Siobhán Armstrong

“Singing is integral to this early Irish harp tradition because so much of the music is vocal. We’ve got to be thinking about it if we’re serious. This is as important as getting the right instrument and putting the right strings on it and looking at the correct hand position and the historical technique. This is as important, this is a part of the story. You can’t ignore it. Because otherwise you’ve got the right instrument and everything but you still don’t have the music, because the music is the words. Abair amhrán. Abair amhrán. Abair amhrán ar an gcláirseach, you know. Sin é. [Speak the song. Speak the song. Speak the song on the harp, you know. That’s it.]”

Words & images: Mícheál Ó Catháin

Recorded in October 2017, published on in April 2019.

Siobhán Armstrong has an unerring compass for what is authentic, equally so in early Irish music as in European art music. She demands serious appreciation for the nuances of what makes the early Irish harp and its associated song tradition beautifully unique, while at the same time recognising its inter-connectedness with other musical traditions over many centuries. I admire greatly Siobhán’s curiosity for learning and her deeply held principles, which guide not just her own musical journey but all – like myself – who are fortunate enough to come into her orbit.

Follow Siobhán’s work online at:


In this conversation:

  1. Jointure & Jigg – Siobhán plays the Jointure & Jigg, and shares how she went about her arrangement. This piece is arranged and played by each artist in this early Irish harp: the State of the Art series, providing a rich and comparable showcase of each of their individual styles.
  2. Evidence of bass-hand patterns in the Bunting manuscripts.
  3. Arranging the Jointure
  4. Arranging the Jigg
  5. Looking through Bunting’s eyes
  6. Siobhán’s musical journey
  7. Historically informed performance, and the early Irish harp
  8. Moving home to Ireland, establishing the Historical Harp Society of Ireland
  9. Harp-making: ancient and modern technology meeting
  10. Singing, speaking the song on the harp

For a selection of links to things mentioned during the interview, scroll to the bottom of this page.


Mícheál Ó Catháin:
Siobhán, to begin can you talk a little about the combination of the air – the Jointure – and the Jigg following it? Is this combination, a slow piece followed by a jig, something you have encountered often in an early music context – Irish and elsewhere?

Siobhán Armstrong:
Yes. This combination seems to be a thing that you come across – especially in a lot of the Carolan pieces – you get an air and you get a jig. Of course that’s not a uniquely Irish idea at all, because it’s an earlier European idea – you get pieces and jigs, like Tanz und Nachtanz in Germanic music. So it’s an earlier idea that moves forward, that you get a thing and the thing that’s related to it that goes afterwards. So that’s not uniquely Irish. But it’s lovely that in this kind of eighteenth-century Irish context we have these pieces that have jigs that are melodically related to them. In this case it’s very closely related to it.

So you – I think cleverly – suggested that this was a piece we could all work on to show, I suppose, the differences between the approaches, to have a snapshot of what we’re all doing right now, in 2017 and 2018, or whenever.

I’m excited to hear your arrangement of the piece! Would you play it just now?
Sure …[music].

Can you talk about your arrangement choices?
The first choice to be made is what version of the piece do you play, and why. This piece occurs in the Bunting manuscripts – Bunting writes that he copied it down from the playing of Hugh Higgins in the early 1790s but both the piece and the accompanying jig occur in his notebook among material he notates from Dennis O’Hampsey so it can’t be said, definitively, to be from Higgins. There’s also a version that shows up much earlier in 1724 in the first collection of Irish tunes ever to be published in Ireland – A Collection of the Most Celebrated Irish Tunes by John and William Neal. So there’s a version in there as well and the Neal version has one of the Irish titles, A Stáraí ‘Ghoid mo Chlú-sa Uaim, which roughly translates as ‘rude person who stole my reputation from me’. So it’s obviously from a woman’s point of view and it’s the old story that we all know. In Neal it is in some ways a Europeanised version – afterwards, it says, there is a ‘jigga’, a more italianate term, but the same old rhythm that we’ve all known since the Middle Ages: a compound duple rhythm.

So it was published in Neal in 1724, and then Bunting got it – called ‘The Jointure or Golden Star by Connellan’ – but Bunting then gives the Irish title down at the bottom as Era ‘Ghadaí Ghoid mo Shláinte Uaim so here it translates as ‘the thief who stole my health from me’, so a slightly different title. Much further in the notebook that Bunting starts in Belfast in 1792, he gives the jig. The two are separated in the notebook – they don’t occur together.

The first thing you notice about the piece is that it’s the usual thing we expect with an Irish tune, as in ‘it’s the tune’. But of course there’s more going on in the Bunting manuscripts in that sometimes you get bass indications. So in the second half of this tune you get a little hint. In the first half it’s only the tune, so we have no idea what the bass will play, and that’s the thing that’s of enormous interest to me and is my research work these years. Well I suppose it has been my research for a long time but now it’s my official research work as part of the PhD I am doing, or the main thrust of the PhD – what did the bass hand do? So if we look at the second half of the tune we see the little capital B for ‘bass’ that Bunting sometimes uses to indicate what the bass hand is playing. And we also have an idea because the stems go up and down in the manuscript. So in the second half of the tune, I knew that straight away I would be doing …[music]… so you have what sounds like …[music]… so, jumping around all over the place.

That’s with the stems up, this bit …[music]… the [E , G] is with the stems down, and he writes ‘B’, so I think he means bass …[music]… and then he has treble …[music]… and then he has this with a B in the bass. So you may ask why am I not doing that an octave lower than he indicates – I mean I’ve done this one an octave higher – he has indicated here …[music] and I’ve played it here …[music]. If he indicates here …[music]… why am I not playing down there …[music]? So let’s have a listen, maybe I should have done …[music]. That could be. But I think from looking at these pages now for a long time, I think it’s expedient for Bunting, if he can easily notate something at pitch, he does. It’s easy to write that [B] and the [D] there underneath the stave …[music]. But the [E, G] that’s very tricky – now you’re into lots of ledger lines for that bottom E. So I think that’s why he writes it up there …[music]… because it’s just too difficult to write it down here …[music]… but he means it down there. So he means this …[music]… this is already an octave lower. I find the two octave thing maybe a bit implausible …[music]… so I think it is here …[music].

They are the only two bass hand indications we have in the piece, and then after that we’re on our own. We have to try and figure out what to do. So how on earth do you figure out what to play on a bass hand where there is nothing given in the manuscript? So that’s the question for us!


You need to be looking at every source of information you can possibly get your hands on. In the Bunting manuscripts themselves there is a lot of information about bass hand, and many little bass hand indications. When I was playing the modern Irish harp as a child, the general story on the block was “oh you know, the music is in the mists of time, we have no idea really how all that worked, there’s nothing left and we couldn’t possibly ever hope to go there.” And you think, “well yes and no”. It’s a broken tradition – so it ends shortly after 1800, depending on how you define the end of the tradition – it’s somewhere in the early nineteenth century. So it’s a broken tradition and we cannot know, but there’s lots of information that we can have a look at. So I’ve been looking, over the last few years, looking in a very concentrated way at Bunting’s draft versions of the tunes. Because of course they’re the ones that are of primary interest – there’s no point really in looking at his published work, that’s Victorian piano music. There is some point I suppose in looking at his manuscript piano arrangements. Because the earlier ones – he starts getting more and more, how would you say, ‘flouncy’ as he goes, his arrangements become more and more action-packed as he goes through his life – but the earlier ones, I think there is something to be gleaned from harper performance practice in those.

Is that because these piano arrangements were earlier and so closer to the actual time he sat with the harpers?
Yeah, I think it is several things. I think you’re right on the money. I think it’s that maybe he remembers better. But I think it’s also that his heart was in the right place – he really wanted to show what the harpers were doing, but he may have been pushed a bit by his publisher, or maybe by market forces, or a desire to conform with European music. That he maybe wanted to show – later on – how sophisticated it could be. So we can guess at the reasons why his reconstructions or arrangements got more complex. But in the early days I think it’s possibly much closer to what the harpers were doing.

But this is still the closest you can get, given that there are no primary sources for early Irish harp music. So obviously the harpers don’t need to write anything down in that way that most musicians in the world, in all traditions, don’t need to write it down. Because why would you? It’s all in your head. Our tradition is a medieval music tradition and of course in the Middle Ages lots of things didn’t get written down. It would be almost embarrassing to write it down. That would mean there’s something defective with your memory, and the memory was the thing. We know from from Bardic poetry how important it was that everything was memorised – it got written down only sometimes. And we know in general European terms about the ‘memory palace’, that it was a mark of pride that you would have everything memorised. So it was almost a failing to have to write things down.

Of course the fact that most of our harpers were blind mitigates against them writing things down anyway. They were tying into maybe an earlier aesthetic and performing tradition.

Was the Jointure in the early manuscripts or not? I’m just trying to ascertain how much information you can glean from manuscript 33 or are you going right back to manuscript 29 exclusively?
The Jointure is published in the 1796 volume. So that’s the thing. This is published within four years of Bunting hearing it. So that’s got to be important. He gives just those two bass hand indications in the second half. So for all the rest of it, you better be looking around yourself within that draft notebook to see if there’s anything else you can glean.

And so I’ve been gleaning for quite a while, and if it’s of interest to you I can share with you maybe the bass hand evidence that I’ve come up with so far from the draft notebooks.

Yes, absolutely!
So it would seem to me that you can start to categorise the different kinds of bass hand evidence that you see in the manuscript. If you can do that then maybe you can start to utilise it in pieces like this that don’t have bass hand. So that’s basically what I was trying to do for you there when I was playing the piece – to utilise the information that I’ve gleaned from other pieces that do have bass.

So that allows you to interpret, for example, what an up-staff or down-staff indicates?
Well yeah, I mean the more you look at the manuscripts the more you’re going to become familiar with them and the more you’re going to be able to glean out of them, that’s for sure.

So the first shocking thing for a European musician – or I suppose for anybody familiar with European music who looks at the manuscripts – is that because he’s writing down music in the eighteenth century you might expect this music to have a bass-line, because of course music all around Europe in the seventeenth- and eighteenth centuries was built from the bottom up. The bass was the basis of everything, to the extent that you had bass improvisation patterns. You’d have riffs that you could improvise tunes over, or variations / divisions on melodies. And so it was very ‘bass-centered’.

But this music seems to be exactly the opposite. And maybe we shouldn’t be surprised because it’s coming from a medieval place, not from a seventeenth- and eighteenth century place. In the Middle Ages the tune was paramount – certainly in less sophisticated music – because of course you find polyphony, multi-voice music in the medieval period – but for compositions like this, it tends to be melody-based and the bass isn’t so important at all. Even all the way into the fifteenth century, if you look at some of the earliest keyboard music, the bass isn’t quite there yet. So I think we’re still channeling that older aesthetic even in the later centuries.

This is a piece by the composer Thomas Connellan, who was born in the seventeenth century. Of course we don’t know exactly how it sounded then because Bunting heard it in the eighteenth century. Bu the first thing you notice in his draft notebooks is that there’s not much independent bass underpinning the melody. There isn’t much evidence for standard European harmony either, though of course the fact that we’re not seeing it isn’t necessarily evidence of absence. So it’s hard to know what you can safely deduce, and what you can’t.

There is ample evidence in the manuscript of compositional style that doesn’t follow the European rulebook. So we see lots of parallel octaves and things like that, even some parallel fifths. That is seen as an error in European music – you’d call the grammar police for that! – because it’s not okay at all to have parallel octaves. But in a Medieval context in European music that wouldn’t be a problem at all, and in an Irish context it’s clearly what was happening. Bunting wouldn’t add that as a sort of a fictional add-on, because for him it’s an error. So if he’s writing it down it’s because it’s what he’s hearing. It’s definitely not something that he’s making up.

The bass notes tend to be melody dependent rather than, as I say, following seventeenth- and eighteenth-century European practice, which is ‘bottom-up’. This tends to be ‘top-down’ – as in the bass notes often echo the melody notes. For example, in Lady of the Desert which Bunting notates – I’ll play you the actual bass line that’s in the manuscript …[music]… so the [g] keeps echoing the [G, g] and then followed by [E, B], [d] followed by [D,G] …[music].

In the second half of the tune …[music]… [d] mirrored by [D] …[music]… [d] followed by [D, G] …[music]… [e] followed by [E, B] …[music]… [d] followed by [D, G] …[music]… so you get the idea – that the bass notes are coming out of the treble, that they’re echoing the treble, they’re mirroring the treble. And what you’re also seeing there is a good example of where the bass notes happen in gaps in the tune …[sings]. So there’s stuff happening in gaps, not necessarily under the notes. So that’s another thing that I’m seeing sometimes, that they’re filling in under longer melody notes and filling in on weak beats.

So the bass notes – of course, we see all the time, they sound in octaves with the melody, either on single notes or for more extended passages. The classic example there is possibly the oldest piece in the collection which is Cumha Caoine an Albanaigh / Scott’s Lamentation which was composed for the Baron of Loughmoe, who lived no distance from here in Co. Tipperary …[music]…

So there we have a piece that frequently moves in octaves …[music]… he actually notates the treble and the bass …[music]… octave [D, A G], and so and so forth. So there are many examples of that kind of thing going on.

The bass notes themselves are sometimes doubled at the octave, you see that too. And you see the bass notes sometimes as broken octaves. Then you have all sorts of little bass riffs – we saw in Lady of the Desert you have two notes in the bass. Sometimes you have three notes or four notes in the bass.

When you say doubling of the bass, is it that your bass hand is playing an octave?
Bunting shows that in his Graces chart in his 1840 volume – he gives a list of ornaments and bass hand patterns. He shows …[music]… octaves moving up

the harp and moving down the harp. So that’s one piece of evidence that they were playing octaves with their bass hand.

Is that what you mean by doubling the bass hand?
Yes, that’s what I mean. Sometimes the bass hand just doubles the treble …[music]… but sometimes it doubles it in octaves …[music]… so you get that going on as well.

You mentioned four notes possibly as well?
You have lots of pieces where that occurs. You have Lady of the Desert where you have …[music]… that kind of thing.

But then you have pieces like Eibhlín a Rún and one of the variations of it that O’Hampsey played, you have things like …[music]… in the bass, that kind of thing.

This was all news to me when I started looking. I thought “Oh there’s actually masses of evidence, there’s loads of evidence”, and you can categorize it. I was really surprised by that.

The piece that I generally start people off on when I’m talking about bass hand is Táim i Mo Chodladh is Ná Dúisigh Mé which is in [QUB Special Collections] MS 4.33.3, p. 57. That’s really interesting because Bunting says this setting is exactly copied “from Hempson, both bass and treble”. So of course we get wildly excited. But of course there are problems. Clearly I don’t think it’s all what O’Hampsey was playing. But there you do have an awful lot of …[music]…

that kind of thing going on, so you can see the mirroring of treble and bass. [Music]… so you have [A, G, E] arriving in the gap, the same note as the treble – do you see these patterns emerging? It’s always the same thing. It’s the treble note …[music]… reiterated in the gap in the bass.

And then we have …[music]… parallel octaves. The second half is really interesting …[tuning, music]… so [F] mirrored in the bass, possibly as an octave. I mean this version in MS 4.33 is a piano arrangement, and he has an octave but it’s not completely unreasonable. [Music]… so again, [e, E]… [d, D] … and so on. That’s just yet another example of something that I’ve seen time and time again.

It may not be coincidental that a lot of these pieces were actually taken from the playing of Denis O’Hampsey. Of course he’s the one playing with the oldest style. You can’t extrapolate and say that they’re all playing this way. That’s a very important thing to say, because some of them – like Arthur O’Neill and Hugh Higgins and people like that – may well be trying to emulate pianos, they may well be putting in more European bass lines, it’s not clear to me.

The version of the Jointure that you have played, I didn’t fully follow what you were saying about who it came from. We have it recorded from O’Hampsey, or do we know?
Bunting writes that it was taken from Hugh Higgins. But it’s in a part of [QUB Special Collections] MS 4.29, where there is a lot of O’Hampsey material, so it’s not clear to me which of them he got it from.

