to be annoyingly difficult to play on our poor instruments. Whether it’s the actual shape of the tune or the way the ornaments are woven in, we find ourselves quietly reaching for our pint while the fiddles or the accordions attack a tune that we’d love to play but that our fingers just can’t seem to pull off, at least at session speeds.
We’re really up against two different levels of problem here and I want to touch on both of them. The first is the ornament problem, which I’ve expounded on in several past columns. Ornaments in Celtic music represent the evolution of the musical genre over centuries, starting with a human voice singing in Gaelic and then instruments being added to the tradition one by one, each attempting to imitate the sounds of the instruments historically preceding it. So when we bring a mandolin into an Irish session, we’re expected to play ornaments that somehow blend in with the accordions that are trying to sound like fiddles, that are trying to sound like uilleann pipes, that are trying to sound like Gaelic singing. Yes, it’s a challenge.
But sometimes more daunting is the tune shape problem. There are thousands of tunes in the Celtic session tradition, most written in the last 150 years. Almost all of them were written on a fiddle, a flute or whistle, an accordion, a concertina, or a set of pipes. And until the current generation of double-course composers like Dave Richardson, Brian McNeill, and Jim Sutherland began adding to the shared repertoire, none of them were written with any attention toward being comfortable played on a mando. One could always find cool tunes to play, but it was a matter of dumb luck rather than design.
Yet, mandos and bouzoukis are here to stay as integral parts of the session scene. So rather than bemoan my inability to precisely reproduce a fiddle lick on a mando, I’d rather consider how my part adds to the ad hoc ensemble arrangement of a tune.
With tune shape in mind, I’ve commented in past columns on how so many Celtic tunes break down as little more than a series of chordal arpeggios. Knowing this, when you encounter a tune that either leaps up to the high B at uncomfortable moments (annoying in direct proportion to the scale length of your instrument) or uses octave jumps that pipes and flutes can overblow without thinking, it’s more than fair to pick another note in the arpeggio of the moment, either an octave below the melody or one of the two other notes in the chordal triad not momentarily in use. Not only will no one bristle at this, they probably won’t notice. If they do, it will be for the happy reason that you are helping flesh out the implied chords behind the melody, something that the unison-playing single-note instruments cannot do.
With ornaments in mind, my general approach ties in with my discussion from the last issue about trusting the tune and paring things down to essentials. As tempting as it may be to try to precisely duplicate every fiddle or accordion or pipe ornament in a session, my advice is mostly to leave them out entirely. Your job is to help propel the tune forward using its main shape as its engine. The ornaments are just along for the ride. Any that you can play comfortably, well, follow your bliss. But don’t feel like you’re letting down the side by playing a simpler melody line. Far from it, you’re giving the ornaments something solid to ornament. And the result will be a cleaner ensemble arrangement.
The tune that started me thinking about this in the first place is a tune I recently learned from accordionist Libby McLaren, aptly titled “The Piper’s Despair”. I’m pretty sure it started life as a fiddle tune, as the earliest version I’ve been able to ferret out is by the late Cork fiddler Denis Murphy. Flutist Matt Molloy and tenor banjoist Seamus Egan have also recorded settings of the tune, but the setting Libby taught me is jammed with fiddle ornaments and twists that she gamely tried to alter to fit the piano accordion. Naturally I worked it out first on fiddle, since the bow-skip triplets and high B excursions on the E-string are your basic fun on the fiddle. But trying to play that exact same setting on my octave mandolin was six kinds of hell.
So back I went into the semi-digital 21st century oral tradition and found another setting of “The Piper’s Despair” that was lauded by mandolin players. I was immediately struck by how it followed the common-sense rules I laid out above. Ornaments? Mostly gone. Tune shape? On the money except for a few passages that drop into alternate arpeggiations. So I’ve transcribed both settings for you here to compare, contrast, and woodshed. For lack of better designations, I’ll just call them “fancy” and “plain”. Try them both and then run with your level of skill and sense of adventure and find your own setting somewhere in between. And if you’re able to play the fancy one note-for-note, my hat is off to you. As for me, I’ll just reach for my pint.