The Continuing Relevance of Strathspey and Reel Societies

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Read the blog post I was invited to write for the Traditional Music Forum here. You can make a comment or leave feedback below.

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The Diversity of Scottish Fiddle Music

I was disappointed by yesterday’s announcement that the plug was to be pulled on the Glenfiddich Fiddle Championship, but not surprised. It is telling that support will continue for the associated Piping Championship, which was established in 1974 (fifteen years before the fiddle championship), with the reason behind the decision presumably commercial. The pipes have always come first in vying to be Scotland’s national instrument, despite the best efforts of fiddle enthusiasts, and the fiddle championship has always been the poor relation of the higher-profile piping championship.

Anyone familiar with the fiddle championship will know that the compositions of James Scott Skinner reign supreme, counting for a substantial proportion of almost every competitor’s programme. Recent compositions feature rarely (if at all), and the ubiquitous piano accompaniment distinguishes the performance aesthetic from that of bands popular at folk festivals.

The event perpetuates the so-called ‘North East’ style of Scottish fiddle music, which has its roots in the performance practice and compositions of Scott Skinner (I’ve written elsewhere about the issues surrounding the regional model of fiddle music). The style was epitomised in the playing of Hector MacAndrew, whose student, Douglas Lawrence, has tutored many of the winning competitors over the 27-year history of the event.

In privileging the North East style, the championship guarded it against the rising popularity of other styles, but the national profile of the style will potentially suffer in response to Grants withdrawal of their support.

The BBC Radio Scotland Young Traditional Musician of the Year remains a high-profile contest for Scottish fiddle players, but the performance aesthetic of that event differs from the the Glenfiddich, and it is open to all traditional musicians (rather than only fiddle players). The ‘feeder competitions’ for the Glenfiddich will continue, such as the Mòd, NAAFC, and the Oban Masters, but none is as prestigious. (I’ve written about Fiddle Competitions before).

The privileging of one style over all others is made problematic by the diversity of Scottish fiddle music today. The prospect of a national contest is difficult to realise without perpetuating an establishment view of ‘the tradition’ that is exclusive rather than inclusive. I’m the first to recognise the substantial heritage of past players and composers, but my perception is that the historical component is becoming less relevant at a time of plurality when multiple ‘traditions’ are recognised and valued.

Where does that leave Scottish fiddle music? Unlike the pipes and the clarsach, both of which traditions are marked by a high degree of centralisation, the fiddle tradition is inherently various (as demonstrated by the challenge posed to the organisers of the Scottish Fiddle Society, who have struggled to find a purpose that was relevant to a wide audience). Fortunately, there’s room for all persuasions, traditionalists, experimentalists, regionalists, multi-stylists…

The Golden Fiddle Awards, which preceded the Glenfiddich Fiddle Championship as a prestigious national competition and were sponsored by the Daily Record newspaper, lasted for about a decade. At 27 years, the Glenfiddich has had a good innings. It will be interesting to see if sponsorship emerges for a replacement event in this time of heightened national sentiment.

Ronnie Gibson, 1 September 2016

William Grant Foundation to Discontinue Sponsorship of the Glenfiddich Fiddle Championship

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The future of the Glenfiddich Fiddle Championship is uncertain after it was announced that 2016 will be the last year William Grant & Sons coordinates the premiere Scottish fiddle competition (established 1989). The foundation will instead look to encourage and nurture participation in Scottish fiddle playing by making grants available to other organisations.

Chief Executive of the William Grant Foundation, Nick Addington, said:

We aim to help connect more people to Scotland’s arts and heritage, and to support initiatives that promote, develop and enrich Scotland’s contemporary cultural identity.  Whilst we feel that the Glenfiddich Piping Championship continues to be well supported and acclaimed within the piping world as the premier competition for solo piping, we feel that the resources currently dedicated to organising the Glenfiddich Fiddle Championship could support Scottish music, including fiddle playing more effectively through grant-making to other organisations.

It is significant that support will be continued for the Piping Championship, the profile of which is higher, it having been broadcast live in recent years. In contrast, recorded excerpts from the Fiddle Championship have featured on BBC Radio Scotland. Results for both tend to be widely reported in the press.

I attended the fiddle event in recent years, and was always encouraged by how well-supported it was in terms of audience numbers. The venue (Blair Castle), while appropriate given its links with Niel Gow, is not centrally located, yet many people make the annual pilgrimage.

It will be interesting to see what emerges to replace the event, at which participation is by invitation. It has stimulated the careers of many fiddle players over the years, including Paul Anderson, Maggie Adamson, and Patsy Reid, and will be sorely missed if it is allowed to fall off.

A grand finale has been planned for what will be the last Glenfiddich Fiddle Championship this 30 October, with all former champions having been invited to attend.

My source for the news was a press release I received from Artisan PR that was issued on behalf of the William Grant Foundation.

Ronnie Gibson, 31 August 2016

Continuity in the Transmission of Scottish Fiddle Music; or, The ‘Strange Consequences’ of a Broken Musical Tradition

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(Dis)Continuity: A central component of my current research project is the investigation of claims about continuity in the performance of Scottish fiddle music. Almost every writer on the topic makes reference to it, with Mary Anne Alburger, for instance, stating from the outset of Scottish Fiddlers and their Music that ‘the music of the fiddle has been played in Scotland for more than half a millennium’. Similarly, Katherine Campbell, in The Fiddle in Scottish Culture, confidently asserts that ‘the fiddle tradition in Scotland has been a continuous one’, albeit in contrast to discontinuous, or revived, traditions such as that of the clarsach. Both authors are, of course, quite correct in their assertions, but problems emerge when continuity is equated with tradition to mean unchanging or static, the implication being that the performance of fiddle music today is no different to that of the distant past. In this vein, David Johnson’s untenable claim, in Scottish Fiddle Music in the Eighteenth Century, that all the elements of ‘the violin’s defunct 18th-century art-music technique […] are still very much alive in present-day Scots-fiddle playing, where they have been handed down unchanged for the last 200 years’ is symptomatic of a view that remains pervasive throughout fiddle scholarship. Changes in instrument construction, musical tastes and fashions, the functions and contexts of performance, and attitudes towards the repertoire separate us irreconcilably from earlier practitioners, yet the appeal of an ideology of tradition still holds strong.