O’Hampsey did play a Connellon piece, so he may have been aware of the Jointure if he didn’t play it himself?
Oh yeah, oh totally. O’Hampsey plays Molly St. George, which was also composed by Thomas Connellon.

So it’s plausible to use techniques that are from O’Hampsey?
Well certainly because it is a seventeenth-century piece, so I don’t think it’s unreasonable to do that.

Here is a bit of Eibhlín a Rúin that has three notes in the bass. So it’s in the middle of one of the variations …[music]… bass, [c]…[C, G, C] …[music]… [b]… [G, D, G] , now that’s interesting because that’s harmonic, he plays b in the treble …[music]… so outlining harmony.

Could you just explain that bass again – was that an example of four notes in the bass?
Three notes …[music]… so one, two, three …[music], just a riff that’s a bit longer in the bass.

It’s three notes, but two of them are at the same pitch?
Exactly, three different notes, but actually less complicated than that because as you point out, it’s only two pitches.

It does seem to be a feature of the bass hand arrangements, that those kind of details are important. That even though you’re only playing two pitches, it’s three notes – and it does sound more complex or richer that you would think.
[Music]… absolutely, because you are setting up that resonance …[music]… and
coming back to it.

So you have a Bob Jordan of Carolan – and at the end …[music]… so you have …[music]… and then you have whole patterns …[music]…

So you start to have little melodic things in the bass …[music]… so that’s one, two, three, four …[music]… but again, he just outlines a third with a passing note and reiterates it, but it just lasts longer – four notes.

It’s only when you go looking for these patterns that you start finding quite a few of them. In Sliabh Gallen which O’Hampsey played – it’s a set of variations by Cornelius Lyons – you get a whole bass-hand variation …[music]…

you get all that sort of stuff. We’re not expecting that at all – because once you’ve looked through the manuscript and it’s all melody, melody, melody, you give up hope. Then suddenly you find a whole bass hand division. And again it’s not coincidence because all those pieces are Lyons coming through O’Hampsey. So you have interesting bass-hand things happening in Lady of the Desert and Cailíní, a’ Bhfaca Sibh Seoirse?, the two variation sets that Lyons composes. And also in Sliabh Gallen.

So what I’m talking about now – two notes, three notes, four notes in the bass. Maybe it is an eighteenth-century thing because it shows up in Carolan pieces, it shows up in Lyons which is being channeled through O’Hampsey, and so – as I say – you finally get to that extended bass line that’s in Sliabh Gallen.

Those two, three, four note bass lines, are they in the field notebook, MS 4.29, or do they appear more so in MS 4.33?
Sliabh Gallen is in MS 4.29. Generally, I only work from the MS 4.33 books if there’s nothing relevant in MS 4.29. So there are one or two Carolan pieces like Planxty Burke which is in one of the MS 4.33 books –the melody goes between the hands, and I might show you that in a second, but generally I would always try and work from the best secondary source I can which are the drafts in MS 4.29 and in other places. But I try not to work from keyboard versions unless there’s no draft extant. Sometimes there isn’t even a piano arrangement extant, like for Carolan’s Concerto – there are only two printed versions, in the 1796 and 1809 volumes. There’s no draft, so obviously there are notebooks missing.

Remember Lyons is an eighteenth-century musician – he’s the harper to the Earl of Antrim so he’s hearing absolutely normal European music – Corelli, Geminiani and others. So he is clearly composing in a quite a European way, at least meoldically. You can hear in Lady of the Desert, in the first variation …[tuning, music]…

if you heard that played on a Baroque violin or a harpsichord you wouldn’t remotely associate it with Irish music …[music]… that’s just normal European music, but that’s composed by Lyons, so he’s completely ­– in many ways – in the European vein. Except that of course he writes these other variations …[music]… that are highly ornamented, there are ornaments signs indicated, that are clearly not particularly European. And again you see the usual thing of ..[music]… a gap, which echoes the treble …[music]… I think that’s in the manuscripts, that it echoes it at the octave …[music]… so again it’s all, I think, broadly speaking to one place.

We talked about Planxty Connor. There is no draft of this and so I have to work from a piano arrangement manuscript. But this to me points up why we should all – if we’re interested in getting as close to Carolan as we can when we’re performing his music – it behoves us to look at drafts and piano arrangement manuscripts and not what is often the case, which is that many versions of Carolan tunes that we hear are not taken from harp sources at all. So most, if not all, harpists for example, play a version of Carolan’s Concerto that is taken from Francis O’Neil’s early twentieth-century collection in Chicago. But if we have harp sources available to us – because this is I think how I started out this conversation with you – which version? There are different versions of The Jointure. Which one would you play? Well for me, obviously, I would play the one that Bunting collected because that’s going to be the closest I can get to a harp version. Rather than say playing the Neal version from 1724 which is not necessarily from a harp source at all. Even though there’s lots of harp music in that collection, it has not necessarily been taken directly from harpers. Because those tunes were played by other people – possibly fiddle players and so on.

If you look at Planxty Connor, we’re used to this tune being played …[music]… that’s just the normal version of Planxty Connor. But if you look at his manuscript piano arrangement …[music]…

… so in fact Carolan was always playing around, splitting up things between the hands. So if at all possible I would always say “try and find a version of Carolan tunes in the Bunting manuscripts first”. That happens also at the end …[music]… really interesting, really lively, really vibrant if you do that.

So that gives me a brilliant overview of bass hand evidence, and you have brought all of that to bear when you approached the Bunting version of the Jointure.
I hope I have. I suppose the only other thing to say about the bass hand, is that you see an alternating treble and bass idiom. So sometimes you get it note by note. In some of the tunes it goes treble–bass–treble–bass–treble–bass, in a few places. Sometimes it’s more antiphonal – it’s sort of motif by motif – like we’ve just seen in Planxty Connor, you know – it’s between the two hands, antiphonally, one side and then the other. Or sometimes you get extended division of material between the hands, phrase by phrase, in a lot of the Carolan pieces. And then of course there are pieces where you do get chords, and they tend not to be the I / ii/ V chords that we hear in a lot of European harping where you have this kind of thing …[music]…

They tend to be wider-spaced chords …[music]… and there are a collection of those that Bunting notates in his Graces chart in his 1840 publication, so you can have a look at bass-hand possibilities there. But they tend to be compound intervals. So rather than having G and B together …[music], the B would be a tenth apart rather than a third …[music], which of course sounds much nicer …[music]… it’s much more sonorous than having that …[music]… that sort of thing.

And I’m arpeggiating down because that’s what the harpers told Bunting, that “you don’t arpeggiate up, you arpeggiate down”.

But then you have these aberrations like Féachain Gléis, the ancient prelude that O’Hampsey plays for Bunting. There you have really big chords. So you have …[music]… and so on, so a full-scale chordal thing, but maybe not in such a modern way.

Ann Heymann was the first person to point out that this is the kind of thing you see in the first keyboard music that’s notated in Europe, so you see it in organ books in Germany, where you have basically something happening in the bass and then you have other stuff happening on top, then something else happening in the bass, and something happening on top. So again that’s not a particularly Irish idea, it’s probably a pan-European prelude idea.

Where do you land Siobhán, on the upward and downward arpeggio for this piece? Because there is evidence for both.
Well Bunting notates all this going up …[music]…

and then he neatly contradicts himself when he talks about it and he tries to shove the blame on someone else! He says “oh, the publisher got this wrong. We know these chords are all supposed to be played down, so that was really the publishers fault”. And you think “well yeah, wait a minute. Let’s look back at all the draft versions then, and the piano arrangements and the published versions and have a look around them”. And it seems to me, at the moment – I mean, I’ve changed my opinion on this – but I seem to be more consistently on one side of this argument than the other these days, which is that I think he notated them up because he heard them up. It seems to me, that for a musician like Bunting, it’s not much of an argument to say “well they were so quick he couldn’t tell”, or “he wasn’t capable of writing them down”, or all the arguments I’ve heard to suggest ambiguity or that they should be played going down. In all of his drafts ­– from the earliest all the way to the MS keyboard versions – he writes them going up, and he published them going up. I think he realizes he’s slightly contradicting himself because the harpers have said that they play them going down, so he doesn’t want to be seen to be at odds with what they say. So I suspect that that’s what’s going on – that he’s trying to cover his tracks at the end, saying “oh that was somebody else’s fault, they’re really supposed to be down”. And the clincher for me is that at the very end of Féachain Gléis …[music]… in the very last chord it goes …[music]… Bunting is perfectly capable of writing them down, he writes that one going down. So if you can write that one going down, he could have written the other ones going down, but he chose not to. And so that tells me that he didn’t hear them going down, they were going up. Because he has both directions in the same piece. He notates things going up and then, at the very end, he notates something going down …[music]. So at the moment I think the chords that he notates going up, they were played going up – and the ones that he notates going down , they were going down. But I might change my mind on that – it’s a snapshot. This whole project for you is a snapshot. That’s where I sit on that argument at the moment.

So that just gives you some gist of what I’m seeing with the bass hand patterns. The classic case is of course Carolan’s Concerto, where the version that we know now – that I hear played – is the one from Francis O’Neill’s Music of Ireland collection in Chicago in the early twentieth century. So it’s …[music]… I can’t remember the usual version now – anyway it’s all in the treble hand.

And I always found that hard to play as a child, I sort of shied away from Carolan’s Concerto, because I thought “gosh, that’s exceptionally difficult”. And we know everybody says that Carolan wasn’t really such a good harper anyway. So you think “how do we square that with this really intricate stuff?”.

It’s only when you look at Bunting’s two published versions, you realise it’s …[music]… Again it’s antiphonal – it’s divided between the hands. And that’s entirely in keeping with what we see everywhere else in many Carolan tunes. So again it behoves us to get back to a more harpy version. I don’t really have a version of this under my fingers …[music]… I also don’t have enough notes on this harp …[music]… but that bit – that’s what I want to show you – that it’s antiphonal. The version that we hear of it nowadays is not showing us that. Again, you know, even if a draft version isn’t available, even if a MS keyboard version isn’t available, have a look then at the published version and see if you can learn something from that.

So I think that’s all I want to say to you about bass hand. There’s lots more to be said, but this will give you some sort of snapshot.


Anyway your basic question was “how do I arrange the Jointure?” So my answer to you would be that I’m utilizing all those things. I’m trying not to have an independent bass hand, I’m trying not to have harmony, I’m trying to be extremely conservative – maybe over conservative, you know, maybe my versions are too simple – but I just want to err on that side rather than the other side, because I’m sure, for a lot of my life, I erred on the other side. When I played modern Irish harp – and even when I started off playing early Irish harp – I probably still had lots more harmonic content in my playing.

I try to have the bass hand arise from the treble hand, so if the tune is …[music]…

I could put a [G] in the bass …[music]… I could start off on a [G], but I start off by mirroring the [b] with a [B] …[music]… and then mirror the [g] with a [G]. Then we have [a] going to [G] …[music]… which kind of implies a cadence of dominant / tonic …[music]… so I’ll stick in the bare bones of a cadence …[music].

Now here we have …[music]… so you have nothing on beat two – great, that’s a place to put in a bass note …[music]… and now we have a / e, so again some sort of progression is required …[music]… so, dominant chord and just mirror the e …[music]. I suppose in standard European music that’s an interrupted cadence – it’s V going to vi. But I’m just mirroring the e.

[Music]… oh! We’ve got another gap – bass note …[music]… bass note …[music]… and then the bare bones of a cadence to get us to the end. So that’s the approach.

In the second half …[music]… I still have a [G] ringing from the first half, so I don’t harmonize the beginning …[music]…

so it’s just sitting there with the pre-existing [G] …[music]… then the bass hand comes in …[music].

Then we have treble and so I’ll just mirror that with the bass hand – an [a] with an [A] …[music]… and that gives me a nice voice-leading from the [a] to the [b] …[music]… which [he / Bunting] indicates as bass …[music]… and then …[music]… sometimes I mirrored the [e] with an [E] …[music]… so I’m thinking this is an appoggiatura on a [d] …[music]… so it’s [e, d] …[music]… but you could as easily… and when I repeat it I think I played …[music]… [g, G], so you could keep going over a [G] drone.

Then we have seen …[music]… [c,d,e,f,g], so [C] under [c], [G] under [g]. And then carrying on …[music]… [e,d,c,c], [d,e,g,g], so [E] under [e], [C, B] under [b, G].

And second time round I think I was worried I was being too puritanical, so I think I gave you harmony! I think I put [C] under it, and that seems to me to be entirely plausible because the harmony is outlined in the triad above – [e,d,c] …[music]… so it’s sitting there, it’s not something I’m adding on. It’s integral to the melody, I’m just pulling it out of it.

And then the same procedure for the [b,a,g], [G] underneath it …[music]… and then …[music]… which we see all over the place in the manuscripts …[music]… so [g] mirrored by [G], [a] mirrored by [A], [b] mirrored by [B] …[music].

And then I was feeling very louche so I gave you more harmony! [music]… and that’s not a chord I use very often because I tend to avoid the sub-dominant. I tend to avoid this chord of IV like the plague, because I think they didn’t use it much …[music]. That’s the big question for me – how much did they use the sub-dominant, or how much did they not?

Were you going to say it’s implied in the melody?
Yes, but it’s not because there isn’t a [c] in the melody, and the chord of the subdominant is the chord of C – [C, E, G]. So the melody has an [e], so my instinct is to harmonize it with the chord of E, the submediant. There are a few bits of text in Bunting where he talks about the fact that they liked the submediant, that they liked to use that rather than the more lush …[music]… that’s quite a lush harmony. So I almost never do it, but special treat – I thought I’d give just one little bit of harmony!

[Music]… so we’re back into that home tonality of G …[music]… something in the gap …[music]… and then a cadence.

So a very, very simple approach. I’m almost doing nothing. But I suppose the question is “do you feel the texture is lacking when you hear that?” And I don’t really feel like the texture is lacking because of the resonance of the instrument.

And also because then you have time to give some attention – if you’re not blasting away on some sort of complicated bass hand – you have time to give attention to the phrasing you’re going to use, to the kind of ornaments you’re going to use.

This is another thing we can pull out of this manuscript page – that Bunting gives us at least three or four examples of ornaments. …[music]… so he has …[music]… he has a trill sign up here …[music]… it depends what you think a trill is.

I mean it might be [g, a, g] but I’m not sure. Ornaments are very ambiguous in all of music at all times. I think they’re meant to be ambiguous – you’re not meant to nail them down. If you hear a good performer in any style of music, they’ll never really ornament the same way twice, will they? So I think it’s always ambiguous, like “well, he did a twiddle here”, or “he did something there”. That’s about as good as it’s going to get. I mean we can try and nail it down further but I’m not sure that’s really helpful. In this passage he has a little ‘t’ for an ornament sign …[music]… and there …[music]. So I’ve incorporated those in my playing.

The other thing …[music]… sometimes I put in an ornament …[music]…

and I pulled that out of his published version – his 1796 version – he uses that twice. I don’t necessarily do it both times but that was a nice thing – not implausible. But I can’t vouch that Bunting didn’t make that up …[music]… but he might have heard it …[music].

Is there a corresponding technique in the bass section of the Graces page in Bunting’s 1840 publication?
Not for that, no – he doesn’t give two-note ornaments. Leagadh anuas would be …[music]… just one note before it, and this is …[music]… which I don’t really see on the Graces pages. But still I don’t find that at all implausible. He notates triplets …[music]… and three-note ornaments are everywhere, you see them all over the place. So I’ve incorporated that.

I suppose there’s a question about where do I put my foot down in the bass – where do I put those bass notes? I tend, I suppose, to put them on strong beats, except where I’m putting things in gaps on off beats, because that’s what there’s lots of evidence for, rather than bass notes on strong beats.


