themusicclass

Archive for August 2011

This article was written by Pat Higgins in 2004 for the quarterly Flute Focus magazine (now an online publication) and is reproduced here with the permission of Flute Focus and Pat Higgins.

Pat Higgins playing a nineteenth century Rudall & Carte fluteThe simple-system wooden flute has been relatively rare in New Zealand; and in comparison to the Boehm instrument, it still is unusual. However, in recent years we have seen a steady growth in interest in this instrument. It used to be that people would say, “but that’s not a flute… ” on seeing a wooden instrument, obviously expecting the Boehm instrument familiar to thousands from school music classes. The increase in numbers of people becoming interested in and playing this instrument has come about as people became exposed to the sound of the wooden flute as part of the enormous world-wide surge in interest in Irish culture over the last ten years or so. (Riverdance, Lord of the Dance, Guinness Tours of New Zealand, etc…)

The wooden simple system flute [also known as Irish flutes] is used almost exclusively for Irish traditional music, (though there may be professional musicians using it for classical performance, as is the case overseas). The author is aware of one musician in Wellington, Barnard Wells, who uses the simple system flute for playing Cuban and Latin music in a band situation. In nineteenth century Ireland, traditional music survived amongst the poor and impoverished; the classical music of the drawing room being the preserve of the rich. In 1831 Theobald Boehm invented his metal flute and sometime after, the wooden instruments it replaced gradually became un-fashionable; thus becoming affordable or at least more available to ‘folk-musicians’. It is not known (at least to the author) when exactly this occurred, but the transition must have been slow as classical musicians would have had to re-learn a whole new fingering system. In any case Irish traditional music formally played on pipes, fiddle and whistle could now also be played on the simple system eight-key wooden flute.

The first examples were small holed eight-key German instruments, and gradually large-holed English flutes (Charles Nicholson flutes etc.) became available. These became highly sought after in the 1970s as their big sound was able to produce a better tone for the noisy environment they are played in. The instrument is played like a tin whistle; the keys (if any) are ignored, as most of the Irish repertoire is in D, G, A minor, E minor and A major. The melodies tend to lie inside the two octaves above middle C. The ornamentation (rolls etc.) that so characterise Irish traditional music depend upon the fingers having contact with the holes; which allows the player to slide from notes and to articulate the grace notes. This makes the Boehm instrument unsuited to traditional Irish music. One exceptional player who does play Irish music successfully on a Boehm instrument, is the US based musician Joanie Madden.

Irish players learn by ear, staff notation is considered an impediment to the feel of the music. Notes slur over bar-lines and a legato style is preferred, although there is a more staccato Northern playing style in the North of Ireland which is related to Scottish music. Performance of Irish music is always done from memory, never sight reading. Tonguing is not used, though debate rages on this topic. Articulation is achieved by use of the throat or the fingers. As the tunes are often quite fast, sight-reading does not help ‘the flow’ of the music. The ornaments are rhythmic effects, not actual melody notes. They are there to enforce the rhythm as this was originally dance music that has, in the last one hundred years or so, found a listening audience of its own.

Perhaps the greatest challenge for a classical musician attempting to play Irish music is getting the ‘feel’ of these ornaments. Also the tone prized by Irish flute players is quite different to that sought by Boehm players. The Irish session player wants the flute to have a searing reedy tone with a solid, chunky bottom ‘D’ (the lowest note available on the instrument, assuming the C and C# keys are missing). This is often referred to as the hard D. In the author’s experience, classical flute players like a more rounded “beautiful” tone. This is because the flute is attempting to emulate the Irish Uilleann pipes.

Usually this music is played in pubs; in ‘sessions‘. A session is a group of friends (not a band) coming together to play tunes. The music is always unison playing as harmonies are not considered traditional. The melody is not improvised; rather each tune has an accepted standard version and this will be played two or three times before someone gives a signal to move to the next agreed tune. There is improvisation or ‘variations’ on phrases which are considered as a sign of good playing, i.e.: to play the melody exactly the same each time is not admired. The skill is in putting in these variations and still staying inside the frame-work of the tune. The real test of traditional Irish flute playing however is in the exposure of solo playing. It’s in a solo performance that the beauty of the melody and its ornaments is to be heard.

