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.
In my last post, I gave you a brief introduction to what the modes are. These are modes based on the major scale. I should also add that there are more modes based on the harmonic and melodic minor scales, but these are used more in Jazz music and are beyond the scope of our discussion. The following is about how the modes relate to Celtic music and why it can be useful to understand what they are.
How do the modes relate to traditional Celtic music?
For the most part, traditional Celtic music uses four of these modes: Ionion, also referred to as major; Aeolian, also referred to as natural minor; Mixolydian and Dorian. When we hear tunes that sound minor, they are often times in the Mixolydian or Dorian modes. The flat 3 and 7 in Dorian gives it a minor sound. Even though the Mixolydian mode is closely related to the major scale, it’s characteristic of a flat 7 gives it a minor flavour.
It is interesting to note that the Highland bagpipe scale is essential the Mixolydian mode. The pipe chanter has a range of 9 fixed pitches: G A B C# D E F# G A. If we start on A, this gives us the Mixolydian scale. This is the reason why so many tunes in the Scottish and Cape Breton repertoire are composed in this key. There are versions of tunes in Cape Breton that were originally in natural minor but switched to Mixolydian. This is most likely because the Highland pipes were just as common, if not more common, than the fiddle in Cape Breton up until the middle of the last century and fiddlers were very much accustomed to hearing tunes played in this mode.
Why should I know about these modes?
For the most part, we are familiar with looking at key signatures of major and minor scales. However, in some tune books, instead of using a major or minor key signature with accidentals in the melody when the tune is modal, the key signature represents the mode. If you are not aware of what modes are, this can be confusing. For example, if a tune is in A Dorian, the key signature will have an F#. But this is also the key signature for G major and E minor.
Writing the key signature of the mode is done to eliminate writing accidentals within the tune. Some tune books I’ve seen relate the key signature to the major or minor scale. So in this case, if a tune is in A Mixolydian, the key signature would have an F# and a C# with a G natural replacing the G#. Acknowledging the key signature of the Major key like this can be a bit more clear instead of just writing the F# and C#. This let’s you know that the tune is still in an ‘A’ key, not D major.
If you are an accompanist, it is important to recognize the difference between the Dorian and Mixolydian modes. I’m going to use the tonal center of A as an example. Because a tune sounds minor, it can be easy to assume that the A chord is minor. However, A Mixolydian uses an A major chord because that scale contains a C#; the Dorian mode uses an A minor chord because that scale uses a C natural. It’s not necessary to know the names of these modes, but it’s important to be aware of the melody and what chords the melody is producing.
As a fiddler, it is empowering to be aware of these differences. Tunes like “King George the IV” which alternate between both A Mixolydian and A Dorian can be difficult for accompanists who aren’t familiar with the tune because, in the case of King George, it uses an A minor chord in the first half of the tune and an A major chord in the second half. The melody contains both C#’s and C naturals. Again, it is not necessary that you know the names of the modes, but it can be important inform your accompanist when the melody contains two different qualities of 3rds as in the case of King George- a C# and a C natural- so they will know when to use an A major chord or an A minor chord.
I hope you have found these posts useful. Please feel free to post any further comments or questions.