Aspects of Tradition: The complexities of musical transmission are such that performance practices and styles are impossible to pin down, and while students may imitate their teachers or musical idols, the autonomy of individuals’ creativity is difficult to mute. Nonetheless, it can often be feasible to transmit near-faithfully aspects of the tradition, such as a bow stroke, ornament, or a particular interpretation of a tune or performance aesthetic, while allowing for broader changes or differences.

Links with the Past: Musical lineage and continuous transmission are often cited as links with the past in the present-day performance of Scottish fiddle music, in addition, of course, to the heritage of tunes from old collections and archive sound recordings. Most famously, Hector MacAndrew’s connection to Niel Gow through a series of intermediary teachers was upheld for the cultural significance this imbued on his performances. The identification of Gow is important, as no other fiddle player would attract such prestige, his unique place in the history of the music framing his position as the father of the tradition. Thus, the connection is portrayed as being between Gow (1727-1807) and MacAndrew (1903-1980), with the ‘intermediaries’ given short shrift and the nineteenth century conveniently maligned in the narrative.

The Nineteenth Century: Given scholars’ focus on continuity in studies of Scottish fiddle music, it might be expected that a wealth of research should be forthcoming on every part of the music’s history from its origins to the present, as researchers accordingly trace the many continuous lines of transmission. However, the majority of research is focused on the eighteenth century, the so-called golden age of Scottish fiddle music. Crucially, at the same time as scholars celebrate continuity between the past (typically the eighteenth century) and the present, they depict the nineteenth century as a time of dearth:

When [Nathaniel] Gow died in 1831 and Marshall in 1833, Scots fiddling was left without a figurehead for more than a generation; no other really outstanding player came to the fore until Scott Skinner reached maturity in the 1860s. A line of nationally-renowned fiddlers which went back to William McGibbon had been broken; with strange consequences.

I’ve written before about the supposed waning of Scottish fiddle music in the nineteenth century, with David Johnson’s view of fiddle music at this time as in decline or at least abeyance shared by many writers on the topic. Significantly, the emphasis is most often placed on a fall in the number of compositions, with Mary Anne Alburger’s claim that ‘there was little creativity left’ echoing the sentiments of James Hunter, who thought that ‘by 1820 the great fiddle era was past’. There were still many performers of fiddle music, but far fewer new collections were being published. However, as I’ve argued elsewhere, events in the history of Scottish fiddle music in the nineteenth century had a formative influence on later practitioners, including the ‘invention’ of a Scottish fiddle tradition and the advent of regular fiddle competitions.

Conclusion: The curious dichotomy between continuity and breaks in the history of Scottish fiddle music emerges from the lionisation of the ‘golden age’ and subsequent depreciation of later events, with changes in the mechanisms of patronage and the introduction of continental dance forms to the repertoires of Scottish fiddle players thought to contaminate the indigenous tradition. It’s my mission to rehabilitate the history of Scottish fiddle music in the nineteenth century by tracing the many lines of influence that, while admittedly linking the eighteenth century with the present, do so only through the media of nineteenth century innovations.

Ronnie Gibson (9 April 2015)

Musica Scotica Ninth Annual Conference

I’ve just noticed that the updated version of the Aberdeen University Music Department website does not include the Musica Scotica Ninth Annual Conference pages. For anyone interested in the event (which took place in April 2014), the programme can be viewed here.

UPDATE: I’ve just come across the archived webpages of the Aberdeen University Music Department, which contain the original site created for the Musica Scotica Ninth Annual Conference. You can view it here.

Scots Fiddle Festival 2014

I have the pleasure of speaking at the Scots Fiddle Festival which is taking place in Edinburgh this weekend (21-23 November 2014). I’m giving a talk on Sunday afternoon at 2.30pm in the Summerhall Anatomy Lecture Theatre entitled, ‘Niel Gow’s Legacy: Re-Evaluating the History of Scottish Fiddle Music,’ in which I’ll be discussing the route Niel’s music has taken from his time in the eighteenth century to ours in the twenty-first. Many of the topics up for discussion have featured previously in blog posts, including fiddle competitions, the ‘invention’ of a Scottish fiddle tradition, and issues surrounding regional and national traditions, but this promises to offer a new perspective on all of them!

I prepared a short video to advertise the event, featuring two tunes dedicated to the memory of Niel by Simon Fraser.

I hope to see you on Sunday at the talk! It’s a really great festival, including performances and workshops in addition to talks. More info can be found at the festival website here.

Survey: The Impact of the Internet on Musical Instrument Stores

Ellot Pirie, a lecturer and PhD student at Robert Gordon’s University, has been in touch regarding an online survey in which he is looking for people to participate. He is researching the impact of the internet on musical instrument stores, and you can take the survey at: 

https://docs.google.com/forms/d/1oqsWsFNoAqpe3U2LCBuZT3eNJ-uSF9y3EauU5gYz09s/viewform?usp=send_form

Please contact Elliot with any queries you may have. 

RG