How fast does it go?

The question of tempo is crucial in arriving at an appropriate dird for many of these tunes. Pipers with a background in playing for dancing may well understand how certain tunes seem to lay down their own tempo. For those without this background, and for those tunes in the repertoire which do not conform to the more familiar rhythms, we need some other guide.

One approach is to look at the note values and ask what is the upper limit to the speed at which these notes can be played? This differs from piper to piper, of course, depending on technique, but there is also a sense that beyond a certain speed displaying technique becomes the sole objective and any conscious attempt to express a dird for the tune is abandoned to it. There is a physical limit to the speed at which dance steps can be executed, and the relationship between these steps, the dird of the performance and the tempo is a determining one; however, there is always the possibility of 'shifting gear' where the dird is 'halved' or 'doubled' so that steps are executed to twice as much music [or half as much]. Something like this happens when a highland piper moves from the strathspey to the reel.

We also have the matter of variations. In a setting that adds divisions to the ground as variations are elaborated I often find that a tempo that seems appropriate to the initial statement of the melody cannot be maintained as the variations proceed. It is necessary to go back to the beginning and reconsider what kind of dird is appropriate and can be maintained throughout the performance.

Which leads us to the question, are these extended variation sets dance music? At present my answer is no, they are not designed to be danced to but listened to; this suggests a dramatic change in the performance style. However, some surprising insights into possible dance interpretations can arise from considering the dird that emerges when these pieces are performed at a tempo that is sustainable. A good example is that of the 'jig' - tunes in 6/8 or 9/8 [or 6/4, 9/4]. While a quick glance at the opening strain might suggest a standard 'jig' dird of long and short notes [crotchet-quaver], the divisions, which most often will involve dividing at least two and often all three of the quavers of each beat into semi-quvares, with the result tha the dird becomes  123,123|123,123|, in the manner of a French Three-time Bourree. Thus is revealed a very different way of performing these tunes.

You must be logged-in to post comments