Can you talk about your arrangement of the Jigg?
Right let’s have a look at the Jigg. The Jigg is even simpler, there’s nothing going on there!

[Music]… this seemed to me to be kind of binary. There’s a G-ish thing going on …[music]… and then there’s an A-ish thing …[music].

I suppose if you want to be really simple, you could just go …[music]… you could have a kind of ‘Gaelic two-chord trick’ thing going on – just going from G-major to A-minor …[music].

And you could be more complicated in the second line because you have an outline of …[music]… G, but then you have this …[music]…

… so that could be the submediant – an A-ish thing. Or if you’re feeling very louche it could be a subdominant thing …[music] So it could be all of those – from not fruity at all, to very fruity.

But as I’ve played around with it …[music]…

I went for the dominant / tonic option …[music]… but with lots of tonic …[music]. So G-chord until it doesn’t work, and then dominant D-chord. So tonic, and little bits of dominant, and that’s it really.

[Music]… again you could be more complicated, but I liked the simplicity.

Especially in a jig, where your hands have to trip along and you want to think about ornamentation. I didn’t want to do something complex in the bass.

[Music]… maybe that could have been a place to put in a note on an offbeat, like I’ve seen before …[music]… see now that you’re asking me about it I’m coming up with different ideas! That’s why it’s a snapshot! You see? Already what I played for you five minutes ago, it’s like that’s completely old hat, now I want to do this different stuff!

That’s the freedom that having a sparse arrangement allows you.
That’s a very good point, yes – that I’m not wedded to anything. I can decide which octave that tonic …[music]… is going to be in, at a moment’s notice. So it probably meanders around each time.

And it sounds completely different to me, just having the tonic in a different octave.
Oh really? You see I can’t sit outside myself and know what I’m doing, so that’s interesting feedback.

That’s what I find is the richness of having all of those expanded ranges for the tonic. You are not confined to single octave or octave and a half. A very simple idea is that I can play a tonic chord, and the dominant, and I switch around the octaves I play them in.

[Music]… yes, because I chose to be up here, it’s kind of ‘high-up’ territory …[music]… if you hang on and then give some bass later on, it is like ‘wow!’ – it adds a whole other layer.

Because it’s a jig, it is more rhythmical than the first piece, the Jointure. Are you laying out the rhythm with your bass hand? Is that an important function of the bass hand?
OK that’s a good question …[music]… certainly if I do something dramatic like going down an octave or two, I’m going to do that at a very strong moment.

So it’s actually the beginning of the second phrase …[music].

Yes, and apart from that I suppose I’m just putting things on strong beats …[music]… you could put one there for example, you could go down an octave there. So I’m heading for landmark moments in the phrases, yes.

How do you identify ‘landmark’ moments?
Ooh, how long is a piece of string?! I think that’s that thing that is called ‘embedded knowledge’ in the university context. You get a feel for it over the years. You get a sense of phrasing – you get a sense of contours in melodies, where you think things are going.

And then it’s sort of basic maths, because this is a jig that’s in four groups of four bars.

It’s a very metrical thing …[music]… one…two…three…four …[music]…
that’s the end of your phrase …[music]… one…two…three…four …[music].

So there is all sorts of stuff that you figure out when you play music, that have what are often called ‘feminine endings’. So the last note in the phrase you’re not going to belt it out. That’s going to be a weaker thing because it’s the end of the phrase. And often composers – you can see they work with that idea – whoever composed this tune, that there’s a contour that goes down towards the end of the second phrase …[music]… it’s a sort of gentle ending.

I’m going to give you a chance to revise what you just said, because you just associated ‘female’ with ‘weak’!
[Laughing] I know! It’s really annoying! You see, I can’t think of how else to describe that because unfortunately the technical term is a ‘feminine ending’, which is really annoying to me as a twenty-first-century woman. But I’m not going to get Orwellian and develop a new term, because everybody knows that term. But thank you for recognizing my dilemma Mícheál, I’m grateful!

So how do I know what the landmark moments are? It has to do with the contour of the melody, and it has to do with the harmonic structure. It’s really quite complicated. Every musician knows where those moments are, and they might not always be able to articulate it. It’s actually quite a sophisticated thing that goes on in some part of you.

[Music]… so if you look at that, the first bar goes [G] …[music]… second bar is [A] …[music]… [A]… [G]… so we have a hierarchy of [G,A,A,G] in those four bars.

So you have ‘home’, you have ‘somewhere else’, you have ‘somewhere else’, and you have ‘home’. So obviously you go for ‘home’ …[music]… that’s your first important beat …[music]… then you go for the one that’s different …[music]… and then it resolves to ‘home’ …[music]. And then it goes different again …[music]… and it resolves to ‘home’ …[music].

So generally ‘home’ is a place that doesn’t have tension, and ‘somewhere else’ is a place that does have tension. So this …[music]… is fairly relaxed, then …[music]… oooh, we’re somewhere else …[music]… that gets our attention, and the resolution is weaker …[music]… stronger, weaker …[music]… and weak because it’s the end of a phrase. So that sets up my hierarchy for me.

So it’s sort of ‘home and away’. I think what piper Barnaby Brown and harpist Bill Taylor would call ‘home and away’ in that sort of ‘1 and 0’ system that you see in parallel music traditions like the Welsh Robert Ap Huw manuscript. So you have tension and resolution, and so I’m going towards the tense places and I’m coming away from the resolutions.

It’s plausible that it would be this kind of arrangement because this is a ‘jigg’, as opposed to a dance music jig. Can you talk a bit about the style of this ‘jigg’?
Oh! I don’t know. How do you see that difference? Because it’s not clear to me what the difference is.

Well my understanding ­– and you might set me right…
Well you might set me right!
…that these ‘jiggs’ were a style, or a thing in European music – that may have come in to Irish music – but that there is a whole set of tunes that were played slowly – slow airs – that followed into a quicker more rhythmic piece. I’m curious about this because it’s still something you see today in Irish traditional music. You’ll hear a piper play a slow air and they will then go straight into something faster – a jig or a reel. But what I understand is that that sort of jig or reel is different to what this ‘jigg’ is because you wouldn’t dance to this ‘jigg’. That’s my differentiation – a ‘jig’ is a dance, and a ‘jigg’ is not.
Oooh, but you see maybe life isn’t binary. Maybe it’s not ‘a dance’ or ‘not a dance’. How about it’s sometimes a dance and sometimes not a dance?

What I mean here is a jig that you could dance a set to.
Right, I hear what you’re saying. So the idea of the piper playing his slow air and then going into something else – you see that’s not uniquely Irish. I think that’s what I was saying earlier on. You see that all over Europe for centuries. In Germany, as I say, you get Tanz und Nachtanz – you get the dance and the ‘after dance’. So you get this idea of something followed by something else that might be a bit livelier.

I know the tendency is to say that the jig arrives in Ireland in the seventeenth century, coming from Scotland. But what I would say is that that is a rhythm we’ve probably always had in Ireland, because that’s one of the oldest rhythms that you have in music.

In the medieval rhythmic modes, you’ve got about – I can’t remember offhand – about five or six modes. They’re all compound duple. They’re all …[sings]… so it can be …[sings]… something like that.

So they’re the oldest rhythms you have notated in music. It seems to me implausible that this idea came from somewhere else, or that it came from somewhere else as late as the seventeenth century. I don’t really find that plausible.

A lot of the sixteenth-century music that I’ve been looking at over the last few years has exactly this rhythm. If you look at, for example, Cailín ó Cois tSiúire Mé …[sings]… now that may well be a song, but that’s a jig.

Or you look at the two surviving instrumental dances – you have Trenchmore and The Whip of Dunboyne, which are attested to in the sixteenth century. The Whip of Dunboyne goes …[sings]… that’s a jig. And you have Trenchmore …[sings].

You see, this is one of the avenues I go down when I’m supposed to be finishing off CD liner notes or an essay! I keep thinking “oh yes, look – jigs in Ireland before everybody says there are jig!s”

[Sings]… and so on. Again it’s a kind of binary thing – it’s tonic / dominant.

This is where I was going with my question. I think you may have confirmed what I was wondering. I was wondering is tonic / dominant and that approach to arranging the rhythm and mirroring that in your bass hand – is it entirely plausible because this is a jig potentially in that older style? In terms of time it comes from way back, before the jig is perceived as coming from Scotland in the seventeenth century.
Yes maybe – another name for embedded knowledge is ‘inarticulate’! You can’t figure out and articulate why you do things. But, yes, I suppose I’m playing all those jigs, these sixteenth-century jigs, and so I come to something like this and it just seems to me that it’s tonic / dominant. But you’re right, I have not actively associated in my brain before this conversation that Cailín ó Cois tSiúire Mé, The Whip of Dunboyne, Trenchmore, all of those ones – they’re all jigs .

But that’s what I’m saying to you – it doesn’t have to be either / or. It’s not a case of danced or not danced. Maybe it’s a case of sometimes at a speed that you would dance to and sometimes at a speed that you would sing to. Because Cailín ó Cois tSiúire Mé is obviously a song. It’s played on the harp, and it’s a song – it had words. Trenchmore and The Whip of Dunboyne are obviously jigs as well.

So I see this rhythm as a very old rhythm and I see this in Ireland pre-seventeenth century. And I see this playing a piece with a sort of ‘Nachtanz’ as a completely standard European thing to do everywhere – it’s not special to Ireland. But maybe it lingers like everything else – it hangs out here long after it dies away elsewhere. So even in the eighteenth century you’ve got Carolan doing the same thing – Mrs. Birmingham and jig etc. Carolan has several jigs after his tunes.

Did Carolan compose both the pieces and the associated jigs?
Oh yes, I think so. I don’t think we hear of him playing anybody else’s music – though maybe he did. But all those pieces, he’s composing them on the spot or for his patrons, so it’s got to be a new tune. You can’t insult somebody by offering them a new tune and giving them a tune that they might have heard somewhere else – it had better be a new tune. So no, I think he is composing the tunes and he’s used to this idea as well, so he’s composing this jig to go at the end of the tune.

I have a real interest in physical movement as a way of interpreting rhythm. So I try to visualise how I would dance this jig after the Jointure. I understand how I could dance a set dance jig, that is familiar.
What speed would you dance a set-dance jig at? And is it a single or double jig – what kind of jigs are we talking about?

Probably double jigs. I think they may have been danced in a very different way. It’s three time, right?
Well it’s duple – it’s …[sings]… one-and-two, one-and-two …[sings]…
remember jigs are not triple, they’re duple, but within each beat you have a triple beat, 1,2,3… 4,5,6 …[speaks]… 1… 2… so it depends on which level you’re looking at. Are you looking at 1… 2, 1… 2, or 1,2,3…4,5,6, 1,2,3…4,5,6, or 1…2 …[speaks]. So it’s duple, it’s not triple. It’s triple on that level, but it’s duple on that level …[shows].

In the way that, for example, a minuet or something like that is triple. Let’s think of a Mozart minuet, or just any German beer drinking song, 1, 2, 3… 1, 2, 3 …[sings]… that’s a triple rhythm. But there’s a hierarchy between your two groups of three in a jig, because one is subservient to the other, I think …[sings].

Which is why I play …[music]… so I’m going 1… 2, 1…2, …[music]… so that defines for me the difference between 6/8 and 3/4. You could say “well they’re all going 1, 2, 3 … 1, 2, 3”, but I’d say no, the 3/4 is going 1, 2, 3 … 1, 2, 3, but the 6/8 is going 1… 2, 1…2, it’s an entirely different thing.

Except that Bunting sometimes notates things in 3/4 and you think maybe he meant 6/8. It depends on what speed somebody was playing at. If they were playing this slowly …[music]… then somebody might write it down as 1, 2, 3… 1, 2, 3. I might that down in 3/4. But if I wrote it down in 6/8 I think it’s implying that maybe it’s going a little bit faster and the stress hierarchy is different.

But I don’t know because I’m not a traditional musician. I didn’t have the great good fortune to grow up only hearing traditional music. Maybe a traditional player would listen to that and say that’s not how you should play that at all. And they’d have a completely different take on it. I don’t know.

I don’t know either. I’m just curious. There could have been a dance, going back to the idea of embodied rhythm, that you could have danced in that way. Whereas I’m just trying to think “how would I even think about a jig?” I’d sing …[sings].
So I think you’re doing at least something parallel to what I’m doing. You’re going for
the first beat of each six, and you’re backing off the fourth. You’re going …[sings]… like, sort of. I can beat my foot to it, if you know what I mean. I don’t know, I’m acutely conscious that I grew up in European music and not in traditional music.

And I’m on the opposite side of the mirror and I’m just very curious to understand.
I think I’d sort of rather be on your side of the mirror

I think it’s both though isn’t it? Because it’s written down – this music is notated. It’s to be able to interpret it from a notated form.
You see that’s the huge question. The problem is you’re going at it through layers. Because we’re looking at the deficiencies of writing anything down on a piece of paper. Because you can’t write music down. So as soon as you write it down you’ve removed a lot of the subtlety. And then who wrote it down? Well Bunting wrote it down, but he’s perhaps not somebody who grew up playing traditional Irish jigs. So he’s coming at it more with, say, my eye – the trained art-musician eye. So maybe there is stuff he’s missing. Maybe there is stuff I’m missing, because I just can’t see it. I don’t have the ear to hear it, or the education to pick it up. So we’re looking at what he writes down, and we’re looking at what somebody played long ago.


So that’s one of the things I’m constantly thinking about, and – in a PhD context – something I have to address – that I’m going through various filters. I’m trying to reconstruct music but I’m looking at this music through Bunting’s eyes who is listening to the harper. So it’s quite a complex task, but I think it’s really interesting. To try and second-guess Bunting. To try and figure out what his mindset is, and why he might be notating what he is notating. And to try and get at the goods behind that through his filter.

And we can see many Bunting’s filters. Because I have a somewhat similar training to Bunting, i.e. European art music. I can see where he’s falling over himself trying to shoehorn things into a European mindset, and so I can get rid of those fairly effectively.

You can identify those lenses and filters and adjust for them?
Yes, there are all sorts of filters and lenses to notice. Well not so much in his draft notebooks, but in his manuscript piano arrangements and in his published volumes, Bunting is trying to shoehorn things into major and minor keys. That is the very obvious thing that many editors are doing in the eighteenth century. The Neal collection does it – all these collections do it. For them the switch goes up or down – it’s major or it’s minor, and there’s nothing else. The idea of modal music completely escapes them, or if it doesn’t escape them they’re made deeply uneasy by it. Seen through their worldview, it’s just wrong and so it has to be fixed.

Wrong, as in out of date?
No, it’s just wrong! It’s just like: it shouldn’t be, it’s an error, it’s an aberration, it’s just not right. You know, “the rustics don’t know what they’re doing. They’ve got it wrong”. And so editors ‘fix’ it. They start putting in sharp sevenths to fit with European music minor keys, or they start adding key signatures to make things ‘right’ according to their own system.

So you see that all over Bunting. Where if something, for example, is in Dorian or Aeolian – scales that go D to d and A to a with no sharps or flats. So D to d …[sings]… or the corresponding one in A …[sings]…

So there’s only a difference of one note in those scales – the sixth note is a bit different.

Well they don’t compute that kind of natural minor scale at all. So they’re constantly shoehorning, trying to sharpen the sixth and seventh notes going up, and flatten them coming down, which is one of two possibilities in European music if you’re playing a minor scale.

So as soon as you recognize it, you can just jettison all of that. But there are probably more subtle things that Bunting is … well I don’t want to say ‘misinterpreting’ because I think we owe Bunting a huge debt of respect. The job he had to do at the age of nineteen would just turn your hair grey with the responsibility of it. He did a really good job. He was a very, very smart and literate musician.

