I decided to have a theme for this year’s concert at Newcastle Folk Festival. Last year at the Friday night concert, I played a random set of tunes from the Peacock Manuscript. But this year I wanted to select different “variation” pieces of Northumbrian music played on the Northumbrian Small pipes.
These variation sets, are long pieces of music; similar to having 5 or 6 melodies added after each other. They are very characteristic of old Border Northumbrian melodies. There are suggestions why these variations came to be added after the main piece of music (the A and B sections of a melody). Some say they are for dancing, for the musician not to be bored; some say they are for listening, as in a concert environment and the player can express their virtuosity and skill.
Whatever the reason these variations can be simple or complex, often long in length sometimes having 25 sections; or as little as 2.
The old manuscripts have variation pieces in them: Dixon, Peacock, and Bewick are the manuscripts I chose to play from.
I started the concert with a reason why I chose to do the variation pieces. This was because 2 years ago I was sitting in a session listening to a friend of mine playing a variation piece on the Scottish Small pipes. As I was listening a man learned across to me and whispered in my ear “it goes on a bit”. He clearly did not like these long pieces of music. It is an expression I have heard before, especially from non-musicians. They do not understand why it is so long, or what the tune is trying to convey to the listener.
People have a short concentration span, 3 minutes on average, as long as a pop song; after that their mind goes onto other things. The variation piece needs concentration to listen and understand it properly; or the audience needs activity as in dancing. These melodies more makes sense when one is playing for a dance; it can get very boring to play the same melody over again, often 15 times while the dance is going on. It makes more sense to keep adding parts so the musician can keep an interest and therefore put some life into the playing.
The comment, made by the man in the session, kept in my mind for a while and I mused upon its reason and solution. “How could I make these traditional pieces of music more understandable and digestible for the listener?”.
In the concert at Newcastleton, I began with a very simple variation piece, Peacock’s “Highland Laddie”; mentioning that the 2nd part of the tune, is another melody called “Butter’d Peas” also from Peacock with the parts changed around. Instead of parts C and D, as in the Highland Laddie, they become parts A and B in Butter’d Peas.
With this example I began to mention my method for other variation pieces. I said “I began to chop up the variations into A and B parts, to make them more easily remembered, as well as giving them a life of their own, then when I had mastered the 2 parts, I joined them onto the variation piece once more”.
To demonstrate this I played Dixon’s “Highland Laddie” mentioning that I missed out the last 2 parts as I found it was “enough for me to play”. I wanted to say that musicians should play what feels comfortable to them, what they like and what they consider appropriate. There is no law that you must play all of the variations. Pick out the best parts and play those.
My next example was Bewick’s “Blackett O’Wylam” where I played all of the parts; followed by Peacock’s “Newmarket Races” where I only played the first 4 parts.
The next melody was Bewick’s “Sir John Fenwick’s” where I played all of the parts, and lastly I played Dixon’s “New Way to Bowden” where I played all the parts.
The concert was recorded and I will upload the recording at a later date.