Until I started to understand other styles of music like jazz and bluegrass, I had never thought about the concept of improvisation in Cape Breton music. The thought of varying a tune had never occurred to me.
It is not typical for Cape Breton fiddlers to melodically improvise on tune melodies, at least not to the degree of Irish music. Tunes are usually played through twice and then we move on to the next tune. Some micro variations to tunes exist- usually one or a few bars of a tune- but rarely do fiddlers make up variations on the spot. These variations are somewhat standardized and known ahead of time. Sometimes variations can be traced back to a certain player. A fiddler may choose to play these small variations spontaneously or he could have planned to play these variations ahead of time. Rhythmically, small variations in certain phrases may occur as well as small changes in the choice of grace notes. Speaking for myself, I may make spontaneous unconscious decisions like these in reaction to something the piano player does or to something that is happening on dance floor.
Cape Breton fiddlers are known to be concerned with playing tunes ‘correctly’ in terms of the melody. This is an interesting concept. The older generations of fiddlers did not like the idea of altering tunes too much. But having said that, a few different settings exist for some tunes. If you refer to Scottish Collections like the Athole or Skye for certain tunes, you may notice that the Cape Breton settings can be different, sometimes by a fair amount. This could be that the tune is very old and has altered in the oral tradition. But the other reason this occurs is because some fiddlers were known to have altered the tune from the written source to ‘improve’ it to their liking. Once these altered settings were recorded, they became standardized. So by playing the tune ‘correctly’, a fiddler is playing an accepted Cape Breton version of the tune and doesn’t stray too far from that.
But I wonder how this concept of correctness has evolved over time. Cape Breton pipers (now an extinct style of piping-more in a future post) rarely played a tune the same way twice. They were known to have made up variations on the spot, and sometimes improvised complete parts of tunes. The piping tradition in Cape Breton was closely linked to the fiddle. Many pipers were fiddlers themselves. So how it came to be that now tunes are rarely varied, I’m not exactly sure.
Improvisation is seen strongest in the piano accompaniment. The piano is the primary instrument of accompaniment in Cape Breton and it has evolved over time to become a uniquely robust and complex accompaniment style within the Celtic genre. Cape Breton pianists know the basic harmonic progression of a tune, and improvise using these chords as a foundation. There are a large number of ways to connect these chords with the bass hand (left hand). Cape Breton pianists also commonly use substitution chords, increasing the possibility for bass hand runs. The rhythms of the right hand are highly complex. The combination of the chords, bass runs and rhythms is all improvised. It is nearly impossible for a pianist to accompany a tune the same way twice.
It will be interesting to see how the concept of improvisation will continue to evolve in Cape Breton music.
What is the difference between Cape Breton and Scottish Fiddling? (This post is inspired by a reader’s question)
While the roots of Cape Breton music mainly lie in Scottish Fiddling, the styles have evolved quite differently. The most noticeable difference between these styles is in the rhythm; especially in dotted rhythm tunes like strathspeys and marches. In Cape Breton, the dotted 8th notes and 16th notes are fairly relaxed. If you were to listen to older pipers in Cape Breton play strathspeys, the rhythm would almost sound like even 8th notes that have a swing. In Scottish fiddling, the length of the dotted 8th is much more exaggerated and the 16th is shortened to make a much more pointed rhythm.
Why the difference in style?
In the late 1700s and early 1800s, Cape Breton and North Eastern Nova Scotia was settled by tens of thousands of Highland Scots (the reasons are beyond the scope of this post). Highland culture (Gaelic language and singing, piping, step dancing and fiddling) was transplanted pretty much intact from the mother country. The Highland Scots were the dominant ethnic group on the island and the music flourished with little outside influence. Circumstances in Scotland charted a different course for the evolution of its fiddle music.
About the time when Highlanders began immigrating to Cape Breton, Scotland had been experiencing a ‘Golden Age’ of fiddling. Composers like William Marshall and Neil Gow enjoyed support from powerful patrons like the Duke of Gordon and the Duke of Athole. However, by 1820, the Golden Age was in decline. Numerous factors contributed to this. Religious fundamentalism was raging through protestant parts of the Highlands and those patrons who supported Scottish music were being drawn to new dance forms from the European continent like waltzes, polkas, and quadrilles. The center of fiddling shifted from the Highlands into the northeastern Lowlands, taking it out of a Gaelic speaking and cultural environment. Here, the music became susceptible to the ‘improvements’ of classical standards. James Scott Skinner was probably the most influential in this respect implementing as much classical technique as he could to ‘clean up’ Scottish fiddling. In addition, the introduction of the piano accordion into Scotland in the late 1800s displaced the fiddle as the main instrument for dancing.
Scottish music in Cape Breton was largely spared from these influences. The Highland traditions of Gaelic language and song, step dancing, piping and fiddling evolved organically and continued to influence each other until relatively recently. Even though the Gaelic language and piping have declined to near extinction in Cape Breton during the last century, the fiddling has still largely held on to those influences and still functions as step dance music.
This is of course an extremely brief account of the evolution of both fiddle styles. If you are interested, here are some in depth resources for both Cape Breton and Scottish Fiddling:
- Glenn Graham; The Cape Breton fiddle, Making and Maintaining Tradition. CBU Press, 2006
- Michael Kennedy; Gaelic Nova Scotia: An Economic, Cultural and Social Impact Study, 2002. (pdf)
- Sheldon MacInnes; A Journey In Celtic Music, Cape Breton Style, UCCB Press, 1997.
- Mary Ann Alburger; Scottish Fiddlers and Their Music, Hardie Press, 2009.
- David Johnson; Scottish Fiddle Music of the 18th Century, Mercat Press, 2005
- J.S. Skinner; A Guide to Bowing: Strathspeys, Reels, Pastoral, Melodies, Hornpipes, etc. Hardie Press 1984.
- John Gibson; Traditional Gaelic Bagpiping 1745-1945, McGill Queens University Press, 1999.
- —————-Old and New World Highland Bagpiping, McGill Queens, 2002
- Burt Feintuch; In the Blood Conversations on Culture, Utah State University Press, 2010.