But how about the idea that for any of us trying to write music down from somebody playing, it is really tough to do, even within the tradition. So if you’re a traditional musician – if you’re trying to write down somebody else’s tune, it’s hugely problematic, even if you’re very literate. I’m very literate but I have many problems notating from live performances. And supposing you’re not familiar at all with traditional music, how do you do it then? And then how about the fact that no traditional musician has ever played a tune the same way twice. So even if Bunting gets the harper to play the tune five times, he’s probably playing it five different ways! I know myself from trying to write tunes down from singers singing them. You ask “can you sing that verse again?”, and you think “well, that’s not what you did last time”, and you’ve failed to get it that time, and failed to get it this time, and they’re just changing the goal posts on you all the time!

So the job Bunting had was horrendous. And it was possibly an unfamiliar genre of music to him. The whole thing is a nightmare, so he did a brilliant job. But supposing he’s missing many subtleties. It’s like, for example, if you look at old collections of songs that were written down in the nineteenth- or twentieth century. Think of all the material that was written down in an Rinn in County Waterford. You have Margaret Hannigan and Séamus Clandillon for example writing down Déise songs in the 1920s. But if you listen to archived recordings of singers singing the same songs, of course they’re different. I mean, when people write down the tune – when Bunting is writing down these tunes – we have one version. But for sure the harper was playing different versions, in the same way that sean-nós singers won’t be singing the same thing on each verse. And if you listen to an archive recording, you can hear the beautiful subtleties where they change it on each verse, and that’s just part of the magic of what’s going on. Well that’s often lost to us, because we often only have one verse written down in a book, or one version of a tune written down by Bunting.

So already we’re losing, because there is all sort of stuff he didn’t write down, all sorts of stuff you couldn’t hear. It’s a disaster! We should just give up! We shouldn’t be doing this at all. We should just do something else entirely! [Laughing] But I like to keep failing better and better, if you know what I mean. I like to sort of try and figure it out, try and vaguely get close, knowing that it’s a hopeless task we set ourselves – utterly and completely hopeless. But great fun and hopefully of some value! [Smiling]

So we are talking about how Bunting notates what he’s hearing and how he feels constrained to notate it in a way that’s acceptable for his European art music rules. And so he gets himself into all sorts of horrible pickles because his rule system is different. So here’s an example of this kind of thing, this is Bantiarna Ibheach / Lady Iveagh, of Connellon. So the home note of the tune is G …[singing]… second half the tune starts on an F …[singing]… G, back home to G.

So this is a very normal tune that you would typically hear. No problem. But poor old Bunting thinks “[G], okay”. He can hear that, so for him the the switch goes up or down – it’s G-major or it’s G-minor – they are the only two possibilities in his world. So if it’s G-major …[singing]… he has to have an [F-sharp]. But he knows the tune doesn’t have an [F-sharp], he knows that it has to be [F-naturals]. There is only one other way that switch can go. So if not G-major it has to be G-minor, so he dutifully puts in a key signature for G-minor – two flats, [B-flat] and [E-flat] …[singing]… fine, no problem.

But in the second half …[singing]… if we go with the key signature. But he knows it’s …[singing]… so he has to contradict his key signature, every time we get to an [E]. He knows that it’s not an [E-flat], he’s hearing an [E-natural]. And good musician that he is, he gives us the truth – he gives us the tune. So he thinks “no that’s an [E-natural]” …[singing]… he has to give us an [E-natural] there …[singing]… and so on so forth.

So Bunting is caught between a rock and a hard place. He has to give a key signature of G-minor, otherwise he’s carted off to musical-grammar jail! But he knows in his heart that it’s not an E-flat so he does both things – he satisfies both sides of himself. He gives the ‘correct’ thing – with a proper key signature – given that this piece starts and ends on [G]. And then he tells the truth by shoving in little accidental marks all over the place to make it tally.

So that’s a very easy lens to see, if you have European art-music training and if you understand about modal tunes. Students often ask me “why on earth does he put an [E-flat] in the key signature when every [E] is an [E-natural]?” Well, because he has to, to sort of feel okay.

So that’s the kind of thing you see frequently. And then the other kind of thing you see is when we are in Dorian and Aeolian modes, where it’s kind of a minor-ish sounding tonality. Then Bunting feels – and many others did in the eighteenth century, in lots of the collections – they would feel obliged to raise sixth and seventh notes of the melody going up, and lower them coming down, because that’s what you do in melodic minor scales. So very easy filters to see through once you know, once somebody points out, “oh that’s that filter, that’s that lens, that’s that one”. You go “oh yes, we can throw those away.”

But there’s probably other stuff that I’m not yet seeing – or which is impossible to see – because we haven’t heard the dead musician play that tune. If we heard them play and we saw the notation, we might say “oh look – Bunting missed this” or “Bunting didn’t get that”. Not that we blame him for it, but we would be able to compare. But now we’re in the unlucky position that his notations are all we have for a lot of the music so we have nothing left to compare it with.


Siobhán, could you tell the story of how you came to arrive at the early Irish harp? I know singing has played a huge part along your journey and so it would be wonderful to learn what insights and turning points you experienced along the way, both with with your harp-playing and with your singing.
I started playing the piano – my first instrument – around 1970. I was tiny. I got sent off to piano lessons with my sister who was six years older. I must have shown some aptitude because by 1973 or 1974 my piano teacher was suggesting to my parents that I should learn an additional instrument – that I had gone as far as I could in three years – my hands were small and I couldn’t do any more grade exams – and that it was time to add another instrument.

I like to fancy that I actually remember this conversation – my teacher saying to my mother that I could learn the violin and my mother agreeing, and I was in the background saying “no, no, I don’t want to learn the violin!” and my reason was that I couldn’t sing with it. I think that’s kind of interesting, given that my whole life has revolved around vocal music and accompanying singers, in all kinds of music from plainchant to Irish music, and from seventeenth-century chamber music to baroque opera. So I knew that you can’t sing with the violin. My piano teacher took me seriously and asked me what instrument I wanted to play instead. I said ‘the harp’.

I have no idea why I said the harp. I have experienced the same thing with lots of children I’ve taught over the years. At the first lesson I always ask “so, why do you want to learn this instrument?” and almost without exception they all say “I don’t know, I just want to play the harp”. They can’t articulate why. And I think it was even more bizarre in my case because in the early 1970s I don’t think there was very much harping going on. I think Mary O’Hara might have been playing. That was about it. So I don’t know where I got this idea that I wanted to play the harp.

But my parents took me seriously and bought me a harp made by George Imbusch in Limerick. I was bought an Imbusch harp and I started lessons with Nancy Calthorpe at the then College of Music, which is now DIT in Chatham Row in Dublin. I think around 1973-74.

I also went to a really good school for music ­– St. Louis’s in Rathmines, Dublin. I was moved to their National School in something like second or third class and before that I’d been in a Gaelscoil [Irish language school] – Scoil Mhuire in Marlborough Street, on the grounds of the Department of Education, just opposite the Pro-Cathedral. So I’d done all my education through my Irish until that point, and thereafter went to St. Louis.

They had quite a famous choir ­– The Young Dublin Singers – and so that was the first choir I started singing in. I was in all sorts of different choirs after that.

Sometime around 1980 I started having singing lessons with Ken Shellard in Dublin, who had a real early music bent, and so was very receptive to somebody who wanted to sing Dowland and Purcell and sixteenth- and seventeenth-century European music. That was the music he loved as well.

So I was on this dual path of singing and harping. I was unmotivated at practicing the piano – it wasn’t really my thing. I was genuinely interested in the harp and I was really interested in singing. I’d have to admit that singing was perhaps my greater love.

I went on to study Single-Honour Music at Trinity College Dublin. I think my years at Trinity were from autumn of 1982, graduating in 1986. At that stage I started having harp lessons with Mercedes Garvey – the pedal-harp teacher at the College of Music – for about two years. She was a wonderful, very gracious person, so I think I probably had a nice time with her, but I wasn’t really keen to get a pedal harp. So it was modern harping all the way, but very much early music singing. At college I was singing, well, everything up to the Kindertotenlieder of Mahler – I loved some romantic music as well. But mainly my interest was in early music. I was exposed, of course, to wonderful things once I started doing a music degree.

There was an excellent chamber choir at Trinity College Dublin called Trinity College Singers. For the first two years of college I was a member and I was exposed for the first time to madrigals – English madrigals from the sixteenth-century. And polyphonic Renaissance masses. And Brahms double choir motets. And Bach! Bach motets. All sorts of things. In my third year I became the director of the choir and then we did everything from Byrd masses to Kodaly. So I really enjoyed directing all this choral music, and in turn introducing younger undergraduates to music that they had never heard before. That was a really wonderful time.

So I had some success, let’s say, at harp competitions. I went to the harp festival in Granard – I think it was around 1982 – and there were two things that I remember from that festival. One was that the Reverend Christopher Warren was there, with his take on the Trinity College harp that he had built himself. I remember he had it up on a car bonnet somewhere outside and he was showing it to people.

I also remember going into a pub at lunchtime with my parents looking for lunch, and I remember Ann Heymann, and her husband, Charlie Heymann, were sitting in the corner. They were playing music. That was the first time I’d ever heard anyone playing an early Irish harp.

I think that was probably a pivotal moment. I was too young – and too shy – to say hello to Ann, but I squirreled that information away – “oh there’s a harp that sounds amazing”. I understood straight away that it was very different to the kind of harp that I played. So already I understood that there are two different kinds of Irish harp.

In my final year at college, around 1986, the Early Music Organization of Ireland (EMOI) put on one of its annual festivals in Dublin. The historical harpist, Andrew Lawrence-King, came to play at it, actually in Trinity College. He was playing a double-strung Italian baroque harp – known as an arpa doppia, with two parallel rows of strings, and a Spanish baroque harp – also a chromatic instrument where you have two rows of strings crossed over in an X-shape so that you can get at the diatonic and chromatic notes. And then a penny really dropped.

He was playing the music that I loved and that I was trying to play on my modern Irish harp. I remember giving an exam recital in third year, and I remember trying to play a variation set by Bernardo Pasquini on the follia ground bass. I also remember playing Handel keyboard music at that recital. I was always trying to play seventeenth- and eighteenth-century music, and my hands would be a blur with the levers trying to do all the chromatic changes. So when I saw Andrew’s harps, I thought “wow! That’s the music I love and these are the harps you play them on”. So again, I probably squirreled that information away, but wasn’t in a position to do anything else about it.

In 1986 or ‘87 – sorry to be so hazy on dates – I graduated and I moved to Stuttgart in Germany. I took up a job at a music school – to start a harp department in a Musikschule in Sindelfingen outside Stuttgart, and started giving solo harp and voice recitals mainly in the German-speaking world. Maybe around 1991, Andrew Lawrence-King was playing at the early music festival in Stuttgart.

So he was starting to be really interested in early Irish harp at that stage and I was desperate to talk to somebody playing early harps, so this was just a wonderful happenstance that the two of us got talking at that concert.

So the upshot of that was that he became my historical harps teacher, and over the course of a year I drove up to Bremen, which is about 500 miles further north, to have lessons with him at the then Akademie für Alte Musik. I bought a small Italian baroque harp built by Tim Hobrough and started taking harp lessons. I could already play harp so it was just a matter of getting used to a multi-row harp which is actually no mean feat. For the first day or week or month you just want to give up because it’s so complicated and you feel seasick when you look at the strings and you can’t recognize anything and it’s a nightmare! But I loved the music so much and I really wanted to play. So Andrew started teaching me about early fingering, early aesthetics and phrasing and other relevant issues I didn’t know much about before. That was a revelation.

After six lessons, Andrew kindly started passing on work to me. The very first job was in 1992 when I went to a Monteverdi festival in Japan to play the continuo [improvising over a given bass line] and the harp solo in Monteverdi’s opera L’Orfeo which is one of the first ever operas.

So that started off my world of playing baroque chamber music and opera. After that I started buying myself instruments – a bigger double harp, a triple harp, a Spanish baroque harp, a European single-row late-medieval harp.

While I was playing all those harps I carried on playing my modern Irish harp – a Camac harp from France.

And at one point – around 1995 – I was in Amsterdam, doing a baroque opera, and in my spare time I was trying to make an arrangement of Carolan’s Eleanor Plunkett or Brigid Cruise on my modern Irish harp. And suddenly the light bulb went on, and I thought “but this isn’t the harp Carolan played. His harp didn’t have levers and it didn’t have gut strings, and I’m not getting close to what he did at all”.

The other thing that struck me around the same time was that my Camac harp was sitting in my apartment in Germany surrounded by all the other harps. They were all from a similar stable, all these historical instruments. The one in the middle – the modern one made of composite woods with white and blue and red plastic semitone levers – it just jarred utterly with the others. It looked modern and they looked old and it was just dissonant.

So eventually the penny dropped and I thought “but we’ve got our own early harp in Ireland!”. I’m quite a slow person, you know! It takes quite a while for the the penny to drop with me! I thought “I’m playing the Spanish early harp and the Italian one and the European medieval one, but what about my own early harp?”, and once that penny dropped my whole life changed. That was it. I basically haven’t stopped running since.


I had done quite a bit of traveling around that time. I moved to Australia very briefly in 1994, but I came back the same year and I moved to London. In London I was playing Baroque chamber music and opera, and I started to work with the main groups like John Eliot Gardiner and his English Baroque Soloists, and Paul McCreesh and the Gabrieli Consort, in London. And also with William Christie and Les Arts Florissants in Paris. And also I became the harpist with Tragicomedia after Andrew Lawrence-King left the trio that he had founded with the lute player Steven Stubbs and the viol player Erin Headley. My earliest historical music recordings are with those groups. That’s where I learned oodles about everything to do with what is called HIP – Historically Informed Performance. The idea of HIP is that you’re trying to get your hands on appropriate instruments, you’re trying to find the best sources that you can use for the music, that you want to get into the mindset of the people who composed and played these early compositions, that you’re interested in the aesthetics and the phrasing, all of that. All this I learned from my colleagues – from Steve and from Erin. And also from my then partner, the tenor John Elwes, who later became my husband. He was just such an extraordinary musician. So now I had somebody at home that I could run music past and say “well how about this? How about that?” He was absolutely fundamental to my learning a whole new aesthetic and how to perform.

So I think it was around 1995 that another penny dropped – that I needed to get my hands on an early Irish harp. Bill Taylor and Ardival harps in Scotland were hugely helpful in that regard. Bill kindly lent me an old harp that was lying around the workshop until they could build me one – an Ardival ‘Rose’. I remember traveling around Europe and not wanting to be without my early Irish harp, so I dragged it along in addition to my enormous Italian harp. And I remember practicing incessantly in tea- and lunch breaks while rehearsing baroque opera productions.

The first thing I did was to work my way through Ann Heymann’s Secrets of the Gaelic Harp book, so that was my first teacher. I made contact with Ann for the first time and went to visit her that year and the year after, to study with her.

How did you first come across Ann’s book?
That’s a very good question. I wonder if it was Bill Taylor who told me about it. Where would I have come across it? Because I bought a copy of the book. I can see myself in France working through, in breaks in an opera. Every time there was a break I would run into the other room to practice this thing. I was manic about it!

What was your feeling when you first came across it?
It opened a really important door for me. Without Ann’s pioneering work it would have been much more difficult for me. She and her work have been hugely inspirational for me. Her book gave me tools to play the new instrument. And that was like the night turning into day, it was like the light coming on. It was just incredible. Not to be too dramatic about it, but it was like my whole life had been preparation for this because I was an Irish musician, I had an ear for Irish music, but I’d had all this art music training, so I was literate and I was going to be able to look at these manuscripts. Then I also had all this early music training, and I was already playing other historical harps with historical techniques.

I had even grown my nails already to play my big Italian baroque harp, because Steve Stubbs played his theorbo [large Baroque lute] and baroque guitar with his nails. When we were in big opera theatres he could make a big noise and I wanted to be able to match him with my harp. So I’d already grown my nails and then when I got a Spanish harp it was appropriate to play that with nails too. So, with nails already, it was like just a hop, skip and a jump – I just had to be shown this other thing and off I went.

