Improvisation in Cape Breton Music
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.