Monday, September 21, 2009

Day 16 (Round IV) "In the trenches": vamping-piano edition

A colleague allied at Points North posed a question about approaches to keyboard in "Celtic" styles. Here's what I came up with:

The "vamping" style of piano associated with the Irish ceili bands (and probably growing out of the frequently inapposite approach of New York session pianists hired to accompany Sligo emigre fiddlers). Pianists would supply the full harmonic accompaniment for a front line of flutes, fiddles, accordions, and banjos, along with a drumset playing employing quasi-marching band patterns. Pianist had bass line and chords: left-hand in a kind of stride piano pattern, playing R-5-8ve figurations in 2/4 a la polka, or sometimes walking diatonically between chord roots; while the right-hand hits triads or triadic fragments on the off-beats/up-beats. This is employed in 2/4 and 4/4 meters, but also, interesting, in 6/8. In that latter, the left-hand hits the bassline patterns on 1 & 4 of the 6/8, while the right-hand "offbeats" will come on 3 and 6. So there is kind of "boom chick-boom chick-boom" feel to the pattern: provides a strong sense of cross-rhythm in 6/8, and of right-hand anticipation into the downbeat left-hand bass notes.

The art of ceili band "vamping" piano is not so much virtuosity or obvious variety--it's more about really knowing the melodies of the tunes, being able to accent their internal melodic syncopations, creating rhythmic "lift" for the dancers, and so forth. Really, just like any dance-band music: subsuming other considerations to making it groove.

The great Charlie Lennon

A fuller, more interactive version of the same thing is found in Cape Breton, where the left-hand still carries bass-line on strong beats (2/4, 4/4, or 6/8), but the right-hand, while maintaining the general off-beat/up-beat cross-rhythm, will also play more linearly and selectively. Rather than employing the relatively lockstep "boom chick-boom chick-boom" etc of the "vamping" style, the Cape Breton players will break things up, play cross-accents, play along with the melody, and generally be much more interactive and employ wider textural contrasts.

Hannah Stockley and Brad Murphy

Some button accordion players (notably Tony Mac Mahon and Billy McComiskey) have developed a virtuoso approach to the left hand bass buttons, which combines both very complex syncopated chording and accents, and also the held drones and slow moving descants of the Irish pipes. Piano accordion is rare in Irish music, less rare in Scottish music, but the button box is the commoner free-reed.

Mac Mahon plays "Napoleon Crossing the Rhine"

Billy plays two of his own tunes.

Finally, keyboardists in the folk revival (sometimes pianists, but more often organ, harmonium, harpsichord, clavinet, or other synthesizer players) would employ accompanimental techniques that were more reminiscent of the core instruments and the sometimes-idiosyncratic modal/harmonic language. Some borrowed from the open/modal sonorities and filigree associated with the harp, while some more interesting and subtle approaches were derived from the broken chords and multi-functional dyads employed by the regulators of the uilleann (Irish: "elbow") bagpipes.

Triona Ni Domhnaill with the Bothy Band had played harpsichord, and that let her employ clavinet with a quasi-Baroque style right-hand (lots of melodic figuration, ornamentation, etc) while exploiting the instrument's electronics-goosed bass to play rock-style bass lines. Extensions of this have come from various other keyboardists in revival bands, most notably Alan Reid of the Battlefield Band (Scotland), who is a notorious abuser of synthesizers' cheesy stock factory presets.

Triona with the Bothy band, "The Green Groves of Erin / The Flowers of Red Hill"

Shirley Collins used arrangements put together by her sister Dorothy, who was actually rather knowledgeable (for the time) about Renaissance music--probably David Munrow's influence. Dorothy sometimes employed a small portativ, and would have been familiar with the "bits you leave out" in Renaissance polyphony to heighten the modal and decrease the triadic atmosphere.

Shirley in 1978 with the Albion Band and Martin Carthy.

Various people (notably Grey Larsen with Metamora, and, perhaps less notably, myself, on my solo discs) have done very interesting things with the field organ or harmonium, which, with their small sound and acoustic timbre, seem to blend very well with bowed and plucked strings, and the double- and free-reeds of pipes and accordions.

Grey Larsen (on flute; no field organ, unfortunately) and Cindy Kallet

In the Albion band, which employed at one time or another just about every British folkie, there was extensive use of open tunings on guitars, and mandolin-family instruments, for this same purpose: to move toward the mode/drone environment of the pipes and harp, and away from the triadic focus used by American folk music and its British (e.g., skiffle) imitators.

The Albion chordal sound, overwhelmingly, comes out of the extraordinary open-tuned guitar work of Martin Carthy, who played in various tuned-down open modal tunings, and had a wonderful droning, percussive guitar approach (strongly influenced by fiddle and pipes); and, secondly, by Richard Thompson, who played mostly electric guitar, but was very strongly influenced by Highland piping.

Carthy plays the Morris tune/song "The Cuckoo's Nest"

Thompson tearing it up: "Jerusalem on the Jukebox" on Night Music in the '80s.

Of course it is possible to create interesting droning/modal effects on standard-tuned guitar, but to really get the kind of drone and counterpoint that these guitarists were capable of, you need the open sonorities of certain strings ringing while others are fingered. And those open tunings, especially the ubiquituous DADGAD (lowest pitch to highest pitch) most definitely changed the sound of guitar in traditional Celtic musics. In addition to Carthy, two wonderful exponents are Pierre Bensusan (a fantastic solo player) and Michael O Domhnaill, who used DADGAD to play rhythm in the Bothy Band.

Bensusan plays two jigs: "Merrily Kissed the Quaker's Wife / Cunla"

Micheal (RIP) introduces and plays rhythm guitar for a Bothy Band jig set, with Triona starting the set.

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