So it’s funny looking back on it – I’ve never thought about that until you posed that question. But yes, I suppose it was like the sun came out.

I can imagine you were yearning…
Yes, suddenly like “oh yes, that’s the thing!”. How did it take me until my late twenties?

So you had this introduction to the Irish harp and you were about to explain how you got in touch with Ann first. Did you remember her from that first time you saw her in Granard?
I think I was talking incessantly about Ann because I was working through the book. We all knew about Ann and I think she was in our consciousness in Ireland even though she hadn’t really been invited over much. Our paths hadn’t yet crossed.

I first met her when I decided to go to Minnesota to see her.

And of course that was revelatory, because she was so generous with her time, her knowledge and her expertise, and, you know, everything. I suppose for her maybe it was unusual to have a harpist from Ireland knocking on her door. Ann wasn’t Irish, and didn’t live in Ireland. So maybe she didn’t always quite get the respect that she should have got for her pioneering work. So it was probably surprising for her that an Irish woman literally knocked on her door saying “please tell me about the harp and the music of my country”. And I was thrilled to meet her.

How long did you stay with her?
I think the first time it might have been three days. That was enough – I was a wreck at the end of it, because she just talked at me round the clock! She’d say “here’s another thing and here’s another thing”. I’d say “OK I have to go to bed now!” She’d literally be knocking on my door in the morning saying “well here’s this other stuff I haven’t said anything about”. So at the end of three days I was just like a wet rag, you know, but full of ideas! I went back again about a year later and we talked lots more.


In 1998 I moved back to Ireland. I’d moved to London in the 1990s from Germany. My husband, John Elwes, and I moved to an old cottage outside Carrick-on-Suir in the foothills of the Comeragh mountains. We moved there because John’s paternal family, are from there.

When you asked me for my memories for this interview, I started going through papers. When I moved back to Ireland or maybe even before I moved back, it looks as if I took over the directorship of the Early Music Organization of Ireland . I directed that organization for several years, putting on everything from concerts to choral workshops with English choral directors, trying to get expertise to Ireland.

I can’t tell if it was when I was directing the Early Music Organization of Ireland or if it was beforehand, I wrote an article for the EMOI newsletter. I haven’t found the actual newsletter but I found the text that I sent off and it looks as if I was addressing questions about the fact that there was an early music scene all around the world for different instruments – for lutes and viols and keyboard instruments – and raising the idea that we had our own early harp and were we going to take our place in this revival of instruments. Were we going to do anything with the early Irish harp? I mentioned in that article that Gráinne Yeats and Paul Dooley were the only players I knew in Ireland who are actually approaching the instrument on its own terms at that stage. And then I asked anybody who was interested in playing the instrument to contact me. So I think I was interested already in the late 1990s to make connections with other people to see if we could get something going.

Then in January 1998 I sent Ann Heymann a fax, telling her that I had two cláirseach students, as I called them. So the nomenclature I have used really changed a lot over the years. At that stage I was calling it a cláirseach. I think this was probably because Ann was calling it a cláirseach. One student, in Galway, was undoubtedly Maura Uí Chróinín, who runs Galway Early Music Festival, and who is now involved in The Historical Harp Society of Ireland. The student in Dublin, I think, might have been somebody called Mary Gregg.

Ann was very keen for an early Irish harp revival to happen in Ireland, and she strongly encouraged me to start organising. A few years after that – perhaps around the year 2002 – Bill Taylor and Barnaby Brown organised a conference and invited a number of early Irish harp players to Glasgow. Bill was instrumental in organising this – what he called a ‘fingernail technique’ – conference in Glasgow. It took place at the home of the parents of Barnaby Brown, the historical Scottish piper. So Bill had this great idea to get us all together in one place. Ann Heymann was there, Simon Chadwick was there, Bill Taylor was there, Barnaby Brown was there, and Javier Sáinz from Spain was there, Karen Marshalsay, the Scottish player was there. Alison Kinnaird was invited but I think couldn’t make it? So this was the first time that I’d met many of them. There were really important and vital contacts made at that stage. One of the most important was with Simon Chadwick who is now very closely involved with the HHSI and has been for a long time.

So in about 2003 – with Ann Heymann still very kindly encouraging and supporting me – I put on the first Scoil na gCláirseach. Simon Chadwick put the website together for it and also came over as a student. I offered to cover Ann’s airfare out of my own pocket if she came over, and the two of us would teach the classes. She was so generous – she said “oh yes, I don’t mind if you don’t pay me. If the airfare is covered, that’s great”. That was the first year.

Philip Edmondson at the School of Music in Kilkenny very kindly offered us a venue for free. Unbelievably – I can’t believe I did this for the first few years – I made all the soup and baked all the bread and put it all in the freezer and then would take it out, day by day, and serve all the lunches. So I taught the courses, administered it, and did all the cooking. Amazingly I think about twelve people showed up the first year and also the second year. That was kind of amazing to me.

I think I attended for the first time in its third year, in 2005
That’s right. And how did you find out about it?

A leaflet at the Irish Traditional Music Archive. I think I had dropped in one afternoon when the Scoil was already underway. I got on a bus to Kilkenny the next day
So that first year, Michael Coady, the poet from Carrick-on-Suir, opened it for us on the 18th of August. Gráinne Yeats gave our first lecture – she spoke about the harpers assembly in Belfast in 1792. Apparently the second day was the day that we went to Dublin to look at the harps in museums, because that’s now always our last day or optional day. So the second day, for some reason, we went to Dublin to see all the museum harps, and then we came back and had tuition afterwards from 6pm to 8:15pm at night. So it’s clear that I was a bit of a slave-driver from the word go! I can’t believe that I would make people go on a day trip to Dublin and then have hours of tuition afterwards. But I did!

So Ann and I did the teaching. Seán Donnelly gave a lecture about the early Irish harp in seventeenth-century England. And Ann and I gave a public concert that week as well. I think the course was about four days long.

I played fiddle growing up, and from around the age of eleven or twelve I remember going to the Willy Clancy Summer School in Miltown Malbay. I remember it all going over my head the first year, but in the second year something just clicked and I was able to play tunes with other musicians my own age. That was the environment – going one year and then the following year going along wanting to be able to join in with others, and then year after year, and I still go down – not every year but every few years – and it is like a music school, a summer school. I’m curious about the ideas for Scoil na gCláirseach in 2003. What was your thinking at the time – you, Ann, Simon, what were you thinking of creating? Or was it very much “we’ll try it one year and we’ll see where it takes us”?
Well, I remember it was myself and Ann for the first two years. Simon did the website but otherwise he was a student, not yet a staff member. So he wasn’t involved in the planning. He might have been involved from maybe the third year? So say for the first two years I just wanted there to be some event in Ireland, because already I was teaching early Irish harp courses abroad and people would say “that’s great, can we go to Ireland and study with you there?” And I had to say “no, I don’t really have a course in Ireland”. There was no focal point in Ireland then.

I think Ann was seminal. She was the one who kept on saying to me “there needs to be something in Ireland…there has to be something in Ireland… in Ireland”. So I suppose I just thought I’d get everybody together. I suppose I love teaching – that’s my thing – it is all about education and teaching. So that would have been my idea – to get people together to disseminate ideas and information. I don’t remember but I imagine that was the idea – to get the world expert over, and the two of us would rub shoulders, and spend time with other people who played the instrument. And then see what we could start – see where that would take us. It was very organic.

I’m not sure how much I was really thinking through things because The Historical Harp Society of Ireland didn’t exist until after the summer school started. I wasn’t thinking of founding a Society. I was thinking of doing a very specific thing, which was to have this event. The event predated the Society. The Society came out of the event. I suppose we realized the need once people came to the summer school – that then they wanted to have lessons on a more regular basis. And then they needed instruments and there were no instruments. So one organic thing led to another.

We started wondering what we would do for harps. There were no readily affordable student copies of early Irish harps on the market. We had a pretty rigorous view of things from the start – that we wanted people playing copies of the instruments that were in the museums, rather than modern designs or the miniature harps that were available. We wanted them playing a harp with a minimum of twenty-nine strings, implying an historical full bass range.

Did this come from your background, your immersion, in early music?
Yes, I think you’re right. That’s exactly where that would come from because I had that kind of uncompromising, rigorous approach. Trying to play Italian baroque on my modern Irish harp had led me to seek out the appropriate instrument – a multi-row chromatic Italian harp. So, for me, the music leads you to the appropriate instrument. So for early Irish music, I want to play it on the original Irish harp.

At some point – around 2001 – I had this Trinity College harp sort of sneak into my life through Robert Maclean who was a student of mine– and also of Ann Heymann – living in Japan. He and Ann had commissioned two Trinity College copies together – twin harps. Robert is Canadian but of Scottish extraction so ultimately he wasn’t really happy to have an Irish harp – he really wanted a copy of the Scottish Queen Mary harp. He came to Europe to have lessons with me for a few months, at one point, and he brought the harp. He wanted to leave it with me with a view to selling it in Europe.

I remember taking it out of its bag and playing just a few strings and being completely taken aback. I’d never heard anything like this, because I hadn’t heard any kind of replica before. I’d had a much smaller Ardival ‘Rose’, which sounded lovely to me – a beautifully built instrument but smaller than the smallest surviving harps. So when I took this out and played – and of course it had a lot of Ann in it because she had a lot to do with the design of the instruments and David Kortier, who had built it, was a really good builder – I was completely smitten.

Can you talk a little bit about the harp-maker?
David Kortier was, at that stage, I suppose the best-known builder of early Irish harps. And he lived close to Ann in Minnesota. So she had a good working relationship with him over the years. Robert Maclean was Ann’s student – that was probably why he and she ordered harps together. Between Kortier and Ann’s input into this harp, it was just gorgeous. So I remember saying to Robert “okay, don’t spend too much money on advertising this harp anywhere”, because it clearly wasn’t ever going to leave my music room! So I always joke that the harp came to me, all the way from Japan, presented itself to me in my music room, went “here I am”, and I went “thank you very much, that’s lovely, you’re grand.” So I didn’t have to go out looking for harp. It literally arrived in my lap. It was quite an extraordinary thing.

So once we started to think we needed student instruments for The Historical Harp Society, Kortier was the man to get in contact with. So now we have copied about six or so of the eighteen extant harps, but that was never our plan. Our plan was just to have one harp that we could offer to students. I remember Kortier came over for a meeting. I think Simon and I and Kortier were all at my house and we were thrashing out ideas. And we said “well, how about the Trinity College harp, that would be a good student instrument. So can you maybe build copies of that?”

So he started off doing that and then off his own bat he said “oh I was doing that and I thought I’d do a Queen Mary as well”. So he did a Queen Mary as well and we thought “oh, that’s two of the surviving harps!” And then the idea got going “hey, we could keep going with this. We could build relatively inexpensive student copies of all of these harps.” That’s been our plan over the last decade and a half, to keep going, to build measured copies of these things so we can all get our hands on them and play and learn from them. And of course what I’ve been playing for you today, is one of our latest models which is the HHSI Student Mullaghmast harp.

So …[shows]… they’re inexpensively built out of composite wood. They have built-up sound boxes so that they’re much cheaper to build than a carved-out soundbox. They have Kortier’s measurements, so they are based on his measuring work at the individual museums. Things are moving on with measurements all the time, and modern technology is raising the bar. In 2016, I initiated an exciting project to do laser-scan measurements of early Irish harps. In December 2016 I commissioned the first ever 3D laser scan of an early Irish harp – the Mullaghmast harp, because I want to have a facsimile of this built.

So anyway, they are our HHSI Student range. That was a new thing. That had never happened in the revival before, that people started to make affordable copies of the surviving harps. A few people have had facsimiles but they’re very expensive, and we were trying to mass-produce them and get them into students’ hands.

So we’ve carried on with the summer school and with the student harps. And then all sorts of things happened along the way. Like our fledgling library – we started the first ever library for everything to do with the the early Irish harp and associated culture, history, poetry, vocal music and related subjects.

And here we are now in 2017 and we’re planning for our sixteenth summer school next year in 2018 – or a summer festival as it’s become – because it slightly changed from last year. We have started to put on many more concerts – a concert each evening instead of one over the course of the whole week. We’ll hopefully get more of the public in next year to our lectures and workshops. So we’re expanding out – that’s where we are right now.


I’m curious to delve a little into harp-making some more. It is one thing to make student harps affordably, but another to so with very rigorous standards. Is there a way of making affordable student harps with rigorous attention to key historical features, other than going to a renowned harp-maker and trusting that he will make sensible decisions?
It’s all a compromise. There’s no such thing as the perfect facsimile. Kortier made our first range, which we call HHSI Student harps. But we’re really keen to support Irish harp builders as well. So our second range, our HHSI Connemara harps, are built for us in Connemara by Natalie Surina of Ériu Harps.

I see a huge place for technology going forward. Because until this point we’ve basically been in museums with measuring tapes. That’s the way it’s always worked. Until now. I want to have a copy built of the Mullaghmast harp myself, and so in December 2016 the National Museum of Ireland agreed to let me bring in a company that specialized in laser scanning 3D Scanning Ireland. All of that data is now captured, which is great because it means that we should be able to use point-to-point meshes on our computers and measure from point to point on it. So that’s going to give a whole new level of accuracy to building.

And then you have the possibility that you can take data from those meshes and you can feed it into a CAM woodworking machine. You could theoretically go from a scan to an automated pillar or neck or whatever to make student instruments. That’s not beyond the bounds of reason anymore. And that would be very cheap. So I think the future is quite exciting for getting our hands on excellently measured, inexpensive student instruments.

Since I did that in 2016, it seems to be taking on a life of its own, because one of our students at the summer festival wants to have the Fitzgerald Kildare harp scanned in order to build a copy of that. And I think another player has been interested in scanning Paddy Quin’s instrument, the Otway harp. So now it looks like people are running with that ball which is great. I’m very happy about that.

What’s involved in 3D scanning?
Well, one of the reasons I shied away from it was that I thought it was complicated and difficult. I think about ten years ago there were mobile scanners but they couldn’t deal with metal, so I thought it was impossible. But even in ten years technology had moved on. I phoned them up and they said “oh that’s no trouble – we can just come out to the museum”. I said “but don’t you have a huge rig, or does the harp have to go into a scanning machine?” They said “oh no, no we just have a little mobile machine that we wave at it”. So it turns out that the mobile scanning machine looks like the body of an electric mixer. It is completely non-invasive and it’s just completely wonderful, though still relatively expensive.

Maybe you could talk about Karen Loomis’s work? Where she has put harps through a CT scanner, which is limited by the dimensions of the machine. Dr. Karen Loomis is an astronomer from the USA who came to the Scoil one year and then took a scientific interest in the surviving historic harps. She recently finished an incredibly valuable PhD on the organology of the Queen Mary and Lamont harps. Karen made CT scans of the harps as part of her research work, which has allowed us to see the inside these instruments for the very first time, which is amazing.

The type of scanning that I’ve been doing is showing us the outside of the instrument, but that’s valuable too because it gives us more data than ever before to build instruments from. So yes – wonderful, wonderful possibilities afoot these days on the technology side of things.

I’d like to delve into the technological side of things some more. Considering we’re looking for the early Irish music which is modal. In other words the music typically doesn’t change key during a piece, and it has seven notes or fewer to the scale. There are exceptions and subtleties, but that is a basic working definition. To play modal music you want to have an instrument which is matched. This is my own reading of the early Irish harp, the Trinity, and the other seventeen extant museum instruments that we have. For the music they are associated with, I’d suggest they really were a pinnacle of technology for their time. Would you agree?

