With a certainty hinting of past experiences, Pépin De Munalen turned to me and said “Watch, they will all leave in a few minutes.”
It struck me a strange observation and I was about to enquire when he added; “a man has arrived so the women won’t stay.”
We were in Chanos del Someron, a tiny village high on the shoulder of a mountain in Asturias, and all the village women had come down to the village’s only bar to sing and dance. Of course the cause of this sudden celebratory gathering was the arrival of four young men on a folk-music collecting mission. Perhaps the fact that we were outsiders; and generations younger than the village women; allowed for this temporary lapse in this shibbolethic social dynamic.
Within two minutes the women left as if on cue. It was a surreal experience, like gazing through a window into the past; a momentary glimpse of another world.
That image; the turned backs of the departing women, remained fixed in my mind, but there was something else; something more arresting and completely new to me. Dance songs!
I had never seen people dance to songs before. It was exciting; a revelation; and it left my mind racing. There were different patterns in the rhythm, and in the relationship between notes and beats, and I could hear that they were linked directly to the contingencies of language.
This was a new paradigm to me. I had never questioned that there was traditional dance music and there was a song tradition, and the twain never met. Words just did not fit into the strict patterns of dance timing.
Later that day I called an old friend, and great musician, Daire Bracken, to discuss this discovery. In this conversation and in further enquiries I learned that vocal dance traditions existed elsewhere also, and one thing led to another and within a year we were looking at constructing the rule book for oral dance music in an Irish context.
We decided we wouldn’t just import techniques and styles from other traditions, but would look closely at sources within Irish culture. What we discovered brought us back to a time before jigs or reels arrived. To something that was uniquely Irish long before the concepts, or even the repertoires, of traditional Irish Music as we know it existed.
A couple of years before this I had developed a keen interest in medieval Gaelic literature, and by one of those oddly fated symbioses so had Daire. From the early poetry to the epic tales of Celtic mythology there is a collection of texts that is actually larger than the collected writings of the classical Greek and Roman world. And one of the fascinating features of this literature is a massive corpus of syllabic poetry.
A brief history of Celtic Literature
Celtic literature, much like early Greek literature, existed as an oral art long before the advent of writing, within these traditions. It was the arrival of Christianity in Ireland, sometime around the 5th Century, that introduced a tradition of writing and of course the Roman alphabet. As with works such as the Iliad in ancient Greece, the pre-literate stories and epics relied to degrees on mnemonic devices such as rhyme and meter for their successful (read unchanging) transmission. It necessitated a highly formalised verse form of literature, the evidence of which can be seen in the intricate prose style of the Old-Irish epic, The Táin, for instance.
The arrival of the written word in Ireland had a dramatic, if not immediate effect. At first, the scriptoriums of the Celtic church worked exclusively on copying the gospels and psalms, but after about a century we have evidence of written Gaelic literature emerging.
It crept onto the corners of sacred manuscripts at first. In the margins of these beautifully illuminated gospels a small snatch of a poem might feature. A recalled fragment of a temporal tale perhaps. On another: a wandering though about the company of a playful cat. Beautiful beginnings of a written poetic tradition.
These early poems were magnificently succinct. Haiku like, ‘The Blackbird of Belfast Lough’ paints a novel in just twelve words. The theme frequently being nature, they give an insight into a hermetic mind in search of inner peace. A mind that could as easily be pre-Christian as Christian. Séamus Heaney beautifully described their works as “a search for the God in the trees.”
The remit of the scribes broadened; and by the 8th century there were entire tomes devoted to recording the tales and mythologies of ancient Gaelic Ireland. Tales that predated the arrival of the Christian tradition by a millennium and more.
The bards (the professional poets) also took to this new technology (writing), and although they still composed in the styles and in the traditions of the pre-Christian oral tradition -even up to the 17th C the bardic schools demanded students have incredible retention and spend seven years learning to compose in the dark- their works started to be recorded.
The bards, or ‘File’ as they were correctly known, were the publicists of their day. Professional poets, intrinsically linked to the political system, they wrote in praise, or satire, of their patrons and their rivals. They took pride in their work and the merit of their poetry reflected on the reputation of their patron.
In this atmosphere of politicisation of art the formalisation of the poetic technique took extraordinary bounds. The 12th to the 16th centuries in Ireland saw the pinnacle of structured language in the ‘Dán Díreach’ (syllabic poetry with strict rules of meter) and it is this corpus in particular that gave us structured rhythm which could be converted into music.
This was poetry which had developed to such an extraordinary technical level that it had become inaccessible. It had lost its lyrical imagination and in many instances its imagery had become prosaic. At least that is the perception of the material, which is a puzzle to students of modern Irish.
But from our point of view this was exciting stuff. All these things turned out to be musical strengths. They make it possible to bring it full circle and make it seem simple and enjoyable. Danceable; instead of inaccessible literature that has largely been relegated to high-falutin academic study.
Syllabic poetry has tantalising structures which, while obviously based on lyrics and language, are constructed using rules that are easily transferred to the composition of rhythmic music.
The most basic rule of this type of poetry is that there are a set number of syllables per cycle. If you think of music as being a set amount of note division per bar, you can guess that the syllable count in a cycle of the poems meter gives you a basic time signature.
The meter also has syllable groupings –eg a line ending in a tri-syllabic word- which infers a complex-time signature in a corresponding musical meter. This ends up getting quite complex, but when you hear the rhythms it all makes sense.
Our theory suggests that in effect there is a tune typology for each poetic form. There were numerous specifically defined poem types, so you get the possibility for numerous tune typologies. Clear?
So, for example, if a poem had a repeating pattern of four syllables it could end up with a 4/4 time signature. Et voila, the reel! -With perfect lyrics.
Ok we can’t claim the reel, but the theory works something like that. It came naturally enough to Daire, who knows rhythm inside out. I was thrown in at the deep end with this one, so all I can say is its lucky one of us had a clue what was going on.
There are piles of poem meters to pick from, so you could be composing using this approach for a very long time. Oddly enough there are not many syllabic meters which would suggest 4/4 or 6/8 signatures. There are many in 7/8 and some in 5/8 and quite a few with longer signatures. There was an interesting example in 12/8, but with a different compound pattern to the typical 12/8 dance signature of the Slide. Superimposing it with a slide made for interesting polyrhythm. Anyway the list is seemingly inexhaustible.
This late medieval poetry was the culmination of a tradition which went back 3000 years according to legend. Closer inspection reveals that these rules had their inception in earlier Irish lyrics. Even the earliest Gaelic poem on record, The Incantation of Amergin (c. 1700 BC), has alliterative patterns which channel neatly towards a pulsing musical narrative.
So how does this all relate to the women in Chanos del Someron? Do these tunes serve their purpose as dance songs?
Well they do! And again, using chorographical rules derived of the poetic meter, we have made examples of dances for a number of tune typologies.
The image below illustrates how to dance to a Séadnadh Mór for instance. It is not too difficult a dance to follow. So for the dance enthusiasts out there; if you can follow the instructions on the diagram, you should be able to dance the Séadnadh Mór to the track, “The Lion and Fox,” no problem at all. We mightn’t replace the jigs and reels but who knows, we might start something else.
Order Preab Meadar via their website: www.preabmdr.com