In New Zealand an incorporated society – The Celtic Flute School of New Zealand [now known as Ceol Aneas] – has been formed to promote this skill. In five years great progress has been made and the school has grown to attract students to its annual master-classes in Nelson from all over the world. Originally starting out as eighteen keen flute-players, the school has taught as many as 120 students in June 2004 in Nelson. They studied Irish flute, fiddle, bouzouki, Uilleann pipes and concertina. Ceol Aneas has now become an annual fixture each June, held over the Queen’s Birthday long weekend holiday, in Nelson.

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For more information about Irish traditional music sessions, classes and Ceol Aneas, kindly contact Pat Higgins.

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This article was written by Brendyn Montgomery in 2004 for the quarterly Flute Focus magazine (now an online publication) and is reproduced here with the permission of Flute Focus and Brendyn Montgomery.

I sometimes wonder what led me to this place. I am an Irish flute player with a BSc in Zoology and an M.A. in traditional Irish music performance (1st class honours) and I have lived in Ireland. Yet I am a New Zealander. Brendyn MontgomeryI was born here, my parents were born here, and in fact, five generations of my relatives proceed me in this land…

My music does not come directly from my extended family as a neatly handed-down package as it so often does in Ireland. Irish has such a strong oral tradition in its homeland, where people live and breathe the music everyday. I live in a country where the society has evolved hugely from the societies that my ancestors left. The demise of the family unit and the freedom to choose your own path that has been slower to change in Ireland and Scotland, the countries of my ancestry. I am not against this change by any means; it simply means that many of the threads of the oral tradition have been broken.

Yet I am certain that the immigrants brought their music with them. My mother’s mother talks of how they played for dances from an early age, tunes that were handed down from the wider family. But that was lost as the family moved away to different parts of the country. I was bought up with both recorded and live music and was dragged to folk festivals from the age of six weeks. It is something I have grown to appreciate with time. This was not family music, but folk music of the 1970s and 1980s, influenced by technology and recordings from other parts of the world.

Before I went to Ireland I clung to that misguided belief, known in many people who have not yet travelled, that I was Irish, born in New Zealand. In Ireland I found I was definitely a New Zealander with Irish roots and the difference rocked me. When I was there I longed to come home and now that I am home, I miss Ireland. The music here changes with the land it is played in. My temperament is different to the Irish, more laid back, I drink far less alcohol. All this reflects in the music I play, and how I play it.

Playing Irish music in New Zealand is like living in a time warp, a step back into the past and an older more relaxed way of doing things. Irish music in New Zealand lacks the commercial following of modern genres, the ‘grandeur and subtly’ of classical music or the ‘coolness’ of jazz in peoples eyes. So I do it for the love of it and try to pass on the love of it to others. I impress the virtues of an oral tradition in this day of electronic convenience. I try and bring it past its colonial stigma and brand it as an acceptable and understandable part of New Zealand. Most importantly I try to share this newly found awareness and sense of place with other musicians and potential players.

While attending Kei Ko Na Ha Me te Wairua (there be the breath with the spirit) as a teacher, a hui (meeting) on Scots and Maori musical traditions, I was stuck by the opportunities for integration and understanding such a meeting generated. I was able to learn a great deal about Maori musical traditions while at the same time share mine, both equally important parts of New Zealand’s story. The presence of Dr. Alexa Still and Richard Nunns ensured the high calibre of the material being shared. I was struck by the similarities in the nature of the teaching and the strength of the oral traditionwithin Maoridom. I decided that it was possible for this means of transmission to survive in a modern era. I am happy to say that this opportunity will be repeated next year in Rotorua in late March, from the 20th until the 28th. This year will include a focus on Native American flute traditions and classical players also. I would thoroughly recommend the experience.

Currently in New Zealand, Irish traditional music is loosely associated with the ‘folk’ scene. It is however its ‘own man’, as it were, and in Ireland a very clear distinction is made between the two. It is not a quaint, older idiom that harks back to yesteryear, it has become (in Ireland anyway) a sophisticated listening music enjoyed by all sectors of the population.

So where do I fit in? Traditional Irish music has a place in New Zealand and is growing slowly. Contemporary Irish music has a proven appeal on the world stage and also in New Zealand. I once believed that uncompromising traditional music was the only way forward. I am more thoughtful these days and listen to what New Zealand has to say…

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For more information or to contact Brendyn Montgomery, kindly visit his website.

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August 2011
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