Well let’s think about that for a bit. Certainly, bits of them were. We have metal strings because we had amazing metal working technology in Ireland. Wire harp strings are actually quite unsophisticated compared to all the Bronze Age treasures you’d see in the Kildare Street branch of The National Museum. There’s serious technological expertise on view there ­ unbelievably fine work . Compared to that, harp strings are just a doddle! Because you’re just drawing a piece of wire. You’re not trying to do anything fancy with it afterwards. And the mortise and tenon joints – that’s quite simple technology actually. And the ‘dugout-canoe’ aspect of the resonating chamber is theoretically easy to do. I wouldn’t want to have to do it myself, mind – it’s a lot of work, but it’s not complicated in itself. But the amazing thing to be seen on these harps is the decoration. They’re high-art objects with beautiful jewels, fine metal work and wood carving. That’s very impressive.

That’s interesting. It brings to mind something I read years ago about good design – I forget where. I think the example was the safety pin. That good design is so smart that it is self-evident, as in “why didn’t we think of that before?”. What Antoine de Saint-Exupéry writes about the airplane wing also come to mind – that “perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”
Oh lovely. I like that. Well that speaks to me totally, because it reminds me of how I reconstruct my own tunes. Over the years I have been jettisoning harmony and this and that, and I’m really left with very little at this stage. It’s almost embarrassingly little!

So I’m wondering if it was something similar with the design of the early Irish harp. I wonder whether there were many versions to begin with, which became progressively simpler and simpler. And I’m wondering, for the type of early Irish, modal music we’re talking about, whether the view that early Irish harps don’t have levers, don’t have pedals, no chromatic notes, is relevant at all?
Well you would only say that if you’re looking back from a modern perspective. You wouldn’t be taking the instrument on its own merits within its own time.

Which is why I’m talking about taking it in the context of the associated early Irish music – modal music with seven or less notes to the scale and so on.
Yes, it’s perfect for the music I play on it. But that’s the whole point of an historically informed performance (HIP) approach – that the instruments used are appropriate for the music played on them. You mentioned early Irish harps and levers there. I always joke and say that to give an early Irish harp levers is to give a fish a bicycle. It’s completely irrelevant – it’s from a different universe.

So an early instrument generally reflects the music of the period. For example, the Italian triple harp. Why did that come about? Well, single-row harps existed everywhere. We had them in Ireland, you find them all around Europe. But chromatic harps originated only in the last decades of the sixteenth century, initially to play the newly chromatic music which was emerging at that time.

If you want to play modal Irish music, one wonderful way to do it is to play it on the Irish harp that was played for over eight hundred years. Possibly a thousand, who knows? Gerald of Wales was talking about that harp in the late 1100s, and the kind of mature design to be seen in the earliest depiction on Breac Maedóic [Shrine of St. Mogue] didn’t fall off the back of a bus in that century – there is an implication that it goes back much earlier than that.

That length of history, of time, 800 years at least. A technological design gets refined during that time.
Well interestingly though, it didn’t get refined much during that time. It must have been in the time before that, that it got refined, because it’s such a good design that it basically remained consistent from, well we don’t know how far back in time. We have no idea how old the Trinity College harp is for instance. But if you look at depictions, if you look at Breac Maedóic it’s showing a triangular harp, presumably with mortise and tenon joints, and you can basically make out the leithrind – the metal cheek bands on the neck, through which the string pins go. So it looks like that design is already fixed, in perhaps the eleventh century, and those features carry on all the way to the end of the tradition c.1800. I don’t see many differences, except that the harp gets bigger – the neck goes up, and the bass strings get longer. But the design is so excellent it retains consistency for over 800 years.

In engineering, a design is often discussed in terms of whether or not it is ‘fit for purpose’. The term for fixing the design at a point in time is ‘design freeze’. There is typically a phase when the design is fluid, when all the parameters are set, stresses and strains are estimated, and the functional requirements of the design are defined and agreed. All of this is typically done up front, leading to design freeze. Then the design is built, and throughout the design life of that technology, it needs to be fit for purpose. Working as an engineer, it’s natural for me to apply these design principles when considering historic Irish technology, and in the case of early Irish harps being fit for purpose, to ask for what purpose are they fit? And it seems to me it is to play the music that was recorded in the Bunting manuscripts.

Well, except that there isn’t so much difference between our harp and the European harps – it’s not the number of rows, because we all have single-row harps. It’s not the diatonic nature of the harp, because European harps were also exclusively diatonic until the years shortly before 1600. One of the main differences between our harp and European harps is the metal strings and the robust body which is needed to support those high-tension metal strings. That’s what comes out of our astounding technology at such an early period, that we have amazing metalworking capabilities in this bit of northwest Europe going way, way back.

We apparently have Viking wire-drawing plates here, I think, that originate from the 800s. Ann Heymann once coordinated with the American historical metallurgist, Daniel Tokar, on an experiment to see if he could make a string without a draw plate. Because it had been posited that you can’t have strings before you have string draw plates, that is, before the 800s.

Tokar rolled a string rather than drawing it. Despite the idea that you couldn’t have consistency of gauge and it would therefore break relatively quickly. Ann brought it over to Scoil na gCláirseach one August, we put it on a harp, we tuned it up to pitch and there it remained for a long, long time. No bother, no problems. No technological difficulties whatsoever. First one, it worked first time. So we began to realise that you don’t need draw plates to produce strings, that we could potentially go back before the 800s for the first wire harp strings.

I think the unusual material used here – metal – has to do with our technology. The Irish could do very fine work in metal. But why did we need to make harp strings out of metal? Everywhere else in Europe used gut or horsehair. So why did we need or want metal strings in Ireland?

Perhaps because we had the material here and made use of it?
We did. But wouldn’t you ask, if they had gut everywhere else in Europe, why were we not playing with gut? It is a perfectly reasonable thing to put on your harp. Well, except that in autumn in Ireland the gut strings on my Italian triple harp start to break on me. That’s the problem with gut in Ireland ­­– the climate is not conducive to its use at all. We have a really damp climate here, and gut does not like the damp.

Scotland as well.
Exactly. I’ll give you the classic example of that. Before I moved back to Ireland in 1998 or thereabouts, I had all my harps in London in a nice, dry Victorian house. We moved back to a stone cottage that was built at the end of the nineteenth century, with walls that are a metre thick. Just stone with a slate roof. I was so thrilled to be back in Ireland, after many years away, that when I arrived, I took all my harps out of their cases and lined them up against the wall in one room thinking, you know, “I’m home, my harps are home, this is wonderful!”. When I got up the following morning I got a bit of a shock. Every single harp that had gut strings was trailing bunches of strings in all directions. They were so unhappy to go from a dry, centrally-heated house in London to go to an old, stone house in Carrick-on-Suir with no heating, which was much damper. Meanwhile, my wire-strung Ardival ‘Rose’ harp, was just in the corner, quietly humming a tune as it were, not even out of tune, while the other harps were all basically committing suicide! So perhaps that’s the reason we have metal strings? Because our climate does not like gut. And you imagine a big, drafty, stone castle. Stone buildings tend to be damp and dank and cold and miserable and drafty, and gut strings won’t tolerate that.

So I think that’s one of the reasons we have metal strings here – they survive much better, and we had the technology to make them. That’s my guess. I don’t know for sure but that’s my practical experience of both kinds of strings.

I’m wondering whether that would carry through from the period of medieval low-headed harp to later, high-headed harps. I’m thinking that horse-hair harps in Wales, or Gothic harps, didn’t survive that period between medieval and the sixteenth- to eighteenth century. They died out after the medieval period, whereas our wire-strung harp, it changed in height but it stood the test of time.
I see what you mean – that our harp evolved somewhat and kept going, and the Welsh harp …. I think the horse-hair-strung harp in Wales was somewhat superceded by the Italian triple harp, which travelled widely all over Europe, got as far as Wales and turned into the Welsh triple harp. So it was overtaken by a more versatile instrument that arrived, that had chromatic possibilities. Chromatic harps didn’t make as many inroads into Ireland.

But actually I’m wondering if my previous argument is unsafe, the argument that I just mentioned about it being the climate. Because they had horse-hair-strung harps in Wales and that’s not exactly a dry climate. So maybe it was more to do with our metalworking technology and less to do with our climate? I don’t know. Horse-hair-strung harps seem to survive okay in Wales. Or maybe they had no choice, maybe they didn’t have the metalworking technology available here so they had to make do. I don’t know enough to be able to comment knowledgeably.

It’s really interesting. One of the reasons I was curious to dive more into the technology is that the early Irish harp is something that is right in front of us – on our coins and so on – and yet as a society we haven’t appreciated it as an example of highly refined, indigenous design. So many harp builders look at this design, take a quick squint at it, and say “I can do better than that”.
Oh yes, that’s very common – the chronocentric idea that our time is the most evolved, that we are the most intelligent people who have ever lived and that those who came before were less able than we are.

Whereas as much knowledge could have been lost as gained.
Of course, there’s a complete lack of humility in front of earlier technologies which were sometimes spectacularly good. You look at the metal-working technology in The National Museum on Kildare Street, in Dublin – the Bronze Age exhibits. The Broighter Hoard for example. We ought to be a lot more humble.

It’s like, going back to the analogy of the airplane wing, imagining a hypothetical scenario in which future generations have lost the design of the airplane, for whatever reason. If they were to rediscover in an archeological dig an airplane wing, they might figure out that it was attached to the nearby fuselage and put it back together, but then argue “the wing isn’t thick enough, that’s never going to hold up, and why is it that funny shape? We’ll just change it”. They might take a very long time to get off the ground. So the point is, there is a very good reason that soundboxes were tapered, the thickness that they were, and why they were so resonant as a result. These details are important and they are really subtle.
Well this for me is an integral part of the HIP argument. That when you try to reproduce replicas of instruments, that you do it with humility, and that you understand that these instruments teach us. It’s not for us to plaster our modern ideas onto these artifacts. You need to – with all humility – just try to reproduce the artifact and see what it teaches you. That’s an integral part of HIP, and anything else is… you’re not going to learn so much. Once you add your own opinions on top, from the word go, then you’ve lost an opportunity to learn. And as you say, it’s the really subtle things – that you don’t know why they’re there until you keep reproducing them and using them and seeing what they teach.

It’s like when people say to me “well, why would you have na comhluighe on the harp, why would you have these two unison tenor G-strings? Sure there’s no point!” Well I don’t know what the point is, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a point. Perhaps consider being humble enough to – you know – do it. Reproduce it, see what it teaches you about how to place fingers and how to play, and all sorts of things. And that’s true of every aspect of reproducing these harps, every single aspect that you can think of. Don’t ask, don’t second-guess, just reproduce, just reproduce and see. Then we’ll talk!

So that’s why I was really keen to initiate laser scanning of early Irish harps. Because often harp builders will say “ah, I don’t think they really meant that”, and “you know, I can do this”, and “let’s tweak that”, from the word go. Or they simply lack accurate measurements from which to work. That’s why we need impeccable measurements and to be able to say “Use those. Don’t try to second-guess.” And don’t tell me that you don’t want to build it because you think it’s a bad instrument. That’s also not an argument I’m open to. Just build the instrument, then we’re in a position to discuss it and learn from it.”

This all goes back to the idea of student instruments, and how it’s not just about knocking them out cheaply, that there is a lot more to consider. You mentioned compromises – can you talk a little more about what compromises can be made.
Well it’s always going to be a movable feast, and it’s an ever-disappearing target. You’ll never get to your goal. So we try really hard to produce accurate copies of surviving instruments, but they’re never going to be accurate enough, so every decade or so we seem to be improving. We will streamline them and hopefully they will become more and more accurate. So every time we produce a range it’s a snapshot of where the bar is now for accuracy for those instruments.

But there are essential, or high priority things like, for example na comhluighe. So having na comhluighe is presumably a decision that is made?
Oh yes, there are certain things that are not negotiable. The first thing we throw away is all the decoration – all of that frippery – because you don’t need that. What you really need are accurate string lengths, accurate string spacing, you know accuracy of all possible measurements that you can get. And again it’s the thing that – until ten or fifteen years ago – harp builders didn’t notice that the string spacing was idiosyncratic on a lot of the instruments. They would all place the top string and the bottom string, and then would space the strings evenly between one and the other. So you’d have an equidistant spacing along the harp. And of course now when we look at the harps it’s really clear that the string spacing is much more anarchic. Guy Flockhart was the first person to build an instrument with irregular spacing. He built a copy of the Lamont harp that Javier Sáinz had for a long time. I think when Javier got the harp he said he was shocked because Guy Flockhart had faithfully copied what he saw on the original and nobody had ever done that before. The strings below and including na comhluighe were much closer spaced together than the others. And you can see the same feature on the Trinity College harp – the string spacing is all over the place. The strings at the top tend to be a bit more fanned out and then they’re wide in the middle and they narrow down the bottom. Nobody had ever taken that kind of thing seriously before, until Guy Flockhart did. So Javier was able to learn from that and then all the rest of us too. String spacing has implications for damping and other things and/or maybe we don’t yet know quite why it was so. But you know it’s a bit like “build it and they will come” – “make it so and we will learn”!

In terms of string material and making those kind of decisions, there has been a lot of good work there too. Can you talk about this?
Yes, that’s changing, even as we speak, because we have new work in recent years by Paul Dooley and Karen Loomis. Both their PhDs touch on pitch standards. I think they are suggesting that the pitch standard of the medieval Irish harps is higher than modern pitch. So that affects the choice of stringing materials. Ann was the first person to suggest that precious metal strings could be the solution to a weak-sounding bass on a Trinity college harp, but of course that’s based on a premise of stringing at A440 – modern pitch. So it could be that with higher pitch, brass starts to be more plausible on medieval harps. That’s all work in progress, and it’s not my area of expertise, so I can’t really say much more about it. Ann was the first person to start working on it and Simon is also interested in pitch standards and stringing materials. We can all learn from their work.

For our HHSI Student harp series we use wire from a maker of harpsichord wire – Malcolm Rose. From him we were always able to source yellow brass and red brass. I think on our HHSI Student Trinity harps, we originally put sterling silver in the bottom since we were tuning them at A440. And now we’re probably going to tune them higher than that, so the stringing materials will need to change somewhat as well.


One of my biggest interests is the vocal repertoire. I was reading the other day in one of the An Píobaire newsletters a comment by Robbie Hannon, I think, who was pointing out that Séamus Ennis is on record as saying that for a player to perform an air with feeling and to have an understanding of the appropriate phrasing, you have to know the words of at least one verse of the song. And I thought “that is totally where I’m coming from”.

When you say that’s totally where you’re coming from, is that your own personal feeling, or is there precedence for that in the HIP world, in early music?
Very good point. Yes there’s precedence for that in HIP performance. We talked already about La Nuova Musica – the ‘new music’ at the end of the sixteenth- and turn of the seventeenth century, where music went from complex polyphony with many lines intermingling – where maybe you couldn’t make out the words so well if it was vocal music – to a radical simplification in some cases because it’s the words, it’s the words and it’s the words! So Claudio Monteverdi was the one of the first composers who wanted to – and had a real genius for – setting speech and speech rhythms in music. It’s recitative or singing speech. The accompaniment was improvised over a given bass-line and you had your speech rhythms on top. As an instrumentalist your job is to accompany, and paint, those words.

So that’s what I’m most often doing when I’m outside Ireland, when I’m – so to speak – in my ‘other world’ of seventeenth-century European music. When I’m doing that, I’m generally improvising an accompaniment for maybe the two and a half hours of an opera, and I’m trying, as I go along, to express the affect of those words. So you know if it’s ‘heaven’, I’m painting a heavenly sound, if it’s ‘hell’ I’m hopefully making a nasty noise. So I have quite a big palette of colors on my baroque harp – beautiful sounds, very ugly sounds, harsh sounds, gorgeous big warm-bath sounds. So you should be able to produce all those, to paint the text that’s in front of you.

Is that personal, or were you encouraged when you were first encountered this music to develop this way of playing?
The second, absolutely. You’re not just a ‘cabaret player’ in the background, you’re an integral part of the action on that stage. You are giving the singers all the colors that they need to help them paint the text and for the action to go forward. So that’s been embedded in me since my early twenties – to express the words. And all the treatises say “don’t worry about the vocal quality as a primary concern – don’t be a ‘singer’ – get the words out, get the story across”.

