The Glenfiddich Fiddle Championship 2014

I had the pleasure of attending the Glenfiddich Fiddle Championship at Blair Castle yesterday afternoon. Considered by many to be the premiere Scottish fiddle competition, it was introduced in 1989 to compliment the piping championship sponsored by the same distillery. Setting aside for the time being the ethical implications of such sponsorship, it is my aim in the present blog post to share some observations and contextualise the event in some wider issues.

Unsurprisingly, each of the eight invited performers gave a highly polished recital of three sets:

  1. Slow Air, March, Strathspey, and Reel
  2. Slow Strathspey, Hornpipe, and Jig
  3. A set of tunes composed by James Scott Skinner

The choice of Scott Skinner as the named composer for set three (a different composer is chosen each year) struck me as being slightly dissatisfying, given that competitors chose many of his tunes to make up sets one and two, also. Rather than nominating a composer, it would be interesting to see the results of nominating a specific collection of tunes, especially if it were to be one of the lesser-known collections.

The topic of music competitions is contentious. Many people don’t believe music should be a competitive business, but others argue that competitions keep the standard of performance high. But what constitutes a high standard of performance? And, more importantly, who decides? The Glenfiddich competition is judged by three adjudicators who award first, second, and third prizes, with each judge having considerable experience performing and judging the music.

Standards of Performance

The BBC recently launched The Genome Project, a website which contains the BBC listings information from the Radio Times, 1923-2009. My first search, of course, was for ‘Scottish Fiddle Music’, and I found this fascinating quote from Alec Sim, founder of the Aberdeen Strathspey and Reel Society (1928):

Sim is critical of the older generation of Scottish fiddlers. ‘You know how the old fiddler sawed up and murdered our music’, he says. ‘We are trying to get away from this and to play it with the same care that one would play Bach or Beethoven.’

I’ve written before about value judgements in connection to traditional music exams, and in many ways fiddle competitions are an extension. Ultimately, there are governing musical aesthetics that value some aspects of performance and not others. The quote from Sim highlights one ‘classicising tendency’ which was strongly in play at yesterday’s competition.

Some may identify in the desire to classicise the performance of Scottish fiddle music a ‘cultural cringe’ common throughout many aspects of Scottish culture, and Sim’s disdain for the older generation is a reflection more on him than them. I would argue, as I have done before, that their performances embodied an alternative musical aesthetic less geared towards platform performance, and perhaps geared more towards playing for dancing.

A comparison of the competitors’ biographies which were printed in the programme reveals that five of the eight are studying ‘classical’ music at either a University or a Conservatory (though not all are studying the violin as their primary instrument). Of the remaining three, one is a graduate of the RCS’s Scottish Music course, one is studying a non-music-related subject, and one does not specify their training.

Folk Fiddlers

Nicola Benedetti has a new CD out (Homecoming: A Scottish Fantasy) which features a Scottish-inspired programme, including Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy alongside sets of ‘traditional’ tunes, some by Scott Skinner. Of course, Scott Skinner himself was an advocate of a classical training, but he also practiced as a dance band musician, combining classical and traditional modes of learning and performance. You will often find him described as a ‘folk fiddler’, but he cannot in all fairness be described thus. In truth, I find the label utterly useless, and struggle to identify any performer to whom it could be accurately applied.

The term ‘hybridity’ is used a lot in Ethnomusicology to describe musical traditions or practices which combine elements of different traditions/practices. It is not ideal, given that it denies the tradition its autonomy, but nonetheless, it provides a helpful framework within which to understand the Glenfiddich competition: the ideal performance will combine a formidable classical technique (some call it just ‘technique’) with appropriate ornamentation and rhythmic articulation which are not always specified by the music notation.

And the Winner is…

As noted above, each of the eight recitals was of a high standard, but there were a few distinguishing aspects:

  1. Stage Presence: Many competitors failed to acknowledge the audience appropriately, perhaps focused more on their performance. However, regardless of what you might like to believe, the competition is about more than just the sounds produced. It’s a fundamentally social event, in which impressions can make a big contribution.
  2. Sound Production/Tone: With the benefit of hearing the competitors in close succession, it quickly became clear that some were producing a much stronger tone than others. This is partly a result of their instruments, but also their technique. When you are performing un-amplified in a big hall, it is crucial that you fill the space, and some did that better than others.
  3. Bow Control: There are those who argue that bowing is everything in Scottish fiddle music. This may or may not be the case, but the competitors’ use of bow certainly distinguished them. Ultimately, it is intimately connected with the tone, but it is also visual, and can make a strong impression on the audience.
  4. Virtuosity: There were varying degrees of virtuosity in both the selection of tunes and their interpretation. The use of left-hand pizzicato, extended sections of double-stopping, and a variety of bowing techniques marked the most technically accomplished competitors above the others, but the depth of emotion and application of stylish ornamentation are surely just as significant in an overall judgement?

The repertoire was selected from a relatively narrow band of sources, with Scott Skinner and Marshall featuring especially widely. One competitor made the effort to include some lesser-known tunes in their Scott Skinner set, but otherwise the choice of tunes was from the core of the Scottish fiddle canon. There was little by way of regional variation, but I detected in the performance styles of the two North American competitors more cosmopolitan features than the others.

Scottish?

Like the worlds of piping and Highland dancing before it, Scottish fiddle music has now entered a global arena in which the recognised arbiters of performance need not necessarily hail from Scotland. Significantly, the title of the event, ‘Glenfiddich Fiddle Championship’, does not specify Scotland or Scottish. However, the competition circuits from which the invitees are selected specialise in the performance of Scottish fiddle music, and so it is more conspicuous by its absence.

However, unlike the worlds or piping and Highland dance, the performance of Scottish fiddle music retains a strong aspect of individuality. In contrast, the performance of pipe music is in many ways quite dogmatic, and the steps of Highland dancing have been codified in an attempt to achieve uniformity.

That the winner of the 2014 championship was North American may upset ‘purists’ who would have preferred an ‘indigenous’ champion, but such a stance is clearly untenable in the context of a competition. The winner gave a formidable performance, incorporating a warm stage presence with sound technique and an interesting interpretation.

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