And a good sean-nós singer will say exactly the same thing to you. They’ll say it’s all about the words and it’s all about the story.

Singing a song in Gaelic is abair amhrán.
Exactly! Abair amhrán [‘say the song’], it is not seinn amhrán [‘play the song’] or bí ag canadh amhrán [‘sing the song’], no it’s abair amhrán because it’s the words, it’s always the words ­– you know – ‘speak the song’. And it’s the same thing at the turn of the seventeenth century in European art music– speaking the words. The words are the most important thing. So for me – any music I’m involved in – I want to express the words.

I would take that all the way back to plainchant if I’m accompanying plainchant. This is something I that, my husband, John Elwes taught me. He was head chorister in Westminster Cathedral in London in the late 1950s when he was a child. He was singing plainchant and polyphony for twenty-five hours each week, really as a professional child singer.

When I hear most singers nowadays singing Latin plainchant, they sing it in a sort of disembodied voice, as if it’s not really connected to the human condition at all. But when John sings plain chant, it’s quite different. Much more muscular – much more vivid. Westminster Cathedral Choir had a wonderful choir master, the famous harpsichordist, George Malcolm, who had a continental, Roman-Catholic approach to singing. John would look at plainchant on which I was working and would point out the possible word painting it, making me aware of that possibility in pre-seventeenth-century music for the first time.

Let’s take an example, because I think this is really quite important, to get the sense that it’s not something that’s stitched on later, that this is something that originates in the fabric of the music. Salve Splendor, from the thirteenth-century Scottish Inchcolm Antiphoner, composed in honour of St. Columba or Colmcille as we call him in Ireland.

[Sings]… I can’t remember the words there, but when it goes into the melisma on his name, the next line of the text is ‘O Columba, O Columbine’. So now you’re speaking the name of the saint, and this chant is in his honour. So it translates as ‘O dove, o little dove’. Columba / Columcille means ‘dove of the church’. And so the text goes ‘O Columba’ …[sings]… suddenly it heads up in register. ‘Columbine’ goes into this kind of complete ecstasy on the name of the saint. That’s word painting. It’s like “wow, Columba, this is our guy. We get excited when we say his name”, it’s like “Li-ver-pool” you know, it’s that kind of a way! So during the whole melisma you get loads of notes and you get this beautiful phrase and it goes up. That’s word painting.

Or even – it might be fanciful – but you have a responsary for St. Patrick that shows up in Trinity College MS 78, which was here at St. Canice’s cathedral in Kilkenny in the fifteenth century. It starts off ‘Ductu angelico mare transiens’, which translates as ‘So by angelic translation he crosses the sea’.

Basically, it talks about St. Patrick going to Gaul because he studies with Germanus who is the Bishop of Auxerre. So it talks about crossing the sea. So the tune is …[sings]… I see that as kind of the lapping of the waves against the boat, don’t you? …[sings]… there’s the boat going off. That’s word painting! You know you’ll only see what you’re looking for. If you’re not looking for word painting in plainchant you’re never going to find it. But if you look for it it’s there in spades!

So I see the same thing in seventeenth-century Italian music, and I see it, I think, in Irish music, in fact I think I’d say in all music, if you’re playing a song you better know the song because otherwise how are you going to play it?

The song lives and breathes on the words and the syllables and the poetic stresses and the metre and everything that goes with it, and if you don’t know any of that you’re missing 90% of your information to play that song.

Another good example – a classic example I always use for students when I’m introducing them to this – is the beautiful elegy that Carolan composes in memory of Toirdhealbhach Óg Mac Donnchadha who dies in the eighteenth century. Toirdhealbhach Óg was a Catholic lawyer during penal times when Catholics weren’t allowed to have professions so it’s amazing that he could practice at the bar. The words are “Táim dubhcroidheach go leor, ‘s níl súgaigh i mo ghlóir, ‘s níl seans i mo gháire faoi do bhás a Thorlaigh Óig” that’s how it begins…[speaks]…

So “I’m black hearted, there’s no mirth in my voice, there is no laughter or anything, because of your death, young Turlough”. Now the tune – there are two versions of this tune that survive – there is one in Bunting and there is one in Neal [John and William Neal’s A Collection of The Most Celebrated Irish Tunes, Dublin 1724, the first ever publication of Irish music in Ireland]. And in Neal it’s in crotchets and quavers. It begins, let’s say for the sake of argument, on an [A]. So …[sings]… so that’s how most people, if they don’t know the song, they’re going to play …[music]… because that’s what is in the collection.

And this is my point about notation being a sort of hopeless medium – you cannot capture music on paper – there’s no way. And one of the problems is that music notation is vertical and has bar lines and it has notes of specific lengths and you can’t have a thing that’s a bit shorter than a quaver, or a bit longer than a crotchet. You have to commit. It’s maths. You can have something that’s that long, or it’s half that long, or it’s double that long. But how about if it’s like maybe a third more than that? You know, it’s very tricky.

So I would never teach somebody that tune by looking at the notes, because you’re sunk if you do. Then you’re always going to have …[music]… I mean okay if they were really musical they might go …[music]…

but only if you sing or if you could say táim dubhcroidheach go leor, táim dubhcroidheach go leor and then sing it …[sings]… wow, that’s completely different to the dots on the page because now it’s not metrical anymore. You’re following the fadas, the long and the short syllables …[sings]… you wouldn’t sing …[sings]… I mean you as an Irish speaker you would die before you do that. But if you looked at the notes that’s what you’d sing unless you had some feeling for the Irish. Or somebody who would say the words for you in Irish. Once you can say the words then you have some chance to be able to play the words. [Music]… and let’s give it with a bass …[music]… I’ve got F-sharps so I can’t go on but you get the gist.

The poetry is the vital thing for the phrasing. If you don’t know the poetry and you don’t know the language and you’re not interested in the song, I’m not interested in hearing you play the tune. So I’m with Séamus Ennis. You have to know at least one verse of the song if you want to play the tune, to get the most out of it. Of course anybody can play anything, and of course it’s tricky if you don’t speak Irish or you don’t speak Gaelic. How on earth are you supposed to approach this music? Well you do the best you can. We’re all lacking something somewhere, so we all do the best we can. But in an ideal situation try and have some familiarity with the lyrics of a song, if you’re going to play it.

I appreciate everything you’ve said, absolutely. And it really deepens it a lot, when it’s not an “us and them” situation. That this is an approach to music – regardless whether it is plainchant or an elegy composed by Carolan
Well, bear in mind, in my situation with my European harps, it’s me accompanying a singer.

But in this tradition of early Irish harping, they were singing and accompanying themselves. So it’s completely integral to it. It’s not even that they were accompanying singers – they are singing themselves. That’s a whole other ballgame, you know. That’s why it’s so important to have people like you who sing and play the instrument, because you have a chance of, you know, creating something amazing.

I’m really curious – why do you do not sing more while playing?
Oh! Because I found better singers than me. In my twenties, when I still played modern Irish harp, I used to present solo programmes, and sing and play the harp. But, to be honest, I did a lot more acapella singing then playing harp tunes. I had a slight horror of singing with the harp because I was female and had red hair and was playing a harp. I was a living cliché! And I suppose I came from an era where Mary O’Hara was singing and playing with the harp, and it was a sort of slightly Victorian thing somehow. It wasn’t really modern and cool. And so I had a definite knee-jerk reaction not to sing with the harp. I only did it sometimes.

Then I married a European art-music singer who would go on to be nominated for a Grammy, so that really shut me up, because if you have world-class singing in your house you tend to just not! It sort of dampened me somehow – I felt an inhibition. And then when I started working on the vocal repertoire seriously, even though I love to sing, and I sing all the time, and I’m delighted to sing, I feel like I’m quite ‘corrupted’, if you like, by art music. I think I sound like an art-music singer singing an Irish song. And what I really want – I’m trying to get as close as I can by playing the old instruments – the closest I think we can get is somebody who has a really good sean-nós style and try to encourage them into harper vocal repertoire.

That’s what I’ve been doing for years, with many singers. With Bríd Ní Mhaolchiaráin, who was a guest on Cláirseach na hÉireann in 2004, and then with Róisín Elsafty, Áine Ní Dhroighneáin and Éamon Ó Bróithe. And now with one of my own students who is a prize-winning singer – Eibhilís Ní Ríordáin, who is at the HHSI summer festival this year. We’re working really intently on reconstructing, and putting the lyrics back to the tunes. How we do that and how we approach it – that’s what I’m interested in with people who already have good style and embedded knowledge in their singing. I think that’s so much more than I can offer.

I’m curious to delve into this a little because we’re talking about the instrument and a Historically Informed Performance approach to early music. It’s something Ann Heymann sometimes talks about as well – that we all have hands, we all have fingernails, which presumably aren’t dramatically different to what was there since medieval times. The voice can be considered an early instrument if we think that it hasn’t changed much, to our knowledge, since medieval times. I’m interested in what is different when we sing and play at the same time – if it’s something that’s unique, not necessarily unique to Irish music, although we do know it was a feature of our old tradition. How important do you think it is to sing and play the early Irish harp?
Well maybe you’re right, maybe I should be doing this. Maybe I need to get over myself and do it a bit more. I’m just worried that my singing is not at the standard of my harping, that it’s not stylish enough. That I don’t have the blas, because I didn’t grow up singing sean-nós songs. I have an enormous love for it. But I’m just worried that the end product would be a little bit too… that it would be a sanitized sound that people would feel was sort of ‘parlour singing’.

I do understand, and in fact I think many people have this feeling about sean-nós singing, including Irish speakers, including myself. I’m really lucky that I was guided along when I was young. I think a good teacher will be able to explain what goes on. A lot sean-nós teaching tends to focus on just listening – and I have a lot of time for that – though there aren’t that many old recordings of sean-nós singing. I mean there’s plenty from the fifties on but that’s kind of the tail end of an older tradition. Musicians I admire most are also able to explain and articulate what they are doing, and I feel that this is maybe lacking a bit with sean-nós singing. That said, there are exceptions like Éamon Ó Bróithe who are incredible at getting the nuances across to students.
You see he’s incredible because he has the academic skills to work with the language and the metre of the poetry. And he’s a singer and just an incredible all-rounder – he’s got so many different skill sets that are all wonderful.

In terms of that ‘impostor syndrome’ around sean-nós singing, I fully acknowledge that difficulty, that there is a perceived barrier. There is also another barrier that can be sometimes promoted within the sean-nós singing community, that to have any chance of being a highly accomplished singer you need to have learned from your own parents or relations, by osmosis. I don’t really agree with these barriers. They serve no useful function, other than perhaps acting as a smoke-screen covering up poor teaching. I think it is possible to teach sean-nós singing, but that generally speaking, it has not been taught particularly well.
But there is that embedded knowledge thing that if you’ve heard your great granny and your granny and your mother all doing it, that does give you a huge advantage because it’s embedded. You haven’t even had to think about it. It’s literally gone in with the mother’s milk, you know.

Yeah but that’s not to say it’s the only way. I think it’s worth recognising the barriers many feel when learning to sing in a sean-nós style. Bearing that in mind, how important is the difference between singing the pieces and then playing them, versus singing with the instrument?
That’s a great question. I suppose when I’m playing the piece, without a singer, I’m singing it inside. I’m singing the words in my head. Like if I’m playing Toirdhealbhach Óg Mac Donnchadha, inside I’m going táim dubhcroidheach go leor, ‘s níl súgaigh i mo ghlóir …[speaks]…

and I’m just getting them out through my fingers instead of my mouth. The difference is if I’m accompanying somebody else, I’m at their mercy or at their disposal. So they’re doing it and I’m trying to fit in with them. That’s my job as an accompanist – just fit in with them. Whereas if I’m playing it myself I don’t have to – I’m just sort of fitting in with me.

I think this is a huge difference. There is a whole association between playing the harp and being an accompanist. You’re talking about a very different thing.
Yes, you’re right. Except that in my case it’s not that some singer brings me a song and I have to accompany it. It’s different. I’m the one who finds the songs. Generally, I’m the one who figures out how the lyrics work with the tune, and I’m trying to work out methodologies to do that well. Rather than just saying “well there’s this bunch of words and there’s this bunch of notes – we just have to kind of shoehorn them together somehow”. No, I think if you look at the metre of the poetry you realise where the fada‘s are, where the strongs and the weaks are. We talked earlier about strongs and weaks in music – obviously I see those very clearly straightaway or it doesn’t take me long to work them out. So then there is a better sort of methodology for marrying them together. And I’m not saying that it always works that way, but for sure it’s better than just doing it in some sort of haphazard way that has no pattern piece to it. I generally do that bearing in mind that some of the singers I work with don’t read music well or at all. So I sing the song and I make sound files, and that’s how they learn the song – from me singing it.

Now of course they will take that song and run with it. They’ll make it their own, and they will pull it around. So you’re right. But it’s a lot closer to me singing and playing, than my just accompanying the singer who brings a song. That’s just not how it is in my case. It’s a song that I’ve resurrected and given them and hope that they’re interested in learning it. Then what they bring to it is wonderful. Like if I’m working with Róisín Elsafty, she just brings her wonderful… all her embedded knowledge of sean-nós singing. She might not even be aware of what she’s doing. Maybe she doesn’t even think she’s doing stuff with it, but six months later she will have made it her own in amazing ways. I see a huge value in that because then she can teach me things about the song that I wouldn’t have thought of myself. So you’re right – it is a trade-off. It would be better her singing with a harp, but happily I can also tie into Róisín or somebody else’s embedded knowledge and hopefully we can all learn from that.

I think it’s fantastic, a really interesting process, your artistic process – that’s a fascinating way of working.
Well, it’s not without its moments because we argue robustly back and forth about the issues but usually the arguments are really productive. For example, Róisín brought up something recently. She said what you said – that it’s kind of ridiculous having the singer separate to the harp, because they were singing their own songs to their own accompaniment. So she said it’s not really historical to split up the two, and she’s right.

But then she was also wondering if they even sang in a sean-nós way. I think “well, that’s as close as we can get”, so I’m really happy to have somebody like her. But it’s true that there are all sorts of questions and conundrums around it. Particularly the Carolan songs for example – the range of the melody is enormous sometimes. They are not very comfortable to sing in that range, because many songs in the tradition tend to have smaller ranges. So I don’t know if that means that people were pushing their voices more in earlier centuries and that nowadays sean-nós singers are more like pop-singers where they sing in quite a small range. I can’t answer that but that’s a question that really needs to be answered for Carolan songs. Or maybe the harp versions that we have – because we know from the Bunting manuscripts – sometimes he writes ‘played this way’ and ‘sung this way’, and the playing way will be much more complex, with more notes in it. The sung way is a bit simpler. So it could be that maybe the gamut is a little bit smaller – that they’re not quite pushing down as far or up as far. But there are all sorts of questions to be answered. That’s a whole genre of music that we need lots of people researching – singers and historical harpists. It’s of huge interest to me.

There is also the question of voice type. I suspect that Carolan had some kind of tenor voice, that he could go up quite high, but that he’s singing in a quite a small room. He’s not trying to project, so he can go into his lower range and that’s fine and people can still hear him.

But there are all sorts of issues. Sometimes Róisín and I have arguments about how to match the lyrics with the music. We had one really interesting argument once about the song Róis Bheag Dhubh, a version of Róisín Dubh, and the tune is …[music]…

so you have these repeated notes …[music]… so if you sing it in the key of A, that’s an [E] …[music]… so you’re hanging out on particular pitches.

And then if you look at the metre of the poetry, it’s amhrán

Béidh éiclips ar na spéartha ‘gus doirtfear fuil, tuile tréana ó na sléibhte do stróicfeas cnoic, réabfaidh carn séadhbha is na móinteach uilig, nó béidh i n-aon áit sul a n-éagfaidh mo róis bheag dhubh
So that’s four feet in a line, and amhrán is a bit of a mixed bag, it can have four lines or eight lines and there could be different numbers of feet in the line. But here we have a four-line stanza and you’ve got four feet in each line. Each one is trisyllabic – you’ve got three stresses …[sings]… and so on.

So you’ve got four feet in the line. Now when you look at the tune …[sings]… you’ve got four feet in that line – there are your eight stresses, and you have eight stresses in the poetry.

So I remember Róisín was singing …[sings]… and something was rubbing me up the wrong way I just thought …[speaks]… and when I started looking at the the rhyming scheme and the poetry, it’s …[speaks]… so they’re all lining up, [é é á i] …[speaks]… so they all line up that way and they line up this way – it’s a beautiful symmetrical structure. And I thought “oh it’s [é é á i / é é á i]” and then you look at the music …[sings]… that’s even on the same pitch so it must …[sings]… so the genius who composed this song was absolutely thinking that the metre in the poetry was working with the very pitches of the tune.

So there’s no way we throw this bunch of words at this tune and it somehow comes out in the wash. No, I think there’s a lot more sophisticated stuff going on.

It is quite affecting there – it is really beautiful – especially how you play with the vowel sounds. Can you talk about the emotional content and the meaning of the words?
Well it is completely heart-rending, but it’s built into the compositional structure. The ‘heart-rending-ness’ is built in, isn’t it?

Because you’ve got these repeated notes …[sings]… that wailing thing …[sings]… so there’s a kind of wailing in that. And I think the poetic metre is doing that as well. “Béidh éiclips ar na spéartha ‘gus doirtfear fuil”, I mean think of the words: “there’ll be an eclipse on the sky and blood will be shed”, I mean these words are horrendous, really heart-rending stuff. And I think it’s all a package – the rhyming scheme and the repeated notes in the tune.

So in the end it was easy for me to say – because it’s not just a matter of opinion – take the poetic metre and rhyming scheme into account. You could of course sing

… you’d say it’s just a matter of opinion. But it’s not a matter of opinion, it is embedded in this composition, it’s embedded, but you have to be prepared to look at the poetry, the metre, the rhyming schemes and the musical phrases, and then it’s not a matter of opinion. And it’s not that I want to be right. Now Róisín is a sean-nós singer so I would always usually give in on anything to do with the language, that’s her baby. But when I really thought about, I thought “oh no I can justify it. I’ve got layers of justification for my opinion on this. I really think this is so. Not least to the fact that there’s a fada on the é –

it’s Beidh éiclips… so you can’t sing Beidh éiclips, they’re never going to put a long note on a short syllable. I don’t think you would do that, and sure enough …[sings]… it’s all working together beautifully hand-in-glove. So that was a revelation to me, that piece. I thought “oh there’s much more to this than meets the eye”, so if you’re looking at the vocal music you better be looking at that stuff, you know.

I’m curious about the mode of the piece, what’s the ground to it?
[Sings]… it’s a gapped scale isn’t it, there is no [F].

There’s no sixth in the scale so you can’t tell with whether it is Aeolian or Dorian. It’s just some ­– you know – a ‘minor-y’ thing.

Hearing you sing that just now, you figured out so much about the harmonic territory of the piece. I mean, that on its own tells you how important singing the pieces is.
Important, yes, oh but there is infinitely more. There is the whole question of modes and singing.

I’m really curious about modes. I’d really like to come back, but that was my second question! The first question I had was around how you take what you sang there and use it to make decisions on how to express the feeling. The emotional content is really clear to hear.
I should have sung it better because I wasn’t doing it for emotional content! But you’re hearing it somehow.

And then to understand how you go from that. You’re playing and you’re recognizing ‘that’ note is important because of the underlying structure – ‘that’ syllable. How do you take it from there – from your early music background, your innate knowledge of a colour palette?
I don’t know how much it’s permissible to do that in an Irish context because it’s not European music – it’s not seventeenth-century Italian music, for example.

Right, but I think it’s completely permissible, because as you sang that you would emphasise those syllables.
But would you? I don’t always hear that in sean-nós singing and sometimes maybe it’s considered a bit vulgar to do that. I don’t know.

It’s not necessarily emphasizing by dramatic changes of volume or by vibrato, it might just be that the vowel broadens, or it may be that the volume gets a bit louder or that a note lasts longer than it ordinarily would.

I think you’re right on all of the above. Because if you’re singing in your own language you’re generally not going to make a pig’s ear of it!

You will sing it the way you’d say it – “beidh éiclips ar na spéartha agus doirtfear fuil” …[speaks, sings]… ok, so éi-clips, obviously strong / weak syllables – é is strong. So if I’m singing, and if you didn’t know the song and you saw those repeated notes …[sings]… nice tune, not really doing anything for us though is it? You’ve lost all of that stuff because people will generally… well twentieth-century European art-music training has trained people out of nuance, so that musicians now tend to play notes more equally weighted. So those repeated notes will very quickly be boring …[sings]. But if you know it’s éi-clips and spéar-tha, so you have a strong syllable and a weak syllable, then suddenly it’s magic …[sings]… now without even thinking of course I gave more ‘welly’ to the first one and less to the second syllable. You – and anybody who speaks Irish – would. If you’re musical and you speak Irish you would, but maybe not – maybe that is my early-music training interfering and maybe a sean-nós singer wouldn’t do that at all. I don’t know. I could be completely wrong, but I can only approach it as I do with my baggage and my background.

You used a beautiful turn of phrase when you said that Róisín would make her own of the song, and that idea is innately within the music I grew up with – that you make your own of it. Your teacher won’t want you parroting them after a certain stage. I’m really curious about how you take the next step, after almost ‘rapid prototyping’ the song by singing it and knowing how you’re going to play it. So how do you take your arrangements onwards from that stage of identifying strong and weak notes from the corresponding syllables, to playing equally expressively on the harp?
Well I don’t think I’m doing it in that way. I think I’m just thinking the words in my head as I play.

So for Toirdhealbhach Óg, I’m playing …[music]… I’m not in a conscious way thinking “oh this note is stronger, this note is weaker, oh I will give this note…”. No, that’s not what’s going on at all. I’m just singing it, I’m always singing it in my head. And you train it up over years and it starts to come out through your fingers. But you have to have the intent. Nothing is ever going to come out through your fingers if it’s not in your brain.

Could you vocalise the words as you play them?

You get the idea. It has to be in your brain, and then there has to be long training over years, because the fingers don’t want to do that – no fingers want to do that. What they want to do is …[music]… that’s what fingers always want to do, so you have to battle with them, over many, many years, to get them to do your bidding. That’s the job.

I’ve tried singing with fiddle before. It’s a real battle, at least until you sort of split your brain – like patting your head and rubbing your tummy at the same time! But at a fiddle retreat last year, something came together and my playing completely and utterly changed for a while as I sang. I was only lilting or vocalising the notes I was playing – it was like my conscious mind was on singing and the subconscious was playing, or maybe it was vice versa. But having played fiddle all my life without managing to sing, it was a lovely experience to be able to sing and play. It just felt so different, as if I was playing from my body rather than my head.
It’s important on so many levels because it affects everything to do with your phrasing articulation. It affects fingering, it affects the fact that if you sing the song you absolutely know where the phrases end. And then I would tend not to finger across phrases, I tend to sort of take a mental break. So even if I’m not singing the song I hope that it’s all gone into the playing, that there’s lots of the song in the playing – that’s what I’m trying to do, that’s my thing, the serious aim, always. I think those of us who sing can tell straight away, when somebody plays a tune, if they could sing that song or not. You know. You know because it’s like Technicolor versus shades of grey. It just is, there’s no way around it. And I don’t say that as if you shouldn’t play the music if you can’t sing the song – all I’m saying is if you play the music, really, really consider strongly learning the language, or learning enough of it, or at least getting somebody to speak those words and sing the words, to record them for you so that you have some chance.

And then of course there’s the whole thing about if you sing the song you have to figure out where to pitch it so that you could sing it and play it. That’s a whole other really interesting area to me, that we have these two traditional tunings, either with F-natural or F-sharp. So there are generally two places you can put your song and generally one of them will work and one of them won’t work. One of them will be too high or too low, and one of them will be just right. It’s like Goldilocks – the porridge will be just right, somewhere.

So that’s quite interesting, that if you draw out the parameters of the historical tuning and a ‘comfy’ human voice, where we can comfortably sing – if you draw a sort of Venn diagram, there will be the bit in the middle of it where that song will sit. Now you do have the problems that I mentioned with the Carolan songs that even when you do all that it’s still often partially sitting outside the ‘comfy’ parameters. So there’s a whole other question there.

But the other thing that I’ve been noticing in song – I’ve noticed it in a few songs so far – iis that when you have a vocal setting that Bunting takes from somebody and an instrumental setting that he takes from somebody else, like for example Síle Ní Chonalláin. I think it’s from Charles Byrne and Daniel Black he takes the vocal version, and then he takes a different version from Arthur O’Neill which is more ‘notey’ and it’s clearly an instrumental version. I didn’t understand the first few times I looked at these songs. In fact I recorded Síle Ní Chonalláin with Róisín on her Má Bhíonn Tú Liom Bí Liom album that she did a number years ago. I didn’t understand then. So we recorded the song in one place and it had to be artificially put together – the harp had to be retuned between the vocal version and the instrumental version. It was only a few years later I realised what the deal was. Often in these songs the instrumental version is in a different mode to the vocal version. And you think “what’s that, why wouldn’t they be in the same mode?” So you can’t play them in the same place. So the ‘comfy’ place for Síle Ní Chonalláin is in A-Aeolian or A-minor …[music]… So I’m speeding through just so I don’t waste your time. So that’s in A-Aeolian, but the instrumental version works in that same tuning with an [F-natural] only if you play it in D-Dorian …[music]…

[Music]… there it is – a related tune sitting in D-Dorian. And our vocal version is …[music]… and I thought “oh, that’s how this works – you keep your tuning the same and you play the instrumental and the vocal versions where they sit within that tuning”. The vocal version is in A-Aeolian and the instrumental version is in D-Dorian. I thought “yes, isn’t that wonderful when you sing a song, that you can appear to modulate”. I think they’re really clever compositions, that the vocal version is in one place – you can play the instrumental version there and then the vocal version in a different mode deliberately, so you can go …[music]… So you have this whole ‘lift’ of something else, and then you have the vocal thing, and so it gives you contrast. So I’m wondering if that wasn’t a deliberate compositional ploy, that if you have instrumental settings of songs that are in a different mode, that that’s deliberate so that with one tuning you can you don’t get like 65 verses in A! It’s more like “oh it’s a verse in A, here’s a verse in D!” It’s like “oh!”.

It reminds me of the Séamus Heaney poem Postscript, the lines “As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways, And catch the heart off guard and blow it open”. That’s what sprang to my mind when you played the instrumental in one mode and then sang it in a completely different mode.
Right it’s like “Whoa –whoa!”

That’s the experience – it’s not a key change. I was just brought to a completely different emotional space, like through a wormhole!
Oh so that’s what it does. Wow – oh great!

But that they’re related
Yes, that they’re related. I think that’s deliberate, don’t you think?

Or like that otherworldly thing in Celtic mythology and probably many other cultures, where a group are out hunting on a mountain and see a white deer with red ears, they give chase and next thing the side of the mountain opens and you’re in that otherworld suddenly. It feels like that’s the narrative version of the musical feeling when you move between modes for the one piece.
Really? I’m thrilled! That is a beautiful poetic way of articulating what I was feeling, but I never articulated it as beautifully as that. That’s really lovely – that it takes you to another world. I just think “yeah it gives you a lift”, but I’m a very prosaic, practical person. But you’re right, it’s another world.

It also reminds me of the Modes class you give at the Scoil, I think it’s the piece Limerick’s Lamentation, where you think in the first half the piece in a major key, and then it catches you off guard in the second part.
It’s the Mixolydian thing. It’s Da Mihi Manum / Tabhair Dom do Lámh …[sings]…

… it’s like “where did that come from?” – completely blown sideways! I think again there’s this chronocentric thing that “we’re clever modern musicians – they just write these simple tunes, they didn’t really know what they were doing”. No, keep looking. Keep looking. There’s more in there than you realize, and there’s certainly, I think, there’s a whole world to be discovered. So that’s why I’m desperate to have singers work on the tunes, and to be working with singers on this, because we all need to be working on this together saying “okay what have you spotted, what have I spotted? Are we seeing trends here?”

There are a few other pieces I play – and I can’t think what they are offhand – where there’s a vocal version and an instrumental version and it’s clearly in a different mode. So that got me thinking that it wasn’t just happenstance – that it’s actually a ‘thing’. That there’s so much to be discovered with the singing.

Eibhlís Ní Ríordáin is a wonderful singer that I’m working with right now. She is a sean-nós singer and she’s also a trained European art-music musician. She is a piano teacher and she’s the fastest student I’ve ever had on early Irish harp – I’ve only ever given her about six lessons and she’s already singing and playing Carolan and all sorts of things. So we can have really good arguments! A song we were working on recently is Éirigh an Lae / Dawn of Day that O’Hampsey played. We’re working on setting that text. She has all her embedded knowledge and I’ll say “okay here is how I think it works”, and she’ll say “yes, but what about that?”. So we can banter back and forth because she has the Irish skills too, so it’s fantastic. So that’s what we need – we need singers and harpists working together.

I had an interesting exchange with Lilis Ó Laoire by email recently, because we were discussing Carolan’s song Eleanor Plunkett. He was chewing over the idea that the vocal range is smaller than the instrumental version and I thought about it but decided that I didn’t agree. That’s why the singers and the harpists need to be talking to each other because what we all think is obvious in our own sphere isn’t so obvious to the other side. So we need to keep exchanging information.

What was it you discussed about Eleanor Plunkett?Lilis looked at the octave jumps that occur in the piece and, as a singer, thought it unrealistic. But I see those ‘unusual’ jumps in many of the harpers’ songs. And the gamut of Eleanor Plunkett is only about an octave and a fourth or an octave and a fifth. And when you look at Molly Nic Ailpín, Síle Ní Chonalláin and many of these songs, they’re all around that gamut. So I know it seems kind of extraordinary to jump by an octave, but it’s not unreasonable – many of them do it. If you think of Molly Nic Ailpín …[sings]… you know, wow, getting right up to a high point.

Síle…? …sings… that’s getting to a high point. I see lots of them jumping around and getting to high points. So Eleanor Plunkett …[sings]… right so if you take out that octave jump …[sings]… you go off the bottom-end of your voice – you can’t sing that! And if you put it up high enough that you can sing that low note then you can’t sing the top bit. So there is no way of squaring that circle, so I think that octave is real …[sings]… it’s just a little bit up there and then it comes right back down …[sings]… so there’s all these ups and downs.

I think these harp songs have lovely contours and shifts and I think we just have to take it seriously. I don’t think that’s unreasonable. I know an octave jump would be a crazy thing in a sean-nós song, but bear in mind these harpers are not sean-nós singers. They’re influenced by European music. Carolan is an eighteenth-century musician. So it’s different to your average kind of Irish song and I think we just have to take that somehow seriously.

There are far more questions than answers at the moment, but it’s very interesting and it’s integral.

Singing is integral to this early Irish harp tradition because so much of the music is vocal. We’ve got to be thinking about it if we’re serious. This is as important as getting the right instrument and putting the right strings on it and looking at the correct hand position and the historical technique. This is as important – this is a part of the story. You can’t ignore it. Because otherwise you’ve got the right instrument and everything but you still don’t have the music, because the music is the words.

Abair amhrán. Abair amhrán. Abair amhrán ar an gcláirseach, you know. Sin é.
[Speak the song. Speak the song. Speak the song on the harp, you know. That’s it.]


Early Irish Harp: the State of the Art Interview Series is funded through the Arts Council Deis Recording and Publication Award

Selected links from the interview